Aesthetic Experience: Beauty, Creativity, and the Search for the Ideal

By Nicholsen, Shierry Weber | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Aesthetic Experience: Beauty, Creativity, and the Search for the Ideal


Nicholsen, Shierry Weber, International Journal of Psychoanalysis


Aesthetic experience: Beauty, creativity, and the search for the ideal by George Hagman Amsterdam: Rodopi (Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies, vol. 5). 2005. 168 p. Reviewed by Shierry Weber Nicholsen, 1103 E. Republican St. #1, Seattle, WA 98102, USA - snicholsen@earthlink.net

The psychoanalytic literature on aesthetic matters is vast and wide-ranging-from inquiry into the psychodynamics of the artist to analysis of the creative process, to reflection on individual works of art. Rarely, however, has psychoanalytic reflection been directed to aesthetic experience as such and to the way the aesthetic dimension pervades human life. George Hagman's book does this.

Hagman's book is short, comprised of what were originally different essays on related themes in this area. The essays form a coherent whole, however, in large part because Hagman uses a theoretical lens that is fairly narrowly focused. He draws, of course, on Winnicott's idea that transitional space is the foundation of cultural experience, but he elaborates from a relational and especially from a self-psychological perspective, while providing a review of contributions from other psychoanalytic traditions. Each psychoanalytic theory has something to contribute to our understanding of aesthetic experience. Elaborating the contribution that self-psychology can make in this area is a second important contribution to Hagman's book. A third is to have brought philosophical aesthetics into the arena of psychoanalytic theorizing. Classical, 18th century, and modern philosophical aesthetics have created an extensive literature on key concepts in aesthetics, such as beauty, and also reflected on certain aesthetic experiences that have been largely ignored in the psychoanalytic literature-the ugly and the sublime being cases in point.

Hagman defines aesthetic experience as an 'emergent phenomenon that arises in the transitional psychological zone in which our creative engagement with the world is lived' (p. 1). From this perspective, aesthetic experience is not restricted to art and artists-it is a dimension of subjective experience, and (non-pathological) idealization is central to it. In brief, for Hagman the mutual idealization of mother and baby is the archaic foundation of aesthetic experience. The formal qualities of this relationship become the conveyors of the experience of beauty. The artist's relationship with the artwork then becomes a relationship with an idealized self-object. In this review I begin by summarizing Hagman's point of view on the role of idealization in aesthetic experience; then I comment on some of his specific chapters, and end with some discussion of areas in which Hagman might extend his contribution.

Idealization and beauty

As Hagman conceptualizes it, idealization is a process wherein the subject invests value in something that is experienced as external to the subject. The value is, however, not objective; one person's idealized object is another's indifferent object. While acknowledging that idealization can be used in defensive or compensatory ways, Hagman elaborates its positive function. It operates throughout life, he says, contributing motivation for attachment and relatedness to what is external. Idealization has a developmental trajectory of its own, such that what is idealized at one point is seen from a later point in development as simplistic or undeveloped-or indeed reflecting only partial interests.

Hagman proposes the self-experience aspect of the mutually idealizing attunement between mother and child as the foundation for aesthetic experience. 'Proto-aesthetic experience,' as he terms it, depends on the formal and sensuous aspects of that experience. Proto-aesthetic experience, he says, is 'the experience of the formal perfection of archaic self-object experience ... It is an aspect of archaic idealization' (p. 35). It is not only the mother's face that is important here as an idealized or beautiful object, but other aspects of what Donald Meltzer would call 'the music' of the relationship as well-the tone of the voice, the feel of the skin, and so on. …

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