Whitehot Magazine

Avant-Garde Psychopathology by Donald Kuspit

Piero Manzoni, Artist's Shit, 1961


"I am sick of the art-adoration that prevails among cultured people, more in our time than in any other:  that art silliness which condones almost any moral or intellectual failing on the artist’s part as long as he is or seems a successful artist.  It is still justifiable to demand that he be a successful human being before anything else, even if at the cost of his art.  As it is, psychopathy has become endemic among artists and writers, in whose company the moral idiot is tolerated as perhaps nowhere else in society."   

- Clement Greenberg, “The Question of the Pound Award,” Partisan Review, 1949                                                                                                         

Psychoanalysts haven’t been particularly happy with avant-garde art.  Even as some have tended to mythologize the artist as a superior being, others have criticized avant-garde art for its regressive nihilism.  Thus we have Julia Kristeva’s extravagant, even absurd assertion that “freedom does not seem to exist outside of what we agree to call an ‘artist’.”(1)  Erich Fromm goes even further, calling the artist the only “spontaneous…integrated personality”—the very model of mental health, as it were.  “Spontaneity is a relatively rare phenomenon in our culture,” Fromm writes, but the artist’s “thinking, feeling, and acting” is a spontaneous expression of himself because he alone has “positive freedom.”(2)  This adulatory privileging—idealization—of the artist is not without precedent.  Many avant-garde artists agree.  Wassily Kandinsky, for example, speaks, with self-congratulatory fervor, of the “unlimited freedom, depth, breadth, a wealth of possibilities” in avant-garde art.(3)  Nonetheless, what Kristeva and Fromm write is no more than a theoretical endorsement of the conventional modern idea that the artist is a totally free spirit.  And what Kandinsky writes seems more like a fantasy than a fact.  Can the artist and art escape every determinism to achieve unconditional freedom?  Even the gods are subject to fate.  Yet it seems clear that the avant-garde artist is in pursuit of what Meyer Schapiro calls “inner freedom”(4) or an “ideal domain of freedom.”(5)  Whether he has found it, as Kristeva, Fromm, and Kandinsky facilely think, is another question.

Franz Marc, Animals in a Landscape, 1914

It is because of this turn inward—determined attention to “irreducible personal feeling,” as Schapiro calls it,(6) or “toward inner nature,” as Kandinsky wrote,(7) or, as his colleague and friend Franz Marc put it, toward “the mysterious and abstract images of inner life”(8)—that the artist seems much more insightful than the rest of us, including the psychoanalyst.  Thus Donald Meltzer declares:  “What the psychoanalyst can discover in his limited craftsmanship and virtuosity, and what in the increments of vocabulary he can evolve to describe, the emotionality of our life of the mind, he is always lagging behind the artist, infuriating as that might seem.”(9)  Or, as Heinz Kohut asserts in his “hypothesis of artistic anticipation,” “the great artist” is “ahead of his time in focusing on the nuclear psychological problems of his era.”(10)  Kohut goes on to say that only “the investigative efforts of the scientific psychologist” can offer a “systematic and comprehensive understanding of these problems” and offer a “therapeutic” solution to them.(11)  But the point has been made:  the artist was on the psychic scene long before the scientific psychologist.  Donald Winnicott also accepts the artist’s precedence, qualifying it in a similar way.  The poet’s transient “flashes of insight” may illuminate inner life, but they do not “absolve [psychoanalysts] from our painful task of getting [scientific] step by step away from our ignorance toward our goal.”(12)  It is worth noting that Meltzer, for all his admiration of the artist’s “powers of penetration and poetic description,” agrees with Kohut and Winnicott.  For him “the psychoanalytic process contains a methodological advantage” over poetry.(13)  However introspective the poet may be, he presents his insights as aesthetic phenomena rather than as “tools for further probing and dissection.”(14)  Polished to aesthetic perfection, his insights look like divine revelations rather than tentative formulations subject to interpretive revision.  In other words, from a psychoanalytic point of view, artists do not systematically analyze psychic process, they erratically intuit psychic facts, gilding their intuitions so that they become socially pleasing.

Donald Winnicott

Incorporated in an art context, insights do not lead to significant emotional change, for their psychological context is not understood.  Sigmund Freud made the point decisively when he refused to accept André Breton’s invitation to write an introduction to an anthology of dreams of Surrealist artists and poets, responding that he could not see why anybody would be interested in a dream without the dreamer’s associations and circumstances.  For the Surrealists, the dream was more “magical,” to use their word, when it was left uninterpreted.  This raises the suspicion that artists are less interested in having insight into themselves than in exploiting psychic process for artistic ends.  Having insight is not the end of art; creating a convincing work of art is.  Nonetheless, psychoanalysts do appreciate the psychological acumen of artists, however much they may think that the artist’s insights tend to be compromised by his artistic concerns.  Whatever else it is, art is one means of raising “the safety feeling level by gaining a secure source of stable perceptions,” to use Joseph Sandler’s theory, but the analytic work required to understand the emotional insecurity that led to the need for an artistic “island of perceptual security”(15) is more demanding and difficult than the work involved in constructing an artistic shelter—a kind of private asylum, as it were.

But the artistic sanctuary is built on a quicksand of unresolved issues, which is why it is unstable however insular:  the island can be swept away in an emotional storm—the storm and stress of uncontrolled sensation and uncontrollable feeling, the turbulence evident in Expressionism.  Creativity and art are not always the life-savers—infallible therapy--they are expected to be.  Emotional insecurity has in fact infected the creative process, making the artist insecure about making art.  This is not just the usual insecurity involved in making anything, especially when it is not made in a conventional, routine way, but involves unconscious doubt about art’s ability to secure the self.  Insecurity and self-doubt are implicit in the avant-garde artist’s self-congratulation.  They make themselves felt in the distortions and incongruities of his imagery.  Its absurdity expresses his ingrained sense of trauma.  De-realizing things by treating them as formal and fantastic constructions, and thus meaningful only as art—meaningless in themselves things become tentatively meaningful by occasionally serving as stimuli for creating art—the Cubist and Surrealist artist unwittingly suggests that his life is meaningful only when he is making art. This indicates he has suffered an existential trauma, trauma being a “break in the continuity” of life, as Winnicott says.  

Piet Modrian, Tableau #2, 1922

The character of the avant-garde artist’s creativity confirms this:  the turn toward “inner life,” to recall Marc’s words, involves turning away from outer life, implying a traumatic break in their continuity, and with that a shortcoming in his creativity, its peculiar limitedness, not to say its inadequacy to life.  To make an art concerned only with inner life is to sell life—and art--short.  It is to castrate art, turn it into an aesthetic eunuch, as the advocates of pure “plastic form” do.  Similarly, to turn art “away from natural things,” as Mondrian said the modern artist should do, for modern “life is becoming more and more abstract,” and make art that “will express itself in an aesthetically purified, that is to say, abstract form”(16)--is to subtly fail art.  For under the spell of pure abstraction art forfeits universality—broadly human transcultural appeal, making it seem as universal as nature, and thus as necessary and vitalizing as it, and with that its equal.  Pure abstraction may be sufficient unto itself but that does not mean it suffices for human beings.  It may transcend nature, but human beings are natural, and need nature to survive.     

No longer in the service of life—no longer securely tied to outer life and outer nature and insecurely tied to inner life or inner nature (too “mysterious” to fathom, as Marc suggests)--“positively abstract” art, as Mondrian called it, becomes its peculiar negation.  To reduce art to pure abstraction is to trivialize it:  it is the kiss of death, as its dead-ending in so-called idea or dematerialized art, that is, art indifferent to material nature and aesthetics--“anti-aesthetic,” as has been said--and as such all but pointless as art.  Indeed, as Joseph Kosuth, its most prominent practitioner implies, conceptual art is quasi-philosophy in pseudo-artistic disguise.  To regard life as a “prosaic tale,” as Naum Gabo does,(17) does not mean “the new Great Style” of pure “plastic art” is great poetry.(18)  Splitting inner life off from outer life, and separating art from nature, is the basic pathology—original sin—of the avant-garde artist.  When Braque rejects “woman in all her natural loveliness” to “create a new sort of beauty, the beauty that appears to me in terms of volume of line, of mass, of weight,”(19) he ironically sins against art as well as nature.  Those formal elements are the aesthetic shards—the “sensational,” feeling-full remains—of the object, the paradoxical positive result of its negation, not to say the aesthetic bones that are left after it has been analyzed, to allude to the Analytic Cubism that Braque and Picasso used to dismember, dissect, and finally destroy—completely de-naturalize--the object. 

  Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

The repudiation and extermination of the natural object—the lovely woman—reducing her to aesthetic dust as it were, or dissolving her into aesthetic quicksand, if you prefer—in some Cubist works, for example Ma Jolie, 1912, where she seems to go up in smoke, her beautiful body dissolved into inconsequence—is a crime against art as well as nature.  For it de-articulates the articulate object, undermining its givenness so it seems unpresentable, at best a mirage—an aborted reality rather than a realized object, an insubstantial mirage rather that a substantial material, an object whose existence is substantiated rather than undermined by art.  Braque and Picasso have in effect mortified the flesh of the woman, implying she is not as lovely as she appears to be, as though her appearance had nothing to do with her reality, suggesting they are denying their desire for her.  Picasso’s grotesque Demoiselles de Avignon, 1907 are certainly not sexually appealing—lovely women.  The pleasure they promise is tainted by their ugliness—their misrepresentation as monsters rather than attractive prostitutes.  It seems clear that to separate “interesting” natural beauty from “disinterested” aesthetic beauty—to create an unbridgeable divide between them, especially by suggesting that nature is flawed and ugly, the aesthetic experience purely formal art affords more exhilarating and enlivening than it, as Clement Greenberg argued in his celebration of Cubism--is dubious Solomonic wisdom.  To argue that aesthetic beauty is a “purer” beauty than natural beauty is a facile asceticism, a dubious transcendence.  Aesthetic beauty distills natural beauty, giving it unconscious appeal, without which it is vacuous. 

Georges Braque, Portrait of a Woman, Female Figure, 1910

The avant-garde supposedly “advances” by turning against traditional art and bourgeois society.  But it rejects their authority and importance not simply to declare its own—the authority and importance of the inspired individual, making unfamiliar art, and as such disturbing art, rather than of uninspiring society, comfortable with familiar art, and as such reassuring art—but to enact its unconscious insecurity and unhappiness by implying that they fail to guarantee security and happiness.  Traditional art is safe, satisfying art, and bourgeois society is a safe, satisfying society, but the avant-garde artist makes unsafe, unsatisfying art, telling bourgeois society it is not as safe and satisfying as it claims to be:  it tells the society in and for which it is made that it is a failure.  The avant-garde turns against the society in which it is made by showing it its underside—its unconscious anxiety and unrequited passions in Expressionism, its perversity in Surrealism, its profaneness in contrast to pure abstraction, the new sacred art, not to say art worshipping itself.  Behind the avant-garde artist’s attack on bourgeois society—the “bourgeois reader” to whom Baudelaire presented his “flowers of evil,” for they grew in the bourgeois’ garden--is his own despair, the morbid pessimism that informs Expressionism and Surrealism, and that pure abstraction defends against, not always successfully, as the black paintings of Reinhardt and Rothko suggest, their black emptiness emblematic of death, the death of art as well as of nature.     

Charles Baudelaire

Avant-art art tells bourgeois society that it is living death:  it is “putrescent,” as Dali said—rotten to the core.  Everything is rotting, as Dali repeats again and again in his writing, and strongly suggests in his painting.  It almost physically stinks with the odor of decay, as George Orwell wrote in a review of The Secret Life of Salvador Dali (1942)—everything including Dali and Spain.  Two of Dali’s best—and most nightmarish—paintings deal with death.  The Spectre of Sex Appeal, 1934 turns the female sex, more particularly the mother, into a vision of death—implicitly his own, as the presence of the child Dali suggests.  One wonders if Dali is unconsciously acknowledging his arrested development, which is one way of living death.  Soft Construction with Boiled Beans:  Premonitions of Civil War, 1936 is a vision of the suicidal death of Spain.  The boiled beans are surrogate shit, as Dali acknowledged, suggesting that Spain had turned to shit—dead matter.  The most sadistic, nightmarish imagery of Goya and Picasso also convey Spanish fascination with death.  So does much of traditional Spanish Catholic imagery.  If, as Erich Fromm argues, the fundamental psychic choice is between “biophilia as the biologically normal love of life, and necrophilia as its pathological perversion, the love of and affinity to death,”(20) then Dali was a necrophiliac, at least until his development of an idiosyncratic classicism.  But even that is haunted by death.

Salvador Dali, Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (premonition of civil war), 1936

Insecurity and self-doubt dramatically caught up with Dali later in life, although they were present all along, and led to what might be called his psychopathological use of art.  That is, the avant-garde artist’s use of art to stage and act out his particular emotional issues and general insecurity.  And also to suggest, with whatever defensive irony and aesthetic excitement—paradoxically, irony symbolizes the conflict it defends against, and aesthetics performs the conflict by sensationalizing it--that you have to be sick to make art.  The avant-garde artist does so partly in an attempt to heal himself by purging his emotions, projecting them on to society, suggesting that his problems are its or caused by it, or else using its problems as evidence for his, covertly announcing and sanctioning them.  It can be argued that Dali experienced what Henri Ellenberger called a creative illness, but his psychopathology—which he acknowledged—persisted, at least until his late quasi-classical style and repudiation of avant-gardism and modernity.  But it is not clear how creatively imaginative his neo-classicism is, however technically brilliant its execution.  It is less clearly the product of his primary creativity that his imaginative avant-garde art.  He had to draw upon it more steadily and deeply—remain consistently and spontaneously in touch with it—in order to come to terms with—aesthetically manage and intellectually master--his psychopathology.  It was seemingly incurable, and his Surrealism proclaimed and celebrated it, for without it he believed he would not be creative.  One might say his Surrealism is a re-creation of his psychopathology in cunning artistic terms in a half-hearted attempt to heal himself, for he believed that without it he would not be the great artist—genius--he thought he was.  Dali once said “the only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad,” begging the question while raising it.  

Irving Penn, Salvador Dali New York

It seems clear that Dali never achieved emotional stability and lasting mental health.  His neo-classicism is a turn towards healthy art, but it is a surrealized classicism—a compromised, ambiguous, peculiarly unhealthy, distorted classicism, a perversion of classicism, with a passing reference to traditional classicism.  It is the manifest content of his dream classicism, as Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus), 1954 makes clear, but the latent content is as perverse and sexual as ever:  the clothed Mother of Christ stares at the beautiful naked body of her crucified young Son, more with desire than in mourning, suggesting the crucified Christ is an Oedipal winner, truly his Mother’s Son.  Dali never got over his fascination with Freudian psychoanalysis, the foundation of his Surrealism.  He called Freud his Father, and visited him, drawing him many times, in one drawing showing Freud’s head as a sort of beehive or whirlpool of ideas.      

Psychoanalysts may have a positive attitude to art in general, but they tend to be negative about avant-garde art.  It looks pathological from their perspective.  Thus Sigmund Freud, in a 1922 letter to his colleague and friend Karl Abraham, deplored Abraham’s “tolerance or sympathy for modern art,” regarding it as a “trifling flaw in [his] character.”(21)  An expressionist had made a portrait of Abraham, which Freud found “horrifying,” remarking, no doubt ironically, that it was “the all-too-undesirable illustration of Adler’s theory that it is just the people with congenital defects of vision who become painters and draughtsmen.”  Did he mean to suggest that art was a form of masculine protest?  It is worth noting that Freud, when he met Dali, said he was more interested in Dali’s conscious than unconscious.  Presumably he had no taste for Dali’s modern distortions, but was interested in the Renaissance clarity with which they were rendered.  He was not interested in Dali’s unconscious phantasies but in his ability to become conscious of them—to give them a form that was not completely fantastic however fantastic they were, suggesting they were under control.

"Je ne vois pas la femme cachée dans la forêt" ( Rene Magritte)

Even more critically, Franz Alexander regards modern art as an “aggressive denial of the objects in the form they are commonly perceived,” suggesting that it involves “nihilistic perception” and “ridicule of…order or reason.”(22)  He singles out Dadaism in particular, calling it “a residue of childish revolt against the obligation to be orderly and sensible.”  As Alexander writes, such “negation of the world is as much an expression of a relation as is acceptance.”  “What the impressionist represents is not the real world of objects but his warm acceptance of this world to which he trustingly exposes himself and which he takes in faithfully and lovingly.”  It was all downhill afterwards:  “About the turn of the century the suspicion of having been double-crossed began to grow in the European mind,” and “artists and writers, the forerunners of their time”—like Kohut, Alexander believes that “the artist anticipate[s] by presentiment”—“gave expression to [this] change of attitude.”  This led to the “rejection of reality and rebellion against it,” resulting in “an elemental break-through, from the unconscious, of the primitive disorganized impulses of the id.”  The apocalyptic breakthrough of the unconscious into the conscious, almost overthrowing it completely, is also the reason why “the unconscious mind as it manifests itself in dreams, in psychopathological symptoms, and in the uncontrolled train of thoughts during free association, became the dominant note of contemporary art and literature.”  For Alexander this “explains certain similarities between paintings of schizophrenics and those of contemporary artists.”

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1913

Quoting Marinetti’s assertion that “the ego must be extirpated from literature,” Alexander argues that the Surrealists were most successful in doing so, resulting in works that, like dreams, abandon “the ordinary rules of logic” and like the unconscious seem “not [to] know the limitations of time and space.”  While “the attempt to negotiate a new kind of relation to the world is the main striving of the modern artist,” Surrealism suggests a psychotic “flight from the world, with much less constructive effort to recapture the lost contact with the world” and “to bring order into chaos,” which is what Alexander thinks the Cubists and Mondrian did, although their work suggests “an orderly but badly impoverished world.”  Can one say that pure abstract art is a successful flight from the world, all the more psychotic because it makes no constructive effort to recapture the lost contact with the world, preferring to construct and inhabit an ivory town of aesthetic purity?  Is aesthetic purity a sign or proof of psychotic withdrawal, even denial of the personal lifeworld and collective public world, a sort of religious renunciation for the sake of art—art dedicated to the glory of art as though to God, and also the angelic artist who is his messenger?  Or is purity psychosis perfected and privileging itself--delusionally grand?

Vincent van Gogh - The siesta (after Millet)

Alexander sharply contrasts “geometric art, essentially a defeatist attempt to master nothing,” and the Postimpressionist art of Van Gogh and Cezanné, which “attempts…to introduce into the real world principles of visual organization.”  In both cases there is a disturbed relation to the world, resulting in a disturbed artistic vision of it, but one that has its own orderliness.  Alexander seems to have a German preoccupation with Ordnung und Vernunft (order and reason), not to say obedience to conventions of intelligibility, but his interpretation of modern art seems psychologically perceptive however dogmatically Freudian.    

Miro, Maternity, 1924

The Surrealists were also a favorite target of object relational psychoanalysts, although they were a bit more generous to it than the Freudians.  Thus W. R. D. Fairbairn writes, during the course of a comparison between the Hermitage Madonna of Leonardo and Miró’s Maternity—they were of interest to Fairbairn because both pictured motherhood—that “whereas the former shows considerable evidence of art-work,” which for Fairbairn was modelled on dream-work, “the latter, like most Surrealist works of art, show comparatively little.  It requires no very profound study of Surrealist works of art to convince us that the comparative poverty of the art-work which they display is directly related to pressure of unconscious phantasy combined with weakness of repression.”  As he says, “the complexity of the art-work,” like “the complexity of the dream-work depends upon the relative strength of the repressed urges and the factors responsible for the repression.”  Since “it is the avowed purpose of the Surrealist school to break down the barriers existing between the world of the unconscious and the world of outer reality,” the Surrealists showed “examples of asylum art” in their exhibitions.  “Surrealism does not provide us with art of a very high order,” for “without repression no high achievement in art is possible.”(23)

Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna Litta

Fairbairn goes on to note “the sadism of Goya and the Surrealists,” which he thinks is expressed “chiefly in [their] subject matter”—in contrast to Van Gogh, where it is expressed “in the brushwork” and “absent in the subject”—but, almost in the same breath, he notes, citing Melanie Klein, that “destructive phantasies are characteristically accompanied by compensatory phantasies of restitution.  These phantasies of restitution arise as a means of alleviating the guilt and anxiety engendered by destructive phantasies.  Their function is to provide some reassurance regarding the integrity of the threatened love-object; and, since the preservation and enhancement of its objects of attachment is the great concern of the libido, we must regard phantasies of restitution as libidinal manifestations in spite of the fact that they owe their origin to the presence of destructive urges.”  Picasso once spoke about his need for reassurance, in effect acknowledging his guilt and anxiety about his destructiveness, and like Dali he found reassurance in classicism.  It repaired and reconstructed the object, re-presenting it as an integrated whole, after it had been disintegrated and destroyed, but in his avant-garde phantasies.  The whole object has been broken to pieces, into what psychoanalysts call part objects, and incoherently patched together, its parts bizarrely united in a haphazard configuration, curious aesthetic compensation for the object’s loss of wholeness, not to say wholesomeness.  It is as though a Humpty Dumpty who has had a disastrous bad fall has been given a shaky new lease on life by cleverly using his fragments to construct a mock Frankenstein.    

Fransico Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1797-1799

Fairbairn singles out Picasso and Dali to illustrate the psychodynamic dialectic of destruction and reconstruction in art.  Their art exhibits “the same [dialectical] combination of sadism and restitution,” Fairbairn writes, especially in the case of the Surrealist painter Dali, in whose work the sadistic “’tearing in pieces’ tendency is often expressed with considerable license,” mentioning The Spectre of Sex Appeal as a particularly dramatic example.  “Yet,” Fairbairn continues, “apart from the unifying effect of the composition, evidence of restitution are not wholly lacking from the subject itself; for the figure is propped up by crutches and the missing parts of the trunk are at any rate replaced by sacks.”  Thus, while Dali’s Surrealist figures, like Picasso’s, are “either grossly distorted or broken up into fragments—or else subject to both these mutilating processes,…the parts of an apparently dismembered figure are…reassembled, albeit in an unfamiliar way” in the case of Picasso, and in a more familiar way in the case of Dali, where the “deformed, contorted and mutilated body” usually retains its human shape.  Commenting on Dali’s representation of “the human body…as partly constituted by a tier of half-open drawers,” Fairbairn notes that “if a drawer may be opened for removal of its contents, it may also be shut again with the contents replaced.”

Dali with Rhino

Noting that Dali’s work as a whole represents “all the various stages of symbol-formation”—he finds every stage in Being Weaned from Nutrient Furniture, which he analyzes in detail—Fairbairn remarks that “it is only when art-work is relatively undeveloped that we are in a position to trace the origin of art-symbolism.”  But if art-work involves symbolization, as Fairbairn says it does, then Dali must be a great artist, for he has created astonishing symbols of unconscious phantasies—symbols which continue to haunt us, showing their emotional truthfulness.  It is probable that Dali’s symbols were, for him, in some hallucinatory way, simultaneously what Hanna Segal calls symbolic equations, in which “the symbol-substitute is felt to be the original” and “used to deny the absence of the ideal object, or to control a persecuting one,” and symbolic representations, which are “used not to deny but to overcome loss,”(24) and as such are true symbols, for they acknowledge and accept separation from the object rather than unconsciously cling to it.  “Symbols are needed not only in communication with the external world, but also in internal communication,” and for Dali the same symbol does both.  It is simultaneously subjective concrete thinking and socially objective.  Is it because of this ambiguity that Fairbairn thought that Dali’s art-work—the transformative expression of repressed phantasies into  visual works of art that suggest a self conscious of itself as well as the external world the works are addressed to—was undeveloped and inadequate?  

If, like dream-work, art-work is an activity of the ego, as Fairbairn writes, then Dali, to the extent he produces convincing symbols, has a fair amount of ego, whatever his inner conflicts.  Fairbairn writes that art-work has a “dual function.”  It “modifies repressed phantasies in such a way as to enable them to elude the vigilance of the ego-ideal and so to become available for embodiment in works of art,” thus “affording the repressed impulses an opportunity for expression and relieving the tension between the repressed impulses and the ego.”  It also “enables the ego to convert phantasies unacceptable to the ego-ideal into positive tributes to its authority and so relieves the tension existing between the ego and the ego ideal….Art-work is thus the means of producing that general relief of tension which the artist experiences, when he produces a work of art.”  This general relief of tension is clearly evident in the exquisite clarity of Dali’s most carefully composed works, such as The Persistence of Memory, 1931, whatever their morbidity.  There is a tense, precarious poise in Dali’s work—a sense of classical balance, evident in his most mature Surrealist works as well as his official classical works—suggesting a truce, however temporary, between irrepressible destructiveness and re-integrative restitution, repressing the destructiveness by giving it symbolic form, often as crystal clear if more bizarre than Renaissance form. 

The Persistence of Memory, 1931 by Salvador Dali

I am suggesting that Dali’s works are uncannily calm for all their apparent madness.  The Catalan landscape is especially calm, functioning as a rock-solid emotional foundation for his unstable phantasies.  It is a reliable environment, supporting him, which is why he never denied his Catalan roots—never seriously became a Parisian or New Yorker—however much the landscape also signaled his feelings of desolation and isolation.  It is as grandiose as he is, which no doubt makes it all the more reassuring.  It clearly counteracts the emotional insecurity signaled by his paranoid visions of sexuality and Spain.  The Catalan landscape has an aura of eternity that is the antidote to the poisons of life and history. 

Even more extremely than Fairbairn, Michael Balint emphasizes the destructiveness of modern art.  It does have its virtues:  according to Balint, it “has made an immense contribution to human maturity by demonstrating that we need not repress the fact that in and around us…discordant features exist.  Moreover, it has taught us that such discords can be resolved by artistic methods,” and, perhaps even more important emotionally, that “one can learn to tolerate such unresolved discords without pain.”(25)  But there is a strong tendency in modern art to what Balint calls “narcissistic withdrawal” from the object.  The “danger inherent in this narcissistic preoccupation…is the danger of regression.”  Here is how Balint accounts for its appearance in modern art.

The mature—or ‘genital’—love is a great achievement but somehow precarious.  It presupposes a fairly harmonious relation between the lover and his object, whether this be a human being or some inanimate thing.  Should this relation be disturbed in any way, there is always the danger that the great achievement, the mature form of human love, might disintegrate into its original components.  One way of describing this process is as follows:  Our relation to our world of objects has led to a frightening experience, to a trauma.  In order to avoid the repetition of the trauma we establish a new regime in which that kind of relation can be avoided with certainty, e.g. narcissistic withdrawal.  It is an empirical fact that the fear then spreads and it is not only that contact with the object is evaded but also that our treatment of it, and our attitude towards it, cannot remain on the mature level; it assumes more and more immature “pre-genital’ forms.  Something like this happened in ‘modern art’.  The treatment of the object, or the artist’s attitude to it, i.e., his fantasies, feelings, emotions, ideas, images, etc., when stimulated by his chosen object, are conspicuously on what psycho-analysis would describe as the anal-sadistic level.  The objects are dismembered, split, cruelly twisted, deformed, messed about; the dirty, ugly qualities of the objects are ‘realistically’ and even ‘surrealistically’ revealed; some forms and methods of representation in ‘modern art’ are highly reminiscent of primitive ‘anal’ messing; less and less regard is paid to the object’s feelings, interests and sensitivities; kind consideration for, and ‘idealisation’ of, the object becomes less important.

Finally, as Balint suggests, its existence becomes intolerable, and its right to exist is denied.  “Degrading the dignity of the object into that of a mere stimulus and laying the main emphasis on the sincere and faithful representation of the artist’s subjective internal mental processes,” leads to indifference to the object—Duchamp’s nihilistic indifference is the supreme example—and finally its destruction, or reduction to shit:  the same shit the artist is afraid of becoming and feels he and his art unconsciously is.

Yinka Shonibare, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (Asia) 2008, courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York

                  Dali was preoccupied with excrement, perversely regarding it as the most luxurious work of art—the universal dead-end of the digestive process.  Thus the anal birth of the work of art.  As Dali wrote in admiration, Duchamp developed “a new interest in the preparation of shit, of which the small excretions from the navel are the ‘de lux editions’.”  This occurred “during the course of the Second World War,” Dali notes, when the world was turning into shit.  Later, in 1968, referring to Piero Manzoni, Dali exclaimed:  “Today a well-known Pop artist of Verona sells artists’ shit (in very sophisticated packaging) as a luxury item!”  With Duchamp and Manzoni, as well as de Sade, a particular hero for Dali, Dali wanted to “reduce the universe to faeces, or rather to annihilate the universe of differences (the genital universe) and put in its place the anal universe in which all parts are equal and interchangeable,” to use Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel’s theory of perversion.(26)  It is the same line of thought that we find in Balint.  This replacement of heterogeneity with homogeneity—the subversive levelling of difference that reduces everything to the indifferent banality of useless shit, which is sameness and nothingness (not to say death) incarnate—is the nihilistic gist of perversion.  Dali’s interest in perversion as well as digestion converge:  digestion is a perverse process for him.  For him it was the model of the artistic process—the failed artistic process, for the end-product of art, like that of digestion, is shit.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490, (detail of Hell Panel)

                  Lest you think I am, like Dali, deliberately being provocative by using the word “shit,” I call your attention to Segal’s account of the psychodynamics of the creative process.  It is a jumping off point for my own understanding of the core issues in avant-garde psychopathology:  fear of being an imposter and fear of producing shit—what else can an imposter produce?  For Segal, in the genuine creativity of “symbolic recreation,” there is a “shift from a narcissistic position, in which the artistic product is put forward as self-created faeces, with a constant terror that one’s product will be revealed as shit, to the genital position in which the creation is felt to be a baby resulting from meaningful internal intercourse.  And the work of art is then felt as having a life of its own and one which will survive the artist.”  Outliving the artist, the work of art may seem immortal—permanent rather than a passing expression  of its times.  This is a particular triumph in the case of the avant-garde artist, who tends to speak to and for the transient modern moment, in a constant effort to renew the feeling of newness and nowness—the so-called surprise or shock or sensation of the new, supposedly the sign of avant-garde vitality and authenticity.  But the obsessive pursuit of newness—emblematic of eternal youthfulness--is self-defeating and pathological.  It is a way of avoiding maturity, indeed, a way of sidestepping the problems of growing up, even the need to grow up and develop, enlarge one’s capacities, go beyond what seems one’s inborn limits, even as one naturally ages, reminding one that life is limited.  Newness is mortality in disguise, for the new invariably becomes the old, and with that bespeaks death, loss, and failure, suggesting that the pursuit of newness signals a failure of creative imagination—a failure to create something lasting, memorable, seemingly self-creative.

                  Thus the irony of what Theodor Adorno calls the “aging avant-garde,” noting that the avant-garde artist tends to cling narcissistically to the breakthrough he had in his youth in order to validate it.  He thinks the breakthrough is the privilege of youth, and automatically comes with it.  He clings to his old avant-garde ways, as though by repeating the glorious moment of his creative breakthrough he will remain young forever.  José Ortega y Gasset wittily remarked that avant-garde art was a young man’s sport, implying that the avant-garde artist doesn’t know what to do with—what art to make--the rest of his life.  Avant-gardism readily becomes arrested development, confirming its pathological narcissism.  If ripeness is all, then the avant-garde artist doesn’t have it all, all the more so because newness is short-lived—and unripe--by definition, and not inherently meaningful.  How many avant-garde works age well?  Being accredited by a museum does not guarantee lasting value and significance.  The narcissistic creativity of the avant-garde dead-ends in the narcissism of newness, while object-related creativity issues in a mature object that is more likely to make a lasting impression.  Indeed, one dwells on it longer because it is more complex—composed of many layers of cultural meaning, subverting and subsuming the narcissistic meaning it has for the artist--than the avant-garde work.  It tends to be one-dimensional, as narcissistic products usually are—the artist’s self-expression does not necessarily lend itself to communal meaning—and with that more easily comprehended, once the shock of its novelty has dissipated.  Revolutionary impact does not encourage sustained contemplation, let alone analytic curiosity and re-visionary attention.  Newness tends to ring hollow after it has made its noise.  No doubt there are such things as mature works of avant-garde art, but they are few and far between, as William Gass writes in his account of what he calls the permanent avant-garde.  Its works are not “negative and oppositional,” however much they “shatter stereotypes,” but the adult result of “a solitary interior development”—his examples include late Goya, Verdi, Monet, Yeats, Turner, Rothko, Bach, Beethoven, Listz, Schönberg, Henry James, Rilke, Beckett, Celan, and Malcolm Lowry, among other artists in many mediums—“whose deepest effects…are sometimes delayed for generations.”(27) 

Beethoven death mask by J. Danhauser on 28 March, 1827

Aging into wisdom, such art has outlived its avant-gardism.  It is the delayed gratification, cognitive as well as emotional, such art affords that makes it profoundly meaningful.  The instant gratification avant-garde art affords—art that sometimes seems to have little more than its newness to recommend it—passes in an instant, leaving it stranded in meaninglessness.  New art, even seemingly radical new pure art, that is, art that seems to reach the roots of art—“feeling” as Kandinsky said or “inner life” as Marc said, and the “abstract forms” or “plastic forms” that convey or express it, as Mondrian said (never perception of let alone serious attention to outer life, that is, “natural things” and man-made objects or social things)—may be exciting, even shocking, traumatic.  For it is a break in the continuity of art, to recall Winnicott’s definition of trauma, as the unexpected and unprecedented often is, but that does not guarantee it staying power and uncritical acceptance.  For one cannot live by feeling alone.  Slowly but surely the all too human viewer becomes disappointed in pure art, for he realizes that it is impossible to live outside of nature and society.         

For both Balint and Segal the basic emotional choice, whatever the difficulties that surround it, is between narcissistic pregenital destructiveness, ending with anal messing, as Balint calls it, or self-created faeces, as Segal calls it, or with the “indifferentiation…inherent to the anal-sadistic phase,” as Chasseguet-Smirgel says, “where all objects, erotogenic zones, ideals, etc. are pulverized by the alimentary canal and homogenized into identical particles, the faeces,” which, as she adds, is a “regression…inherent to perversion,”(28) and genital creativity producing products able to take their differentiated place in the lifeworld, holding their own while in communicative contact with it.  When avant-garde works of art are said to be obscure, it is because they lack such communicative integration with the lifeworld.  (It is worth noting that Chasseguet-Smirgel’s remark occurs in the context of a clinical account of a patient she codenames “Rrose Sélavy,” Duchamp’s pseudonym.  Elsewhere she analyzes three other “Luciferian” avant-gardists:  Caligula, de Sade, and Hans Bellmer.)  I would argue that the avant-garde artist does not make a clear choice:  he oscillates unsteadily between the narcissistic pregenital position, bringing with it the illusion of self-creation, and the genital position, which creates symbolic objects, autonomous yet communicative.

Rrose Selavy alias Marcel Duchamp (Man Ray, 1921)

This oscillation is an expression of emotional insecurity, which is what drives avant-garde creativity.  It is split into two complementary parts, as I have suggested:  the fear of producing shit and the fear of being an imposter or pseudo-artist.  Fear of producing shit expresses the avant-garde artist’s doubt about the value of the work of art—a doubt that I think is endemic to modernity, and reaches a crescendo in the development of what Allen Kaprow called “postart.”  For Kaprow the boundary between art and everyday life becomes blurred—as it is in Duchamp’s so-called readymades (which we now know where not so readymade)—and, more crucially, everyday life becomes more interesting than art and finally subsumes it.  For Kaprow, as for Duchamp, art is made from the everyday shit of life, suggesting that not only is life shit, but that the artist doesn’t have to do much to make it into art.  All he has to do is “assist” it a little, to use Duchamp’s term, which ultimately means to stamp it with his interest in it, in effect projectively identifying with it.  Indeed, as Tracey Emin responded when asked why her unmade bed was a work of art, “Because I say it is.”  This states, with desperately blunt insistence, what Breton said more subtly when he theorized that Duchamp raised ordinary objects to the status of works of art by dignifying them with his name.  As Julian Spalding remarks, after Emin’s response she should have been asked:  “But who says you’re an artist?”(29)  Perhaps Duchamp should be asked the same question.  Just as any dumb thing can be called a work of art—of conceptual art, no less, as though there was some significant concept behind it rather than mindless arrogance (an expression of the death instinct, as Wilfred Bion wrote, in contrast to pride in a creative accomplishment, an expression of the life instinct)—so any person can be an artist, for everyone is creative whatever shit they produce, or rather borrow from the lifeworld. 

According to Friedrich Nietzsche, “Artists, if they are any good, are (physically as well) strong, full of surplus energy, powerful animals, sensual.”(30)  They have an “overflowing fullness of bodily vigor” and “victorious energy.”  But because “it is exceptional states that condition the artist—all of them profoundly related to an interlaced with morbid phenomena—it seems impossible to be an artist and not to be sick.”  But then, Nietzsche adds, “the artist belongs to a still stronger race,” for “what would be harmful and morbid in us, to him is nature.”  This last bit of idealization turns the artist into an Übermensch (superman) immune to the sickness unto death that Soren Kierkegaard thought haunts life.  It also suggests that making art is a manic defense against depression, which, as Winnicott said, involves the feeling of being dead inside—the feeling of being valueless shit.  In a sense, making art is emotional mithridatism:  the artist digests small doses of the shit of living death so that he will not be killed by a sudden large dose of it—swamped by his own inner shit.  Deliberately feeding on the death within him, he imagines he will never die:  his manic work, a luxury version of shitty depression, will live on.

Tracey Emin, My Bed (1998)

Tracey Emin, Pysco Slut, 1999

If Tracey Emin is not an artist, and it’s unclear if Duchamp was one—however many objects associated with their names are in museums of modern art—then what are they?  They are pseudo-artists or imposters.  I have elsewhere described Duchamp as the imposter artist par excellence(31)—avant-garde artists in general unconsciously feel like imposters.  It is an expression of their self-doubt and uncertainty, symptomatic of their insecurity, the sense of inauthenticity and inadequacy that haunts them.  Their feeling that their art may be shit, a creative failure—which leads some of them to exhibit shit as art, making the social (and narcissistic) best of it—suggests they unconsciously know their creative shortcomings.  Tracey Emin’s assertion that her unmade bed is art because she says it is, is a  defense against the feeling that it may not be art—and that she doesn’t know how to make art, or even what art is.  Like the Emperor’s new clothes, calling her unmade bed “art” doesn’t change the fact that it’s nothing but a bed—a “naked” object—and doesn’t make her an Emperor.  Its acceptance as art doesn’t make it art, it shows the gullibility—mindlessness--of the accepter, whether institution or individual.    

Duchamp and Emin--imposter artists, fake artists—convey their sense that life has no value by devaluing art, even as they give objects—objects found in the lifeworld (Duchamp’s bicycle wheel and urinal, Emin’s unmade bed)--value by imperiously declaring them art.  Doing so they devalue both life and art in one pseudo-creative stroke—“create” valueless art by devaluing “living” objects by re-valuing them as “art,” the kiss of death for “art” is an empty signifier for the pseudo-artist, all the more so because it doesn’t require much creativity to label an object “art,” package it as “art” with a little assistance, as Duchamp said, especially verbal assistance.  It is the last desperate “creative act” of a self at a loss in a lifeworld it experiences as lifeless--full of lifeless objects, depressing “still lives.”  Such depression cuts one off from one’s primary creativity, which is the basic reason one feels and behaves like an imposter.  And how can the artist not feel and behave like an imposter--a creative failure--and the artworld not seem like a creative backwater—oddly static for all its activity--in a lifeworld of ever more creative advances and successes in science and technology?  How can art keep up and compete with them?  What exactly is the good of so-called advanced art—avant-garde art--compared to the good of scientific and technological advances?  They have served and benefitted life, however often they have been used malevolently by society, but it is not clear that avant-garde art has.  Avant-garde art has been said to be self-expression, but what social good does self-expression do?

George Maciunas, Excreta Fluxorum 1978

The avant-garde artist’s self-doubt and self-devaluation also derive—perhaps more directly than is realized—from his nihilistic rejection of traditional art and bourgeois society.  Each is a support system; without them he is at a loss—without them he is insecure, for without the safety and containment tradition and society afford the self cannot be secured.  It becomes uncertain of itself, feels that it has no raison d’etre, even as making art has becomes its only raison d’etre:  the unintelligibility of avant-garde art, as Adorno calls it, conveys that uncertainty, symptomatic of an existential crisis.  Art becomes a labyrinth from which there is no way out to life—a death trap.  The avant-garde artist’s rejection and repudiation of society, however often justified—how can one not criticize the crimes against humanity committed in war, as Otto Dix does in his prints showing its horrors?—becomes self-defeating, for society does unto him as he has done unto it, rejects and repudiates him and his art as he has rejected and repudiated it and its traditions.  But behind this adversarial anger, behind his conscious hatred and devaluation of it, he longs to be loved and valued, accepted and appreciated by it, for unconsciously his art is a generous gift to it, as Phyllis Greenacre has argued, and as such worthy of its “unconditional positive regard,” to use Carl Roger’s concept.  Behind the avant-garde artist’s contempt for what Gass calls the “religious patriotism” and “unprincipled utilitarianism” of the bourgeoisie, is resentment of the bourgeoisie’s indifference to him—the indifference that Duchamp throws back in its face.  The avant-garde revolutionary is full of ressentiment, in the classic sense that Max Scheler describes, building on Nietzsche’s ideas.  Using Heinz Kohut’s concept of the mirror transference and Winnicott’s concept of the facilitating environment, one might say that bourgeois society is neither a good mirror for avant-garde art nor a good facilitating environment for avant-garde creativity.  With no social ground supporting him, the avant-garde artist seems to be making a groundless art—an anti-social, insidiously nihilistic art, which is what Cubism, Expressionism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Abstraction are, however different their nihilistic styles.

Pablo Picasso, 1908, Dryad, oil on canvas

Bourgeois society eventually digests seemingly indigestible avant-garde art, giving it ironic support, respect, and love by institutionalizing, commodifying, and sanctioning it, which means to traditionalize, bourgeoisify, and neutralize it however problematic it may continue to seem—reify it into a commonplace social product undermining its uniqueness as the creative expression of an individual, not to say an instrument of individuation.  Turned into a cultural and social asset, and monetized, it becomes proof of bourgeois society’s tolerance and creativity.  To use Balint’s distinction, the avant-garde artist becomes a philobat creator because he renounces social ocnophilia,(32) but this quickly changes when society recognizes his right to exist and appropriates his art, celebrating him as a producer of new capital and exotic entertainment.(33)  In short, the source of avant-garde psychopathology is its pathologization of society, which doesn’t mean society isn’t pathological.  Nor does it mean that avant-garde artists have no moral or intellectual failings, as Greenberg thought many had.  Such failings, along with hostility to society, inform narcissistic withdrawal from it—perhaps, paradoxically, a necessary withdrawal.  For the artist’s narcissism may be a survival strategy in a pathological society, however much it mirrors society’s pathology.  But narcissism, however creatively expressed, is no guarantee of health.  It is no guarantee that making art will make one healthy or change society for the better.

Otto Fenichel makes a distinction between the artist and the pseudo artist that speaks directly to the problem of the avant-garde artist’s pathological narcissism.  Fenichel writes:

There is a decisive difference in the kind of success needed by the pseudo artist and the real artist.  The pseudo artist needs to be accepted as a person, requiring applause at any cost.  The artist needs to have a specific fantasy of his accepted; he wants applause for his work, not for himself.  He adapts the public to himself.  This sharing of guilt through art is anticipated by the “common daydreams” of children who feel relieved of their guilt feelings if their comrades participate in their fantasies.(33)

Fenichel’s point is that the pseudo artist wants narcissistic gratification, whereas the real artist wants a relationship with his audience.  Indeed, he wants to establish emotional reciprocity with it by communicating with its unconscious through his work of art rather than alienate it by picking a fight with it.  A work of art is a successful creation not only because the artist feels that it is a baby rather than excrement, but because it communicates with its public’s unconscious.  It makes the public conscious of what is usually kept unconscious, articulating what is inarticulate without rationalizing it, as Adorno says, that is, intellectually administering it by fitting it into the procrustean bed of some existing theoretical system or historical situation, as historians, critics, and theorists are prone to do.  Such unconscious communication shows that the work is emotionally successful.  Its serious public consists of those people who feel the work puts them in touch with their unconscious issues.  If it can do that for people who were not born when it was, it will become genuinely immortal.  Its immortality depends on its emotional appeal and meaningfulness to future generations.  Where the pseudo avant-garde artist is in conflict with a world that can never give him enough applause, the real avant-garde artist wants to establish emotional reciprocity with it.  This is what Dali attempted to do when he shifted from Surrealism to Classicism.

                  In accord with Fenichel’s idea of the boundless and contagious narcissistic ambition of the pseudo artist, Phyllis Greenacre writes:

The performance of many imposters, especially of those seemingly dedicated ones, in whom the works of imposture form the main core of existence, impress others as having the quality of artistic achievement.  The ability of the imposter to put on convincing acts of impersonation…may seem to be almost miraculous and inspired.  Indeed, the imposter may bring his latent fantasies into a vivid living form in the assumption of his impostured character so far surpassing in interest and apparent ability his ordinary “other self” that one is tempted to say that he is his own work of art.(34)

Think of Duchamp’s impersonation of Rrose Sélavy in the context of these remarks.  His impersonation of a woman, a sort of dowdy flapper—just as he turned the Mona Lisa into a drag queen—was an amusing artistic invention.  But Duchamp’s greatest artistic invention was his impersonation of an artist.  (L.H.O.O.Q., 1919 is also a superb example of the perverse obliteration of difference.  Perversity often masquerades as irony.)

Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q.

                  There is another way of understanding avant-garde nihilistic narcissism:  it is a pathological response to the discrediting and collapse of the universal myth of Christianity and the universal artistic language of Classicism.  In a Nietzschean spirit, the avant-garde pushed them from the heights—after all, they were old and it was new—but it fell from the heights with them.  Many avant-garde artists idolized Nietzsche; Otto Dix made a bust of him, and Ernst Heckel painted his portrait.  Ironically, Nietzsche pathologized himself by pathologizing Christianity and Classicism, in effect discrediting them, and so did the avant-garde.  Christianity holds that life is sacred, and Classicism holds that art is constructive.  Their fusion in Renaissance and Baroque art made for great art, art that seamlessly integrated them--raising the question whether avant-garde art, unChristian and anti-Classical, and with that anti-life, as the morbidity and destructiveness of much of it suggests, can be great art--art in which dialectical harmony reigns.  Can art that does not hold life sacred and that is not constructive in outlook be great?  The Nietzschean avant-garde, as it can be called, was drawn to the psychopathological—Nietzsche regarded himself as a psychologist, a diagnostician dissecting the mentality of his decadent times; the psychological mindedness of avant-garde artists, especially the Expressionists and Surrealists, indicates they viewed themselves in a similar way, analysts of the social psyche of their distressing times—because it lost faith and trust in the redemptive power of the ideal.  Faith is the foundation of mental health, as religion affirmed, or trust, as Erik Erikson, along with many other psychologists, called it:  without faith or trust the self is a sinkhole full of quicksand.  Faith or trust posits ideals—including the ideal of harmony--and without ideals life is seriously incomplete, and finally meaningless—incurably absurd.  

Edvard Munch, Portrait of German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, 1906, oil on canvas

                  Without the safety net of universal ideals, which Christianity offers, and an ideal language, which Classicism offers—and their unity in what Baudelaire called the “Great Tradition”--the individual is in free fall—which is what the nihilism of the avant-garde may be.  It is nihilism masquerading as “inner freedom”—really the restlessness that comes with insecurity, the restlessness that is mistaken for “advance,” the rootlessness that comes from rejecting idealism.  The universal feelings of inner life are poor compensation for the loss of universal ideals and a universal language.  However seemingly universal, the abstract language used to express universal feelings does them no justice, for it rips them out of the social context in which they arose, the relational situation that gives them their particular significance.  In a sense, abstract art, which expresses subjective feelings without the objective situation that occasions them—the condition that informs their appearance--is peculiarly senseless, not to say inadequately creative.  So is representational art when it pictures an objective situation without conveying its subjective import.   

When Nietzsche proclaimed “the death of God”—the loss of God, a loss of faith in God that amounted to a loss of faith in humanity, for God created human beings—he gave up whatever idealism he may have had, for God is emblematic of the ideal, as his innate creativity indicates.  But Nietzsche compensated for his loss or disillusionment with the old, traditional God by idealizing the artist—a new God for modern times, Nietzsche’s superhuman Übermensch in artistic disguise, a model of physical and mental health compared to the defective Untermensch.  Dare one say that in killing God the Father and replacing him with his Son the Artist, Nietzsche acted out a primal fantasy—Oedipus killing his father Laius, Nietzsche being Oedipus killing God the Father?  God, after all, was an artist, for he created human beings, and so was Nietzsche, an even greater God for he created that superhuman being called the artist.  Nietzsche’s artist is a unique superior individual who has realized his creative potential compared to the banal mass of uncreative commonplace human beings in the inferior “herd.”  But Nietzsche’s artist is a flawed ideal—not to say a deceptive, desperate fantasy--for however physically healthy he had serious emotional problems:  he is inescapably morbid, to recall Nietzsche’s description of his psyche.  From a psychoanalytic viewpoint, that morbidity is the guilt that comes with the killing of the father.  However much Nietzsche’s artist made the creative best of his morbidity he never overcame it.  The guilt made him sick for he never acknowledged it.  Morbid unconscious guilt marred and compromised his self-conscious creativity—and implied that he was all too unhappily, familiarly, and inescapably human rather than as divine as he seemed to be at first glance.  The artist’s morbidity raises a general question:  is creativity defensive window-dressing on an unhealable wound—a soothing salve on the festering sickness unto death that is unresolved guilt?  If so, creativity is not always—not necessarily--life-changing.

Max Klinger, Friedrich Nietzsche, c. 1904

I suggest that another way of conceptualizing avant-garde psychopathology is by way of Winnicott’s distinction between compliance and creativity.  In compliance “the world and its details [are] recognized but only as something to be fitted in with or demanding adaptation.  Compliance carries with it a sense of futility for the individual and is associated with the idea that nothing matters and that life is not worth living.”  In contrast, “creative apperception more than anything else…makes the individual feel that life is worth living.”  One actively “creates into” the world, as Winnicott writes, rather than passively adapts to it.  For Winnicott, “living creatively is a healthy state…compliance is a sick basis for life.”(35)  I submit that there is an unresolvable conflict between social compliance and individual creativity in the avant-garde artist.  He is in a kind of double bind:  he wants simultaneously to comply and to create:  he wants the “abnormal” art he makes to become “normal,” and as such socially acceptable—compliant despite itself.   Underlying this wish is his insecurity and his uncertainly about his art’s value—whether it was worth all his creative trouble, the expenditure of all the “surplus energy” that Nietzsche said the artist has. 

Robert Waelder’s notion of “hypergnosis”—“the making over of the external world, literally the seeing in it the shape of a subjective experience, demonstrable in paranoid as well as in normal creative thinking”(36)—suggests another reason for the avant-garde artist’s “creative” narcissism.  Paranoid and normal creative thinking—surrealistic paranoia and classical realism—seamlessly fuse in Dali’s art.  The struggle between compliance and creativity—classicism and avant-gardism—is transparent in the art of Picasso as well as Dali.  They are pseudo-artists when they invent public personalities to become social celebrities.  Their wish for social success shows their compliance to the world, all the more so because they want recognition for their “outstanding,” “different” personalities rather than their “outstanding, different” art.  When they go their own creative ways, for better or worse—without expectation of critical recognition let alone social success—they function as true selves rather than as false selves, to use Winnicott’s distinction.  Picasso and Dali seemed to have realized that in mass society the avant-garde artist is more likely to become famous—recognized by the public at large by looking and behaving like a “character,” that is, because of his “artistic” temperament and “unusual” personality—rather than for the particular works of art he has made.  It is a lesson that has been learned all too well by many “show-off” artists.  When Picasso let himself be photographed by Douglas Duncan he became a world-famous celebrity—Picasso’s photograph has appeared on the cover of more magazines, art and otherwise, than any other modern artist.  Did all the publicity he received affect his creativity?  But it seems that, towards the end of his life, he cursed his fame, for it took time and energy away from his work.  He once again became a creatively insecure artist.  He seems to have realized that his social success came at the cost of his creativity.  Dali seemed to have succumbed to his wish for success at all costs, as his last throw-away prints suggest, for they made him more famous—notorious--than anything else he did.  Apparently Picasso and Dali once joked that their signatures alone would become more valuable than their works.  Perhaps the major virtue of the avant-garde artist is that he doesn’t betray his creativity, such as it is, by eagerly meeting social expectations—by becoming an artist better known for his name than his art.    

David Douglas Duncan. Pablo Picasso in the bathtub, the day of his first encounter with David Douglas Duncan.1956.

Writing about jazz, Adorno controversially asserted:

It is well known that jazz is characterized by the syncopated rhythm, thus by a displacement which inserts apparent beats within the regular measures, comparable to the intentionally clumsy stumbling of the eccentric clown, familiar enough from the American film comedies.  A helpless, powerless subject is presented, one that is ridiculous in his expressive impulses.  Now the formula of jazz is this, that precisely by virtue of his weakness and helplessness this subject represented by the irregular rhythms adapts himself to the regularity of the total process, and because he, so to speak, confesses his own impotence, he is accepted into the collective and rewarded by it.  Jazz projects the schema of identification:  in return for the individual erasing himself and acknowledging his own nullity, he can vicariously take part in the glory of the collective to which he is bound by this spell.(37)

Is this the social paradigm for the avant-garde artist in general?  Is he a clown who is secretly—unconsciously—compliant?  Is his eccentric creativity, with its impulsive style, a form of compliance?  Is his nonconformity a mode of conformity, his lack of adaptation ironic adaptation?  Or is his seeming abnormality—the critical paranoia that enabled Dali to “see in everyday objects something fantastic that the others no longer see,” as Joyce McDougall says—a way to “escape the icy shower of normalization that the world pours upon everyone?”(38)  “A handful only—artists, musicians, writers, scientists”—manage to escape, a view that Arthur Schopenhauer also had.  “One of the most powerful motives that attracts people to science and art,” he wrote, “is the longing to escape everyday life.”  McDougall’s “plea for a measure of abnormality” falls on deaf ears, for “all art, every invention, every new thought”—indeed, the “imaginative life” itself, with its “richness of fantasy and passionate curiosity”—is a dangerous “act of transgression” that threatens to break down “the solid wall of normality.”  Is Dali’s art genuinely transgressive, making him one of the few who could “equal in [their] waking lives the creativity of [their] own dreams,” or is his abnormality an act—an ingratiating illusion rather than proof of his ability to “imagine the unimaginable” with the “facility” of a child “before becoming ‘normalized’?”  For McDougall this would make him both a genius and madman.

Salvador Dali walking his Anteater in Paris 1969

                  The question becomes all the more pointed when one studies Dali’s technique.  The dream-like look of his paintings seems to be the result of his sleight of hand—an epiphenomenon of his phenomenal technique—rather than of his imagination.  That is, it seems to have more to do with his conscious craft than his unconscious phantasy.  His trompe l’oeil suggests that the surreal look of his works is a sort of magic trick.  Dali called it “mimetic confounding.”  A combination of cunning stagecraft and technical slickness, it suggests that he is a charlatan, that is, a pseudo-artist.  On the other hand, the visionary quality of his bizarre imagery suggests he is an acolyte of the unconscious, on a par with such disturbed and estranged visionaries as Arthur Rimbaud, Lautreamont, and Max Ernst.  If Dali’s art has more to do with cleverness than creativity it lends itself to social co-optation, suggesting that Dali is catering to the conventional idea of the abnormal—madness—while sensationalizing it, and as such collusive with and accommodating to it rather than using his madness—paranoia—critically to subvert the socially normal.  

Dali’s paranoid fear of normal society does lead him to aggressively respond to it with his abnormal art.  It may be an avant-garde career move—a way of ingratiating himself with the Surrealist community—or it may be a desperate catharsis of the feeling of being born abnormal, confirmed by the fact that he became an artist, which is to be abnormal from the perspective of a militantly normal society.  Whatever motivates it, his abnormal art binds him more closely to normal society, for it dialectically normalizes the abnormal by giving it artistic form, indeed, calling it the basic expression of primary creativity, the form it which it necessarily manifests itself.  To be abnormal is to be creative, to be creative is to be abnormal, Dali seems to be saying.  Similarly, his feeling of being criticized and persecuted—labelled abnormal--by normal society becomes his “critical paranoia.”  To be abnormal is to be shit—a social outcast, cast out of society like shit is cast out of the body, a waste product of society and nature--which is why Dali treats society like shit, that is, throws its abnormality in its face by way of his art.  Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), 1936 makes the point clearly, beans being surrogate shit, as Dali said.  The message is that Spain—Dali’s country—is full of shit.  Tearing itself apart, it becomes grotesque—abnormal, mad, monstrous, and with that avant-garde.  The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1799 as Goya’s print shows—it is the first avant-garde work, for it shows that to be avant-garde one must be abnormal, let the abnormal arise from the artist’s unconscious, as it does in Dali’s art.  Goya’s horrific Black Paintings, Picasso’s destructive Cubism, and Dali’s bizarre Surrealism suggest that madness comes naturally to Spanish artists, perhaps in rebellion against repressive Catholicism and authoritarian rulers, from the Spanish kings to Franco.  

Salvador Dali standing in front of a painting by Guido Reni 

Psychoanalysis is a “marginal discipline that seeks to question the established order of beliefs and prejudices,” and as such is “beyond the norm,” and with that transgressive and revolutionary.(39)  But the Surrealists, who were heavily indebted to Freudian psychoanalysis—they attempt to colonize it—brought it into the established order of thought.  Indeed, however unwittingly, they helped popularize it.  After their use and abuse of it, psychoanalysis was no longer a critical gadfly but an exotic butterfly.  This ironic mainstreaming of psychoanalysis through surrealism, an avant-garde, “abnormal” art—psychoanalysis being a sort of avant-garde psychology of the abnormal—means that it “ceased to fulfill its [critical] function,” suggesting that surrealism had a superficial, exploitive understanding of psychoanalysis, and with that of transgressive revolutionary thinking—thinking that fundamentally changed our understanding of the subject in the case of psychoanalysis.  Similarly, Cubism appropriated Einstein’s relativity theory without understanding its complexity—for Cubism it was beyond the Newtonian norm, and as such automatically transgressive and revolutionary (daringly “abnormal”)—popularizing and superficializing it in the process.  The parasitic dependence of Surrealism on and justification of it by psychoanalytic theory, and, in the case of Cubism, relativity theory, brings them into question, for it suggests that without their theoretical underpinning and rationalization they are no more than aesthetic novelties.  More broadly, it raises the question whether the modern difference they make—their so-called modernization or avant-gardization of art—is a gain or loss for art:  whether bringing traditional art into question, not to say trivializing it, as Picasso did when he called the Greek temple a glorified barn, holds up in the long historical run.  It also raises the question whether aestheticizing the abnormal, the different, the new—taking it as a subject matter, celebrating it as an end in itself, regarding it as the whole and basic truth about the psyche and the world (more simply, more truthful and meaningful then any old art and theory)—puts creativity to the best use.   

I have no ready reply to these questions, but I leave you with James Thurber’s description of Dali as a psychopathological clown.  Thurber wrote The Secret Life of James Thurber(40) in response to The Secret Life of Salvador Dali.  Thurber begins his autobiography with some vignettes from Dali’s autobiography.  “The youthful dreamer of dreams biting a sick bat or kissing a dead horse…the sighing lover covering himself with goat dung and aspic that he might give off the true and noble odor of the ram…Salvador adoring a seed ball fallen from a plane tree, Salvador kicking a tiny playmate off a bridge, Salvador caressing a crutch, Salvador breaking the old family doctor’s glasses with a leather-thonged mattress-beater.”  Thurber thinks this is pure theater—personal mythology, as the psychoanalysts would say, but also high farce.  “Remember[ing] and describe[ing] in detail what it was like in the womb,” Dali had a head-start on Thurber, whose “own earliest memory is of accompanying [his] father to a polling booth in Columbus, Ohio, where he voted for William McKinley.  It was a drab and somewhat battered tin shed…filled with guffawing men and cigar smoke…far removed from the paradisiacal placenta of Salvador Dali’s first recollection.”  It is to Thurber’s great credit that he instantly recognized the comedian—ham actor—in Dali, when so many scholars and interpreters failed to do so.  Humor may be a mature defense, as the psychoanalysts say, but it is also a way of complying with the world’s idea of you—of fitting in despite your unfitness.  Like the jazz performer, the surrealist performer may be an eccentric clown. 

 Pablo Picasso with Gary Cooper's gun and hat

                  Dali’s black humor—“humor, more or less black, the color of shit,” as he says—is standard Surrealist operating procedure.  It is inseparable from the psychopathology that makes the Surrealist feel unique—indeed, superior, for psychopathology is creative, generates creativity—even as his black humor suggests that he is a kind of bourgeois manqué.  For ironical black humor is sanctioned in bourgeois society as an expression of ambivalence, more caustically a way of making the emotional best of a shitty society—it is witty entertainment, eccentric cathartic clowning--suggesting that it is not as offensively avant-garde as Dali thought it was.  Dali’s sick humor is as sick as he thinks bourgeois society is.  If Dali, perhaps the quintessential avant-garde artist, is a kind of clown, the question is whether he is Lear’s clown, knowing the tragic inner truth, or just another joker, provoking society with a psychopathological pose or act.  Like all poses or acts, it exists to falsify—hide—the truth.  The act is meant to mislead us about the suffering—the psyche--of the actor even as it is symptomatic of it, if one knows how to read it, see through the pose.  Thurber does:  the acting out he notes indicates as much.  In Dali’s case, the Surreal self-presentation—Surreal acting out--is an expression of pathological narcissism, as its self-congratulatory character suggests. 

                  Duchamp, whom Dali admired even after he abandoned avant-gardism, said that he wanted to make works that would be like “fireworks, jokes, lies.”(41)  His “practice” of “irony or sarcasm”—also evident in Dali from the beginning of his career (his text Saint Sebastian, 1927 opens with a section on irony)—was a “provocation” intended to “attenuate” every “position,” including science as well as art and religion.  “It is always the idea of ‘amusement’ which causes me to do things,” Duchamp said.  If Duchamp’s anti-art (objects that are ironically art?, sarcasm about art?) is essentially black humor, is the amusement it affords a mocking critique of bourgeois society or only a novel joke to entertain it?  Is the Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, 1915-23, which Jasper Johns called “a hilarious picture,” an ironical critique of the sexual relationship between man and woman (and a rape scene in the making)—and of painting and picture-making—or is it simply an amusing way of expressing Duchamp’s sexual pathology?  Is it a mock picture, an ironic perverse take on painting, a work made of glass rather than canvas, its abstract figures making fun of—undermining--representation, turning it into an abstract joke?  It does seem to be a hilarious picture--a comic, or is it tragicomic?—picture.  It clearly shows narcissistic withdrawal into masturbation, as Duchamp portrait of himself sitting in a railway car ironically does.  Masturbation was apparently also Dali’s preferred way of sexuality at one time, as The Great Masturbator, 1930 suggests.  Similarly, Dali’s account of his jaded childhood, however hysterically funny, is deadly serious about his narcissistic withdrawal into pathological malevolence and destructiveness.WM


                  (1)Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1983), 89.  The quotation marks suggest the ambiguity of the term “artist” in psychoanalytic literature.  Sometimes it refers to the creative individual, in whatever domain.  At other times it refers to a person who makes what society agrees to call a work of art, for whatever reasons.

                  (2)Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York:  Avon, 1965), 284

                  (3)Wassily Kandinsky, “On the Spiritual in Art” (1912), Kandinsky:  Complete Writings on Art, eds. Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (New York:  Da Capo Press, 1994), 207

                  (4)Meyer Schapiro, “Recent Abstract Painting” (1957), Modern Art 19th and 20th Centuries:  Selected Papers (New York:  George Braziller, 1976), 228

                  (5)Ibid., “Nature of Abstract Art” (1937), 192

                  (6)Ibid., 188

                  (7)Kandinsky, 153

                  (8)Quoted in ibid., 106

                  (9)Donald Metzer, “Sincerity:  A Study in the Atmosphere of Human Relations” (1971), Sincerity and Other Works:  Collected Papers of Donald Meltzer, ed. Alberto Hahn (London:  Karnac Books, 1994), 187

                  (10)Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of the Self (New York:  International Universities Press, 1977), 285

                  (11)Ibid., 296

                  (12)Donald Winnicott, “Fear of Breakdown” (c. 1963), Psycho-Analytic Explorations (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1989), 87

                  (13)Meltzer, 189

                  (14)Ibid., 186

                  (15)Joseph Sandler, “The Background of Safety” (1960), From Safety to Superego (New York and London:  Guilford, 1987), 7

                  (16)Quoted in Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley and London:  University of California Press, 1971), 321

                  (17)Quoted in ibid., 328

                  (18)Quoted in ibid., 326

                  (19)Quoted in ibid., 259-60

                  (20)Erich Fromm, The Crisis of Psychoanalysis (Greenwich, CT:  Fawcett, 1970), 192

                  (21)Quoted in Sarah Kofman, The Childhood of Art:  An Interpretation of Freud’s Aesthetics (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1988), 222

                  (22)Franz Alexander, “The Psychoanalyst Looks at Contemporary Art,” Art and Psychoanalysis, ed. William Phillips (Cleveland:  Meridian, 1963), 350.  All subsequent quotations from Alexander are from this essay. 

                  (23)W. R. D. Fairbairn, “Prolegomena to a Psychology of Art,” From Instinct to Self:  Selected Papers of W. R. D. Fairbairn (Northvale, NJ and London:  Jason Aronson, 1994), II, 387-88.  All subsequent quotations from Fairbairn are from this essay. 

                  (24)Hanna Segal, Dream, Phantasy and Art (London and New York:  Tavistock/Routledge, 1991), 41-42.  All subsequent quotations from Segal are from this essay. 

                  (25)Michael Balint, “Notes on the Dissolution of Object-Representation in Modern Art,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 10 (June 1952):326.  Reprinted in Michael Balint, Problems of Human Pleasure and Behaviour (London:  Maresfield Library, 1987), 117-24.  All subsequent quotations from Balint are from this essay.

                  It is worth noting that the anthropologist and psychologist Daniel Nettel, coming from a different psychological perspective, says something similar to Balint.  In Strong Imagination:  Madness, Creativity and Human Nature (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2000), a study of the relationship of psychoticism and creativity, Nettel writes, 179:  “Successful cultural creations must chime with what we already know and perceive about the world, connect with our prior experiences and expectations, and lodge themselves in our minds because they hook up with meanings we already have stored.  On the other hand, anything that only does this is instantly forgettable, and will not be valued in the long run.  Enduring art has an element of originality or innovation, of going beyond existing genres and traditions, of putting a personal stamp, of varying the theme, of throwing an inexhaustible and enduring bit of surprise into general comprehensibility.  Enduring culture fills the mental bucket of its audience, and overflows a bit.  Mediocre culture merely fills the bucket.  Avant-garde culture often misses the bucket altogether, and as a result remains a minority interest, suspected by many to be nothing more than a mess on the floor.”

(26)Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, “Perversion and the Universal Law,” International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 10 (1983):295

(27)William Gass, “The Vicissitudes of the Avant-Garde,” Finding A Form (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 201.  All subsequent quotations from Gass are from this essay.

(28)Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, Creativity and Perversion (London:  Free Association Books, 1985), 141

(29)Julian Spalding, The Eclipse of Art (Munich and New York:  Prestel, 2003), 76

(30)Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power (New York:  Vintage, 1968), 421.  All subsequent quotations from Nietzsche are from this book.

(31)Donald Kuspit, “Marcel Duchamp, Imposter Artist,” Idiosyncratic Identities:  Artists at the End of the Avant-Garde (New York:                     Cambridge University Press, 1996), 64-70 

(32)Michael Balint, Thrills and Regressions (London:  Maresfield Library, 1987), 26 writes:  “All thrills [presumably including avant-garde thrills] entail the leaving and repairing of security.”  “The pleasure experienced in either of these two phases—that is, either when staying in security [ocnophilia] or when leaving it in order to return to it [philobatism]—are very primitive…it seems that to hold on to something, to have something in one’s hand, is more primitive [regressive] and more general than being independent, completely on one’s own, with hands empty.  The things we cling to—ocnophilic objects—appear in the first instance to be symbols of security, that is, the safe, loving mother.”

(33)Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (New York:  Norton, 1945), 408 

(34)Phyllis Greenacre, “The Relation of the Imposter to the Artist,” Emotional Growth:  Psychoanalytic Studies of the Gifted and a                            Great Variety of Other Individuals (New York:  International Universities Press, 1971), II, 533

(35)D. W. Winnicott, “Creativity and Its Origins,” Playing and Reality (London and New York:  Tavistock and Methuen, 1982), 65

(36)Bertram D. Lewin, The Image and the Past (New York:  International Universities Press, 1968), 71

(37)T. W. Adorno, “Sociology of Art and Music,” Aspects of Sociology (Boston:  Beacon Press, 1972), 113

(38)Joyce McDougall, Plea for a Measure of Abnormality (New York:  Brunner/Mazel, 1978), 483

(39)Quoted in Richard Nisbet, Sociology as an Art Form (London:  Oxford University Press, 1976), 12

(40)James Thurber, “The Secret Life of James Thurber,” The Art of the Personal Essay:  An Anthology from the Classical Era to the                          Present, ed. Philip Lopate (New York:  Anchor Doubleday, 1994), 514.  All subsequent quotations from Thurber are from this essay.  

(41)Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (New York:  Viking, 1977), 24.  All subsequent quotations from Duchamp 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.

view all articles from this author