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Freud's View of Art as Symptom of the Unconscious
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-01-16 18:55:39
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“We laymen have always wondered greatly—like the cardinal who put the question to Ariosto—how that strange being, the poet, comes by his material. What makes him able to carry us with him in such a way and to arouse emotions in us of which we thought ourselves perhaps not even capable? Our interest in the problem is only stimulated by the circumstance that if we ask poets themselves they give us no explanation of the matter, or at least no satisfactory explanation. The knowledge that not even the clearest insight into the factors conditioning the choice of imaginative material, or into the nature of the ability to fashion that material, will ever make writers of us does not in any way detract from our interest….As far as it goes, this material is derived from the racial treasure-house of myths, legends, and fairy tales. The study of these creations of racial psychology is in no way complete, but it seems extremely probable that myths, for example, are distorted vestiges of the wish-phantasies of whole nations—the age old dream of young humanity….I am of the opinion that all the aesthetic pleasure we gain from the works of imaginative writers is of the same type as this ‘fore-pleasure’, and that the true enjoyment of literature proceeds from the release of tensions in our minds. Perhaps much that brings about this result consists in the writer’s putting us into a position in which we can enjoy our own day-drams without reproach or shame.”

                                       --Sigmund Freud (“The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming)

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) needs no introductions as the founder of psychoanalysis except to initially say that besides thinking of it as a way to treat sick people, he also thought of it as providing a general theory of human behavior and indeed cultural history and broad cultural developments. That trend emerges especially in his Civilization and its Discontents which he wrote in 1930. But some twenty years before Freud had published a paper titled “The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming” in which he presents a psychoanalytical conception of literature. Given that literature is also considered art his conception can safely be extended to the whole of art.

sigmund_freud__mans_mind_400As Freud sees it, dreams, fantasies, and even slips of the tongue (now called Freudian slips) are among the phenomena that give us access to deep truth about our nature. They expose the working of the unconscious and as such they are revelatory of our mental life of which the unconscious is an important component. Conscious waking life is merely the tip of the iceberg; the unconscious is the huge hidden mass hidden from view. The goal of psychoanalysis is to bring the hidden mass into the light.

And this brings us to Freud’s view on dreams. Dreams, for Freud are nothing else than camouflaged wishes. Why the camouflage? Because the content of a dream if expressed as a conscious thought (for example, “I wish my father were dead”) would be immediately repudiated by the person having the dream if he were awake. Those techniques of distortions and disguise allow the pent-up thought to emerge thus providing satisfaction to the dreamer. Most dreams, according to Freud, express wishes which are either of a sexual or self-aggrandizing nature.

At this point the reader may ask: and what does this have to do with art? The fact, as Freud argues, that the artist’s unconscious is less repressed and hidden than that of others. When the artist feels a need to express an unconscious thought or emotion he creates a work of art which functions like a dream. So the work of art is the fulfillment of a concealed wish.

Freud points to examples in literature, especially popular fiction with its unflinching heroes and adoring heroines, as expressing the writer’s fantasies of invincibility and sexual prowess. The reader derives a vicarious pleasure since he, like the writer, has the same fantasies. But there is more, another important aspect of Freud’s analysis of art is that the work of art satisfies a specific type of wish on the part of the artist. While it takes material from the present, the work of art re-presents a situation from childhood in a reconfigured form. Like a dream, the work of art embodies all three modes of temporality—past, present and future—in a unique synthesis.

For example, Freud uses psychoanalysis to explain the hauntingly ambiguous smile of Da Vincis’ Mona Lisa. The previous criticism had explained the elusiveness of that smile but not why had Leonardo rendered his subject that way. Freud asks why was Leonardo so fascinated by that smile to the point of becoming a recurring motif in his paintings. The answer for Freud is that it reminded him of his mother’s smile and the pleasure he felt in that blissful period of his life. This is reinforced by a reference to a memory Leonardo relates of being attacked by a vulture as a child. Freud judges that memory to be nothing but a fantasy suggesting Leonardo’s attachment to his mother in the absence of his father.

The above begs the question: If the work is the artist’s disguised wish fulfillment, why should audiences also find it pleasurable rather than embarrassing? Because, as Freud explains it, the artist does two things: he disguises the egotistical nature of the work, and secondly, his aesthetic presentation provides a type of “fore-pleasure” for the viewer. Thus, Freud suggests, the viewer is allowed to enjoy his own daydreams “without reproach or shame.” In conclusion, having briefly surveyed Freud’s psychoanalytical conception of art, we can assume that it, and most such theories, is less concerned with distinguishing works of art from other products of human activity than ith explaining why people are moved by them.

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Emanuel Paparella2009-01-16 10:54:13
A footnote: one of the great pleasures of Sigmund Freud was the smoking of cigars which he consumed on a daily basis. Having read his psychoanalytical theory, an auditor once asked him if the cigars he smoked were some kind of wish fulfillment or unfulfilled fantasy, to which Freud answered: sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Indeed, it makes sense that if art is in the subconscious mind of the artist and the beholder of his work, then Hume was in sync with Freud, it’s all in the eye of the beholder which may or may not have the same repressed fantasies (“sublimated,” as Freud explained, by civilization) as the artist. Jung took all this, especially Freud’s penchant to reduce everything to repressed sexual urges, with a big grain of salt, for he had a more classical holistic view of the totality that is man, and that may explain with the friendship and collaboration between the two great psychoanalysts did not last. I suppose they were unable to remain agreeable to each other while disagreeing, but the fault for that lies mainly with Freud who had a rather authoritarian personality expressing a rather condescending attitude toward his former pupil. I wonder if either of them ever fantasized psychoanalyzing the other by getting it all off their chest.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-16 10:56:07
Errata above: why the friendship.

Thanos2009-01-16 21:11:12
coming to 'Mona Lisa' and other similar works I always have the feeling that experts just over-analyse it, but I think in your last sentence you say it all.

'2012-03-02 00:28:34

Kimberly2012-09-21 17:17:55
I agree a lot with what Frued has to say

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