A Post-Kleinian Model for Aesthetic Criticism

By Williams, Meg Harris | PSYART, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

A Post-Kleinian Model for Aesthetic Criticism


Williams, Meg Harris, PSYART


This paper presents a piece of writing by the Kleinian art critic Adrian Stokes as a model for aesthetic criticism in general. First the limits of psychoanalytic interpretation are considered, with regard to the definition of an 'art symbol' made by the philosopher of aesthetics Susanne Langer. The problem formulated by Langer is the irreducibility of the meaning in an artwork. Then Stokes is used as an example of the type of psychoanalytically informed writing that is not reductive but aesthetic and, it is suggested, a species of artwork in its own right. Stokes demonstrates there is room for the critic's verbal creativity through immersing the ego in the artwork and identifying with the artistic process it embodies. Finally this is related to recent developments in post-Kleinian theory that value the artistic and intuitive features of clinical analytic practice, in particular regarding the transference-countertransference relationship.

keywords: Kleinian interpretation, criticism, aesthetics, art-symbol identification, counter- transference, Wilfred Bion, Susanne Langer, Donald Meltzer, Adrian Stokes

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2008_williams01.shtml

1. The limits of interpretation

My starting point is the symbolic nature of an artwork as described by the philosopher of aesthetics Susanne Langer. Following in the tradition of Wittgenstein, Whitehead and Cassirer, who all describe man as a "symbol-making animal," Langer draws a distinction between discursive and artistic modes of expression. She writes:

The reason why literature is a standard academic pursuit lies in the fact that one can treat it as something else than art. Since its normal material is language, and language is, after all, the medium of discourse, it is always possible to look at a literary work as... a piece of discursive symbolism functioning in the usual communicative way. (Feeling and Form 208)

Discursive symbolism, in her definition, is the usual way we "talk about" things, using words as signs to point to things or ideas, whereas artistic symbolism is more exploratory, style-dependent, reliant on the evocative effects of "deep grammar" to mean more than it appears to say. Langer addresses the problem of the inscrutability of the art-object, pointing out that

The import of an art symbol... cannot be built up like the meaning of a discourse, but must be seen in toto first... Artistic import, unlike verbal meaning, can only be exhibited, not demonstrated, to anyone to whom the art symbol is not lucid ... A symbol that cannot be separated from its sense cannot really be said to refer to something outside itself. (Feeling and Form 379-80)

The "elements" of an art-symbol are part of a "virtual reality," she writes, and get their meaning from their aesthetic context - their formal patterning in relation to an "underlying idea" that governs the work's structure.

This goes back to Plato and, in the neo-Platonic tradition, to Romantic aesthetics and existentialist philosophy. Coleridge, arguably the first modern critic, from whom the Richardsonian and New-Critical schools took their cue, observed how a literary work is an "organic" world-of-its-own and that "Such is the life, such the form" (65). In the same tradition, Langer emphasizes the untranslatability of the art-symbol, and how its essential meaning or "underlying idea" is bound up in its particular symbolic form and cannot be explained in the terms of ordinary discursive symbolism: "To understand the idea in a work of art is more like having a new experience than like entertaining a new proposition" (New Key 263).

The creative artist employs his medium to engage in a process of exploration and discovery under the aegis of this governing "idea." This is frequently described by artists and aestheticians as "artistic inevitability" - when the links in the art-symbol seem to be constructed not by authorial control but by internal necessity, and the work takes on a life of its own. …

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