Psychological Aesthetics: Painting, Feeling, and Making Sense

By David Maclagan | Go to book overview

Chapter Four
From Inarticulate to Aesthetic Form

The psychoanalytic concept of creative sublimation implies that the highest
human achievement should be linked very directly with what is lowest and
most primitive in ourselves […] Psychoanalysis does not drag the sublime
through the mud by making such connections. On the contrary; once we have
accepted the dynamic model of creative sublimation which psychoanalysis has
introduced, we can only expect that the most sublime be joined by a
short-circuit with what is most debased in human nature. Nothing else will do,
and squeamish readers who cannot bear such juxtapositions should keep away
from depth-psychology (Ehrenzweig 1967, pp.128—9).

Anton Ehrenzweig’s ideas make revolutionary links between the psychology of perception, in its respectable Gestalt form, and the psychoanalytic model of consciousness under the powerful influence of unconscious processes. Yet despite enjoying a certain popularity at the time, his ideas have subsequently fallen into a strange kind of limbo: his name is often absent from books in the field of psychoanalysis and art that should at least refer to him, and he has become something of an eminence grise.1

Ehrenzweig’s notion of a ‘depth mind’ that operates according to form-principles foreign to the conscious mind, but which also offers structures which are richer and more complex than rational ones, effectively inverts the conventional relationship between art and psychoanalysis, giving art the lead. It is perhaps for this reason that, in my experience, Ehrenzweig’s writings have a real appeal for artists: they recognise that he has a genuine understanding of art and a proper appreciation of its contribution to a properly psychological aesthetics.

Ehrenzweig was not just a psychoanalytic theoretician: he had himself undergone a seven-year analysis in Vienna before the Anschluss made him a refugee in Britain (Tony Ehrenzweig, personal communication), and he was also a musician and painter. Furthermore, he ended up as an art teacher at Goldsmith’s College, London where his controversial methods had a considerable impact on individual students.2 His last book, The Hidden Order of Art (1967),

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