Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Marcel Duchamp: On the Fruitful Use of Narcissism and Destructiveness in Contemporary Art

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Marcel Duchamp: On the Fruitful Use of Narcissism and Destructiveness in Contemporary Art

Article excerpt

Considering Marcel Duchamp's work, this paper raises the question as to the nature of the subjective experience proposed by contemporary art to today's audience. Approaching art through the concept of sublimation, Freud maintains a fundamentally optimistic and positive view, putting forward its libidinal and sexual aspects, the pursuit of pleasure, beauty, and omnipotence. Following the path opened by Freud through the concept of the 'uncanny', most post-Freudian authors have proposed a 'blacker' image of artistic endeavour, allowing the expression of aggression. From a perspective which is neither that of an art historian nor a moralist, the author proposes the idea that certain propositions of contemporary art may allow the viewer to live narcissistic and destructive fantasies, via culturally sanctioned and socially acceptable means. The recognition of the fertile use of destruction as a condition of the emergence of the new, on the one hand, as well as the legitimacy of the expression through art of the most primitive fantasies and the right to non-communication, on the other, are postulated as constructs for a non-normative, non-judgemental psychoanalytic approach to the cultural world.

Keywords: narcissism, destructiveness, art

Three paradigms may be used in the psychoanalytic approach to art, centred respectively on the artist, the work and the recipient. The aim of the first is basically to understand the links between the work and the author's supposed unconscious conflicts. This is the path Freud follows in his study of Leonardo (1910b).

The second paradigm, which Freud develops in the article on Gradiva (1907), is justified theoretically by the parallelism he establishes on many occasions between art and a child's play, art and hysteria or neurosis and, finally, art and dreams. This parallelism was so flagrant for Freud that he wondered, during a meeting of 15 Feb 1911, what distinguished a day-dream from a work of art (Nunberg and Federn, 1974, p. 166). The work is thus understood in terms of its manifest content, produced by secondary processes brought to bear on unconscious desires and conflicts. It is no longer the artist's unconscious, but that of the work which is being investigated. An author's unconscious conflicts retain their importance, but as instruments allowing him or her to get in touch with and to express certain universal fantasies. There is a resolute shift of emphasis from the artist to the work.

The third paradigm stresses the spectator's modes of appropriating the work subjectively. This approach was suggested by Freud through the notion of identi- fication: by projecting his desires and phantasies into the work, the artist allows his public to find a substitutive satisfaction (1913a). Here the emphasis is on what the addressee can make of the work that is addressed to him, on how he appropriates it, on what he creates out of the range of propositions that have been opened up for him. The virtual realm of culture appears here, according to Winnicott's formulation, as an intermediate area permitting each viewer to bring into play his/her illusion of omnipotence, or his/her creativity. It seems important to indicate that this point of view converges with the aspiration of contemporary art of no longer offering the viewer a beautiful object, but rather a beautiful experience. There is now a shift of emphasis from the work produced by the artist to the experience offered to the viewer, to the significant and potentially creative experience of the addressee.

Libidinal drives versus aggressive drives, object versus narcissistic related difficulties

Freud's fundamental approach to the artistic phenomenon was through the notion of sublimation (1910b), the specificity of art residing for him in the realization of a particular compromise between the pleasure and the reality principles (1911). For Freud, moreover, the very notion of beauty is a product of sublimation: 'the concept of "beautiful" has its roots in sexual excitation' (1905, p. …

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