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Psychoanalytic Aesthetics

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'This is a book to which the attention of students of art theory and criticism, and all those interested in the important application of psychoanalysis to other fields of study, should be drawn. Psychoanalytic Aesthetics rethinks the classical account of the relation between art and madness, creativity and psychoneurosis, and the distinction between the primary and secondary processes. It covers a great deal of ground and reviews many psychoanalytic writers (predominantly of the British tradition) on aesthetics, as well as many of the aestheticians using a psychoanalytic background. It is well written and there is an impressive grasp of the many writers covered. More than this, the book is also a work of psychoanalytic scholarship, being a masterly overview of psychoanalytic schools of thought, and an in-depth study of the British object-relations schools. It amply achieves its overriding goal to demonstrate that the work of the British School presents a significant contribution to psychoanalytic aesthetics and criticism, updating Freud, Kris and the classical contributions to the field. It is therefore potentially a very useful source book for future scholars of both psychoanalysis and of aesthetics.'- Robert D. Hinshelwood, Psychoanalyst and Professor, Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Essex

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1. Freud's Theory of Art and Creativity

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CHAPTER ONE

Freud's theory of art and creativity

This chapter explores the general direction of Freud's writings on art and its relationship to his metapsychology. I hope to show that Freud's contribution to aesthetics, although criticized for being ambivalent and incomplete, is significant largely because it made subsequent developments possible within the British School of Psychoanalysis.

First, I explore Freud's interest in “pathography”—the viewing of art as a privileged form of neurosis where the analyst–critic explores the artwork in order to understand and unearth the creator's psychological motivations. We will see the limitations of focusing solely on the content of the artwork and the inner world of the artist. This view is enriched and expanded, however, by Freud's later (1905c) theory of the joke mechanism and its relationship to his account of the primary and secondary processes. Although Freud did not fully pursue his investigation into the relationship between the joke mechanism and aesthetic experience, we will see that this aspect of Freud's theory seems better equipped than the pathographic approach to address the formal structure of art and the nature of aesthetic experience. Rather than just an object to be investigated on the analytic dissecting table, the artwork can be viewed as the outcome of a process.

 

2. Essentials of Kleinian Theory

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CHAPTER TWO

Essentials of Kleinian theory

Klein significantly contributed to the refinement of psychoanalytic aesthetics, although she did not actually develop a fully articulated theory of her own as such. She was interested in art and literature and, like Freud, drew on them for the exegesis of her clinical theory, and three of her earlier papers were specifically devoted to the analysis of artistic and creative themes.

At the same time, these foreshadowed what were to be some of her most important concepts: the depressive position (1930) and her account of the inner world and unconscious phantasy. However, as will be shown in the next chapter, it was her pupil Hanna Segal (Klein's main expositor) who first developed a systematic theory of creativity and aesthetics based on Klein's insights. Another important exponent of Kleinian aesthetics was the art critic and historian Adrian Stokes. He was also an analysand of Klein, and successfully integrated Klein's account of infantile experience into his aesthetic criticism. It was largely through the work of Segal and Stokes that Kleinian aesthetics became fully established as a coherent approach to the visual arts and, as we shall explore further in this study, has continued to influence a number of philosophers, writers, and academics.

 

3. The Development of Kleinian Aesthetics

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CHAPTER THREE

The development of Kleinian aesthetics

“See now they vanish
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved Them. To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern”

(Eliot, 1936, Four Quartets: Little Gidding, III)

In this chapter I shall explore the development of Kleinian aesthetics through the work of the psychoanalyst Hanna Segal, one of Klein's pupils, and the art critic and historian, Adrian Stokes. Their combined contribution lays the foundation of what can be described as a “traditional” Kleinian aesthetic: an approach to art which, as we shall see, regards the attainment of the depressive position as central to aesthetic and creative experience, binding it to a specific ethical commitment.

As we explored in the previous chapter, during the late 1940s and the 1950s Kleinian concepts were beginning to open up a whole new perspective on the relationship between the developing mind and its relationship to internal and external objects. Freud had always been always interested in the creative achievements of human beings and coined the term “sublimation” to denote the transmuting of basic instinct for biological satisfaction into an exalted form of conduct and civilized achievement in the “sublime” and non-physical world of symbols. For Klein, however, creativity was a much more involved process. It was seen not as the simple transforming of an instinct, but an infinitely more complex activity involving the concept of reparation, play, and unconscious phantasy activity, together with the synthetic function of the life instincts. The emphasis was shifting away from psycho-sexual phases to the phenomenology of the ego's relationship to primary objects (the mother's body), under the sway of the life and death instincts. This approach allowed better understanding of the changing ego-structure and its relation to the perception of the world. This, together with an emphasis on symbolization as a sublimatory, developmental activity and the formulation of the concept of the depressive position, enriched psychoanalysis with new tools for understanding the location and genesis of creativity, together with a concept of aesthetic value, which, in the Kleinian account, is inextricable from the emergence of the moral sense.

 

4. The Legacy of Wilfred Bion

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CHAPTER FOUR

The legacy of Wilfred Bion

“Meaning is revealed by the pattern formed and the light thus trapped—not by the structure, the carved work itself”

(Bion, 1991, Book I)

Over the past forty years, Bion's work has influenced a number of thinkers—practitioners and non-practitioners alike—who are concerned with art and creativity. Since this book was first compiled, Bion studies have flourished, and there are now available a wealth of books and articles in English and other languages. For example: Symington & Symington (1996); Sandler (2005); Bleandonu (1994). Jacobus (2005) is one of the few who have explored the connection between Bion's ideas and philosophical aesthetics. This chapter will look at Bion's development of Freud's and Klein's metapsychology and the impact of his ideas on current aesthetic debate, largely developed through the work of Donald Meltzer and his step-daughter, Meg Harris Williams.

The evolution of Bion's work begins with his early papers on schizophrenia in the 1950s, which were the basis of the elaboration of a more sophisticated “theory of thinking”, developed in 1962. His earlier writings (pre-1970) attempt to place psychoanalysis on a more “scientific” footing, using various analogies mainly taken from mathematics, geometry, biology, physics, and chemistry. These methods of exposition, however, largely fell short of Bion's expectations, and in his pursuit of a new universe of discourse we see him gradually shifting away from the scientific to the more aesthetic and mystical (religious) vertices, drawing upon an impressive array of philosophers, poets, and mystics, including Sophocles, Plato, Meister Eckhart, Kant, Shakespeare, Milton, and Keats.

 

5. Ehrenzweig and the Hidden Order of Art

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CHAPTER FIVE

Ehrenzweig and the hidden order of art

“To make someone love the unconscious, that is teaching art”

(cited in Milner, 1988 [1937], p. 244)

Anton Ehrenzweig's enthusiasm for the study of psychology and art was present from the very start of his academic career. At the same time, he studied law in his native Vienna and was appointed a magistrate there in 1936. Two years later he moved to London, where he lectured in Art Education at Goldsmiths’ College until his death in 1966. It is interesting that in an early paper (1949) he should address the nature of guilt, a feeling that he believed was implicated in all scientific endeavour, and also in our constant need to establish causal links and reasons. This also has implications for his view of art history, explored below.

Ehrenzweig was well acquainted not only with recent developments in psychoanalysis, but also with cognitive psychology. Indeed, much of his work is a critique of what he called “academic theories of perception”, and it is the Gestalt account of perception that he finds particularly unsatisfactory, largely because it fails to acknowledge the important developmental role of libidinal experience in perceptual activity. He was also familiar with the anthropological studies of Jung, Frazer, and Graves, relating their work to his study of the theme of the “dying-god”—which he regarded as the underlying motif in the psychic experience of creativity. But he came increasingly to emphasize how the insights of psychoanalysis, particularly those of the British School, corroborated his own research into the visual arts. This interchange culminates in his last book, The Hidden Order of Art (1967), which draws together strands of his thinking developed over thirty years of research. More explicitly than in any earlier writings, Ehrenzweig traces here the resonances and parallels between his ideas and those of a number of British School thinkers, such as Klein, Segal, Bion, Milner, and Winnicott. However, before we look at Ehrenzweig and the British School, I will examine some similarities and divergences between the aesthetics of Ehrenzweig and the ego psychologist Ernst Kris, in particular their respective development of Freud's account of the joke.

 

6. Art, Creativity, and the Potential Space

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CHAPTER SIX

Art, creativity, and the potential space

The study of the aesthetics of the analytic encounter has become a distinguishing feature of much post-Kleinian thinking in the British School. This chapter will explore the insights of Milner and Winnicott, who both emphasize the role of creative and aesthetic experience in fostering psychic growth in both patient and analyst.

Milner's oeuvre is especially significant, for it can be viewed as an index of the way in which the psychoanalytic encounter has been seen increasingly in terms of aesthetic value, not solely as the resolution of instinctual conflict and neurosis. Like that of Stokes and Bion, it can be regarded very much as the expression of her personality. Indeed, her theoretical contribution is perhaps most fully appreciated when seen in the context of her own creative explorations and her autobiographical writing: in particular, the account of her painting activities and “doodle drawings” in On Not Being Able to Paint (1950), with its later appendix (1957) reviewing her struggles in the light of her subsequent analytic experience. Her writing then becomes increasingly preoccupied with what she calls (after Nietzsche) the “sagacity of the body”,1 as she explores the epistemological role of certain aspects of corporeal experience by analysing a number of her own paintings and drawings, as well as some of those produced by her schizophrenic patient “Susan”. Susan's story, recounted in The Hands of the Living God (1969), is primarily the case history of a very ill young woman, yet it can also be considered to have made an important contribution to the study of aesthetics.

 

7. Painting as the Body: The Aesthetics of Fuller and Wollheim

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CHAPTER SEVEN

Painting as the body: the aesthetics of Fuller and Wollheim

“There is a sense in which all art is of the body, particularly so in the eyes of those who accept that the painted surface and other media of art represent as a general form, which their employment particularises, the actualities of the hidden psychic structures made up of evaluations and phantasies with corporeal content”

(Stokes, 1978, III, p. 328)

This chapter will consider how a number of important British psychoanalytical concepts, discussed above, have been deployed in the aesthetic theory and art criticism of two significant contributors to contemporary aesthetics. I shall be focusing on the writings of art critic Peter Fuller, and philosopher and aesthetician Richard Wollheim, with a view to exploring their respective contributions to a British psychoanalytic aesthetic: one that is essentially grounded on a corporeal theory of pictorial meaning and aesthetic value.

 

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