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The Psychology of Art (II)

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in psychology, originally published in issue 25 - February 1998

Starting from the perspective of William Blake's "Energy is eternal delight", this article is a theoretical speculation on the origin of artistic creativity which expands psychological theory in a new direction. Since Freud admitted that "the nature of artistic achievement is inaccessible to us psychoanalytically", an alternative theory of the aesthetic appreciation of art and nature as well as artistic creation is presented, drawing on ideas from Reichian bioenergetics, existential psychology, Otto Rank, and the gestalt therapy approach of Fritz Perls.

In the last issue of Positive Health, I tried to show that a reinterpretation of creativity is needed, including here both scientific and artistic creativity (which are closely related), by looking at their natural roots, not in terms of pathology.

Living organisms may be described as pulsations of energy within structures of matter. All forms of life are charged with energy that is constantly being tensed and discharged. This pulsating cycle – life's natural rhythm of expansion and concentration may be summarised as: tension-charge-discharge-relaxation. In the varied functions of breathing, orgastic pulsation, the circulation of the blood and other basic rhythms, we see that the organism first expands outward and then contracts. In human consciousness, this rhythm takes the form of looking outward and then looking inward, of perceiving and then conceiving; of seeing and then understanding. At its most intense, this rhythm takes the form of an alternation of vision and theory. Art and science share this common rhythm, but art puts the accent on vision, science on theory.

Painters must first have a vision of a landscape; then they resort to technique to reproduce their vision. Even abstract painting, even music, are representational in this sense – of rendering symbolic representation of states of feeling. Now scientists need to have a vision, too, and then they embody it in their theory. The difference is that in art the technique subserves the vision. Thus, the essential technique in oil painting is the brush stroke. When the Venetian masters, Giorgione, Tintoretto, and Titian made the brush stroke visible, they made the technique part of the vision. Rembrandt did the same with the technique of chiaroscuro. To some degree, every successful artist does this, because if the technique itself is not part of the vision, then the statement of the vision becomes flat and inartistic.

The basis of both art and science is the joy in functioning, the pleasure in exploring the environment. One of the most fundamental functional splits in human creativity is that between art and science. However, these can be understood as two branches of the more primary behaviour pattern labelled exploring. Such primitive acts as sucking, eating, grasping, and defecating come under this broad rubric of "exploratory modification of the environment", and in a very general sense, they may be considered the precursors of art and science. But science may be conceived as having its special beginning when the recently born organism begins to look around enquiringly. In this connection, one eminent psychologist compared scientific curiosity to the sniffing around of a puppy. But even before newborn infants look around inquiringly, their senses are awakened by particularly attractive stimuli, such as shining light or a bright colour, and they respond with pleasure and admiration, as may be seen by observing the facial expressions of a baby. This admiration is the beginning of the sense of the beautiful, out of which appreciation and creation of art both grow.

Admiration is more primary than curiosity, and art may be considered more purely creative than science. In art the predominant motive usually is creation itself, while in science the predominant motive is the discovery of an explanation, which is a product of the creative process of thought.

It is common knowledge that children have artistic talent as an original capacity. Unfortunately, for most of us this positive trait gets destroyed as part of the process of growing up.

What is it about children's behaviour then that seems superior in this sense to that of most adults? It may be their earnestness, the ability to be involved in a task with total absorption and seriousness, even if that task is something as "unimportant" as, say, play. The average adult gradually gets caught up in "important" everyday responsibilities and can only feign this earnest quality. So we often speak of the adult as "playing games", of only pretending at play. Another childlike capacity that artists brings to their work is spontaneity. By retaining the child's spontaneous outlook along with a more mature ego, the artist can respond at a level somewhere in between infantile unconsciousness and deliberate overcontrolled adult rigidity. Thus, artists can playfully manipulate their material with a concentrated yet open "freshness" that gives the work its unique appeal.

It has often been remarked that many great scientists and artists were emotionally ill. On the other hand, it is generally accepted that creativity is a sign of psychic health. Apparently, artists and scientists are often sicker than other people and healthier This paradox may be resolved by the view of life as a flowing energy system. Health, in this conceptualisation, may be described as the free flowing of energy through the body; and sickness, all sickness, as traceable to the blocking of free energetic flow. Thus, the genius has a stronger energy field than other people, and is therefore healthier. Because of the greater strength of their energy flow, they experience the agony of its blockage more intensely, and therefore are sicker (in a sense) than others. Nietzsche, who knew this "paradox of the crucifixion" at first hand, said that the extent of a person's health could be measured by the amount of sickness he or she could endure.

In this view, life itself, including human life, is the working of the creative process, and therefore healthy human beings are procreative, as all other mammals are, and also symbolically creative, as all healthy human beings can be.

In conclusion, I offer a tentative definition of art as the admiring exploration and manipulation of the environment. It is one of the chief virtues of this definition that it includes aesthetic appreciation of both art and nature, as well as artistic creation. Both appreciation and creation emerge from the energetic stream of admiring exploration.


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email:

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