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The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning by Maggie Nelson, Norton, 288 pages ($24.95). "Take a new look at cruelty." The injunction from Nietzsche traveled the previous century from Artaud to Dada and Surrealism, to Viennese Actionism, to Francis Bacon, to Hollywood, to contemporary female writing (from Kathy Acker to Nobel Laureate Elfreide Jelinek) to Chris Burden getting shot for his film "Shoot" ("How do you know what it feels like to get shot if you don't experience it?"), etc.

What was once self-congratulatory "avant-garde" is now the matter-of-fact contents of a TV game show. No Dadaist or Futurist looking at "Fear Factor" would be likely to imagine that those in charge weren't their most recalcitrant allies but thoughtless businessfolk for whom prime-time television had simply come to a point where it demanded the most disgusting sideshow practices tolerable.

What do artists do if the adventures of the most intellectual turn into the degraded everyday tastes of those who have been ever-so-carefully dumbed down by media conglomerates? If there are filmmakers like Michael Haneke who say of their intention in his original film "Funny Games" (there was an American remake by him) that he's "raping the viewer into independence?" And others, like Lars Von Trier, whose film "Anti-Christ" makes much of graphically administered torture and castration? An art critic named Grant Kester -- we learn from Maggie Nelson -- has drolly referred to things in that neighborhood as coming from "the orthopedic esthetic."

The very idea of an avant-garde -- a military term to begin with -- ran into trouble decades ago when modernism needed to acquire an introductory "post-" for up-to-dateness. Still, Maggie Nelson was right that the whole post-Nietzsche and post-Artaud notion needed a new shakeout, even if she is rather unfortunately ghettoized in the "high art" precincts of the polemic debate while the pop culture world of "Big Brother," "Fear Factor" and the remake of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" beckon wanly and fruitlessly. Even so, Nelson explores half a story brilliantly.

-- Jeff Simon