Whitehot Magazine

The Romantic Subject: Art As The Embodiment Of Creative Illness by Donald Kuspit

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Portrait of Paul Lemoyne, 1810. Oil on canvas, 46 x 35 cm.  



Let me begin by comparing three works of art, two paintings by Ingres and a print by Goya, all of which are about the romantic subject, who is of course the modern artist—the symbol of the modern idea of the fundamental irrationality of the human subject.  We see him, in all his dramatic splendor and intensity, in Ingres portrait of Paul Lemoyne, circa 1810-11.  His hair is not properly combed, his dark eyes pierce us with their intensity, his shirt is open at the collar, so much so that there is a suggestion of nakedness, for his upper chest is partially exposed.  The collar stands on end, and supports the head, like a pedestal, a very peculiar, almost immaterial pedestal, for the open collar resembles the fragment of a halo, as though Ingres wanted to suggest that there is something sacred about Lemoyne.  The collar raises his head into another space, suggesting that there is something special about his mind and person.

His coat is also wide open, like a stage curtain, further framing his dramatic presence.  The sharp contrast between Lemoyne’s dark hair and illuminated face adds to his drama, as does the subsidiary contrast between his brown coat and white shirt.  The sense of the informal, which brings with it a sense of the private and indiscreet, seems stretched to the limit.  Lemoyne is not simply in a state of casual disarray and partial undress—but his coat or cape suggests that he is ready to show himself in public—but seems to flaunt himself.  Indeed, he confronts us, almost thrusts his face into ours, and seems to stand on our feet.  The fact that he comes as close to the picture plane as it is possible to come without breaking the boundary between himself and us–so close that his body seems to dissolve into or merge with the picture plane, as though to confirm that he is a vivid material reality rather than a fiction—suggests as much.  His confrontational glance adds to his vivid presence, confirming that this is no conventional individual, but one with temperament.  In short, Lemoyne makes a strong, lively impression.  His is a dashing, let us say romantic presence. 

Clearly our relationship with this intense young man is not going to be easy or boring.  He is not exactly at ease with himself, indeed, the wildly open collar seems like a metaphor for inner turmoil, suggesting that Lemoyne is a troubled and troublesome character.  He is dangerous to relate to, and seems endangered in himself.  The fact that his collar is unbuttoned and raised, and twists and turns, so that its corners move in opposite directions, suggests a figure at odds with itself—subtly conflicted, perhaps inherently unbalanced.  In general, the abrupt contradictions of Lemoyne’s appearance, which test, indeed flaunt, the boundaries of propriety, as though he did not take them seriously, suggest a somewhat uninhibited, disturbed, even rash person.  He wears civilized clothing, but he seems eager to break the constraints of civilization, or indifferent to them, for he wears them casually, so that we become aware of his bodily presence without being sure of his social position.

Lemoyne is, for his times, a somewhat spontaneous character, vital but threatening—just because his vitality is not reined in by his clothing, his expressiveness is not mitigated by good manners, his forcefulness is barely under control.  Ingres gives Lemoyne a remarkable density of presence—genuine mimesis is not simply about conveying an accurate likeness, but about concentrating the experience of a person in a singular image that convinces us that we have grasped his inner being, which is what gives him presence.  The task of mimesis is to find the subject in the object, and convey its synthesis of uniqueness and universality.  Objective appearance becomes a metaphor for subjective reality.  It must evoke the subjectivity of the individual as well as the dynamics of subjectivity as such.  Lemoyne is in fact a singular being.  As Philip Conisbee writes, his “dishevelment…belongs to a pictorial tradition, well established since the eighteenth century, signifying the unfettered genius of the creative artist.”(1) 

Luigi Cherubini and the Muse of Lyric Poetry, 1842. Oil on canvas, 105 x 94 cm. Musee du Louvre, Paris.

There is also something else that makes him unusual, even for an artist genius:  he is pictured by himself, suggesting that his art comes entirely from within himself, indeed, has to do with his exploration of himself—of his moods and feelings, which he attempts to convey in all their intensity and complexity.  The sense of interiority and independence, which Ingres brilliantly conveys, confirms that Lemoyne is a modern artist—a genius who looks into himself for creative inspiration, who has sufficient strength of character to rely on himself completely, sufficient autonomy to be his own creative resource.  Compare Ingres’s painting of Lemoyne with his later painting of the somewhat more traditional artist genius in Cherubini and the Muse of Lyric Poetry, 1842—traditional because the artist is pictured with this muse, the female personification of his inspiration, the externalization of his creative impulse.  Both paintings depict ideal types of artist geniuses, but Lemoyne is the modern romantic type while Cherubini is the traditional classical type.  Ingres seems to know that the traditional type is on the way out, for although “the face of the illustrious composer is imprinted with the highest character,” as Théophile Thoré wrote, “Ingres conceals neither age nor weakness,” as Charles Lenormant wrote,(2) suggesting the approach of death, while Lemoyne looks young and fresh—a symbol of the future rather than the past.  We know that Ingres was torn between the past and future—stood on the cusp between the classical past and the romantic future.  We know of his great feeling for music, and his love of Mozart, Cherubini, Gluck, and Haydn, whose “masterpieces become ever younger,” as he said,(3) even as he knew they seemed old in the modern world.  Mourning the death of Pierre Baillot, whom he praised as “the Poussin of the violin,” Ingres remarked that “it’s the modern world that killed him.”(4)  It would no doubt also kill the classical music Baillot performed.

The classical muse is the source of Cherubini’s genius.  Without his dependence on her he has none.  Without his special, intimate relationship with her he is just another ordinary uninspired human being—a human being who cannot transcend his troubles.  Indeed, Cherubini sits in a kind of melancholy trance.  He may “hear some harmony within himself,” as Thoré said, but “a profound feeling of sadness is imprinted” on his face, as Lenormant said.  Indeed, Cherubini leans his head against his right hand in a version of the traditional pose that symbolizes melancholy.  Cherubini’s depression is more explicit in Ingres’ study for his 1840-41 portrait of him.  Cherubini and Ingres were in fact both somewhat “sour egos,” as Théophile Silvestre wrote, who understood “each other perfectly,” suggesting, as Gary Tinterow writes, that “Ingres’s picture can easily be viewed as a kind of self-portrait by projection.”(5)  In other words, Ingres was often as depressed—sour—as he shows Cherubini to be.  

Cherubini waits, in a melancholy state, presumably indicative of his introspection, to be touched by the muse.  But it is not clear that he does expect her touch—that he can be sure of it—for he seems altogether unaware of her presence behind him.  We can see that she is about to touch him, but he doesn’t know it.  He remains passive, however active she is.  She may be a reassuring, facilitating presence, a maternal guarantee of primary creativity—I would argue that Ingres has shown us what it means to be creatively alone with oneself, in Donald Winnicott’s sense(6)—but she is, in the picture, invisible to Cherubini, even though she is prepared to touch his brow, giving him the gift of genius, that is, creativity.  He may be a creative genius in spirit, but he is not yet one in practice.  His creative genius remains latent in him until the mothering muse makes it manifest.  One might say that he wishes to compose, but that he has composer’s block, until the motheing muse liberates him from his melancholy.  

Ingres shows us a divided Cherubini, split between masculine melancholy part and feminine creative part.  They may be about to be reconciled, but they are not yet united in the picture.  The former is mortal, the latter is immortal, suggesting that the art that will be most enduring will be feminine in spirit and feeling—that it will convey the sense of creative vitality and grace associated with woman, who has the capacity to give birth to a new life, which is a kind of physical grace, a grace of the  body—however masculine its form may seem.  But that form is likely to be as classical, harmonious, and discreet as the classical, harmonious, modest garb of the muse.  The emotions the content generates will be constrained and contained by the reliable classical form—the stylistic proprieties of the reassuring tradition.  Lemoyne’s wide open look and clothing are certainly a far cry from the closed look and buttoned up clothing of Cherubini.

Francisco Goya, Plate 43, The sleep of reason produces monsters from Los Caprichos, 1799, etching, aquatint, drypoint, and burin, plate: 21.2 x 15.1 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

The modern artist genius, then, goes it alone—without the mothering muse.  From the point of view of tradition this is sheer folly and madness, that is, it can only lead to serious mental illness--profound, perhaps incurable emotional suffering.  Indeed, Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1799 shows us the mad, sick dreams—nightmares—of the modern romantic creative genius, who makes art without the help of the muse.  She alone can give the wild imagination civilized form, presumably without compromising its fantasy—the kind of fantastic, all too exciting, disturbing dreams the apparently healthy Lemoyne (but he seems a little too intense to be healthy) probably had when he fell asleep.  Here is José López-Rey’s description of a 1797 drawing that is close to Goya’s famous aquatint, which is the final plate of Los Caprichos.  There is “a large blank area in the background to the left; the only animal figures are those of bats and owls, and a huge weird cat, sitting on the ground and looking toward the slumbering artist.  The middle area is taken up by a gigantic bat which is counterpoised to a bulky owl.  This crouches on the dreamer’s back peering at his hidden face, while the bat hovers above displaying its lurid breasts and belly in a show of obscenity.”(7)  López-Rey comments that “the actions and attitudes of the various huge animals make all the clearer the world of superstition they represent.”  This follows from the caption at the bottom of the drawing, which reads:  “The artist dreaming.  His only purpose is to banish harmful, vulgar beliefs, and to perpetuate in this work of caprices the solid testimony of truth.”(8)

But in the final print there is something more—something deeper—at stake, as López-Rey acknowledges.  Goya’s own commentary on it conveys something quite different from the earlier caption:  “Imagination, deserted by reason, begets impossible monsters.  United with reason, she is the mother of all arts, and the source of their wonders.”  López-Rey writes:  “This explanation coincides with a passage in Addison’s essay, Pleasures of Imagination which, approximately at the time when the Caprichos were published, was being translated by Don José L. Munárriz, one of Goya’s friends.  Addison wrote:  ‘When the brain is hurt by an accident, or the mind disordered by dreams or sickness, the fancy is overrun with wild, dismal ideas and terrified with a  thousand hideous monsters of its own framing.”(10)  Thus, while the 1797 sketch has to be understood as expressing “a rationalist attitude,” as López-Rey says, the final version of The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters has to be understood as expressing “a romantic…point of view.”(11)

The social and moral meaning of the nightmarish animals has disappeared.  They are not unequivocally irrational—monsters of the imagination.  We dream of them when we have completely lost our reason, and there is no way to rationalize them with the help of morality, and for that matter aesthetics.  Goya remains conflicted about their meaning, as the announcement of the publication of Caprichos indicates.  He begins by asserting that their purpose is “the censure of human errors and vices”—presumably represented by the monsters—and ends declaring that he “reunites in a single fantastic personage circumstances and characteristics that nature has divided among many.”(12)  Thus the monsters exist for their own irrational sake, conveying, as Goya suggests, what is universal—his own word.  It is the “universal language” of dreams that ultimately interests him, as the inscription on the side of the desk in the 1797 drawing suggests.  There is no longer any pretense of reason—no longer the belief that the imagination has to combine with reason to produce art.  Art can be purely imaginative, with no admixture of reason—without being compromised and made palatable by reason.  And to be imaginative means to represent dreams, however painful or pleasurable—more painful than pleasurable, as the Addison quotation indicates.  With whatever difficulty and uncertainty, Goya is in transition from socially critical art to psychologically critical art.  The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters shows him trying to convey the subjective roots of objective problems.  He may still be concerned with superstition, but he realizes that superstition is rooted in the imagination—in the psyche.  He still has social concern, but his fascination with dreams is greater.

The dark, blank area in the left background of The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters is the abyss of the unconscious.  The dream monsters—representatives of the animal side of human beings—emerge from it.  It is a kind of Pandora’s box without the hope—a nurturing female in the myth—at the bottom.  The muse remains subliminally present, but she has become evil—a predatory animal—because she has been rejected, that is, because the hope for reason she represents has been extinguished.  She is no longer a classical goddess, but a romantic monster.  The artist is completely in the world of imagination—victimized by his dreams—in Goya’s print.  When de Chirico states that the only source of art is “the metaphysics and mystery of dreams”(13) he is speaking in the spirit of Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.  When he pays homage to Max Klinger’s Paraphrase on the Finding of a Glove, 1881, as he does in The Song of Love, 1914, because it “produces a deeply disturbing dream-reality,”(14) he is speaking Goya’s emotional language.  He concedes absolute artistic power to the imagination in his Goyaesque assertion that “To become immortal a work of art must escape all human limits:  logic and common sense will only interfere.  But once these barriers are broken it will enter the regions of childhood vision and dream.”(15)  As López-Rey says, it was the surrealists who regarded The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters as their first manifesto.

What exactly is the artist dreaming in Goya’s print?  His own madness.  The “hideous monsters” that terrify him are “of (his) own framing,” as Addison said.  His “fancy is overrun with wild, dismal ideas” because his mind is “disordered,” that is, has lost all reason.  For the romantic artist, creative genius consists in dreaming—giving imaginative form to his own mental states, more precisely, his own irrational feelings, indeed, disturbed subjectivity.  Some of his wild, dismal ideas—the hideous monsters that stalk and haunt him—are depression, perversion, violent mania, all of which have been associated with creativity in psychoanalytic studies.  It takes genius to give one’s dreams—the fantasies that signal one’s madness—convincing imaginative form.  Ingres dreams his own depression in his portrait of the melancholy Cherubini, giving it viable social form.  Because he can do so the artist shows the universality of what he dreams, which redeems his artistic display of them from arbitrariness.  He in effect bares his breast, as Émile Zola said(16)—as we see Paul Lemoyne doing—but in doing so he shows what hides in everyone’s breast.  The content of his dreams is the content of everyone’s dreams, however different their form—and it is not always clear that their form is so different.  

There is no doubt a disruptive obscenity in this display of irrationality in a world struggling to be objective and civilized, the same obscenity that López-Rey noted in the exhibitionistic female bat—the muse become perverse and monstrous—in the 1797 drawing for The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.  It may be maladaptive and subversive, but it also gives the work of art a personality, an uncanny individuality.  The authentic work of art—authentic by modern romantic standards—is “a personality, an individual,” as Zola said.(17)  Artist and art are virtually indistinguishable—not the artist in his everyday appearance—but that has a certain artfulness to it, as Ingres’s portrait of Lemoyne shows—but in his emotional reality.  

Ever since Goya the creative use of mental illness, in which rationality seems completely lost—in effect the transformation of complete irrationality into art—has been the implicit artistic norm.  Whatever form he gives it, the genius of the modern romantic artist consists in his capacity to tolerate and communicate madness or mental illness without entirely succumbing to it, more particularly, to courageously his fear of completely losing his mind, and showing everybody that they are afraid of the same thing—of the loss of reality, and with that of sociality.  In short, modern romantic art is about the catalytic effect of madness—of the tendency to madness—on creativity.  “Works of art are always the result of having been at risk,” Rilke romantically writes, “of having pursued an experience to the very end,”(18) and the experience is of one’s own subjectivity, one’s own irrationality, one’s own madness.  “And the further on this road, the more personal, the more unique does this experience become,” continues Rilke, “till in the end the work of art is the necessary, the insuppressible, the most final expression of this uniqueness.”  But the romantic point is that this subjective uniqueness is universal, which is what justifies its artistic expression.  People experience their own irrational subjectivity—their own madness—in the dream of the work of art, which restores them to a larger sanity than the everyday world affords—than society makes possible.  As André Haynal writes, “The dream has a restorative function.  In dreams…it is the withdrawal connected to suffering and depression that makes possible St. Augustine’s ‘return into yourself’.”(19)  And with that a return to creativity and the unconscious joie de vivre inseparable from it—they are the hope at the bottom of Pandora’s monstrous box of evils—which is the point Ingres makes in his portrait of Paul Lemoyne, which can be understood as a projection of his own creativity and joie de vivre.  They are as much a part of romanticism as depression, perversion, uncontrollable mania.  Romantic art, then, is as much a healing process as a revelation of innate madness.  “Suffering is the great decadence,” Colette said,(20) and romantic art is decadent, but it also involves creative healing—the return to primary creativity and true selfhood that has been lost to suffering.  Romantic art deals with suffering that is a drain on life, and symbolizes the death instinct, as it gets the better of the life instinct, but it also symbolizes the recovery of the life instinct, embodied in creative apperception, to use Winnicott’s term—the creative apperception that is the alternative to the sickness unto death, to refer to Kierkegaard’s description of depression.  After passing through what seems like hell, the self reaches its own creativity.  Or as R. D. Laing puts it, the journey through inner space, which “tends to be regarded as antisocial withdrawal, a deviation, invalid, pathological per se, in some sense discreditable,” is part of a “natural healing process.”(21)

The concept of creative illness is quintessentially romantic, as Henri Ellenberger suggests.  “According to Novalis there exist certain illnesses of superior essence that are, so to say, more wholesome than health.”(22)  In these illnesses “the disappearance of a physical symptom was followed by the appearance of an idea.”(23)  Viktor von Weizsäcker calls this logophania.  According to Ellenberger, he is the only psychosomatician who realized that “if misdirected emotions or ideas can be transformed into illness…illness [could] disappear through a transformation into an idea.”  This is creative transformation.  Illness opens the way to a new idea.  It is as though the illness broke the hold of preconceptions and stereotypes, conventional logic and prescribed rules of thinking, allowing the emergence of an unconventional idea.  The whole weight and authority of traditional thinking and ideas is cast off by the illness—worked through, as it were, by the illness.  “The modern dissolution of firm bonds with tradition” occurred “in the Romantic era,” as Hans-Georg Gadamer observes,(24) and it is the romantic creative illness that is at once the instrument and expression of this dissolution—this destructive loss of faith in tradition, undermining its power.  To be modern means to make a break with tradition, and every modern artist must make his break with tradition, even if tradition goes no deeper than yesterday’s prominent art.  He must declare his difference, optimally a radical difference.  Discontinuity becomes the rule rather than continuity.  Thus the proliferation of modern movements, each contradicting the other, suggesting the meaning of postmodernism:  their reconciliation, that is, the recognition that they no longer seem so discontinuous with each other.  Postmodernist moments are scattered throughout modernism, e.g., Cubo-Futurism, Magic Realism, Abstract Surrealism.  Perhaps there are more of them than purists care to acknowledge, and indeed a pure modernist like Clement Greenberg ignores and dismisses them.

The break with tradition has to make the modern artist romantically ill, for tradition is the parent of us all, so that to rebel against tradition is to break the taboo against parricide.  Indeed, the elimination of the muse from Ingres’ portrait of Paul Lemoyne can be understood as a kind of matricide.  Certainly the anti-traditionalism that has become a staple of avant-gardism is perverse, if perversion means “to make a mockery of the law by turning it upside down,” as Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel says.(25)  For the avant-gardist, turning the law of tradition upside down is to be innovative.  He does not realize that to be upside down is to have no place to stand.  His position is all the more precarious—unstable and insecure—because of the urge to stand right side up, however suppressed.  Falling over is unavoidable, which is why so many avant-garde movements are short-lived—break down, just as they break tradition down by turning it upside down.  

To break the law of tradition—the rules and concerns of art that tradition has established, and that take precedence over any innovation that may occur within it, which is either dismissed as a monstrous anomaly or praised as a refinement of the familiar, purged as a misguided deviation or appreciated as an insightful nuance—has to be depressing, for one is ridding oneself of what is commonly regarded as the ground of creativity, or at least of the guidelines that structure it.  One seems to have lost one’s creative foundation or else to be creating blindly—a depressing situation, for it suggests one’s creative inadequacy.  No doubt it is also weirdly exhilarating, for the full force of the imagination is released, in a rushing stream of turbulent dreams.  Dream-reality liberates one from everyday reality.  Impulses and emotions are no longer under control, making one seem free.  Losing discipline, one seems to gain life, if only for a fitful moment.

One must be in a manic state to overthrow tradition, all the more after one has done so, for mania hides the feeling of “death inside,” as Winnicott said.  It is the feeling of emptiness left by the loss of tradition, the emptiness that conveys its absence, and that covers up its murder.  Modern romantic creativity is necessarily manic, for there is no other way to be creative when there is no clear purpose or limiting form to the imagination—when the bonds between intelligibility, civilizing purpose, represented by moral and social concern, and imagination, which were formed by tradition, have been dissolved.  All that is left is raw imagination, which is indifferent to aesthetics, if to be aesthetic means to discipline the imagination by giving it a moral and social purpose, which makes it intelligible.  If, as Edmond and Jules Goncourt wrote, “equilibrium is only maintained in art by the law of contradictions, by the battle and opposition of different currents,”(26) then it is the battle between imagination and civilizing purpose that gives the work of art the inner equilibrium we experience as aesthetic harmony.  It is necessarily tense and precarious by reason of the contradictions it has reconciled, a reconciliation that is never more than tentative, and that always seems unreal—an aesthetic illusion.  Art can never do more than propose the ideal of the unity of opposites, for they are always subliminally in conflict, irreconcilable.  The monsters of perversion, depression, and mania arise when imagination has broken with civilizing purpose, destroying the ideal, which is the larger meaning of the break with tradition.  The break, as I want to emphasize, occurred explicitly in Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, however much Goya realized that imagination by itself was not the ground of art.  The unity of imagination and civilizing purpose—internal reality and critical consciousness—is the only fertile soil in which true art might grow—the only real creativity.  This suggests that an art of pure dreams—the romantic ideal of creative art, never completely realized, like most ideals—is pseudo-art.

The artist is necessarily creatively ill when he has no aesthetic expectations, that is, when art is no longer implicated in civilization, but a matter of pure imaginative expression—the staging of dreams.  For creative illness is the only way to arrive at a new idea when one can no longer be original on the basis of tradition, which Winnicott thought was the only way one could be original.  That is, the avant-garde artist is necessarily creatively ill because he has no tradition to make him creatively healthy, at least according to the conventional idea of what it means to have creative health.  Ellenberger outlines four phases of creative illness, which from my perspective are phases of avant-garde creativity.  “The illness appears generally right after a period of intense intellectual effort, long reflection and meditation,”(27) which seem to go nowhere, to have no creative fruit.  One has in effect made “oneself sick through study or worry,” as Ellenberger comments—worry that all one’s study is futile.  The potential avant-gardist studies tradition, worrying it to death, because he cannot make personal sense of it.

In the second phase, “the subject is generally obsessed with an intellectual, spiritual, or aesthetic problem that is dominant, which he will sometimes display but which he often hides.  The individual is preoccupied with the search for a thing or an idea the importance of which he sets above everything and never loses sight of completely.”  This thing or idea is the alternative to tradition, which exists as a problem.  He has a sense of the solution, but the alternative is not yet concrete or real enough to be one.  The spiritualist ideas that motivated the pioneering abstractionists Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian are classic examples of this, and finally bear avant-garde fruit—finally become concrete—in their art.  In the third phase, “the termination of the illness is experienced not only as the liberation from a long period of psychological suffering but as an illumination.”  Thus the emotionally liberating illuminations of Rimbaud, and the general feeling of Promethean liberation and illumination every avant-garde movement claims as uniquely its own, and offers as a gift to humanity, indeed,  praises as the basis for a new idea of humanity.  Art becomes a monstrance in which the new thing or idea is displayed, to the benefit of all.  It is a blessing for all of humankind, mediated by art.  Visionary insight into the future of art and humanity and liberation from the stifling art of tradition with its inadequate idea of human possibility go hand in hand.  Finally, “the cured illness…is followed by a lasting transformation of personality.  The subject has the impression of entering into a new life.”  Avant-garde art is the beginning of a new emotional life—a supposedly more honest emotional life.  The avant-garde artist is a new self, and a proselytizer for avant-garde art as a new way to selfhood.  

The whole process of creative illness resembles a religious conversion.  The convert is initially a divided self, a term that both William James and Laing use.  The likely convert to avant-gardism finds himself torn between tradition and originality, civilization and creativity, moral and social concern and the irrational dreams of the imagination.  He is sick with indecision, and becomes healthy and whole—at least in his own mind—only when he chooses his own original dreams over collective concerns, which seem unoriginal and unsolvable.  Uncertainty is replaced by self-certainty, creative block by creative excitement.  To put this another way, when he begins to believe that he is superior to society—because nothing can be done with society, but everything remains to be done with the self—and turns away from its reality to personal fantasy, he feels creatively alive if also heroically isolated.  In short, losing faith in society, which cannot be changed—recreated—he gains faith in himself, for he can creatively change for the better.

He thus resolves, however one-sidedly, that is, undialectically, the perennial conflict between social reason and personal unreason.  It seems exacerbated in modernity, and commonplace, because of the modern pursuit of instrumental reason.  The dialectic between socialization and individuation breaks down, so much so that they come to seem opposed to one another.  Society seems to interfere with and limit individual development, however much it superficially encourages it—at least enough so that one can take one’s instrumental place in it—and the individual seems able to be creative only when he takes a decisive stand against social authority, even creating a new language—a non-instrumental language, socially useless but emotionally communicative and exciting, and comprehensible only to the happy self-selected few.  Such a radically subjective esoteric language sometimes seems the very substance of avant-gardism.

If, as Winnicott argues, the child’s toy is a device that helps him separate from his mother and his own subjectivity and emotions, and make the transition to the socially shared reality outside himself —the harsh reality of the world, as Freud said—then the work of art, a toy for adults, and especially the esoteric avant-garde work of art, which is a toy for emotionally desperate adults, helps the adult make the transition back to the subjectivity and deep emotions he has suppressed and even forgotten he was capable of in order to function and get along in the socially objective world.  It is emotionally defective and deficient, that is, indifferent or unempathic, just because it is socially objective.  To put this another way, if art is a “highly refined sensorimotor nutriment” that “evokes latent emotions,” as Gilbert Rose asserts,(28) then avant-garde art is a necessary dietary supplement in a world that rarely affords enough emotional nourishment, indeed, a world of emotional malnutrition.

The modern instrumental world of social role playing affords even less emotional nourishment than the traditional pre-industrial world, which at least had the emotions generated by and encoded in religion.  Avant-garde art, which developed partly in response to a world that has lost religion, has become a substitute religion for those who suffer most from instrumental and social reductionism and the insensitive denial of emotions inseparable from it.  It is a religion for the individual rather than collectively given—a mysterious religion not unlike the Eleusinian mysteries, for avant-garde art involves a descent into the emotional depths, with no guarantee of return.  Without emotions, one experiences an excruciating loss of being, and the modern instrumental world tries to force us to function without emotions, or else reduces them to mechanistic terms, a simplification that is an insidious betrayal of them, and a form of denial.  It must do so, for intense organic emotions interfere with smooth instrumental and social functioning, since they register its detrimental existential effects, thus bringing it into question.  Indeed, such functioning is unconsciously a kind of living death for many, especially when its human purpose seems trivial or unclear.

Organic emotions represent inner imperatives, while instrumental social functioning represents outer imperatives.  For those who think the latter have come to exist at the expense of the former in the modern world—that outer necessity has won the war with inner necessity—the worship of avant-garde art is a way to right the balance, even more crucially, to survive as a subject and person in a world that they experience as all impersonal outer necessity and all too objectively the case.  It is the imperative of emotion they discover in avant-garde art at its most irrational—the legitimation of emotion in a world that has little interest in it, except when it disrupts smooth instrumental and social functioning.  It must be neutralized, indeed, cauterized.

In short, in the modern world, which has lost religion but found collective entertainment—it can be regarded as a religion without the emotion of transcendence, and without complex emotions and the sophisticated symbols necessary to convey them—certain emotionally starved individuals, for whom secular entertainment is inadequate, for it is as instrumental and reductionist as every other modern industry, experience the religion of sacred avant-garde art as the only hope for emotional life and truth, that is, as the only way to discover and develop the deepest feelings and thus feel creatively alive.  As Wallace Stevens writes, “The paramount relation between modern man and modern art, is simply this:  in an age in which disbelief is so profoundly prevalent or, if not disbelief, indifference to questions of belief, poetry and painting, and the arts in general, are, in their measure, a compensation for what has been lost.”(29)  Thus the religion of avant-garde art, which is modern art at its most unreasonable and unsociable, is emotionally necessary in the secular modern world.  Avant-gardism, then, can be regarded as a last ditch assertion of individuality, true selfhood, nonconformity, and sacredness—all apparently irrational in a superficially rational world—in a profane society of conformists, false selves, and instrumental servitude.  It is in effect an ironically regressive attempt, in the guise of spiritual insight and progress, to make the best of social alienation.

Writing about Rameau’s Nephew, Diderot’s “great dialogue,” Lionel Trilling observes that “it lays bare the principle of insincerity upon which society is based and demonstrates the loss of personal integrity and dignity that the impersonations of social existence entail.”(30)  For Diderot, “society…is the root and ground of alienation.”  “This is scarcely new,” Trilling notes.  What is new is Diderot’s suggestion that the Nephew—who has been understood in terms of Robert Jay Lifton’s concept of the protean self, by reason of his perpetual metamorphosis of social identity—represents “the liberty that we wish to believe is inherent in the human spirit, in its energy of effort, expectation, and desire, in its consciousness of itself and its limitless contradictions.”  Rameau’s Nephew is in effect the first avant-garde artist.  This seems confirmed by the fact that the climax of the dialogue is his “disquisition on the superiority of the new forms of opera to the old,” that is, of modern art to traditional art—a discourse essential to avant-gardism.  He becomes opera, “a musical Proteus” impersonating all the instruments, enacting all the roles, “portraying all the emotions.”  It seems he was the first performance artist, and a consummate one.  He may have been, as Diderot wrote, “a compound of elevation and abjectness, of good sense and lunacy….He has no greater opposite than himself.”  But he was also an artistic prodigy and innovator.

Trilling remarks:  “The astonishing performance proposes the idea which Nietzsche was to articulate a century later, that man’s true metaphysical destiny expresses itself not in morality but art.”  There is a conspicuous anti-social dimension in Nietzsche’s revolutionary substitution of artistic authenticity for moral authenticity.  Such anti-sociality—in Nietzsche it shows itself in his contempt for what he calls the herd, that is, the collective at its most compliant—is the emotional underpinning of the romantic avant-garde revolution, the dark side of its supposedly enlightened and liberating re-thinking of life.  Goethe implicitly understood romantic anti-sociality when he wrote:  “I have totally separated my political and social life from my moral and poetic one.”(31)  He added:  “Only in my innermost plans and purposes and endeavors do I remain mysteriously self-loyal and thus tie my social, political, moral and poetic life again together into a hidden knot.”  In other words, Goethe was classical as well as romantic, which is why he was able to conceive and sustain inner unity of purpose however outwardly split he was.  He was not an avant-garde revolutionary, for his art had moral and social intention as well as imaginative and personal significance.  

James Ensor, Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, 1888, oil on canvas, 99 1/2 x 169 1/2 inches (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles).

Artistically washing one’s hands of moral concern, as the avant-garde artist does, does not do society much good—and I hope to show that it does not do the avant-garde artist much human good, whatever its short run of artistic good—and may in emotional fact acknowledge the futility of trying to do social good, at least any that durably makes a dent in social misery.  It seems more difficult to be morally authentic than artistically authentic, even when artistic authenticity is regarded as a kind of moral authenticity.  Of course, what has been suppressed always returns, however obliquely, that is, in the formalist tendency to aesthetic order.  This is vaguely civilizing, and thus loosely not to say lamely moral, however illogical and ironic—and irony is a moral cop-out—avant-garde aesthetics often seems.

Now the unforeseen thing about the creative illness of the avant-garde artist is that the transformation of the illness into a new idea is incomplete.  Avant-garde creativity remains contaminated by crippling illness, and as such is peculiarly abortive and self-defeating.  Its products remain marred—indeed, permanently marked—by morbidity, which continues to fester, like a canker, in their creative core.  It never quite overcomes the illness that is its point of departure, and thus is symptomatic as well as original.  Indeed, its originality may consist in its symptomatic uniqueness, or at least novelty.  Unlike the shaman, who endures “psychopathological troubles” before becoming a shaman, but “once cured, enters a new, higher life,” as Ellenberger says,(32) the avant-garde artist never leaves his psychopathological troubles behind.  This suggests that while, like the shaman, he brings “to the surface of his mind a world of images and thoughts buried in the depths of the unconscious,”(33) avant-garde creative illness does not heal as well as shamanistic creative illness.  For the shaman re-integrates with society after his mental illness, despite the fact that he continues to “live constantly” in a “fantastic world” of his own invention, as Ivan Lopatin remarks about Alaskan and Siberian shamans.(34)  In contrast, the avant-garde artist never reconciles with society, even when he becomes famous and prosperous, which is a kind of pseudo-reconciliation.

Laing puts the issue very well:  “the list of artists, in the last 150 years, who have become shipwrecked…is so long—Hölderlin, John Clare, Rimbaud, Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Antonin Artaud.”(35)  Few of these figures sustained a convincing creativity, however interesting their final works may be, nor did it transform their personalities for the better.  They may have solved “an intellectual, spiritual, or aesthetic problem,” as Ellenberger says, but it did not liberate them from “psychological suffering,” nor did their “new idea” give them “a new life.”  For Laing, “any personal awareness of the inner world…has grave risks,” and these modern artists succumbed to the peril, which means they could not find their way back to the outer world.  If, as he writes, “the outer divorced from any illumination from the inner is in a state of darkness,”(36) then the inner divorced from any connection with the outer is in a state of madness.

To Laing’s list we could add Ensor, who while never overtly mad, or so it seemed, produced art that has been described as “the expression of an enormous fear and hatred of the human race which men turned against their own persons.”(37)  According to Werner Haftmann, “the autistic world of hallucinations becomes the real world for him.  He is unable to transmute natural experience into form, but can only evoke it as hallucinatory vision…he does not take the world as raw material to be processed into form; his raw material consists of hallucinations, dreams that irrupt into reality…dream and reality, morbid hallucination and ultra-lucid perception, satanic hatred and loving affection…become hopelessly confused.  The self and the world kept changing their relative positions, but always they remained alien and hostile to one another.”(38)  There is a certain family resemblance here to Artaud, who has been thought to have “suffered from confabulatory paraphrenia, a delusional psychosis which is not accompanied by intellectual deterioration and in which symptoms—hallucinations and confabulations—are close to those of schizophrenia.”(39)  Anais Nin, who could never resist the pseudo-sexual game of kiss and tell, felt that when she kissed Artaud she was “drawn towards death, towards insanity,”(40) which no doubt gave her a special thrill.

Drawing by Antonin Artaud from Antonin Artaud: Drawings and Portraits, MIT Press, 2019.

All this suggests that the avant-garde artist breaks his links with the external world and enters an internal world which becomes more and more nightmarish, and thus hateful, so that he attempts to break his link with it—his hatred is already that effort—leaving him nothing, that is, with little or no  sense of his own or the world’s being.  To use Wilfred Bion’s distinction, he becomes insane without knowing he is insane, while in breaking with the external social world he is knowingly insane.  Are Van Gogh’s sadistic brushstrokes—which is the way W. R. D. Fairbairn understands them(41)—an attack on his relations with his internal as well as external objects (merged in his representation), and as such an attempt to destructively uproot them from his psyche and destroy their very reason for being?  Such ontological terrorism seems to be standard operating procedure in avant-garde art, as Fairbairn implies when he observes the sadistic mutilation of subject matter in Goya and the Surrealists, climaxing in gross distortion and fragmentation, especially in Picasso.(42)  Certainly Duchamp’s attack on the idea of art can be construed as ontological terrorism—an attempt to terrorize, petrify, and finally annihilate all artists by calling into question their creativity, indeed, the very idea of creativity—however cloaked in the garb of Dadaist farce, that is, however legitimated as another category of art called anti-art.  (At one point, in an interview with Pierre Cabanne, he mischievously wondered what it was to be an artist, suggesting that it was to be nothing at all.)

Laing argues that “sanity today appears to rest largely on a capacity to adapt to the external world—the interpersonal world, and the realm of human collectivities,”(43) and he tends to disparage the external world, associating it with the “appalling state of alienation called normality,” which the voyage to the inner is “a natural way of healing.”(44)  However stirring his call to end the “state of sin” that he calls “alienation or estrangement from the inner light,”(45) the fact of the matter is that to be alienated or estranged from the external world is also a “state of sin.”  The former is as unbalanced as the latter.  Inner light can make one indifferent and blind to natural light.  The light within seems to exist at the expense of sunlight and starlight.  Inner light may liberate the soul from its bondage to darkness, but it can be another kind of blindfold.  Both kinds of alienation involve “radical estrangement from the totality of what is the case,” to use Laing’s own words.(46)  The avant-garde artist is as estranged from the totality of what is the case as the so-called normal person, but the former errs on the side of inwardness where the latter errs on the side of outwardness.

It is worth noting that Hermann Broch thought “that art that does not render the totality of the world is no art.”(47)  Broch thought that the task of art is to “counterbalance…the hypertrophic calamity” of “splitting the world into fragmentary disciplines.”  This rather utopian view of art certainly credits the artist with extraordinary power of integration and visionary knowledge.  But it seems that art that is exclusively a personal representation of the inner world—which is what romantic avant-garde art aimed to be, even as it lost its bearings in the inner world—is as hypertrophic and fragmentary as art that is exclusively a representation of the external world, which is what the avant-garde artist thought traditional art was, and why he rejected it.  What Richard Cork calls Brancusi’s “extreme purging of form”(48) amounts to such a rejection, and is characteristic of much avant-garde art.  Such a purge destroys the link to the external world, leaving in its wake forms that can be regarded as symbolic of internal verities, such as archetypes.  Brancusi contemptuously dismissed Michelangelo’s figures as “beefsteak,” pinching his own flesh to show they had too much flesh on them.  His own figures are hardly flesh at all, for their bodies have become emblems of their spirit.  They are ghosts from the inner world, having little or nothing to do with the external world.  Brancusi’s visionary bird is a long avant-garde way from birds in the sky, which is why it remains immobilized on a pedestal.

My point is that the avant-garde visionary, however ecstatic and insightful his subjective art, is as limited and incomplete as the traditional master of mimesis, however penetrating his precision and intense his recognitions of what is objectively the case.  The former tests for internal reality, the latter for external reality, each ignoring, or at best giving lip service to what it neglects to engage and study in depth.  But the sin of the avant-garde visionary is greater, for he ignores the fact that subjective reality is as common and shared a reality as objective reality.  Such sharing, and the illusions of intelligibility and intimacy that come with it, is built into traditional mimesis.  Thus, when Redon somewhat one-sidedly asserted that “everything [in art] is done by docilely submitting to the arrival of the ‘unconscious’,” and declared that “the future belongs to a subjective world,” and dismissed the “seen reality” of the objective world as no more than a support for the artist’s “dream,”(49) he seemed to forget that everybody dreams and has an unconscious, and that his own is in principle and substance like everyone else’s.  If it was not—if the artist’s unconscious was radically different to the point of being utterly unique—nobody would understand his art.

Pablo Picasso, Ma Jolie, 1911-12. Oil on canvas, 100 x 64.5 cm. © 2022 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The avant-garde artist, then, never quite makes it out of his illness—never quite transforms himself into a healthy person—and the creative results of his illness seem too irrational and subjective for their own artistic good.  This illness is the unavoidable result of the abandonment of tradition, which represents the socialization and durability of art.  Even more, it is a measure of value:  it represents standards.  When Picasso stated that artists today “are in the unfortunate position of having no order or canon whereby all artistic production is submitted to rules,”(50) he was expressing the despair that comes from the loss of tradition, with its codified rules.  Breaking them may have been liberating, but this was quickly followed by deep uncertainty.  When John Golding writes “that quite often the Cubists were not fully aware of what they were doing,” “that many Cubist paintings were begun as pictorial adventures,”(51) he is describing the floundering—call it creative floundering, if you want—that follows from the loss of direction that follows from the loss of tradition.  Yes, a “destination” is “achieved,” as Golding says, and Cubist paintings can be regarded as “great and extraordinarily original,” but nihilism is built into this originality, and the destination is unclear.  Much has been lost on the way to it.

Cubist paintings are quintessentially avant-garde—perhaps the first truly avant-garde works--because they show us what it means to make art without guiding rules and social support—without any foundation—which is what tradition supplies.  They seem to break the rules, but they don’t know what they are, so they can’t build on them—extend them creatively—the way, for example, Borromini built his mannerist churches on classical rules, showing that they still made creative sense.  The spatial flexibility and seductive indeterminacy—better regarded as uncertainty (“ambiguity” is the polite word) –of Cubist images lends itself to a variety of interpretive determinations just because they have no structural necessity, only irrational inner necessity, which is their saving grace.  Just as Picasso said “what forces our interest is Cézanne’s anxiety,”(52) what forces our interest in Picasso’s Cubist paintings is their anxiety. 

At its best, traditional art balances the claims of the external and internal worlds, using each to contain the other, whereas in Picasso there is no containment for either world, which is why, as he famously said, his works are a sum of destructions.  Indeed, his texturalized planes can be understood as the irrational sensory phenomena left after the annihilation of containing structure.  To use Bion’s terms, one might say that Picasso’s paintings are a high jinks beta performance, more particularly, they reverse the usual artistic process, which involves the transformation of chaotic beta elements into comprehensible alpha elements, contained and sustained by the picture so that they can be remembered in reflective tranquility.(53)  Picasso’s irrational destructiveness—or is it destructive irrationality—is perhaps most evident in his remark that “when one paints a portrait, one must stop somewhere, in a sort of caricature.  Otherwise there would be nothing left at the end,”(54) that is, the portrait—a surrogate for a human being—would be annihilated.  Picasso’s Analytic Cubist portraits are viciously dynamic.  We admire Picasso most when the death instinct is most active in his art.

All this suggests that where in traditional art inner and outer worlds texture and structure comment on one another, so that the viewer can reverse perspective and experience the traditional work as a subjective statement with objective implications or an objective statement with subjective implications, Cubist art only has subjective—depth psychological—implications.  If it introduces time into space—if what we see is timespace, as has been claimed—it is internal time consciousness that is externalized, not external measurable time that is suggested.

It may be that modern excitement about the unconscious—the modern determination to explore what was once the terra incognita of the unconscious—and that led art to turn inward to the world of dreams and impulses, catalyzing the development of avant-garde art, led to the exaggeration of the significance of the internal world, at the expense of the significance of the external world.  The philosopher Francis Bacon famously declared that “there is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion,” and it seems that in avant-garde art strangeness is read as beauty.  The more excellent the strangeness—the more the avant-garde work of art lacks inner measure, and thus is experienced as irrational—the more uncannily beautiful it seems, at least to modern eyes.  Such beauty—the beauty of irrationality carried to an absurd extreme—would be regarded as ugliness from a traditional point of view.  But avant-garde art is a religion—traditional art was an adjunct to religion—and, like religion at its most extreme, one believes in avant-garde art because it is irrational to the point of absurdity, and thus seems to be a sacred mystery.  This is exactly why Tertullian believed in Christianity.

When finally there is no sense of rational measure and intelligibility at all—no sense of inner and outer limits and control—the avant-garde work of art collapses from the weight of its own absurdity—its absolute irrationality.  It becomes nihilistic, indeed, suicidal, as Jean Tingueley’s self-destructive sculptures show, and before them Duchamp’s readymades, which annihilated the idea of art even as they give lip service to it.  In my opinion conceptual art is the ultimate nihilistic absurdity—the entropic climax of avant-garde irrationality.  Its dubious Solomonic wisdom—it absurdly cuts the art work in half, discarding the material part and elevating the conceptual part, which means that less work goes into its making, and it is emotionally dead—suggests as much. 

Paradoxically, such nihilistic irrationality ensures avant-garde art’s success, for such success is measured in terms of social resistance, and the more absurd the avant-garde work the more resistance to it there is.  It threatens and embarrasses the social contract because it creates an absurd situation.  Resistance to Mike Kelley’s neo-dadaist quasi-conceptual exhibition of paintings by murderers(55)—a mockery of painting, murderers, and the art exhibitions and communities in which it was shown, making the exhibition a veritable grand slam of nihilistic contempt, in-your-face bravado, and anti-social arrogance and offensiveness—confirms its “critical” success, that is, its avant-garde credentials.  The institutionalization of avant-garde art, a sign of its social success, seems to undermine its avant-garde credentials and criticality, but it in fact confirms them, for having the social weight of an institution behind it makes the avant-garde even more absurd than it was when it seemed just plain mad.  The institution that exhibits avant-garde art acquires avant-garde cachet, confirming its absurdity, that is, shock value.  Indeed, the art institution—the museum—is itself the avant-garde place to be these days, for it is the only real avant-garde art left.  It is a kind of avant-garde installation art, for the museum generates avant-garde absurdity by exhibiting many different kinds of works together, in effect throwing society’s contradictoriness back in its face, which has to have an unconscious effect, that is, make it doubt its emotional equilibrium.  A single work of avant-garde art is a rather minor uninfluential madness in comparison.

Self Portrait with Halo, 1889, 79 x 51 cm. Oil on wood. National Gallery of Art, Washingon, DC, USA

Nonetheless, an appropriated and assimilated and, to use Gauguin’s word, plagiarized and collectivized avant-garde art is a depersonalized, not to say castrated avant-garde art, and thus less intimidating emotionally.  It is an avant-garde art that has lost its inner irrationality—an avant-garde art that has been intellectually administered—to the extent of becoming clichéd.  It is no longer experienced but explained.  Indeed, the artists themselves are eager to explain and administer it, that is, rationalize its irrationality by making it seem theoretical in import or giving it a theoretical basis and thus intellectual justification.  Gauguin once declared “Emotion first! Understanding later,”(56) but today’s avant-garde is all grandiose self-understanding and little or no emotion—certainly passion is not au courant in a conceptual art world—indicating that it is not really creatively ill.

Of course Gauguin, who wrote that “at times I am under the impression that I am mad…the more I think…the more I believe I am right,”(57) never used his art to understand his madness and thus perhaps become more sane—realistic about his life.  He in fact preferred to “see without understanding,” as he said,(58) suggesting that he regarded madness as a means of making art a mystery—which is what he called Cézanne’s “mad” paintings,(59) in one of the earliest uses of this somewhat overused accolade—and thus saving it from banality and conventionality.  The creative transformation of mental illness into an avant-garde idea is not its cure, for it does not necessarily lead to self-understanding, especially because it helps one survive, which Gauguin did not.  Not using art for self-understanding confirms that one is mad, for it sooner or later leads to self-destruction, which takes many insidious forms, including that of making art.  Creativity can be as much an expression of mental illness as a defense against it.  Art can be as much a matter of self-forgetfulness as a way of possessing one’s self, that is, as much an ostrich hole in which the artist happily hides from himself as the one site in his life where the artist dares experience, or at least intimate, the unhappy truth about himself.

In short, the acceptance of avant-garde art, which has become rather instant, with few remaining surprises at its novelty—some of it remains upsetting to the unsophisticated, usually for ideological rather than emotional reasons, although ideology no doubt stirs up a lot of emotions—suggests that avant-garde art is no longer really avant-garde, certainly not emotionally avant-garde, for it no longer involves “personal awareness of the inner world,” to recall Laing’s words, that is, a plunge to the emotional depths.  Resistance to such awareness and depth remain as strong as ever in the external world, as Laing suggests.  Such resistance is a form of insanity almost as great as the insanity that was once avant-garde art.  The emergence of neo-avant-garde art—a somewhat stale avant-garde art—indicates that avant-garde art is no longer a matter of an individual’s creative illness but another social pathology.  As T. W. Adorno writes, “avant-garde” has degenerated into a “label…monopolized by whoever happened to consider himself most progressive,” conjuring up “comical associations of aging youth,”(60) more particularly, of petrified youth.  Today avant-gardism is an aspect of the social pathology that idealizes and even idolizes youth, despite the fact that it has shown that it has feet of clay.

Today’s avant-garde, which is seemingly a permanent fixture of society, is a reified and hypostatized avant-garde—a pillar of avant-garde salt, the petrified ruin of the avant-garde—and a familiar and important part of our society’s cosmetic cover up of its social pathologies.  The fact that avant-garde anti-sociality has become a social style confirms that the avant-garde has become banal as well as pathological.  It is best to leave the irrational innovations of the avant-garde to the entertainment industry, with its fatuous simulations of human madness, abnormality, and absurdity.  Horror films, with their morbid effects, aesthetically as well as emotionally exciting to the masses however nightmarish, are perhaps the case par excellence of media avant-garde invention.  No doubt media science fiction, with its even more extravagant—virtually cosmic—special effects, is a close second.  The media specialize in stylish hallucinations—dreams in which one “finds oneself transported into fantastic regions, in which all behavior has become confused, all established ideas contradicted… where the impossible mingles with the real,” as Baudelaire said,(61) which are given social assent, robbing them of their personal significance.  Turned into a social spectacle—a matter of pyrotechnical, hyper-theatrical special effects—madness and absurdity become palatable to the masses.  Indeed, it is the only form in which they are socially acceptable, all the more so because turning madness and absurdity into a spectacle keeps the masses from recognizing their own madness and absurdity, however much enjoyment of it in spectacle form implies unconscious self-recognition.  

The socialization of madness and absurdity by way of their spectacularization helps keep the masses in a somnambulist state of normality, immune to the fact that “the norm becomes the straitjacket of the soul and the cemetery of the imagination,” as Joyce McDougall says.(62)  “A handful only—artists, musicians, writers, scientists—escape the icy shower of normalization that the world pours upon them,”63 which certainly privileges abnormality, as her “plea for a measure of abnormality” suggests.  The more clearly fake and manufactured, indeed, mass produced madness looks, the less the masses have to face and fear their own madness—the insanity of their lives, the fact that, in McDougall’s words, they are “afflicted with normality.”(64)  In part this means they never put themselves into question, which would make them ill, if not creatively ill, although eventually they would have to become creative, and transgress the norm of normality, if they are to find an answer to themselves, however tentative.  So long as they are out of contact with their imagination they will remain normally mad.  That is the way Ensor imaginatively showed the masses—pictured the obscenely insane spectacle which his own transgressive insanity allowed him to realize is what society is, normally.


(1)Gary Tinterow and Philip Conisbee, eds. Portraits by Ingres:  Image of an Epoch (New York:  Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams, 1999), 132

(2)Both quoted in ibid., 382

(3)Quoted in ibid., 383

(4)Quoted in ibid., 316

(5)Ibid., 383

(6)D. W. Winnicott, “The Capacity to be Alone,” The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment (New York:  International Universities Press, 1965), 29-36

(7)José López-Rey, “Goya’s Caprichos:  Beauty, Reason, and Caricature,” Goya in Perspective, ed. Fred Licht (Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice-Hall, 1973), 129-130

(8)Quoted in ibid., 130

(9)Quoted in ibid., 132

(10)Ibid., 132

(11)Ibid., 130

(12)Ibid., 130-131

(13)Giorgio de Chirico, The Memoirs of Giorgio de Chirico (New York:  Da Capo Press, 1994), 65

(14)Ibid., 249

(15)Quoted in Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1968), 401

(16)Quoted in Elizabeth Gilmore Hope, ed., The Art of All Nations 1850-1873:  The Emerging Role of Exhibitions and Critics (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1982), 468

(17)Quoted in ibid., 457

(18)Quoted in Donald Prater, A Ringing Glass:  The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke (Oxford:  Clarendon, 1986), 148

(19)André Haynal, Depression and Creativity (New York:  International Universities Press, 1985), 142

(20)Quoted in Richard Gilman, Decadence:  The Strange Life of An Epithet (New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 29

(21)R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (New York:  Ballantine, 1967), 125-26

(22)Henri F. Ellenberger, “The Concept of ‘Maladie Créatrice’,” Beyond the Unconscious (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1993), 328

(23)Ibid., 329

(24)Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1977), 21 

(25)Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, Creativity and Perversion (London:  Free Association Books, 1985), 11

(26)Quoted in Hope, 134

(27)Ellenberger, 330

(28)Gilbert J. Rose, Necessary Illusion:  Art as Witness (Madison, CT:  International Universities Press, 1996), 1

(29)Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel:  Essays on Reality and the Imagination (New York:  Knopf, 1951), 170-171

(30)Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1972), 31.  All subsequent citations from Trilling are from this book.

(31)Quoted in Heinz Lichtenstein, The Dilemma of Human Identity (New York:  Jason Aronson, 1983), 237

(32)Ellenberger, 321

(33)Ibid., 334

(34)Quoted in ibid., 332

(35)Laing, 141

(36)Ibid., 142

(37)Hans Sedlmayr, Art in Crisis:  The Lost Centre (London:  Hollis and Carter, 1957), 141

(38)Werner Haftmann, Painting in the Twentieth Century (New York and Washington:  Frederick A. Praeger, 1966), vol. 1, 64

(39)Margit Rowell, “Images of Cruelty:  The Drawings of Antonin Artaud,” Antonin Artaud:  Works on Paper (New York:  Museum of Modern Art, 1996), 11

(40)Quoted in Ronald Hayman, “Antonin Artaud,” ibid., 21

(41)”Prolegomena to a Psychology of Art,” From Instinct to Self:  Selected Papers of W.R. D.   Fairbairn (Northvale, NJ and London:  Jason Aronson, 1994), vol. 2, 389

(42)Ibid., 390

(43)Laing, 142

(44)Ibid., 141

(45)Ibid., 167

(46)Ibid., 142

(47)Hermann Broch, “The Style of the Mythical Age,” Gesammelte Werke, Dichten und Erkennen, Essays (Zürich:  Rhein, 1955), vol. 1, 260

(48)Richard Cork, Jacob Epstein (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1999), 26

(49)Quoted in John Rewald, “Odilon Redon,” Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Rodolphe Bresdin (New York:  Museum of Modern Art, 1961), 25, 29, 18

(50)Quoted in Francoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso (New York:  Signet, 1965), 68

(51)John Golding, Cubism: A History and an Analysis 1907-1914 (London:  Faber, 1968), 9

(52)Quoted in Dore Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art:  A Selection of Views (New York:  Viking, 1972), 11

(53)Hanna Segal, Dream, Phantasy and Art (London and New York:  Tavistock/Routledge, 1991), 51 remarks that “beta elements are raw, concretely felt experiences which can only be dealt with by expulsion,” that is, destructively.  But when they are “projected into the breast they are modified by the mother’s understanding and converted into…’alpha element’.”  These can be stored in memory and “function in a symbolic way.”  “The mother’s capacity to bear anxiety that is projected into her by the infant is crucial in this interplay.”  One wonders if Picasso painted women so often because he was looking for a mother into whom he could project his raw and thus anxiety-arousing sensations and emotions, and so not have to “eject” them in “an immediate discharge of discomfort,” which is what Cubist planes look like.

(54)Ashton, 82

(55)In May 1999 “the Seattle Art Museum planned a show that included Pay for Your Pleasure, a traveling exhibit by Los Angeles artist Mike Kelley.  The final item is a piece of art by someone who has murdered people in each community where the exhibit is shown.  When Pay for Your Pleasure was shown at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, it culminated with a painting by ‘freeway killer’ William Bonin, the slayer of 14 who was executed in 1996.  At the University of Chicago, it spotlighted artwork by serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who killed 33 people before being executed in 1994.  Pay for Your Pleasure’s appearance in Seattle was canceled in response to community outrage, but not before Tara Reddy, the museum’s assistant curator of modern art, defended the show, including Kelley’s contribution, as ‘cutting-edge stuff’.”  “Cutting-edge” clearly means anti-social here.  Tami Sheheri, APBnews.com, quoted in Reader’s Digest, 156 (Jan. 2000):144

(56)Quoted in Chipp, 66

(57)Quoted in Henri Dorra, ed., Symbolist Art Theories:  A Critical Anthology (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1994), 186

(58)Ibid., 209

(59)Ibid., 187

(60)T. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London:  Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 36

(61)Quoted in Dorra, 5

(62)Joyce McDougall, Plea for a Measure of Abnormality (New York:   Brunner/Mazel, 1992), 484

(63)Ibid., 483

(64)Ibid., 468   

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.

view all articles from this author