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Donald Kuspit on Delayed Gratification And Immediate Gratification Art: A Theory Of The Lived Experience Of Art

  Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), 1950, oil, enamel, and aluminum on canvas. Courtesy of Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund. 

By DONALD KUSPIT April, 2019

Let’s make a comparison:  between Raphael’s School of Athens, 1509-1511 and Jackson Pollock’s Number 1 (Lavender Mist), 1950.  The former is a masterpiece by a great Old Master, the latter a masterpiece by a great New Master.  For all their obvious differences, both are grand, consummate, ambitious works of art, as their measurements indicate:  the School of Athens is 16’ 5” by 25’ 3”, Number 1 (Lavender Mist) is 87” by 118”.  Art historically speaking, the former epitomizes the ideas and ideals of the “great tradition,” as Charles Baudelaire called it as he mourned its death, even as he was present at the birth of “the tradition of the new,” as Harold Rosenberg called it, serving as its critical midwife and enthusiastic celebrant, not to say aggressive advocate.  What could be more different:  Raphael’s rationally constructed, conceived, and self-contained fresco, coherent and refined to the last linear detail, and Pollock’s irrational, seemingly uncontainable painting, each raw painterly detail indicative of an incoherent, even disintegrating whole, however much they seem to impinge on each other to form a kind of generative matrix.  Raphael’s painting has a finished, finalized look, Pollock’s seems in perpetual unfinished turbulent process.  It is all about becoming, a Heracleitean stream of paint in which we can’t step in twice let alone find our footing and stop let alone rest in, while Raphael’s painting is all about being, a grandly unchanging space—the architecture of heaven itself—inhabited by ideal human beings, models of what it means to be transcendentally human and thus truly memorable, indeed, immortal.

Raphael, The School of Athens, 1509-11, Fresco painting.

What could be more irreconcilable:  Raphael’s meticulously executed fresco, representing Philosophy, the central figures of Aristotle and Plato epitomizing it, their harmonious togetherness implying that their different philosophies complement each other, make common intellectual cause however different—superior, dignified human beings of sound mind and body, upright and articulate, speaking their minds clearly and forthrightly, presenting ideas of enduring significance, foundational theories of every discipline and Weltanschaung—and Pollock’s murky, inarticulate painting, a so-called abstract expression of emotion, its intensity compensating for its mindlessness.  It rejects everything that the thoughtful figures in Raphael’s fresco represent.  Noteworthily, Pollock dripped--flung is a better word--paint on a canvas placed on a floor.  It is a simplistic, oddly careless naive way of painting, peculiarly primitive not to say infantile, all but undisciplined compared to Raphael’s disciplined way of painting on a wall, the awesome, uplifting result at odds with Pollock’s peculiarly bound-to-earth painting.  Intellectual mysticism is certainly far from atmospheric mist.  Does the difference have something to do with the fact that Pollock looked down to paint and Raphael looked up to paint?  Indeed, it made all the difference:  the School of New York, with Pollock its most prominent member, is the absolute opposite of the School of Athens—an emotional hell compared to its cognitive heaven.  Pollock’s painting is a product of the unconscious—“the source of my painting is the unconscious,” he said in 1947, one year after he painted The Blue Unconscious--and as such a sort of primary process painting, while Raphael’s painting is a product of the conscious, and as such a sort of secondary process painting, to use Freud’s distinction.(1)  The twain never meet, just as Old Master style and method and New Master style and method never meet.  

Jackson Pollock

I am making this comparison to suggest that, experientially, Raphael’s work is more gratifying in the long run—affords deeper if delayed pleasure, and as such is ultimately more emotionally as well as cognitively rewarding, and thus more meaningful and humanizing than Pollock’s emotionally regressive and intellectually vacuous painting, however exciting it undoubtedly is in the short run.  It makes fewer demands on us than Raphael’s painting, which is slower and harder to get however much we are “taken” in by its space at first glance—seem to find a place in its majestic space, its inviting steps drawing us into it.  There is no place to stand in Pollock’s painting; the Sturm und Drang of the black lines that streak across its atmospheric chaos are as unstable as its flickering gestures.  Dramatically meteoric, the lines are as black as death, the flickering of the gestures hint of disintegration.  In short, I am arguing that the delayed gratification that Raphael’s painting affords is emotionally and cognitively maturing, and as such adult compared to Pollock’s painting, which affords instant or immediate gratification, bringing with it what Baudelaire called the childish “sensation of newness,”(2) not to say the infantile illusion of undying freshness, and then dissolves into the unhealthy blur of oblivion.  The blurriness of Pollock’s painting confirms that it is unreflective—naively concrete or literal, it lacks meaning beyond itself, and with that is finally meaningless, for meaningfulness is dialectically generated in the relationship of a subject and an object, and there are no objects in Pollock’s subjective abstractions.  More particularly, there are no personal objects in them, to use a psychoanalytic term, no hints of so-called significant others, no acknowledgement of exterior reality, suggesting their deeply narcissistic character.  There is nothing behind the veil of Pollock’s mist.  Mist hides rather than contains, and the much noted energy of Pollock’s painting—noteworthily, the work is displayed without an inhibiting frame, for the manic painterliness is uncontainable and exhibitionistic—hides its emptiness.  The painterly gestures are in effect a veil over a narcissistic void.  Mist mystifies rather than reveals, the clarity of Raphael’s painting is a revelation.

Presumed portrait of Raphael

Pollock’s painting leaves us unreflective, not to say mindless, more pointedly unable to mentalize, as the alcoholic, profoundly disturbed, mentally unstable, not to say emotionally incapacitated, Pollock was.(3)  Raphael’s figures—even the melancholy Michaelangelo reclining on the steps—are pictures of mental health compared to Pollock, just as The School of Athens is a healthy and health-giving painting compared to Pollock’s oddly pathetic—not to say psychopathological(4)--Number 1 (Lavender Mist).  The depression that lurks within it is signaled by the agonized black streaks that chaotically crisscross and cut through the sugarcoating of atmospheric color.  The bad affect signaled by them destructively undermines the good affect signaled by the tepid color.  To use Freud’s distinction, one might say there is a conflict between the death instinct, conveyed by the aggressive streaks, and the life instinct, conveyed by the color, the lukewarm lavender suggesting that it is less strong and insistent—certainly more uncertain—than the death instinct.  Pollock’s lavender mist is thin atmosphere compared to the slashing black lines that disruptively break through it, cutting it to the quick like sword strokes.  At once fragmented and conflicted, Pollock’s painting is tormented beyond repair.  There’s certainly nothing tranquil about it compared to Raphael’s painting—a harmonious gathering of very different figures who nonetheless retain their individuality and distinctiveness, who are not dissolved into some amorphous mess, which is what Pollock’s painting finally is.  

As has been said, it is as full of energy—the energy of instinct—as a child, reminding us that all mental illness is regression to childhood, as Freud wrote.(5)  As such Pollock’s art is not what psychoanalysts call a “regression in the service of the ego,” but rather a regression to raw instinct from refined ego—the refined ego of Raphael’s painting and figures.  “Where id is, there ego shall be,” Freud declared, that is, where one was once a child at the mercy of one’s instincts, one becomes an adult in control of them, and able to use their energy for civilizing and civilized purposes—as Raphael’s painting does.  But Pollock’s painting declares that “where ego is, there id shall be,” and with that asserts that where civilized art—Old Master art—was, there barbaric art shall be.  Instinct is barbaric, and Pollock’s paintings are unapologetically barbaric.  Pollock’s art is regression for the sake of regression:  with Pollock’s art the apocalypse has arrived.

Sigmund Freud in his office

The so-called “sensation of the new”—the ideal of modern art since Baudelaire elevated it into proof of authenticity—afforded by Pollock’s “automatist” technique of painting (inherently barbaric) sharply contrasts with the sense of the age-old and timeless afforded by Raphael’s civilized painting.  To be new is to be modern, to be in tune with one’s times, or to be topical, as Lawrence Alloway said.  In contrast, to be an Old Master is to show the timeless in the timely, the age-old in the fashionably new, the eternal in the transient, the depth in the shallow, the enigmatic in the empirical, the numinous in the phenomenon, the archetypal in the typical.  It is to encourage reflection rather than fascination, to use sight to catalyze insight, to use technique as a means to an imaginative end rather than an end in itself, more pointedly, to regard the material medium as the essential substance of art, which is what it is in Pollock’s painting.  Pollock’s unreflective technique of painting contrasts sharply with Raphael’s reflective technique of painting:  carelessness is not carefreeness, but an abandonment of careful reflection.  Automatism is the method of madness—one may recall that André Breton’s and Phillippe Soupault’s “experiments” in automatist writing together dead-ended in aggression and conflict, not to say madness—which is where Pollock’s paintings dead-end.  It is worth emphasizing that automatism and spontaneity are antithetical, for a spontaneous expression is a eureka moment of insight, and as such a contribution to consciousness, rationality, and knowledge, while an automatist expression is an assertion of the unconscious, and as such inherently barbaric, irrational, and stupid. 

Philippe Soupault, ca 1920 -by Henri Martinie

The difference between Pollock’s Number 1 (Lavender Mist) and Raphael’s School of Athens is the difference between an infantile, crude, unripe painting, emblematic of the insanity, inconsiderateness, recklessness, and mindlessness of the unconscious, and a mature painting, a painting in which “ripeness is all,” a painting that is the considered product of thought-filled consciousness, a painting of the mind in all its complexity rather than of the simplistic unconscious.  Raphael’s masterful control of paint—his patient handling--makes for a truly “fine art,” while Pollock’s impatient dependence on the accidental and incidental makes for an oddly artless art.  It may be instantly gratifying because it is regressively instinctive, and thus puts one in an infantile frame of mind—one has more sensations than thoughts when one is an infant--but it will not have the lasting positive effect that comes with the time, patience, and thoughtfulness that Raphael’s adult, philosophical painting demands, rewards, and inspires.  In short, I am arguing that Pollock’s art demands to be seen through the lens of his psychopathology, much documented and lifelong, just as Raphael’s art demands to be seen through the lens of his intellectuality and humanism.  The formal characteristics of their art are unavoidably influenced and informed by their different belief systems, for psychoanalysis, which prioritizes the unconscious, as much as humanism, which prioritizes the conscious, is a belief system.

In delayed gratification the Old is recovered, the Old being what has a patina of meaning and value, accorded or given it by some socializing metanarrative, traditionally the story of the pagan gods or the Christian saints, precursors of the aristocrats featured in much art, and of ordinary people made aristocratic by art, such as those Rembrandt and Van Gogh, among others, portrayed.  Such socializing metanarrative neutralizes the “sensation of the new” by containing it, confirming that it is no more than a passing fancy, an incidental--certainly not fully lived--experience of being.  By its nature it cannot last—it is like a shooting star, flaming as brightly as a meteor before it vanishes into darkness, passes with the passage of time, dissolves in its perpetual motion.  

Vincent van Gogh, The Mulberry Tree, 1889, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Norton Simon Art Foundation.

Everything is immediate, that is, unmediated by time, unchanged by time, static in illusory timelessness.  I suggest that the modern and expressionistic pursuit of immediacy—the sensation of newness—that climaxed in Pollock began with Van Gogh, his Mulberry Tree, 1889 being a prime example.  Consummately immediate and perpetually fresh, it exists in Paradise alongside the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Humankind was forbidden to eat its fruit, for to do so is to develop a conscience, that is, to know the difference between good and evil, and with that between life and death.  The feeling of guilt replaces the feeling of freshness, and one becomes wise to the ways of the psyche as well as the world.  It seems modern art and modern society’s pursuit of the fleeting sensation of newness is an anxiety-ridden attempt to recover the feeling of freshness that seems to have disappeared forever when one becomes moral and with that civilized and adult—when the reality principle replaces the pleasure principle.  Ezra Pound’s motto “make it new” and the selling power of a new package on an old product are kissing cousins.  Newness sells—it’s a marketing device, whether what is marketed is art or toothpaste.  But newness has become old, suggesting it’s time for art to make it old.         

Nicholas Poussin, Et in Arcadia ego, 1637-1638, oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre.

Delayed gratification is something like the moment of recognition of death in paradise in Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego, ca. 1630 and ca. 1655.  In Arcadia everything is New, fresh, born today, has no yesterday, no tomorrow.  When the shepherds realize there is death--and implicitly suffering--in Arcadia, when they become conscious of the fact that paradise is “tainted”—Poussin shows them at the moment they become conscious of the fact that paradise is corrupted by death (it is certainly not a sensation of the new, but rather of the old, as the old tomb they discover suggests)—they slowly but surely realize that death is what makes it meaningful.  In this eureka moment of awakening consciousness—this delayed recognition of the reality of death, typical of youth, who think they will be young forever, for they are unconscious, certainly incompletely conscious of time—they come to own their existence, for they realize that the poignant dialectic of the paradise of youth and the death that inevitably comes with old age is its substance.  Their golden youth is tarnished by age-old death; the realization that youth is short and death is long is the beginning of wisdom.  As the saying goes, nothing concentrates the mind so much as the thought of death.  The shepherds will suffer from time, grow old and die, and disappear in time, but they will become memorable because their immediacy is mediated by art, aesthetically transformed into mythopoetic beings, made into things of magical beauty, idealized beyond recognition, even as they become a relic among relics in the catacomb of culture, for art is a disguise of death, a reification of presence.  Sensational newness, affording  immediate gratification, is aborted time, just as immediate gratification is aborted experience, suggesting that Pollock’s art is an aborted art, or at least a stunted, strangely simple--one-dimensional-- art, an art in a state of arrested emotional development, an art of reified Newness, unlike Raphael’s adult art, delaying gratification by reason of its multi-dimensionality—the complexity of the age-old consciousness that informs it--and with that enriching our experience of life as well as art.  

Finally, one might note, as an aside, that with the collapse of the grand narratives of antiquity, Christianity, aristocracy, and humanism—socially sanctioned myths of meaning and modes of representation—art loses its social foundation and purpose and becomes subjective and hyper-individualistic, and with that becomes a theoretical or speculative enterprise.  That is, modern art--abstract art in particular--uses theory to justify and defend itself from meaninglessness, and proclaim its profound significance, indeed, its greater depth and insight than traditional representational socializing not to say civilizing art.  Theories of modern art are artificial substitutes—intellectual constructions—for the grand metanarratives of tradition.  The latter are foundational to society, and as such inseparable from it, and hold it organically together—give it its integrity.  In contrast, theories of modern art, however much they present themselves as guides to its meaning and privilege it as unique and unprecedented and thus warranting special attention—presumably everyday consciousness will not suffice to comprehend it, for unless it is approached with the sophisticated consciousness of theory one can only have a false consciousness of it—sometimes seem to have something in common with the Emperor’s New Clothes.  For such modern theories, whatever insight and access they may afford into modern art, unwittingly serve as window-dressing—publicity or advertising—for it, and with that unexpectedly incorporate or assimilate it into what the social philosopher Guy Debord calls “the society of the spectacle.”  This makes it available for mass consumption, which strips it of its privileged place in society, not to say its self-privileging, which its self-theorizing--clearly evident in Kandinsky’s--serves.  The modern artist’s theorizing of art has an ulterior motive, however unwittingly.   

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition V, 1911

Assimilated into mass culture, modern art becomes part of mass entertainment, the fate Stravinsky’s avant-garde music—his Rite of Spring, 1913--suffered when it was used as background music in Walt Disney’s popular Fantasia, 1940.  Did that make Stravinsky a cartoonist?  It certainly made his music newsworthy, and with that peculiarly inauthentic, for it became another detail of dailiness, which, as the philosopher Martin Heidegger suggests, undermines its existential significance.  Perhaps more to the point, it lost its revolutionary significance—rebellious fervor--and became a reified cliché.  Its Disneyfied version—Disney apparently changed some of its details, muting its sexual meaning by using it to illustrate the creation of the earth, volcanos, and dinosaurs--no longer spoke to the human condition.  It lost the psychological veracity that made it truly radical:  at its first performance the passion that gave it power upset—overpowered--the public, all the more so because it was relentless, insistent with raw instinct not to say immodest desire, made emphatic by the insistent rhythms, barely containing its urgency—as it originally did.  Strange as it may seem to say so, Kandinsky’s theory of abstract art unwittingly undermined its revolutionary formalism—its dispensing with the representation of objects, a supposed purification of the temple of art—by regarding it as an expression of pure spirituality, and as such continuous—ironically--with traditional orthodox religion.  Let us recall that Kandinsky wanted the perception of a color-saturated abstract painting to be as spiritually uplifting and awesome as the perception of the color-saturated interior of a Russian orthodox church.  The Blue Rider is St. George in search of a dragon to slay—the dragon of materialism, as Kandinsky said.  

Igor Stravinsky

He wants us to look at his abstract paintings with childlike wonder—feel them rather than think about them, feel their spirit rather than analyze them.  At one point he said children’s art was more alive with feeling than adult art and as such superior to and more meaningful than it, ignoring the fact that children have little experience of life and are barbarians, that is, have a primitive mentality and outlook on life, let alone a mature critical consciousness.  I suggest that Kandinsky had a God complex, certainly a Messiah complex; he wants us to worship his sacred art like little children before the altar of God.  Kandinsky’s elevation of introverted abstraction, concerned with internal reality or feeling, over extroverted representation, concerned with external reality or worldly objects, is the classic case of what T. S. Eliot called the dissociation of sensibility in modern art.  More to the human point, the  splitting of art into opposing factions is a dubious Solomonic wisdom that sells art experientially short.  

I am arguing that with the discrediting of traditional psychosocial meta-narratives during the course of the industrial and technological revolution, a split develops between the psychological and the social--the internal and the external, the subjective and objective in art as well as life:  the dissociation of sensibility is a symptom of the irreparably divided self of modern man, socially objectified in the ongoing world-wide wars of modern times, not to say the ongoing war between abstraction and representation, not to say concept and practice as well as imagination and technique, that haunts modern art.  More exactly, it seems that art has become increasingly psychological and less sociological —more of emotional interest than social interest, more concerned with inner life than social life--and with that more abstract than realistic.  For the internal reality of the psyche cannot be represented directly, since the psyche is not visible the way the physical body is, and as such is peculiarly abstract—subtly immaterial, and with that peculiarly insidious, for it insinuates meaning rather than proclaims it--compared to the body.  Indeed, I suggest that abstract art—refined to emotional irrelevance in conceptual art--is a peculiar mortification of the body of art, more broadly, a mortification of the body of nature—of all that is natural in the lifeworld.  I venture to say that it is a strangely perverse asceticism, if perversion is the erotic form of hatred, as the psychoanalyst Robert Stoller argues it is.  I call your attention to the aggression in Pollock’s painterliness, and his aggressive method of painting, and the violence done to nature in Number One (Lavender Mist), a perversely erotic abstraction from it, a sort of flaying it alive, suggesting unconscious hatred of it, for it is not man-made art. 

What is going on in the psyche—what feelings occur in it, what convictions it has—can only be inferred by way of the symbols it uses to make itself manifest, that is, express itself and communicate with other psyches.  In a sense, there is no such thing as pure abstraction, for abstraction is a mode of subjective symbolism, that is, the representation of the subjective—feelings--by way of the objective—observed facts--without denying the objectivity or matter-of-factness of the object.  Art historically speaking, so called non-objective art—seemingly pure or absolute art, that is, abstraction not compromised by or bound to objects--developed out of impure symbolist art, that is, art that appropriates and uses observed objects to represent or articulate and with that communicate seemingly inarticulate and obscure feelings.  In symbolist art, objects are de-objectified and subjectified, that is, become carriers of feeling.  Objects are not dispensed with, not to say denied, as they are in non-objective or pure abstract art, which uses their residue of lines and colors--implicitly the bones and flesh, not to say raw remains, of the objects it has destroyed and consumed--to make its sensational aesthetic point, which is why it is immediately gratifying.  The symbolist artist projects his or her feelings into objects, and with that displaces them from the psyche into the world—externalizes them so that they become socially available and generally convincing, credible rather than incredible, clear rather than obscure, understood rather than enigmatic.  At the same time, and by the same spontaneous unconscious act of identifying with external objects, the symbolist artist internalizes them, so that they become an inseparable and foundational aspect of his or her self.  The conversion of external objects into what psychoanalysts call internal objects, and what the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut calls self-objects—oddly abstract representations of objects that become inalienable and indispensable parts of the self, a constellation of feeling-full objects that form its dynamic core—is what symbolist art at its most convincing accomplishes.  It is deeply engaging because it enacts for us our own internal processing of objects, that is, it makes us aware of the objects we unconsciously identify with—objects that embody our feelings.  They are the psycho-realistic subject matter of subtly abstract symbolic art, brilliantly exemplified by the bizarre objects pictured in Redon’s In the Dream, 1879, confirming that abstract symbolist works are in effect and principle dreams.   

Odilon Redon, Sur la coupe (In the section), 1879, lithography, paper.

Such art did not need theory to support it:  Redon’s abstract symbolism exists in the realm of and is the product of imagination.  It mediates between the subjective and objective, contains and fuses them—overcomes the dissociation of sensibility.  In contrast, pure abstraction—the art of Kandinsky et al—maintains the dissociation in ironic form, for lines and colors, geomorphic shapes and biomorphic marks, are not material objects in the sense that everyday things and human bodies are, but rather abstracted—extracted--from them.  They are then treated as things in themselves, or rather forms in themselves, and as such inherently perfect in contrast to everyday things and human bodies, imperfect by definition and nature, for all naturally given things are imperfect from the perspective of pure art, art which idolizes form, celebrates form for the sake of form.  But pure forms are reductive distillations and attenuations of impure matter, and with that suppress, even deny its reality, as Kandinsky does when he uses the scientific “electron theory—i.e., the theory of moving electricity, which is supposed completely to replace matter,”(6) to justify his abstract art.  It is supposedly full of moving electricity, in the form of impulsive line and intense color, rather than the matter-of-fact reality from which they are derived and dissociated.  Dynamic, electrifying pure forms, be they linear or coloristic, or some combination of both, gain their artistic credibility through theory:  in modern art theory replaces psychosocial narrative, as I have argued, rescuing abstract art from psychosocial insignificance not to say irrelevance.  Without theory abstract art or formalism, supposedly epitomizing modern art not to say the modern mentality, and seemingly more concerned with technique (“handling”) than imagination (“vision”), and with lines and colors--the data of art—rather than their human meaning, and as such oddly aligned with science—the modernist critic Clement Greenberg thought formalism exemplified positivism, I would add it exemplifies what I call techno-bureaucracy--is all but meaningless.  Think of all the theories of modern art, famously collected by the art historian Herschel Chipp, busily explaining and rationalizing it to the unenlightened public:  without these theories—often contradicting each other--modern art would be at a loss, that is, not self-evidently meaningful or inherently profound, as, say a painting or sculpture of a face or a body can be, and they are in themselves.  Modern art has to be explained, justified, made intelligible—an advocate of it such as the socio-aesthetician T. W. Adorno celebrated its unintelligibility--before it can be seriously experienced.  Without its theorization it may seem a degeneration of art, as the Nazis thought.  No doubt, once theorized—once it is regenerated by theory, as it were--it becomes profoundly meaningful, at least if we believe that subjectivity is more important than objectivity, that feelings are more important than facts, or that one can exist without the other, whether complementing each other or at odds with each other. 

Theory does not merely supplement abstract art, as though it is secondary to its visual point, but makes it more gratifying than it would otherwise be—than it is at first thrilling sight.  For theory adds cognitive significance to it, delaying the pleasure it gives us, indeed, deepening it, for theory compels us to linger over it, give it more attention than we might be inclined to give it, give it a second reflective look after the aesthetic pleasure it instantly affords wears thin.  Deciding whether the theory truly applies to the abstract art—let alone makes sense in itself, and thus may make sense of the abstract art—and with that overcoming the skepticism or letdown that often follows the exhilaration it suddenly affords—for Greenberg the sign and proof of its significance and value—causes us to delay our response to it, which deepens our experience of it, so that it has a lasting, perhaps transformative rather than transient, uninformative effect on us.  Theory determines whether we see pure abstract art as a passing fancy or profoundly imaginative, and thus authentic durable art rather than momentarily intoxicating entertainment.  In short, unless we see abstract art through the lens of theory—the modern replacement for the traditional metanarrative—it leaves us in a lurch, for the sensations it affords have no staying power.  Theory gives abstract art the cognitive consequence it would otherwise not have.  Without theory abstract art leaves us stranded in sensationalism, bringing with it the illusion of newness. WM

 

Notes

(1)”Primary psychic process.  Freud’s term for the laws that govern unconscious processes; used to refer to a type of thinking, characteristic of childhood (and dreams), and/or to the way in which libidinal or aggressive energy is mobilized and discharged.  The basic characteristics of the primary process are a tendency to immediate discharge of drive energy (i.e. immediate gratification) and an extreme mobility of cathexis….Primary process thinking is characterized by the absence of any negatives, conditionals, or other qualifying conjunctions; by the lack of any sense of time….”  Robert J. Campbell, Psychiatric Dictionary (New York and Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1981; 5th edition), 484-485.  “Secondary psychic process.  A name given by Freud to the laws that regulate events if the preconscious or ego.  The ego is that part of the individual’s mental apparatus that regulates the discharge of excitations arising either from external stimuli or internal stimuli (instinctual demands)…. (The dangers of instinctual demands are, first, that their satisfaction might involve dangers in the external world, and, second, that an excessive strength of instinct can damage the organization of the ego.)  By means of its faculties of judgment and intelligence, by the application of logic and reality-testing, the ego blocks the tendency of the instincts toward immediate discharge.”  Ibid., 485.

More broadly, the Cognitive-affective theory of self-regulation “suggests that the delaying gratification results from an ability to use ‘cool’ regulatory strategies (i.e., calm, controlled and cognitive strategies) over ‘hot’ regulatory strategies (i.e., emotional, impulsive, automatic reactions).”  In short, “delayed gratification, or deferred gratification, describes the process that the subject undergoes when the subject resists the temptation of immediate reward in preference for a later reward.  Generally, delayed gratification is associated with resisting a smaller but more immediate reward in order to receive a larger or more enduring reward later.  A growing body of literature has linked the ability to delay gratification to a host of other positive outcomes, including academic success, physical health, psychological health, and social competence.”  (Wikipedia)

Noteworthily with respect to my analysis of Pollock’s impulsive art, “impulsivity, or a lack of ego-control” is characteristic of children:  “children under five years old demonstrate a marked lack of delayed gratification ability and most commonly seek immediate gratification.”  This accords with my idea of the child-like character of Pollock’s painting.  It is the grand climax of Baudelaire’s elevation of the child as the model of the modern—dare one say avant-garde—artist, that is, the artist drunk on newness (to refer to the next footnote).  

(2)Charles Baudelaire, “The Salon of 1859,” The Mirror of Art:  Critical Studies, ed. Jonathan Mayne (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1956), 235.  The sensation of newness—freshness--is by definition  transient, for it quickly becomes old and stale.  It is an “infantile mania,” as he writes, “a first metaphysical tendency,” that is, psychological tendency.  “A Philosophy of Toys,” The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (London and New York:  Phaidon, 2006), 204.  Or, as he writes in “The Painter of Modern Life,” 8, “The child sees everything in a state of newness; he is always drunk.”  To this one might add Kandinsky’s remark that “the artist…is similar in many ways to the child throughout his life.”  Quoted in Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley and London:  University of California Press, 1971), 168.  One wonders if the sensation of newness is a hallucination, that is, seeing everything in a state of newness is to be constantly hallucinating, considering that one tends to hallucinate when one is drunk, that is, to have “false sensory perceptions,” Campbell, 274.  A hallucination is “an apparent perception of an external object when no such object is present,” Campbell, 272.  

One wonders if the alcoholic Pollock was hallucinating as he painted—whether painting for him was a substitute for drinking, which perhaps explains the “rush” of the paint and the “rushed” way he painted, that is, the “high” of painting was equivalent to the “high” of drinking.  Painting in a kind of drunken state—drunk on paint, as his paintings suggest—Pollock may have hallucinated objects in the paint, that is, had a hallucinatory experience of what psychoanalysts call internal objects, which is perhaps why he projectively identified with paint.  The critic Clement Greenberg, who supported and celebrated Pollock’s painting, also exaggerated the significance of the material medium of paint, perhaps because it was a kind of denser alcohol.  

(3)For an interpretive analysis of the drawings made during his analysis with the Jungian Dr. Joseph Henderson see my essay “An Alternative Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Jackson Pollock’s Psychoanalytic Drawings” in my book Signs of Psyche in Modern and Postmodern Art (Cambridge, UK and New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1993), 121-135.  

(4)See my essay “Avant-Garde Psychopathology” in White Hot Magazine (online) for a discussion of the psychoanalytic reading of avant-garde art, generally regarded as psychopathological in import.  The point is made explicitly by the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, who states that “through modern art we experience the undoing of the processes that constitute sanity and psycho-neurotic defense organizations, and the safety-first principle.”  That is, through modern art we are “able, so to speak, flirt with the psychosis.”  “Psycho-Neurosis in Childhood,” Psycho-Analytic Explorations (Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 1989), 71.  The psychoanalysts I cite in my essay think it is more than a flirtation.  

 (5)According to Freud, “the essence of mental disease lies in a return to earlier conditions of affective life and functioning.”  “Reflections Upon War and Death,” Character and Culture (New York:  Collier, 1963), 119

(6)Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, “On the Spiritual in Art and Painting in Particular,” Kandinsky:  Complete Writings on Art (New York:  Da Capo Press, 1994), 142

Donald Kuspit

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

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