PRINT November 1987


THERE IS NO DENYING psychoanalysis’ fascination with the artist as a “special case.” As the psychoanalyst John Gedo has shown, by now the “artist type” has been put through every conceptual and theoretical apparatus invented by psychoanalysis.1 Typically, these studies reflect more about the character of psychoanalysis, and about its attitude to the artist and by implication to art, than they tell us about the nature of making art, or about the psychological reasons for making art rather than doing something else. And when they do engage works of art they have almost always regarded them as self-reflexive, symbolic acts of the artist’s psyche rather than as possessing, despite their case-historical dimension, a creative integrity of their own.

For someone in whose life the arts play a serious part—without necessarily being fetishized or overidealized—the whole psychoanalytic understanding of art seems far removed from the experience of it. For example, although that experience is not exclusively esthetic, and certainly has a strong psychological dimension, over and beyond that dimension is a sense of creative reconstruction and reconsideration of reality that is often missed from the psychoanalytic viewpoint. Because of this felt discrepancy between the psychoanalytic approach to art and art’s self-understanding, many artists have been reluctant to accept the psychoanalytic gambit toward art as even minimally heuristic. This is more than the common resistance to analytic understanding, more than the patient’s repression of his or her inner life. It is a defense of art against what seems to be a misunderstanding of it committed by people with no real conviction in it. To the artist, the psychoanalyst adds a twist to the conventional, vulgar attitude to art, the view of art as at best a fortuitous pleasure and more often as the symptom of a maladaptation to reality. Thus it makes sense for the artist to resist psychoanalysis as a threat to his or her very existence: if art is a symptom, surely the cure would mean the elimination of art. This is the artist’s understandable anxiety, but clearly there are many misunderstandings between the two fields, and many points to the paradoxical story.

Successful psychoanalysis really wants to liberate psychic energy, which is essentially creative, from its bondage in symptoms. It has no intention of hindering the artist from making his or her art but rather recognizes that art is a major indicator of creativity, and thus of health. It respects art as a civilized and civilizing source. It sees that if the artist does not live up to his or her own artistic potential, that may be because of commonplace or specific psychic dysfunctions, and it seeks to free the artist—and the art—from those dysfunctions. As Susan Deri remarks, though psychoanalysis “can elicit patients’ authentic form-creative potentials and liberate them from functioning under the auspices of a ‘false self’ and from repetitious fixation on the traumatizing aspects of the past,” it “cannot produce artists.”2 The good psychoanalyst recognizes this, and deals with the artist’s person, and, no doubt, with the meaning to that person of being an artist. Sometimes, during the analytic process, people whose calling is not art may indeed opt not to be artists. In fact, psychoanalysis may strengthen the commitment of convinced artists to their art in the face of “realistic” odds, and it may help them understand more clearly the goals of their art.

In general, however, both psychoanalysts and artists, each in their different ways, have repeated W. B. Yeats’ idea that perfection of the life or of the work is possible, but not both. As Ellen Handler Spitz has pointed out, psychoanalysis generally follows Plato in believing that the artist’s psychopathology, or “madness,” is intense and intractable, “inspiring” him or her to art yet making for a damaged life.3 But psychoanalysis is not alone here; many people follow Plato in this view. This preconception has led to the psychoanalytic correlation of art and madness, a correlation with profound implications yet also a great potential for shallow misuse. Psychoanalysis often seems to suggest that art does not so much overcome madness as intricately reflect it, and that the artist has a more intimate, aware experience of madness than any other human type, apart from the outright mad.

The considerations stretched out so far here on the relations of art and psychoanalysis could take off in a seemingly infinite number of possible examinations of this intricate theme. One could, for example, examine why psychoanalysts seem more attracted to grand literary figures such as Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Goethe than to visual artists, despite the fact that the most influential psychoanalytic theorizing on art is to be found in Freud’s essays on Leonardo and Michelangelo. For Freud, despite his extensive citation of literary artists, visual artists seemed ultimately more interesting, because the visual medium resembles the dream more than the literary narrative does. One could also write about why certain artists hold a special interest for psychoanalysts—why in visual art, for example, expressive, angst-driven work tends to attract more analysis than the Duchampian “art about art” tradition. Or one could proceed through the vast jungle of psychoanalytic literature on art, acknowledging its brilliantly ingenious interpretations here, its peculiar insensitivity to art and artists there. A number of extraordinary examinations of particular artists have been written, such as that of Goethe by Kurt Eissler, of Michelangelo by Robert Liebert, and Freud’s own on Leonardo. A number of writers have in fact worked their way critically through this literature; among the most interesting recent discussions are those by Gedo, Spitz, and Elizabeth Wright.4 These are all important topics. They are not, however, the raison d’être of this essay.

Since its birth, psychoanalysis as a branch of knowledge has been fascinated with the figure of the artist. And basically for just as long, paradoxes have pervaded its discourse on artists. On the one hand the artist has been the model, as it were, for the healthy human being, the person whose mysterious ability to create is made concrete and actual. But the artist has also been seen as more fixated on infantile or primitive processes, in effect more traumatized, than other people. The paradox echoes the psychoanalyst’s ambivalence toward the artist, and ambivalence is the tip of the iceberg.

Freud’s term for his inquiry of 1910 into the unconscious of Leonardo was “pathography,” and as Spitz points out, “pathography implies writing about suffering, illness, or feeling, with important overtones of empathic response on the part of the author for his subject.”5 While Freud never claimed psychoanalysis could “give an account of the way in which artistic activity derives from the primal instincts of the mind,” and asserted that “pathography does not in the least aim at making the great man’s achievements intelligible,”6 the fact is that pathography was the jumping-off point for the development of a theory of artistic creation. Moreover, by reason of its empathic character, pathography implies the special energy—the energy of identification—with which psychoanalysts have pursued artists.

This relationship has many levels. It began in the early days of psychoanalysis, and its roots are partly historical. Psychoanalysis then was deeply suspect intellectually, and unacceptable socially, while art, even if often controversial, was an ingrained, time-honored part of culture. Psychoanalysts saw artists as more socially acceptable than they themselves, yet they also recognized artists as outsiders like themselves. Psychoanalysts also defined themselves as a kind of artist, masters of the “art of interpretation,” as Freud called it.7 The identification persists today, though the social condition of psychoanalysis has changed. Like most identifications, this one involves admiration, empathy, and envy, both the desire to incorporate in oneself a quality one is drawn to in someone else and an uneasy, often unconscious feeling of one’s own lack of that quality. At the same time, such “artist envy” is balanced by the most ordinary psychoanalyst’s unconscious feeling of superiority to the greatest artist, for psychoanalysts see themselves as using the art of interpretation to apply a scientific understanding of the psyche—see themselves as scientists as well as artists. To scientists, after all, art is a way not so much of gaining new knowledge as of expressing in socially novel ways the already known; it is science that they believe to be the field of true discovery. Thus to the psychoanalyst’s artist envy is added the scientist’s implicit contempt for the artist, going back at least to Plato’s banishment of poets from the Republic and his degradation of art as inferior knowledge—an illusion of knowledge hardly worthy of the name.

Freud praised Michelangelo as an “artist in whose works there is so much thought striving for expression,” an artist who “has often enough gone to the utmost limit of what is expressible in art.” Yet Freud’s talk of “the obscurity which surrounds his work” cannot help but imply that Michelangelo has not expressed enough.8 And this extends to the idea that he has not understood enough: how could he have, when obscurity is endemic to his art, and to art in general. The implication is that Michelangelo’s art does not express as much as artful yet scientific psychoanalytic interpretation, which is devoted to eliminating the obscurity surrounding the workings of the human psyche.

Freud admired the playwright and novelist Arthur Schnitzler, who seemed to Freud to intuit truths about the psyche that he himself only discovered through laborious scientific work with patients. Similarly, in his essay “Fear of Breakdown” D. W. Winnicott writes, “Naturally, if what I say has truth in it, this will already have been dealt with by the world’s poets [artists], but the flashes of insight that come in poetry [art] cannot absolve us from our painful task of getting step by step away from ignorance toward our goal.”9 Psychoanalysis, then, has to struggle for its revelations, while art, whatever the inadequacy of its expressions, achieves its understanding spontaneously, at least in this view. (It is, however, referred to as just a “flash,” and in practical opposition to the idea of actually getting away from ignorance.) This supposed disparity is one source of the psychoanalyst’s envy of the artist, but an even more crucial issue than that of intuition is relevant here. In a letter to Oskar Pfister, a pastor and psychoanalyst, Freud took his correspondent to task “for being ‘overdecent’ and insufficiently ruthless to his patient,” and advised him “to behave like the artist who steals his wife’s household money to buy paint and burns the furniture to warm the room for his model.”10 It is revealing here that Freud justifies the necessary “coldness in feeling in the analyst”11 that he recommends elsewhere by allusion to the artist, and the artist’s hypothetical criminality. An apocryphal story—told by an anonymous psychoanalyst—illustrates this supposed criminal coldness: the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, casting a statue, is said to have needed some calcium for the bronze alloy, and, finding none in the studio, to have thrown a little boy into the pot for the calcium in his bones. “What was the life of a little boy to the claim of art?”12

On more or less the same subject, in a telling passage on the artist in his article “Psycho-Analysis and the Sense of Guilt” (1958), Winnicott writes,

It is interesting to note that the creative artist is able to reach to a kind of socialization which obviates the need for guilt-feeling and the associated reparative and restitutive activity that forms the basis for ordinary constructive work. The creative artist or thinker may, in fact, fail to understand, or even may despise, the feelings of concern that motivate a less creative person; and of artists it may be said that some have no capacity for guilt and yet achieve a socialization through their exceptional talent. Ordinary guilt-ridden people find this bewildering; yet they have a sneaking regard for ruthlessness that does in fact, in such circumstances, achieve more than guilt-driven labor.13

The tough-minded, amoral attitude that Winnicott finds in the artist is found professionally essential and admirable in psychoanalysis. It is the attitude that the psychoanalyst must maintain in his or her practice, an attitude that Freud, in a famous metaphor, compared to that of a surgeon.14 Guiltless ruthlessness is often presented in the service of a higher cause (perhaps its quintessential sign), whether for art or for psychoanalysis. But psychoanalysts usually imagine that through their silence and science they outdo the artist in coldness, raising themselves over the artist, just as the artist, in this view, is assumed to be higher than the ordinary, less creative person. The psychoanalyst, I would argue, is envious of the artist—for reasons inherent to the nature of psychoanalysis and art—and this envy informs the psychoanalytic understanding of the artist.

In her brilliant analysis of envy, Melanie Klein describes it as “the angry feeling that another person possesses and enjoys something desirable—the envious impulse being to take it away or to spoil it.”15 Furthermore, as Klein points out, envy tends to feed on itself, to increase by its own momentum; and so, as the artist becomes more envied, he or she becomes at once more begrudged. The psychoanalyst envies the artist’s guiltless ruthlessness, and at the same time wants to spoil it by analyzing it as a defect in humanity. (In doing so, of course, the analyst, who sees in the artist’s supposed ruthlessness his or her own, raises the question of his or her own defectiveness—another troubling unconscious recognition.) Part of that spoiling is to conceive the artist as amoral. Excessive envy is especially pernicious, for it tends to devalue what it envies. As Klein says,

The fact that envy spoils the capacity for enjoyment explains to some extent why envy is so persistent. For it is enjoyment and the gratitude to which it gives rise that mitigate destructive impulses, envy, and greed. To look at it from another angle: greed, envy, and persecutory anxiety, which are bound up with each other, inevitably increase each other. The feeling of the harm done by envy, the great anxiety that stems from this, and the resulting uncertainty about the goodness of the object, have the effect of increasing greed and destructive impulses.16

The envy of psychoanalysts for artists has often led them toward skepticism of it, an eternal nagging doubt that it can ever really be wholly authentic as an endeavor. Their skepticism is mitigated by their appreciation of art’s power to describe human beings and human ideas and emotions, and to convince society of the validity of its descriptions, but their ambivalence toward art makes their appreciation of it more disturbing rather than less. Their position resembles, in Klein’s words, the criticism of “the envious patient [who] grudges the analyst the success of his work,” and who even comes to doubt the validity of the analytic enterprise as such.17 Psychoanalysis can devalue the artist’s work the way this kind of patient’s criticism can devalue the psychoanalyst’s work. As Klein says, “There are very pertinent psychological reasons why envy ranks among the seven ‘deadly sins.’”18

The psychoanalyst claims a power of resurrection greater than that of the artist, far greater, in fact, since from the psychoanalytic perspective the resurrection offered by art, however ecstatic, is a deceptive, transient high, the fraudulent illusion of healing rather than its reality. Envy of the artist’s guiltless ruthlessness is only a part of the psychoanalyst’s anxious, envious “understanding” of the artist. The analyst cannot help but envy the artist, who supposedly lets his or her sense of omnipotence run loose, and may even use it as the emotional basis of creativity. The psychoanalyst has to confront his or her own sense of omnipotence—or, as Winnicott calls it, the “area of omnipotent control”19—since it may threaten the patient, whose feeling of vulnerability is a sine qua non of the psychoanalyst’s work. As Freud wrote in Totem and Taboo (1912), in a chapter entitled “Animism, Magic and the Omnipotence of Thoughts,”

In only a single field of our civilization has the omnipotence of thoughts been retained, and that is in the field of art. Only in art does it still happen that a man who is consumed by desires performs something resembling the accomplishment of those desires and that what he does in play produces emotional effects—thanks to artistic illusion—just as though it were something real. People speak with justice of the ‘magic of art’ and compare artists to magicians. But the comparison is perhaps more significant than it claims to be. There can be no doubt that art did not begin as art for art’s sake. It worked originally in the service of impulses which are for the most part extinct today. And among them we may suspect the presence of many magical purposes.20

What astonishes Freud is the way the artist can be socially operational and successful yet retain intact the antisocial narcissistic principle of omnipotence of thought. But the artist, of course, is not entirely narcissistic. Works of art, Freud writes, “differed from the asocial, narcissistic products of dreaming in that they were calculated to arouse interest in other people and were able to evoke and to gratify the same unconscious wishes in them [as in the artist] too.” While “the artist, like the neurotic, had withdrawn from an unsatisfying reality into [the] world of imagination. . . unlike the neurotic, he knew how to find a way back from it and once more to get a firm foothold in reality.”21 In the end, however, Freud must repudiate art in the name of science, and he does so in the last chapter of the New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1933). Here, declaring “religion alone” as science’s “really serious enemy,” he dismisses art as “almost always harmless and beneficent, [for] it does not seek to be anything else but an illusion. Save in the case of a few people who are, one might say, obsessed by Art, it never dares to make any attacks on the realm of reality.”22 (Freud’s description of such an art-obsessed person is worth quoting in this context: “A clever young philosopher, with leanings towards aesthetic exquisiteness, hastens to twitch the crease in his trousers into place before lying down [on the couch] for the first sitting; he reveals himself as an erstwhile coprophiliac of the highest refinement, as was to be expected of the developed aesthete.”23)

Behind psychoanalysis’ envy of art lies the fact that the psychoanalyst is afraid of becoming the same kind of dealer in illusion—“confidence man”—that he or she believes the artist to exemplify. Psychoanalysis is haunted by the thought that it may be an inauthentic science (as, in fact, has been cogently argued24). As long as this suspicion remains, psychoanalysts cannot help but unconsciously fear that they are illusionists like artists. To psychoanalysts, art’s magical illusions have their value, but they are a form of subjective expression, no doubt with piecemeal insights but lacking genuine, scientific validity. (Since Freud, psychoanalysis has of course been reconceived by philosophers as a hermeneutics and phenomenology of the dialectics of feeling, its “scientism” supposedly being a self-misunderstanding. This view aims to overcome the idea that the only legitimate kind of science is modeled on one kind of supposedly solid knowledge. At the same time, it tilts psychoanalysis toward art, which, like psychoanalysis, can be regarded as an interpreter of the illusions inherent in life, if by way of the creation of “counter-illusions.”) However, psychoanalysis, while wanting to free itself and us of illusions, knows that the life-world is pervaded by them; understands that because we are always in a condition of projecting our unconscious expectations on the world we are always in a condition of illusion; knows that they must be perpetually worked through. Authentic psychoanalysis, like authentic avant-garde art, is premised on enormous dissatisfaction with, even disbelief in, existing psychosocial illusions; but it is aware that the truth with which it replaces them is another kind of illusion that is also all too artistic. Thus, for all its disdain of illusion, and its fear of being regarded as merely art, psychoanalysis in effect finds itself in a kind of dependent relationship with art. It knows it needs knowledge of illusions in all their various cultural manifestations.

This awareness is implicit in Freud’s avant-garde proposal that in “a college of psychoanalysis, . . . analytic instruction would include branches of knowledge which are remote from medicine and which the doctor does not come across in his practice: the history of civilization, mythology, the psychology of religion and the science of literature. Unless he is well at home in these subjects, an analyst can make nothing of a large amount of his material.”25 Freud implies an essential relationship between psychoanalysis and art, one that gives psychoanalysis access to art’s insights—licenses psychoanalysis to bring up from the artistic netherworld such ideas as those embodied in the very name of its perhaps most salient discovery, the Oedipus complex.

A major formulation of this “dependent” relationship between art and psychoanalysis is Heinz Kohut’s “hypothesis of artistic anticipation,” which gives the “great artist” credit for being “ahead of his time in focusing on the nuclear psychological problems of his era,”26 but argues that “the investigative efforts of the scientific psychologist”27 comprehensively and coherently realize the goal of understanding that the artist recognizes only intuitively. Winnicott says something similar when he remarks that “the intuitive flashes of the great, . . . and even the elaborate constructs of poets and philosophers, are lacking in clinical applicability,” and that psychoanalysis makes scientifically and usefully available—clinically operational—“much that was previously locked up” in such intuitive flashes.28 In the very act of praising artists for their intuitions, Kohut and Winnicott dismiss them by regarding them as “anticipatory” but inoperational in the actual circumstances of life or therapy. They credit the artist, the object of envy, who is acknowledged as offering the seminal intuitive flashes that start thought moving, but they also claim that these insights are impractical in the end, remaining merely “artistic.”

One last word about the psychoanalyst’s envy of the artist, particularly the visual artist. For Freud, visual art is necessarily more erotic than literary art, since after touch the visual is the major medium of communication of sexual excitement and ideas.29 For the psychoanalyst, the visual in general is more primitive than the verbal, particularly because it implies “the earliest closeness with the mother in the preverbal state,” the “understanding [that] needs no words to express it.”30 Thus more sexual pleasure lies in the visual artist’s work than in that of the psychoanalyst, who works in words, and is a kind of literary artist. To the analyst, the visual artist seems closer to the source of primal enjoyment than the literary artist. This is another reason for the psychoanalyst’s confused attraction to the artist: the analyst suspects that it is in the very nature of art’s effort that it can establish an enviable state of preverbal closeness with the viewer. The analyst desires this state, for preverbal closeness is the optimum condition toward which the relationship between patient and analyst drifts, a regressive condition reparative of the damage each does to the other by reason of each’s unconscious envy of the other. As in Kafka’s A Country Doctor, the psychoanalyst in effect must empathetically lie on the couch with the patient. Without that empathy, the analyst will not be cured of his or her delusion of omnipotence. (Empathy takes one out of that delusion.) Nor will the patient be cured, since he or she needs the analyst as a part of him-or herself. Perhaps the final reason for the psychoanalyst’s envy of the artist is that the artist seems spontaneously to have this empathy or unconscious closeness with his or her public, or at least creates the illusion of having it. Just as psychoanalysis has worked woman’s “penis envy” into the ground, up pops its own artist envy.

Donald Kuspit is a professor of art history and philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and the editor of Art Criticism. He contributes regularly to Artforum.



1. John E. Gedo, Portraits of the Artist, New York: Guilford Press, 1983, section 1, pp. 1–40.

2. Susan K. Deri, Symbolization and Creativity, New York: International Universities Press, 1984, p. 346.

3. Ellen Handler Spitz, Art and Psyche, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985, p. 28.

4. Gedo and Spitz are cited above; Wright is Elizabeth Wright, Psychoanalytic Criticism: Theory in Practice, London and New York: Methuen, 1984.

5. Spitz, p. 28.

6. Quoted in ibid.

7. Among other places, Freud alludes to the “art of interpretation” in “Further Recommendations in the Technique of Psychoanalysis” (1914), collected in Philip Rieff, ed., Freud: Therapy and Technique, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., Collier Books. 1963. p. 158.

8. Sigmund Freud, “The Moses of Michelangelo” (1914), collected in Rieff, ed., Freud: Character and Culture, New York: Collier Books, 1963, p. 106.

9. Quoted in Murray Cox, Structuring the Therapeutic Process: Compromise with Chaos, Oxford, England: Pergamon Press, 1978, pp. 280–81.

10. Quoted in Janet Malcolm, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Borzoi Books, 1982, p. 80.

11. Freud, “Recommendations for Physicians on the Psychoanalytic Method of Treatment” (1912), in Freud: Therapy and Technique, p. 121.

12. Malcolm, p. 80.

13. D. W. Winnicott, “Psycho-Analysis and the Sense of Guilt” (1958), The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, New York: International Universities Press, 1965, p. 26.

14. Freud, “Recommendations for Physicians on the Psychoanalytic Method of Treatment,” p. 121. Freud wrote: “I cannot recommend my colleagues emphatically enough to take as a model in psychoanalytic treatment the surgeon who puts aside all his own feelings, including that of human sympathy, and concentrates his mind on one single purpose, that of performing the operation as skillfully as possible.” Such “coldness in feeling,” he said, “is the condition which brings the greatest advantage to both persons involved, ensuring a needful protection for the physician’s emotional life and the greatest measure of aid for the patient that is possible at the present time.” That is, “coldness” represses the psychoanalyst’s own psychopathology so that he or she can fully attend to the patient’s.

15. Melanie Klein, “Envy and Gratitude” (1957), Envy and Gratitude and Other Works 1946–1963, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., Free Press, 1984, p. 181.

16. Ibid., pp. 186–87.

17. Ibid., p. 184.

18. Ibid., p. 189.

19. Quoted in Arnold H. Modell, “Object Relations Theory,” in Arnold Rothstein, ed., Models of the Mind: Their Relationships to Clinical Work, New York: International Universities Press, 1985, p. 97.

20. Freud, Totem and Taboo, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Norton Library, 1950, p. 90.

21. Freud, An Autobiographical Study, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Norton Library, 1963.
pp. 122–23.

22. Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1933, p. 219.

23. Freud, “Further Recommendations in the Technique of Psychoanalysis,” p. 151.

24. See Adolf Grünbaum, The Foundations of Psychoanalysis, A Philosophical Critique, Berkeley: University of California Press, paperback edition, 1985.

25. Quoted in Peter Loewenberg, “Why Psychoanalysis Needs the Social Scientist and the Historian” in Geoffrey Cocks and Travis L. Crosby, eds., Psycho/History: Readings in the Method of Psychology, Psychoanalysis, and History, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987, p. 30. More recently, Richard Chessick has made a somewhat similar recommendation; see his “Education of the Psychotherapist,” Why Psychotherapists Fail, New York: Science House. 1971, pp. 35-49.

26. Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of the Self, New York: International Universities Press, 1977, p. 285.

27. Ibid., p. 296.

28. Winnicott, p. 15.

29. Freud, “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” (1905), Standard Edition, vol. 7, p. 156.

30. Klein, p. 188.