Art and Emotion in Psychoanalysis

By Jurist, Elliot L. | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Art and Emotion in Psychoanalysis


Jurist, Elliot L., International Journal of Psychoanalysis


Freud's view that art satisfies psychic needs has been taken to mean that art has its source in the unconscious and that it unifies pleasure and reality. The author argues that there is a third point that Freud repeatedly emphasizes, which should not be overlooked, that art influences our emotions. The author examines what Freud means by this claim, in particular, his reading of Michelangelo's Moses. Freud's focus here on emotions as fundamental to subjective experience, as subject to regulation and as potentially healthy forms of communication serves to supplement and even challenge what he says in his theory of affect. The author concludes by making inferences about a contemporary psychoanalytic theory of affects: that it ought to be inclusive of science (more receptive to neurobiology and less bound to Freud) as well as art (preserving the focus on subjective experience, especially the processing of complex emotions), which is illustrated with the concept of mentalized affectivity.

Keywords: art and emotion, aesthetics, affects, affect theory, affect regulation, mentalized affectivity

We remain on the surface so long as we are dealing only with memories and ideas. What is alone of value in mental life is rather the feelings [Gefühle]. No mental forces are significant unless they possess the character of aroused feelings [Gefühle zu erwecken]. (Freud, 1906, p. 49)

Freud's aesthetics is a subject that has been treated exhaustively, and one might well be skeptical whether there is anything new to discover. His view of art can be characterized easily enough: art satisfies psychic needs, particularly psychic needs that stem from the unconscious and that are a mixture of pleasure and reality. Yet, such a familiar summation ignores the crucial role that emotions play in Freud's account. He repeatedly asserted that art produces an emotional effect on the recipient, and the issue of affect regulation lies at the center of his investigations of Leonardo and Moses. Indeed, Freud's reflections on emotions in art are striking because they rely on a reading that is more positive and complex than is found in his (scientific) theories of affect. Emotions are portrayed as fundamental to subjective experience, as amenable to regulation, and as potentially healthy forms of communication. As I shall argue, Freud's understanding of emotions in art provides an important supplement to what he claims elsewhere; moreover, I shall claim that his understanding of emotions in art actually sheds light on the shortcomings of his theories of affect.

There is, of course, a wide consensus that the theory of affect was and remains a problematic area in psychoanalytic theory. Throughout the history of psychoanalysis, complaints have been made about Freud's scientific theory of affect, but there has also been considerable adherence to following in the path he forged. This might be a clue as to why the difference in emphasis and perspective found in Freud's writings on the emotional effect of art has been overlooked. It is illuminating to pay attention to what Freud says about emotions in art because it features the processing of complex emotions. My intention here, however, is not to argue that, armed with knowledge of what Freud says about emotions in art, we can finally postulate an adequate theory of affect. I contend, rather, that Freud's scientific approach to the study of affect needs to be revised by adopting a current neurobiological perspective that makes greater acknowledgment of how emotions are stimulated externally and are subject to regulation. At the same time, it is legitimate to affirm and develop our understanding of the subjective experience of emotions. In this connection, I shall refer to mentalized affectivity, a sophisticated kind of affect regulation, which captures how it is possible to cultivate a deeper and more satisfying experience of the self. My conclusion in this paper will be that Freud failed to integrate scientific and artistic aspects of the study of affect, but that such an aspiration remains worthwhile. …

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