Psychological Aesthetics: Painting, Feeling, and Making Sense

By David Maclagan | Go to book overview

Chapter Seven
Towards a New Psychological Aesthetics

… by means of the idea of the unconscious we are able to see into, behind, and
below manifest behaviour. But the unconscious is merely a tool for deepening,
interiorizing, and subjectifying the apparent. Should we take the unconscious
too literally, then it too becomes a husk that constricts the psyche and must be
seen through, deliteralized. (Hillman 1975, p.141).

What does ‘psychological’ mean in this context? So far much of our exploration of the complex relation between the aesthetic and the psychological aspects of painting has revolved largely around terms and assumptions about ‘unconscious’ aspects of experience that derive from psychoanalysis. This is perhaps not so surprising, since one of the effects of the enormous influence of psychoanalysis has been to encourage the assumption that it alone can account for the nature and working of ‘unconscious’ mental life, and that as a theory of human nature its dominion extends from the clinical to the cultural. Since painting, both in its imagery and in the spontaneous detail of its facture, involves processes that are not totally under conscious control – and this would surely be one of the reasons for valuing it – then presumably psychoanalysis has a legitimate claim to offer ways of understanding it.


The contest between art and psychoanalysis to link
the aesthetic and the psychological

As we saw in the last chapter, in the early phase of psychoanalysis (associated with Freud’s 1908 paper on the creative writer, his Leonardo essay of 1910, and his study of Michelangelo in 1914), art could be treated as an innocent or passive object of analysis. Innocent because the artist’s collaboration with unconscious processes was under some other aegis, such as inspiration, ‘furor’ or Saturnine influence (Wittkower 1963, pp.98–107) and passive because artists from pre-Freudian times would have known nothing of psychoanalytic theory and therefore could neither collude with it nor pervert its aims (as, for example, the Surrealists did).

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