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The Psychology of Art (I)

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

listed in psychology, originally published in issue 24 - January 1998

Ever since Freud first ventured into the problems of creativity, psychoanalysis has stressed the darker, negative aspects of art. Plato, long ago, noted that the artist was divinely inspired and therefore mad. Freud's classical theory of the psychogenesis of art – that art arises from sublimation of sexuality – is now well-known and respectable. But is it accurate in today's world?

The creations of the artist, in Freud's view, are primarily an expression of the creator's unresolved neurotic conflicts – usually sexual conflicts. The artist is pictured as a sexually-frustrated childish neurotic, who weaves his wild fantasies as a substitute for his unsuccessful attempts at fulfilment in the Real World. His painting may, in the Freudian interpretation, be compared to the symptoms of the neurotic. For Freudians, the artwork is ultimately a mere manifestation of a neurosis, and the artist is always a sick man.

That art has a neurotic source may be readily observed in some instances but obviously there are great artists, the lives of whom reveal little evidence for the universality of this conception. Thus, while Rembrandt's tragic suffering points in this direction, the happy un-neurotic life of Rubens give us a contradictory example.

Following Freud's theory (while overlooking the exceptions), many writers have consequently sought to explain a work of art by delving into the disturbed emotional life of the artist. In their view, the theme of composition is always autobiographical and reflects the artist's own unresolved sexual problems. Freud started this trend with his epochal study of Leonardo da Vinci, which traced the relationship between Leonardo's inverted sexuality and his art.

Yet the point must be emphasised here that many people, not only artists, have endured suffering. A biographer who digs enough can always locate evidence of emotional instability and a pained psyche in everyone. Man's existential Angst is universal. But not all of us utilise this feeling for creative purposes. Why then seek the origin of art in the endless cesspool of man's constant anxiety?

The true well-spring of art come forth from sources deeper than the neurotic symptom, and is the common denominator of our basic humanness. The artist doesn't produce art because of his sickness; his artistic capacity is there first, as a natural development that emerges in spite of his neurosis.

Although this Freudian motif of art as grounded in illness has wide acceptance, many significant objections can be raised against it. Are artists really sexually frustrated? A Kinsey report on artists might actually produce astounding results weighing in the other direction.

True, some artists may fit the notion of subliminated sexuality, but these few ascetics do not generally produce great masterpieces.

Their creations are more likely to be weak, over-sentimentalized spiritual fabrications.

Another common sense and traditional view of creativity, diametrically opposed to the psychoanalytic mode holds that strong eroticism leads to powerful art. Thus, Renoir is reported to have said, "I paint with my penis". Baudelaire and Heine had similar notions. Modern literature, from Henry Miller to Norman Mailer, gives ample evidence for this hypothesis.

It can thus be argued that the psychoanalytic position fails to do justice to the artist. If one compares people from various occupations today, it is difficult to reconcile the analytic opinion of the artists's frustrations with observable reality. Creative people especially artists – can hardly be said to suffer from a lack of sexual or other satisfaction. Picasso, for example, was a man who had a hearty appetite for sex and life, even into his 80s. In all fields of the arts, one can point to those who have shown signs, not of frustration, sickness or lack of zest for life, but on the contrary, many who have carried the full expression of sexuality and richness of life's experiences into their older years: Casals, Kodaly, Victor Hugo, Degas, Goethe, Matisse, just to name a few names.

With this in mind, it might even be said that the creative artist has a rounder, not a sicker attitude toward sex and life. Is it perhaps analysts' Victorian middle-class morality that has shielded this salient fact from them? In order to explore this problem thoroughly, a broader concept of normality is necessary.

Instead of seeing the artist as a maladjusted neurotic monstrosity who has been rejected by the world of "normal" people, we need to turn around this usual categorisation to perceive the artist as the healthiest individual who rejects the limited aspirations of the mundane normal existence: healthy because he is first an individual...and moreover an individual who can create and achieve fulfilment from his productivity. Generally speaking, he is healthier and more sexual than others. If he has been set apart from "normals", it is because they are repressed. Cut off from realising their creative potential, they limit growth and expansion by this loss of a vital developmental function.

The roots of creativity need not be sought in the artist's unconscious, because the act of creation is not, as is widely held, an abnormal function, but a basic natural potentiality of human existence. Creation is found at all levels of life and should be interpreted as indication of vigorous self-expression rather than a compulsive act of warped sexuality. The artist, instead of being a driven, unsatisfied person may be more correctly regarded as one who is fulfilled, who sees more profoundly into life. The true artist can communicate his vision to others; the neurotic, on the other hand, cannot. He tries, but his conflicts prevent him from adequately formulating and communicating his ideas. Even the neurotic, however, may be considered "healthier" than so-called "well-adjusted" normal people.

The neurotic, whatever his hang-ups, is at least striving for growth and fulfilment, which places him in a sense above the "normals", who have given up and lost their capacity for self-expression. They have become merely part of the mass who take things as given.

Passively accepting all, the dull normals of society merely go along with the conceptual framework imposed by the social environment.

The neurotic (who is a kind of "failed artist") rejects this framework in an attempt to construct his own system of ideas.

The artist, rejecting the "normal" foundation, replaces it by building his own individualised vision of life, which he can then successfully express to others.

By taking a broader, phenomenological perspective of the function of creativity, it is possible to avoid Freud's mythological reductionism and pose an alternative theory.


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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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