Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint (Graywolf Press) is a marvelous mix of theory, politics, and personal exposé. She wrestles fearlessly with the pieties of our cultural moment. Above all, she latches on to the concept of freedom—used and abused by absolutists of every political persuasion—and delivers a well-reasoned analysis of its contextual conditions: freedom versus unfreedom, freedom from ethical responsibility, and freedom to explore the darkest recesses of the imagination in our art and our erotic lives. Nelson’s refreshing ability to probe her own lived experience challenges us to reconsider our capacity for self-awareness. Her words are a welcome antidote to our current fixation on submitting art to moralistic judgment. “Artists often make work precisely to give expression to complex, sometimes disturbing dimensions of their psyches kept elsewhere under wraps,” she writes. “It seems to me crucial—even ethically crucial—that whatever reparative intentions or effects a work of art may have be left unscripted, unchaperoned, and recognized as subject to change over time.” And equally, it’s crucial “to treat with caution any rhetoric that purports to have all ethical goodness on its side, and acts to expel.”
Coco Fusco is a New York–based artist and writer and a professor of art at the Cooper Union.