Saturday, February 16, 2008



Freud and Jung on Art



It is not widely appreciated just how negative Freud's view of art and artists tended to be. In his essay on Leonardo Da Vinci, Freud thought he had explained the work of art by deriving it from the personal experience of the artist. As Jung has commented, this was one possible approach as it was possible that the work of art might be traced back (like a neurosis) to a complex of the author's. However, the problem is that a neurosis is seen in wholly negative terms by the Freudian school. It is something "inauthentic", "a mistake", "a subterfuge", an inability to face facts, "something that should never have been": it is the mind's counter-productive attempt to not face up to some disagreeable fact about a person's past. Therefore, when the Freudian school attempts to derive the work of art from the artist's repressions, it is very close to defining artistic products as neuroses: things that really shouldn't exist at all. As a consequence, Freud's opinion was that all artists are undeveloped personalities with narcissistic and marked infantile autoerotic traits. In layman's language, this means that Freud suspected most artists of being closet homosexuals who hadn't received enough affection from their mothers in early childhood.

Jung castigates Freud and his school for this reductionist view. The fact that Freud wants to interpret all works of art as the result of the artist's inner neuroses demonstrates, for Jung, Freud's own lack of culture and philosophical training (a point that Jung was frequently to make about his erstwhile colleague). For Jung, Freud's essential error was to connect the finished artistic product too closely with the creating artist. It might be true, he argued, that artists due to their sensitive natures often have more neuroses than the average person. However, the poor state of their conscious personality is often due to the effort they expend on their creations which, at least in a true artist, takes on an existence beyond the life of the artist himself. Jung advances his own theory that each person is born only with a certain amount of psychic energy and that the energy which the ordinary person puts into his life, usually goes into the art of the artist. In his personal life he develops ways of getting by psychically which expend the least amounts of energy--and this can often lead to deceitfulness, cowardice, simple egotism and neuroses. Effectively, he sacrifices his psychic energy to the better part of him, the creating artist.

For Jung, art was essentially of two types: psychological and visionary. Perhaps it is best to quote him directly on this (though in the following passages Jung is dealing ONLY with poetic creation):

"The psychological mode works with materials drawn from man's conscious life--with crucial experiences, powerful emotions, suffering, passion, the stuff of human fate in general. All this is assimilated by the psyche of the poet, raised from the commonplace to the level of poetic experience, and expressed with a power of conviction that gives us a greater depth of human insight by making us vividly aware of those everyday happenings which we tend to evade or to overlook because we perceive them only dully or with a feeling of discomfort. The raw material of this kind of creation is derived from the contents of man's consciousness, from his eternally repeated joys and sorrows, but clarified and transfigured by the poet. There is no work left for the psychologist to do--unless perhaps we expect him to explain why Faust fell in love with Gretchen, or why Gretchen was driven to murder her child. Such themes constitute the lot of mankind...No obscurity surrounds them, for they fully explain themselves in their own terms...The gulf that separates the first from the second part of Faust marks the difference between the psychological and the visionary modes of artistic creation. Here everything is reversed. The experience that furnishes the material for artistic expression is no longer familiar. It is somehing strange that derives its existence from the hinterland of man's mind, as if it had emerged from the abyss of prehuman ages, or from a super-human world of contrasting light and darkness. It is a primordial experience which surpasses man's understanding and to which in his weakness he may easily succumb."

Jung goes on to make his point that the second, or visionary mode of artistic production, entails the poet's unconscious ability to show and interpret the collective unconscious of his time with all its fearsome images and pointers to destruction. Jung states his belief that in his revealing of the collective unconscious, the poet may temporarily suffer from neurotic or psychotic states--but the revelation is made for the spiritual welfare of his fellow man. Some critics may say that the artist is merely disguising his own phobias when he has recourse to unfathomable imagery. Jung answers them in the following way:

"There is no ground for the assumption that the normal, human experience in the first part of Faust is repudiated or concealed in the second, or that Goethe was normal when he wrote Part 1 but in a neurotic state of mind when he wrote Part II...In works of art of this nature--and we must never confuse them with the artist as a person--it cannot be doubted that the vision is a genuine primordial experience, no matter what the rationalists may say. It is not something derived or secondary, it is not symptomatic of something else, it is a true symbol--that is, an expression for something real but unknown...If we disregard for a moment the possibility that Faust was compensatory to Goethe's conscious attitude, the question that arises is this: in what relation does it stand to the conscious outlook of his time, and can this relation also be regarded as compensatory? Great poetry draws its strength from the life of mankind, and we completely miss its meaning if we try to derive it from personal factors. Whenever the collective unconscious becomes a living experience and is brought to bear on the conscious outlook of an age, this event is a creative act which is of importance for a whole epoch. A work of art is produced that may truthfully be called a message to generations of men...After three centuries of religious schism and the scientific discovery of the world, Goethe paints a picture of the megalomania that threatens the Faustian man and attempts to redeem the inhumanity of this figure by uniting him with the Eternal Feminine, the material Sophia. She is the highest manifestation of the anima, stripped of the pagan savagery of the nymph Polia. But this compensation of Faust's inhumanity had no lasting effect, for Nietzsche, after proclaiming the death of God, announces the birth of the Superman, who in turn is doomed to destruction...Each of these poets speak with the voice of thousands and tens of thousands, foretelling changes in the conscious outlook of his time."

Finally, Jung summarises his view of art and the artist--and cocks yet another snoop at Freud in the process:

"This re-immersion in the state of participation mystique is the secret of artistic creation and of the effect which great art has upon us, for at that level of experience it is no longer the weal or woe of the individual that counts, but the life of the collective. That is why every great work of art is objective and impersonal, and yet profoundly moving. And that is also why the personal life of the artist is at most a help or a hindrance, but is never essential to his creative task. He may go the way of the Philistine, a good citizen, a fool, or a criminal. His personal career may be interesting and inevitable, but it does not explain his art".

4 Comments:

Anonymous Hashemi said...

Never knew Freud was so negative about art.

8:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about Adler's view? No doubt he thought the poet suffered from an "inferiority complex" and compensated through an "urge to power".

8:30 AM  
Blogger Medway said...

It is well known that Freud was influenced by art in the formulation of his theories...Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare's Hamlet are both models suggestive of the male obsession with his mother and jealousy of the father. Freud was reluctant to give credit where it was due, claiming for example never to have read Schopenhauer, whose theory of the unconscious was lifted wholesale by Freud. Schopenhauer's aesthetic theory of the transcendent function of art was also widely influential in Germany, and is the context of all sunbequent German aesthetics, whether in reaction or in agreement.

9:31 AM  
Blogger John Wallen said...

Yes, I'm sure Freud underplayed his literary/philosophical/historical knowledge. Jung tells a story of Freud insisting (to Jung) that he'd never read Nietzsche and felt no need or desire to read him.

5:47 AM  

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