Donald Kuspit on the Psychodynamics Of Video Art: In memory of Hans Breder, Intermedia Artist, 1935-2017

Hans Breder, Under a Malicious Sky, 1988 (video still)

By DONALD KUSPIT March, 2020 

            A basic distinction:  in film an image is projected onto a screen; in video art the image comes from within the screen.  The image that appears in a film is part of the story of the film.  It is inseparable from the film, however much it may be separated for publicity purposes.  Thus the stand-alone star, presented as a unique phenomenon, glamorously self-sufficient in a photograph, lifted from the film, as though no longer part of the script.  A film is a hermetically sealed spacetime unto itself, however much the viewer may identify—temporarily, while watching the film--with this or that actor on the screen, thus entering it as a sort of participant observer.  Indeed, the viewer seems compelled—socially forced? --to identify, for the actors loom larger than life, being literally bigger than the viewer, intimidating her and him with their grand screen appearance, and seem to be leading more interesting lives, however much their screen lives resemble everyday lives.  They are free to make a spectacle of themselves; we are denied the privilege of being as exhibitionistic.  But however much we project ourselves into a film, and however much we tend to internalize the actors—incompletely, for when we leave the theater of illusion and re-enter the everyday world, returning to our everyday lives, we realize how unrealistic the quasi-dream film is, how make-believe its characters are, how their lives are not ours.  The spell is broken:  we awaken to the fact that the film is external to us, not a serious part of us.  It exists outside and apart from us, however much it may momentarily ingratiate itself into us, engage us as though there is no tomorrow, even though we know there always is. 

Hans Breder, 7 + 7, 2015 (video still)

In contrast, the video image, coming from inside the screen--rather than imposed on it (and us) like the film image--seems to come from inside us.  We unconsciously experience it as part of us, unlike the film image, which remains apart and separate however seriously it engages us as we view it, for we consciously know it is a passing fancy, and as such not seriously imaginative.(1)  The video image is felt to be an hallucination—imaginatively irreal, however sensorially real.  The actors in a video story are experienced as what psychoanalysts call internal objects—inalienable parts of us, for good or bad.  They seem charged with élan vital, as though spontaneously generated by the dynamic unconscious, and as such radically individual, unlike the stereotypical actors in a film, manufactured for crowd appeal.  I am arguing that we know that a film is consciously produced, but a work of video art, however much consciousness is invested in it, is experienced as originating in the unconscious, and as such an unpredictable and unscripted creation.  In short, we know that the appearances in a film are make-believe, but we are not sure that the appearances in a work of video art are, for our unconscious believes in them.       

In 1935, in an essay titled “A Forecast of Television,” the psychologist Rudolf Arnheim wrote “television…can…put our mind to sleep.”(2)  The mind asleep is in a hypnotic state—television can be hypnotizing.  “The essence of hypnosis lies in an unconscious fixation of the subject’s libido to the figure of the hypnotist,” Freud wrote.(3)  One is possessed by the Svengali-like hypnotist, mesmerized by him at the expense of oneself.  To put the conscious mind to sleep is to awaken the unconscious, which has a mind of its own.  The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm notes that “sleep is taken up with the function of self-experience.”(4)  The philosopher Marshall McLuhan describes the depth of self-experience television can afford when it becomes mesmerizing, when we sometimes become fixated on the news that it reports, on the unprogrammed and unvarnished figures—not predictably performing actors, locked into procrustean roles, but people acting out unpredictably--who appear in it:  “Jack Ruby shot Lee Oswald while tightly surrounded by guards who were paralyzed by television cameras.  The fascinating and involving power of television scarcely needed this additional proof of its peculiar operation upon human perceptions.  The Kennedy assassination gave people an immediate sense of the television power to create depth involvement, on the one hand, and a numbing effect deep as grief, itself, on the other hand.  Most people were amazed at the depth of meaning which the event communicated to them.”(5)    

The assasination of Lee Harvey Oswald

“Depth involvement” is unconscious involvement—“depth of meaning” is unconscious meaning.  Film engages consciousness, the surface of the psyche; television engages the unconscious, the depths of the psyche.  Arnheim begins his essay by noting the difference between what we know about things and what we can sense about them.  Video, he argues, diminishes this disproportion or discrepancy by articulating what we know in direct sensory terms.  This makes them truly interesting—interesting for unconscious not simply conscious reasons.  Arnheim is in effect asserting that video breaks down the barriers between the unconsciously interesting—what we feel and intuit about things—and the consciously sensed—what we perceive them to be in our sense experience of them.  This means that video simulates how things exist in the unconscious.  It is the basic reason why the video image has a hypnotic effect—is unconsciously mesmerizing.  It explains why television “changes our attitude to reality,” as Arnheim says.  “Simultaneity can be experienced as such”—simultaneity of the conscious and the unconscious, that is, their co-existence and co-operation in every perception and conception of a thing.  

Hans Breder, Ikarus installation, Ostwall Museum, Dortmund

In an unpublished essay on “Hans Breder and the Auras of Video,” the philosopher Herman Rapaport notes that a video image is a paradoxical compound of “pictura minutiae”--irreducible, basic, minimal imagistic units--and the “hyperreal,” arguing that they are modes of appearance in the unconscious.  A sense of “plenitude” and “fading” are also paradoxically simultaneous in video art, the former an effect of the life instinct, the latter of the death instinct.  Rapaport is arguing that a video image has the same paradoxical form and emotional quality—and immediacy--as an image spontaneously generated by the unconscious.  It is an image that seems to be snapped from the teeth of amnesia, paradoxically making it more memorable.  It is clearly given yet disappears, dissolving in the stream of unconsciousness as suddenly as it appeared.  It is a sort of inconclusive revelation, promising profound meaning but seemingly meaningless. 


I think video art is the grand climax of modern art—a paradoxical climax, for it uses technology to escape from technology into the unconscious. Since Redon declared that “all art is submission of the will to the unconscious,” its ambition has been to simulate a sense of being-unconscious—and to escape from the modern world, a technological society, a product of ambitious, resolute consciousness, in contrast to the unconscious, which is naturally creative, and in eternal process, and peculiarly unpredictable.  The fluid atmosphere in a late Monet painting is an unconscious haze—it conveys a sense of what it is like to be caught up in an unconscious process.  The colors in his paintings are hypnotically appealing, the water in Impression, Sunrise, 1872, officially the first Impressionist painting, is in perpetual unconscious process.  It seems no accident that his paintings begin and end with water—with the water in Le Havre harbor—depicted in Impression, Sunrise, as though in a mirage, an oasis in an urban desert--and the water in the water lily ponds of his garden, another oasis and refuge from the urban world, an invention of consciousness, the unconscious being creative not merely inventive, organic not mechanical. 

Impression Sunrise — Oscar-Claude Monet (1872 – 1873)

The bizarre figures in Redon’s In the Dream, 1879 show the products of unconscious process, Monet shows the process itself, with all its perpetually changing currents—a true Heracleitean stream.  Expressionistic painting simulates unconscious process.  Similarly, so-called American action painting—derivative from European abstract expressionism—mimics with an aggressive flair unconscious process.  Pollock’s The Blue Unconscious, 1946 is perhaps the climactic dead-end of unconscious process painting.  Joseph Henderson, Pollock’s first psychoanalyst, said that Pollock was “portraying the unconscious,” and Pollock said that “the source of my painting is the unconscious.”  But it became its dead-end, as Scent and Search, his last two paintings, both made in 1955, a year before his death, suggest.  For in them unconscious process has congealed and calcified:  Pollock’s unconscious process is no longer fluid, but has frozen in its tracks—petrified.  It is probably because he knew he had lost his unconscious--creative—nerve that he dead-ended his life in suicide in 1956.        

Odilon Redon - Dans La Reve -VIII Vision, 1879

            “I’m very representational some of the time, and a little all of the time.  But when you’re painting out of your unconscious figures are bound to emerge.”  Pollock said this, in an interview, two months before his death, as though he was prepared to meet the ghosts in his unconscious hell.  For the unconscious is full of ghosts—the hadean figures that psychoanalysts call internal objects, as noted.  Television is full of such ghostly figures, as Rapaport makes clear.  “Through the photograph we have foreknowledge of objects, as it they had telepathically appeared to us in dreams and fantasies before we actually see them.  Television is the animation of those ghostly auras which mark the depletion of the unique, the exhaustion of the real.”  The real exhausted is a ghost—dead but alive in the unconscious.  Objects—figures--are real in the conscious, irreal in the unconscious.  That is, they are not entirely unreal, but ghostly, more aura that substance however emotionally substantial, filled with and radiating feeling.  Seemingly produced by consciousness, they are reproduced in the unconscious, and with that dematerialized, turned into abstractions—abstract symbols, corresponding to the objects but not necessarily like them in appearance, that is, as real as they are. 

Jackson Pollock, The Blue Unconscious, 1946 

In the unconscious the difference between the abstract—ghostly—symbolic figure and the objectively given—the experientially real figure--collapses.  The figures that emerge from Pollock’s painterly flux, emblematic evidence of his unconscious process, with all its turbulence and violence, are uninhibited expressions of his feelings in symbolic form.  The feelings are almost always more aggressive than sexual, which is why the symbolic figures are often grotesquely distorted—deformed almost beyond recognition (which is the way ghosts sometimes appear).  If, as Freud writes, aggression—and repetition compulsion, self-evident in Pollock’s oeuvre—are evidence of the death drive, then Pollock’s abstract expressionism is death driven, all the more so because death is finally abstract—unimaginable (unconsciously we all think we are immortal)--however nominally represented by a skeleton.  The stick figures that appear in some of Pollock’s paintings are abstract symbols of the skeleton—the attenuated abstract skeletal remains of a ghost.  Pollock’s suicide—self-destruction—confirms the fact that his art is death-driven rather than life affirmative, that his gestures are more morbid than libidinous.  Unconscious process painting begins with Monet’s life-affirming naturalism and ends with Pollock’s death-affirming abstraction, suggesting that abstraction was the kiss of death for naturalism, and with that showing that painting out of your conscious is healthier than painting out of your unconscious.

Television, McLuhan writes, “involved everybody in everybody more deeply than before”—certainly more than painting does.  McLuhan notes that the eyes of children watching television “follow, not the actions, but the reactions.  Their eyes scarcely deviate from the faces of the actors, even during scenes of violence.”  This is “another indication of the very cool and involving character” of the video medium.  “TV is a medium that rejects the sharp personality and favors the presentation of processes rather than products.”  It’s what happens in the unconscious:  one is involved in a process which has no clear—reliable—products.  The video image is an “iconic mosaic,” an “inclusive image” that “mandates participation in depth”—like an image in the unconscious.  Somewhat extravagantly, not to say deliriously, McLuhan insists that television affords an experience of “synesthesia, or unified sense and imaginative life,” ending “the rigorous separation and specialization of the senses.”  In a similar vein, Arnheim insists that television replaces the “realm of thinking” with “direct experience.”  Both are a bit of overstatement, but their point is that “TV engages you totally,” as McLuhan puts it:  “you have to be with it.”  Synesthetic immersion in television indicates the “sense of intimacy” generated by it, and with that unconscious engagement with it and its ever-changing images—unconsciously attune to its process, even more than to the images that appear on its screen, products designed to appeal to our more superficial consciousness.  Video has been used to record performance artists’ self-conscious (not to self-aggrandizing) behavior, but that is not true video art.  It uses the video camera as a passive mirror, a recording device rather than a divining rod—it is not art that uses video process to unconscious effect.  Authentic video art made a grand appearance with Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway:  Continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii, 1995, but it still has a long way to travel on the Electronic Highway. WM


            (1)I am alluding to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s distinction between fancy and imagination.  “’Fancy,’ in Coleridge’s eyes, was employed for tasks that were ‘passive’ and ‘mechanical,’ the accumulation of fact and documentation of what is seen.  ‘Always the ape,’ Fancy, Coleridge argued, was ‘too often the adulterator and counterfeiter of memory.’  The Imagination on the other hand was ‘vital’ and transformative, ‘a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation.’”  In other words, fancy is “a logical way of organizing sensory material without really synthesizing it,” while imagination involves “a spontaneous and original act of creation.”  Wikipedia.  I am arguing that film art is fanciful, while video art is imaginative.  More broadly, there are two kinds of art, art that is sensory fancy, and art that is imaginatively creative. 

            (2)Rudolf Arnheim, “A Forecast of Television,” Film as Art (Berkeley and Los Angeles:  University of California Press, 1957), 195

            (3)Sigmund Freud, “Three Essays on Sexuality,” Standard Edition (London:  Hogarth Press and the Psycho-Analytic Institute, 1951), I, 150

            (4)Erich Fromm, Greatness and Limitations of Freud’s Thought (London:  Jonathan Cape, 1980), 96

            (5)Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media:  The Extensions of Man (New York:  McGraw-Hill, 1964), 292.  All subsequent quotations from McLuhan are from this book.


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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