Contemporary Art and Hanna Segal's Thinking on Aesthetics
Abella, Adela, International Journal of Psychoanalysis
From the point of view of the history of ideas in psychoanalysis, a major shift may be described from Freud's starting point considering art as sublimation of sexual desires on a largely objectal level to later developments emphasizing the presence in art of destructiveness and narcissistic conflicts. Segal's contribution represents a watershed in this evolution. Following Klein, Hanna Segal suggests considering art in relation to depressive anxieties and reparation in such a way that artistic activity may be seen as an attempt 'to restore and re-create the loved object outside and inside the ego' which implies a successful work of mourning accompanied by symbol formation. For Segal, these reparative processes are conveyed through formal beauty which represents the victory of reparation over destruction. Nevertheless, contemporary art demands that we consider the intervention, in art, of more raw and less symbolized . sublimated processes, including acting-out in often primitive, psychotic or perverse ways. Thus this paper unfolds in two directions: on the one hand, it examines the differences and continuities between Freud's and Segal's thinking whilst, on the other, the author presents some alternative ideas which stress the search for truth and new thinking in contemporary art.
Keywords: applied analysis, art, history of psychoanalysis, reparation, sublimation, thinking, truth
This paper aims to address both the usefulness and shortcomings of Hanna Segal's thinking with regard to contemporary art. This discussion will follow two lines of inquiry: firstly, what are Segal's contributions to the understanding of artistic activity in general? And secondly, to what extent is her thinking helpful in specifically approaching contemporary art? I will therefore consider Hanna Segal's thinking on art and culture in the context of the evolution of psychoanalytical thinking from Freud's day to present time. This will involve a detailed discussion of some of the more significant psychoanalytical constructs on art, derived mainly from Freud and Segal herself. Only in this way will be possible to gauge the originality of Segal's thinking.
I will then examine the relevance of her thinking for the appreciation of contemporary art. This second issue raises the thorny question as to what should be called contemporary art. Given that current artistic endeavour is so eclectic and multifaceted, I will leave this question to the expertise of art historians. For the purposes of this paper I will use a broad heuristic definition: by contemporary art, I mean the entire range of diverse and multiform works that are shown in contemporary art museums or in international art exhibitions (such as Venice or Kassel in Europe) and which are discussed in influential art magazines such as Parkett.
In considering the history of ideas in psychoanalysis, a major shift may be described from Freud's starting point considering art as sublimation of sexual desires on a largely objectal level to later developments emphasizing the presence in art of destructiveness and narcissistic conflicts. Of course, this shift has occurred gradually in such a way that its different elements are often present from the very beginning in Freud's work. Taking this staggered evolution for granted, I will allow myself, for the sake of clarity, some sharp differentiations.
Freud's developments on artistic endeavour
Freud had put forward a rather optimistic view on art and culture, considering it mainly as a "harmless and beneficent... illusion" (Freud, 1933, p. 160), allowing the pursuit of beauty and omnipotence under a "reconciliation" between the pleasure principle and the reality principle. Throughout his work, Freud proposed to understand artistic activity mainly as sublimation of sexual desires. "Sexual curiosity", says Freud, "can be diverted ('sublimated') in the direction of art" (1905, p. 156). Sexual dissatisfaction can thus work as a motor for artistic creativity. …