Visual Arts

Freud's Theory of Art and Creativity

Nicola Glover

This paper is the Chapter one of the book "Psychoanalytic Aestetics: the British School",
by Nicola Glover. The original web site of this book is a part of
Human-Nature.Com (c) edited by Robert M.Young and Ian Pitchford

This chapter will look at the general direction of Freud's writings on art, and its relationship to his metapsychology. My intention is to show that Freud's contribution to aesthetics, although criticised for being ambivalent and incomplete, is significant largely because it has made subsequent developments possible within the British School of Psychoanalysis. This chapter will serve as a departure point for understanding the development of Kleinian and Post-Kleinian theories of art and creativity, for evaluating how Freud addresses the main concerns of art and aesthetics, i.e., the nature of creative experience and the artist's inner world, the interpretation of art, and the nature of aesthetic experience.

Firstly, I shall look at Freud and 'pathography' - the viewing of art as a privileged form of neurosis where the analyst-critic explores the artwork in order to understand and unearth the vicissitudes of the creator's psychological motivations. However, I shall argue that this is a rather limited model, paying as it does, overwhelming attention to the content of the artwork and the inner world of the artist. This view is supplemented, however, by Freud's (1905) theory of the joke-mechanism and its relationship to his account of the primary and secondary processes. Although Freud did not fully pursue his investigation into the relationship between the joke-mechanism and aesthetic experience, this aspect of Freud's theory seems better equipped than the pathographic approach to address the formal structure of art and the nature of aesthetic experience. Rather than just an object to be investigated on the analytic dissecting table, the artwork can be viewed as the outcome of a process. This model offsets the emphasis on psychoanalytic content-analysis for which Freud and the traditional pathographic approach have been criticized.


1. Pathography and the neurotic model

Freud first introduces the term 'pathography' in his essay on Leonardo (Freud, 1910). However, this activity is described negatively, focusing on what it does not (yet) do. Pathography, according to Freud, does not aim at making, for instance, Leonardo's achievements intelligible; and surely (he argues) no one should be blamed for not carrying out something he has never promised to do. With this disclaimer in mind, Freud continues by comparing the practice of biography with that of pathography. The essential difference is that 'biographers are fixated upon their heroes' and it is implied that the pathographer (in this case, Freud) has outgrown the omnipotent, infantile wish to idealize his subject and can get on with the real business of unearthing the truth. Freud's approach centres on the experience of the individual artist, and like a detective, reconstructs his subject's past, discovering possible complexes, repressions, and neuroses. The artist is treated as a patient and his products are analysed in terms of these psychological considerations. The artwork is seen as a means of giving expression to, and/or dealing with, various psychic pressures. The pathographer manifests the same qualities as the so-called 'objective' analyst who is able to look at the artist and his work as if he were conducting an analysis - but with the significant absence of a patient who can speak for himself. It is assumed that the artwork will shed light on the artist's inner conflicts, repressed anxieties, usually of an infantile nature.

However, one of the main problems with this approach is that little or no account of the origin of the creative impulse is given, nor does Freud give an explanation of the value of specific art works - i.e., why we may value one work more than another. What is crucial for the pathographical model is the way in which the analyst-critic is able to use biographical data to reveal psychological insights about the creator and the meaning of his creations. This is a two-way process: the artwork can help explain the artist's psyche in the same way that the artist's own experiences can illuminate his oeuvre. However, just as Freud neglected the countertransference (i.e. the analyst's emotional response to his patient, which is now regarded by therapists as an important aspect of the communication between patient and analyst) in his own clinical work and saw it as a hindrance to analytic work (see the 'Dora' case history, for example), he also tended to de-emphasise the role of his own emotional reactions as significant critical tools in his analysis of art. But despite a supposedly detached critical stance, Freud was undoubtedly drawn to certain artists and artworks that resonated with his own concerns and thus Freud's identification with his subjects (however well disguised) significantly shape his interpretations.1.

'The Moses of Michelangelo' (1914) is especially notable for its disclaimers vis--vis Freud's own artistic preferences and critical abilities. He tells us that he is 'no connoisseur in art but simply a layman', and that the 'subject-matter of works of art ' attract him more than their formal and technical qualities. Because of this he says he is 'unable rightly to appreciate many of the methods used and the effects obtained in art'. Yet Freud's interpretation is very much based on his own identification with the sculptor and with the subject, Moses. Freud first identifies himself with Michelangelo to see what his particular motivation might have been , and then assumes that the sculptor, in order to arrive at the form of his artwork, also identified himself with his subject, Moses. This subjective interpretation is based not on formal qualities of the work of art but on an identification of the critic with its subject-matter. We might ask why Freud should have felt such an attraction to this particular subject and we can find an answer in Freud's last work, Moses and Monotheism (1939). 'It was one man', Freud wrote in that book, 'the man Moses, who created the Jews. To him the people owes its tenacity in supporting life; to him, however, also much of the hostility which it has met and is meeting still'. As a Jew himself, Freud was forcibly aware of the psychological significance of the historical Moses and the statue exerted an extreme fascination for the psychoanalyst. He describes

... how often have I mounted the steep steps from the unlovely Corso Cavour to the lonely piazza where the deserted church stands, and have essayed to support the angry scorn of the hero's glance! Sometimes I have crept cautiously out of the half-gloom of the interior as though I myself belonged to the mob upon whom his eye is turned - the mob which can hold fast no conviction, which has neither faith nor patience and which rejoices when it has regained its illusory idols.2.

Freud's interpretation of the statue is no doubt closely linked with his own feelings of kinship with Moses. Just as Moses struggled to retain authority over his people, so Freud, as the founding father of psychoanalysis, also had to struggle with his 'disloyal' followers to retain what he believed was his rightful position of authority within his psychoanalytic circle.3.

One way that pathography can be approached is in terms of the critical tradition of Romanticism. What is at stake for both Romantic and pathographic models is how, and to what extent, a particular work yields insights into the psyche of its creator, and whether his work is genuine, spontaneous, and sincere. The external world, as depicted in visual art, or described in poetry, is seen firstly as a projection of the artist's state of mind - an assumption that the artwork is essentially an externalization of the artist's inner state. The relevant question asked by the pathographer is, what underlying feelings, psychic states, conflicts or desires (possibly disguised) are being expressed? The Romantic critic assumes (but does not explain exactly why and how) the artist's inner life of feeling finds concrete expression in his work. This approach was one that informed the general climate that received both Freud's clinical writings as well as his aesthetic theories.

We must bear in mind that this Romantic view not only shaped Freud's ideas (particularly the case histories, which are works of literature in their own ight as much as clinical texts) but also aided their favourable reception. Within the Romantic approach to artistic practice (as documented by commentators such as M.H. Abrams and M. Praz, for example) there is a focus on a certain kind of conception of the artistic personality - that the artist is fragile, particularly sensitive, even 'possessed' - reviving the Platonic belief in the artist's (dangerous) madness. It is not unusual, even today, to encounter the view that artists are persons with particularly intense and deep conflicts - and this is further connoted by the term 'pathography'. Those who adopt this model assume that the psycho-analytically motivated enquirer will be able to uncover repressions, complexes, anxieties, through studying the artist's oeuvre, and that interpretations of such works can be made in the light of biographical knowledge. But this is a rather limited model because it assumes that works of art are by nature the outcome of conflict. It has little contribution to make to the notion of aesthetic value or the origin of the creative impulse itself, and it does not give a full account of the nature of aesthetic experience either. Its significance mainly lies in what it may tell us about the psycho-history of the artist and its reflection in his work. As a model for an aesthetic theory, however, it is inadequate.

Freud, too, was ambivalent about both the capacity of psychoanalysis to illuminate artistic and aesthetic experience to address the value of art.4. He writes optimistically that

What Psychoanalysis was able to do was to take inter-relations between the impressions of the artist's life, his chance experiences, and his works and from them construct his [mental] constitution and the instinctual impulses at work in it - that is to say, that part of him he shared with all men.5.

Indeed, his Leonardo study was certainly done with this in mind - based on a single childhood memory. However, only a few lines later, Freud admits that psychoanalytic study can do nothing towards elucidating the 'two problems which probably interest ... [the layman] most': the 'nature the artistic gift ... and the means by which the artist works - artistic technique'.

But this ambivalence towards a psychoanalytic understanding of art was not new and recurs throughout his scattered writings on the subject. Some twelve years earlier, for example, he wrote that, 'Whence it is that the artist derives his creative capacity is not the question for psychology'. But it is this very capacity which allows the artist to create and not become ill that is vitally important. Although Freud regards the connections between the impressions of the artist's childhood and his life history on the one hand, and his works as reactions to these impressions on the other, as 'one of the most attractive subjects of analytic examination', he remarks that the 'problems of artistic creation and appreciation await further study'. But Freud still remains confident that psychoanalysis will be equipped to address them eventually. Until then, precisely 'whence it is that the artist derives his creative capacity is not a question for psychology'.6.

What Freud and those who followed his approach were predominantly concerned with, was the eliciting of unconscious conflicts and phantasies embodied in a work of art.7. Some of his papers aim at psycho biography of the artist, using the works of art as revealing of his inner conflicts and psychological history. For example, in his study of Leonardo (1910) he uses scant biographical data - a screen memory and two of his paintings, The Mona Lisa and St Anne, St Mary and Jesus - to attempt a reconstruction of the artist's psycho-sexual development, relating Leonardo's childhood experiences to his later conflicts between his scientific and artistic creativity. In his essay on 'Dostoevsky and Parricide' (1928), through an analysis of The Brothers Karamazov in the light of Dostoevsky's early experience, he attempts to analyse the writer's personality, trying to account for his epilepsy, gambling, and morality.

Although this psychobiographical approach has been criticized on many counts, its value lies not in the restructuring of the artist's inner life, but in the uncovering of the phantasies expressed by the artwork itself. His study of Leonardo, for instance, introduced for the first time the clinical description of a certain form of narcissism and narcissistic object-choice, and illustrates many other aspects of infantile psycho-sexuality. In the essay, on Dostoevsky, Freud illustrates the clinical insights he had into the universal theme of the Oedipus complex, and yet is able to derive new insights from his analysis of this writer. For example, he describes the splitting of the personality into many characters in the book, maybe more clearly than he does in his more clinically-orientated writings. The paper that is the most frequently cited as the general statement of the Freudian view of art and creativity is 'Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming' (1908). Here Freud gives an account of creativity which casts the artist as a neurotic day-dreamer who allows us to enjoy our own dreams without shame. He is portrayed as an egotist, whose creations are only valuable to the extent that they provide a kind of narcotic effect, offering both the artist and audience a substitute for, and an escape from, reality.

The day-dreamer ignores reality in his dream and gives full rein to the pleasure principle in evolving wishful phantasies. Similarly, the artist creates a world of phantasy in which he can fulfil his unconscious wishes. But he differs from the dreamer in one significant aspect - he is able to find a way back to reality in his creation, and in that way his achievement resembles children's play, where the external world is moulded to certain desires. Freud, however, contrasts play with what is real, a view that has been challenged by the British school. (We shall see later that for theorists such as Klein and Winnicott, play is inextricably linked to the development of a reality-sense and is viewed as an activity that is essential to our psychological well-being as well as our creative development).

In 'Formulations regarding the Two Principles in Mental Functioning' (1911), Freud writes that art

... brings about a reconciliation of the two principles [pleasure and reality] in a peculiar way. An artist is originally a man who turns away from reality because he cannot come to terms with the renunciation of instinctual satisfaction which it at first demands, and who allows his erotic and ambitious wishes full play in the life of phantasy. He finds the way back to reality, however, from this world of phantasy by making use of his special gifts to mould his phantasies into truths of a new kind, which are valued by men as precious reflections of reality. Thus in a certain fashion he actually becomes the hero, the king, the creator, or the favourite he desired to be, without following the long, roundabout path of making real alterations in the external world. But he can only achieve this because other men feel the same dissatisfaction as he does with the renunciation demanded by reality, and because that dissatisfaction, which results from the replacement of the pleasure-principle by the reality principle, is itself part of reality.8.


This is virtually the same formulation that Freud was to make in his Introductory Lectures of 1915-17. Once again, it concerns the dynamics of the creative process in the artist, and we are given little clue as to the problem of the formal aspects of art and aesthetic value. But in drawing a contrast between the authentic artist and 'those who are not artists', Freud suggests that the 'true artist' is exceptional in that he can find his way back to reality again, knowing how to elaborate his day-dreams

... so that they lose what is too personal about them and repels strangers, and to make it possible for others to share in the enjoyment of them. He understands, too, how to tone them down so that they do not easily betray their origin from proscribed sources. Furthermore, he possesses the mysterious power of shaping some particular material until it has become a particular image of his phantasy; and he knows, moreover, how to link so large a yield of pleasure to this representation of his unconscious phantasy that, for the time being at least, repressions are outweighed and lifted by it. If he is able to accomplish all this, he makes it possible for other people once more to derive consolation and alleviation from their own sources of pleasure in their unconscious which have become inaccessible to them.9.

But all this mysterious ability, according to Freud, has only one object, 'to win honour, power and the love of women'.

Nevertheless, Freud is aware that there is more to art than pure neurotic wish-fulfilment, something which concerns the way the artist transforms his egotistic phantasies into a structure which renders them acceptable for public appreciation. In 'Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming' (1908) he admits that the relation of the phantasies of a 'man of literary talent' gives pleasure, whereas the phantasies of an ordinary day-dreamer merely bore us, or even repel us. But exactly how it is that the writer accomplishes his effect of pleasure remains his


... innermost secret; the essential ars poetica lies in the technique of overcoming the feeling of repulsion in us which is undoubtedly connected with the barriers that rise between each single ego and the others. We can guess two of methods used by this technique. The writer softens the character of his egoistic day-dreams by altering and disguising it, and he bribes us by the purely formal - that is, aesthetic - yield of pleasure which he offers us in the presentation of his phantasies.10.

This passage is one of the few times where Freud admits that the purely formal values in a work of art give pleasure. But the implications of this are not taken further; the art work remains merely a bait to catch the fish, an 'incentive bonus or fore pleasure'. Freud concludes that all the aesthetic pleasure we gain from the works of imaginative writers is of the same type as this 'fore pleasure', and that the true enjoyment of literature proceeds from the 'release of tensions in our minds'. So despite an awareness of the significance of purely formal attributes aesthetic considerations, Freud always returns to the dynamics of the artistic event, where art is viewed as essentially a therapy for those instinctual renunciations demanded by civilisation.

Is there any kind of justification or value in an approach which centres on the subject-matter, the content of the art work and interprets this as if it were the artist's psyche laid bare, with the critic's own identifications possibly implicated in the proceedings? The pathographer must grapple with the issues of the relation between an artist's life and work, the nature of artistic creativity, and the problems of intention and expression. Although psychoanalysis is more concerned with inner realities than with external events, and though the purpose of reconstruction is to gain a clearer picture of the artist's psyche - not to find out what 'really happened' - one of the paradoxes in applied psychoanalysis is that, in the absence of clinical data, the pathographer must use the external as a pathway to the internal. Such a method is fraught with dangers, the most common of which are incomplete or inaccurate external data and an intrusive countertransference - in this context, the unconscious affects and fantasies that the subject evokes in the interpreter. However, in cases where the critic has succumbed to these dangers, the resulting interpretation may still have value. This may be partly due to the appeal of 'narrative truth' in the interpretation, and to the unconscious resonances of the artwork with the critic. One might also want to say that there is a need to find meaning through sympathetic identification, to trace patterns that cohere with one's own inner world and that of the artist and the artwork. (Indeed, this is the spirit that informs the aesthetic criticism of Adrian Stokes which will be examined in Chapter three, section 2 and 3 below.) Granted that there is an unconscious phantasy world that we are able to share, even an interpretation of this type may sometimes ring true. There are, however, various styles of pathographic approach that place varying emphasis on the relationship between the artist and his work, and conceive the need to interpret these somewhat differently.11.

The main value of the pathographic approach perhaps lies in the way it helps us to discover the distinct and personal meanings to the artist of his imagery, and in exploring the genesis and quality of affect evoked by this. The pathographer also restricts his or her enquiry by tying works to their creators in such a way that assumes there is a direct link between the artist's inner world and his artwork and it is implied that the value of the artwork is directly linked to the nature of the artist's psyche. With this pathographic approach, there is the danger that the viewer of the artwork will be ignored. As we shall see in Part Two, this dimension of the aesthetic, peripheral to pathography, is absolutely central to the aesthetics of the British School of psychoanalysis.


2. The joke-mechanism

In his analysis of the structure of the joke mechanism, Freud elaborates an embryonic aesthetic, an alternative to his pathographic account. Although it was left undeveloped in relation to the understanding of art, Freud recognised its scope for the study of aesthetics. Thus he writes in 'The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement' that the 'first example of an application of the analytic mode of thought to the problems of aesthetics was contained in my book on jokes'.12.

Although Freud's theory of the joke-mechanism has received less attention than that of his 'neurotic model', there have been a number of commentators who agree that this is Freud's most promising approach to psychoanalytic aesthetic - mainly because it gives a much fuller account than that of the neurotic model of the way psychic processes are brought to bear on the formal aspects of art, and how this relates to the experience of aesthetic pleasure.13.


Freud distinguishes three stages in the evolution of the joke, arising from a basis of primitive play. The first is at the level of the child's delight in games of recognition, which often manifests itself in verbal play, for 'children, who, as we know, are in the habit of treating words as things, tend to expect words that are the same or similar to have the same meaning behind them'. The pleasure of such recognition, Freud maintains, does not come from a sense of power but from a saving of psychic energy. This saving is in itself enjoyable, and so according to Freud, 'the games founded on this pleasure make use of the mechanism of damming up only in order to increase the amount of pleasure'.14.

The second stage of the joke's development moves it from the level of play to that of the 'jest'. It entails making a concession to the growing demands of the intellect, which is not content to rest on mere pleasure in the rhyming of words. There is a meaning, but it is of no consequence: 'the meaning of the joke is merely intended to protect that pleasure from being done away with by criticism' (p. 131). What distinguishes the jest from the joke proper is that it is 'non-tendentious'; it has no axe to grind - its sole purpose is to give pleasure.

The third stage is the joke proper, the 'tendentious' joke, in which there is a distinct purpose, taking the form of challenging either a person or social inhibitions of all kinds. There are two forms, the hostile and the obscene, the first giving the opportunity to express 'aggressiveness, satire, or defence', the second 'serving the purpose of an exposure' (p. 133). At this level, the verbal play is now working in conjunction with this tendentious purpose.

Freud envisages this type of joke as a three-person relationship. The teller requires a listener as an 'ally': the first and third person are thus in an alliance against the second person or object, the butt of the joke. As a prototype of the tendentious joke Freud cites the example of 'smut', the dirty joke, where the first and third person are enabled to share mastery over the forbidden and inaccessible sexual object, the woman, allowing a discharge of frustration in a seduction whose imaginary nature partakes of a fancied reality through being publicly shared. The alliance is confirmed by the spontaneous laughter in which the complicity of a third person in this mutual release of tension ( the 'saving' of psychic energy) is made obvious to both. This 'economy of psychical expenditure' involves a double pleasure, the verbal play itself, which is the core, and the pleasure of lifting the inhibition, which is the 'casing'.

The ego-psychologist, Ernst Kris (1952) regards the pleasure of the joke being due to its bringing about the play of energies in the psyche, for the ultimate benefit of the rational ego, which emerges fresh and fortified. This assumes, however, that the conscious ego is the locus of aesthetic experience; a model pre-supposing an ordered, rational structure: the ego as a stabilising and synthesising force.

The art historian, E. H. Gombrich, who collaborated with Kris (1952) was similarly encouraged by Freud's work on the joke mechanism, hailing it as 'the germinal model for any account of artistic creation along Freudian lines'.15. He remarks that Freud made a step forward for psychoanalytic aesthetics when he described the joke as a preconscious idea that has been exposed briefly to the workings of the unconscious. This means that it is not the content so much as the form, the dream-like condensation of meaning which is characteristic of the primary process, that is important. Gombrich stresses that the two supreme virtues that recommend it to the historian and the critic of art are the ways in which it explains the 'relevance of both the medium and its mastery' - these being elements that have often been neglected in many psychoanalytic approaches to art. Gombrich also emphasises the importance of the role of the child's pleasure in playing with language, which Freud sees as part of the functional pleasure connected with achieving control and mastery. Despite his recognition of the relation between the primary processes and aesthetic pleasure, Freud did not see any intrinsic value in the primary process. In his New Introductory Lectures (1933), he regarded the id as being

... the dark inaccessible part of our personality; what little we know of it we have learned from our study of the dream-work and of the construction of neurotic symptoms, and most of that is of a negative character and can be described only as a contrast to the ego. We approach the id with analogies: we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations.16.

However there are a growing number of analysts within the British School (Rycroft, Milner, Winnicott) who see the primary process and its relationship to the secondary process having important consequences for the understanding of creative and artistic activity. The tendency in contemporary British psychoanalysis is to see the two modes as interlocking elements grounding all mental life; the creative force of the primary process as inextricably part of 'sophisticated' secondary process thinking. It is through the filter of a growing body of research contributed by those working within the domain of aesthetics and psychoanalysis, that aspects of clinical theory are being reviewed.

In contrast, both Gombrich and Kris have focused on the adaptive, stabilising aspect of aesthetic experience, which relies on the model of an integrated ego and a clear demarcation between its conscious and unconscious workings. The value of art, according to this model, lies in the degree of adjustment to reality it yields - the belief that the dream-work (primary process) is somehow able to translate what is unconscious, repressed and unacceptable into an artistic construction that is itself analogous to the stabile, integrated ego.

In the light of this approach, only those unconscious ideas that can be adjusted to the reality of formal structures become communicable, and their shared value lies as much in their formal elements as in the idea. As Gombrich says, 'the code generates the message'(1966, p. 36). Here, Gombrich is also drawing attention to the limitations of a naive form of Expressionism which construes artistic work to be the out-pouring of the artist's inner world into his work. According to this model, it is this inner life that determines the form of the work. Gombrich and Kris's account rests on the firm conviction that the goal of art is to attain control and stability in the external world. In the light of this account, art is essentially an adaptive phenomenon allowing communion between what is unacceptable and repressed (unconscious) and what is capable of being expressed to a wider, social realm. Art is thus a form problem-solving, a testing-out of the medium, within a given tradition.

Kris's approach emphasises the ego's control of the instinctual drives, for instance the rhythmic shaking of the body in laughter, an activity where an 'archaic pleasure in movement is reactivated and is socially permissible'. He argues that the adult's enjoyment of wit can be 'justified before the superego' and this arises from the child's delight in word-playing.17. Similarly, Gombrich (1966) calls on Freud's theory of the joke for a view of play as innocent experimentation, arguing that the artist's 'social game', his playing with given historical forms and conventions, involves a combination of preconscious and unconscious activity. However, in the arguments of both Kris and Gombrich's, we may question whether sufficient place has been given to laughter and play as corrective of social convention.18.

The work of the art teacher and theoretician, Anton Ehrenzweig, like that of Kris, looks at the implications of the joke-mechanism and its relation to the primary process functioning. In 'A New Psychoanalytical Approach to Aesthetics', Ehrenzweig challenges those essentially Romantic, nineteenth-century accounts of art that 'turned away from the analysis of objective structure to the analysis of subjective experience'.19. Such theories had been popular with psychologists such as Fechner and Lipps, who had in turn influenced the development of Freud's aesthetics.

Like Kris and Gombrich, Ehrenzweig believes that it is Freud's analysis of the joke (and the primary process functioning it represents) that is particularly valuable for a better understanding of the formal aspects of art, and their relationship to what Ehrenzweig (1967) calls the 'hidden order of art'. Thus both Ehrenzweig and Kris make an effort to de-emphasise pathographical interpretations of art and to highlight its autonomous nature. However, where Kris regards the primary process as an essentially archaic, form of thinking (hence his term, 'regression at the service of the ego'), Ehrenzweig sees the primary process as primitive, chaotic and uncontrolled, only from the point of view of our rational, conscious modes of perception. Indeed, he argues (as do British analysts M. Milner and C. Rycroft, for example) that there is probably less distinction than is usually accepted between primary and secondary process functioning. Ehrenzweig believed that a substantial revision of traditional Freudian theory was needed, to fit in with the facts of artistic experience. and a major task of his last book, The Hidden Order of Art (1967), is an assertive attempt to refine and modify a number of key traditional psychoanalytic concepts in the light of his own research, as well as that of British School practitioners. It is this aspect of Ehrenzweig's thinking which makes him particularly significant to this study; and distinguishes him from the ego-psychologists, such as Kris, who concentrate on the stabilising role of the ego as the sine qua non of artistic activity.

As is well-known, Freud (1900) viewed the primary process mode of thinking as one that displays the psychic mechanisms of condensation and displacement characteristic of the dream-work. These activities refer not only to dreams, but also point to the tendency of images to fuse and readily come to symbolise one another. According to Freud, these are processes characteristic of id-functioning: they ignore the categories of space and time, use mobile energy, and are governed by the pleasure-principle. The secondary process, on the other hand, is ego-oriented. It obeys the laws of grammar and formal logic, uses bound energy and is governed by the reality principle - i.e. reduces the unpleasure of instinctual tension by adaptive behaviour.

Freud believed the primary processes to be ontologically and phylogenetically earlier than the secondary processes - hence the terminology - and regarded the development of the ego being secondary to their repression. The secondary processes, in Freud's view, developed alongside the ego, adapting to the external world, inextricably linked with verbal thinking. The primary processes are exemplified in dreams and the joke structure; the secondary processes by thought.20. The two processes closely resemble the 'discursive' and 'non-discursive' symbolism described by the American philosopher and aesthetician, Suzanne Langer (1952), whose work will be discussed in relation to the aesthetics of the British School.(Chapter two, section 2 above.)

How exactly does the primary process relate to the joke mechanism? Ehrenzweig emphasised that Freud 'related the witty effect of a good joke firmly to precisely defined formulations of the joke which correspond to typical techniques of the so-called primary process in the unconscious mind'. He also found that the structure of jokes expressed a suppressed aggressive, or obscene meaning, through the same primary-process forms by which a dream would symbolise its hidden phantasy content.

Freud gives examples of the way in which the joke-mechanism is analogous to that of the primary process. In one joke recorded by Heine, a poor man boasts about the familiar way in which he is treated by a very rich relative. But instead of speaking about his relative's gratifying familiarity, he twists the word and speaks of the 'famillionaire' treatment he had met. The neologism 'famillionaire' is condensed from the words 'familiar' and 'millionaire' and expresses a suppressed meaning; the money-proud man had not really shown a real friendship but only that superficial politeness that emphasised his social superiority. The apparent gratification suddenly reveals the poor man's resentment. Words that have been telescoped together like this are also apparent in dreams, but Ehrenzweig stresses that usually it is visual images that are condensed, for in dreams we often combine features belonging to a number of figures that our conscious minds could not possibly make sense of.

Ehrenzweig points out that there are other characteristics shared by the joke and the dream, displacement is such an example. A dream image might give undue prominence to an unimportant feature and neglect the really significant detail. The dream's significance, says Ehrenzweig, will then have to give an inconspicuous detail an unsuspected significance and so shift the emphasis back to where it belongs. The joke employs the same technique of displacement. Both the dream and the joke may also express a meaning by the use of the exact opposite. Our unconscious mind is able to understand the hidden meaning because, Ehrenzweig says, 'the technique of unconscious perception and image-making is less differentiated than our conscious language and imagery'.21.

Freud compared the undifferentiated language of the dream to old languages such as Latin which did not distinguish between opposite meanings. The reason why our unconscious mind understands so readily a nonsensical condensation like 'famillionaire', fusing friendship and hostility, is its failure to differentiate between opposites. According to Ehrenzweig's theory, this gradual dissolution of separateness is preceded by a necessary schizoid 'scattering' of conscious faculties, and ultimately reaches an 'oceanic limit' where all distinctions are fused into a single image.

Ehrenzweig also believes that Freud's analysis of the joke conquers 'an old problem of aesthetics ... by firmly relating the joke's witty effect to objectively defined structures' which are the workings of the primary process. However, he thinks that there has been little progress made in psychoanalytic aesthetics because Freudian interpretations were over-concerned with content-analysis. The failure of classical theory to 'discover the unconscious roots of art' lies in its denial that one exists - a conclusion that Ehrenzweig wholeheartedly rejects.22.

According to his theory, there is a 'hidden order' in the deceptive chaos of the primary process that could be perceived if we could make ourselves sensitive to it, and artists are ones who can do this most easily. This dual aspect of undifferentiation (conscious chaos on one hand and unconscious discipline on the other) leads back to what Ehrenzweig identifies as the central question of psychoanalytic aesthetics: how can those primary process functions that are implicated in the chaos and disintegration characteristic of mental illness, become highly structured and result in the production of creative work? Ehrenzweig believes that it is the 'structural undifferentiation of low-level imagery' which is the common denominator to both, and is a theme which preoccupied him throughout his writing. In a paper that can be regarded as an envoi to The Hidden Order of Art, he observes that


... psychoanalytic theory will have to accept that the imagery of the primary process can possess an invisible order of its own at least as far as creative work is concerned. The great psychoanalyst and art historian, E. Kris, prepared the way for recasting our concept of the primary process by suggesting that the creative mind can allow conscious functions to lapse in a controlled regression towards the primary process. But this does not yet mean that the primary process is itself accessible to control and order.23.

Because this unconscious substructure, the 'hidden order', 'rises from deeper levels than those that shape the manifest dream and the joke', psychoanalytic aesthetics has been largely unsuccessful in probing it. To a much greater extent than Kris, Ehrenzweig explores from a variety of perspectives the way id-processes are implicated in the creation and our perception of artistic form, and this is the main thesis of The Hidden Order of Art.

But although he praises Freud's 'brilliant analysis of the joke', he thinks it strange that it could not 'act as a pacemaker for the analysis of art' when 'the stage seemed set for Freud's triumphant entry into the core of aesthetics'.24. This failure to develop into a coherent psychoanalytic aesthetic 'should have warned us that something was amiss, or even wrong, in the current concepts'. The 'missing concept', says Ehrenzweig, was the

... undifferentiated matrix below the more superficial condensations, displacements and other so-called primary process forms. These more superficial forms may be irrational in content, but are not so in their formal gestalt structure. I have suggested that their structure is a secondary revision imposed on the truly unconscious undifferentiated matrix below them.25.

Ehrenzweig develops his argument by criticising the ego-psychological approach which disposes of the problem of unconscious form by attributing the entire aesthetic structure of art to the work of the conscious and preconscious mind - the secondary process - and this reduces the primary process of the unconscious to the 'role of a purveyor of unstructured raw material, wild and destructive phantasies, that have first to be tamed and moulded by the secondary process in order to be aesthetically appreciated'.26.

Although this interpretation may cohere with the facts of mental illness, where the intrusion of unconscious phantasy threatens the patient's sanity, Ehrenzweig believes that it 'does not fit the facts of art', and he puts forward an alternative to Kris's ego-psychological account of the value and role of the primary process. Where Kris regards creativity as a 'regression at the service of the ego', Ehrenzweig's formula of creative activity involves a three-phased rhythm which may or may not result in the creation of a specific art object. His notion of the creative process was largely informed by Freud's dual instinct theory, one that was developed more fully in the work of Melanie Klein. This model views the dynamic interplay between the life and death instincts, and the structural role of Kleinian unconscious phantasy, as the basis of all human endeavour. In Chapter five, we shall explore how Ehrenzweig's idea of creative rhythm was significantly shaped by this Kleinian model of the mind, as well as the developments in British School pioneered by 'post-Kleinian' analysts such as Milner, Winnicott and Bion.27.


We have seen that the aesthetics of classical psychoanalysis are essentially grounded in the belief that the art work is the manifestation of the creator's unconscious desires. Classical criticism relates the work back to the author's psyche, which is explored via the analysis of his earliest childhood experiences, and the analysis of 'typical' symbols that recur in the work. Despite its neglect of the formal structure of the art work, such an approach can be useful in illuminating the artist's unconscious phantasies and preoccupations.

The ego- psychologists, such as E. Kris, have opposed this classical view of art as a neurotic, infantile wish which becomes embedded in the art work. For them, the pleasure of art derives from a controlled play with infantile material which is thereby transformed into something publicly shareable. This approach differs from Freud's theory of creativity as neurosis, in that what is pleasurable is not infantile wish-fulfilment, but the fact of bringing the primary process into action for the ego's needs. Kris and Ehrenzweig's model are supported by Freud's second topography of the psyche. In the first model, Freud thought of the ego as entirely equivalent to the conscious and preconscious; the instinctual energies were confined to the unconscious. The second model, elaborated in 'The Ego and the Id' (1923), suggests that the ego developed from the instinctual energies derived from bodily sensations - therefore there being no logical boundary between the ego and the unconscious. Similarly, the super-ego also has an unconscious component.

With the second model, a deciphering of the unconscious does not involve a strict interpretation, but must take into account the interplay between unconscious and conscious systems. Forces operative in the id are also operative in the ego and super-ego. Thus the simplistic conscious/unconscious, id/ego, boundaries cannot be maintained; it is the ego which performs a mediating role between both. Where id psychology privileges the instinctual drives and related phantasies, ego-psychology looks at the way the fantasies are manipulated by the psyche.

Ego-psychology largely concerns itself with psychic mechanisms which mediate the relationship between the ego and the id, and the consequences this has for the artwork and audience. The Kleinian (British School) view focuses on the psychic processes which mediate the relationship between self and the world, and how these influence the formal aspects of art and aesthetic experience. Emphasis is put on what happens between one psyche and another, and the relationship between artist and his medium, audience and the artwork.

Although ego-psychology has initiated developments in traditional Freudian aesthetics, it has not been able to address fully the intersubjectivity of aesthetic experience, nor does it look closely enough at the interplay between the instinctual forces in the psyche (the theory of the life and the death instincts) that Freud put forward in later speculative writings, and which grounded the Kleinian account of the mind.28. Unlike the ego-psychologists, Ehrenzweig takes into account the interplay between the instincts and does not reduce creativity to a notion of a 'controlled regression'. He holds that the creative process involves a necessary psychic disintegration - both of the self and the image of what is loved in the external world - under the direct influence of the Thanatos (death instinct). The desire to rebuild the destroyed self and object , through the forces of Eros (life instinct) is the next stage in the process.

Some of the important divergences between the ego-psychological approach and an aesthetic grounded in object-relations theory, is shown by the different emphases in the work of Kris and Ehrenzweig. However, Ehrenzweig did not discount ego-psychology entirely. Like Kris, he believed that any psychoanalytic account of art should not be an analysis of the contents of id-phantasy, but should engage with dynamic, economic and structural influences, which lie in the domain of ego-functioning. He also held that ego and id both evolve from the same undifferentiated matrix, namely, infantile bodily sensations.

The crucial difference between Ehrenzweig and Kris lies in the different roles they attribute to perception, and its relationship to the primary processes. Where Kris views perceptual mechanisms as being a part of the 'conflict-free area of the ego', Ehrenzweig firmly believes that far from being an autonomous ego-function, perception is strongly implicated in the workings of the id. This view has important consequences for his account of creative perception, one which emphasises the libidinal component involved.

However, both Kris and Ehrenzweig do reach similar conclusions about the specific capacity of the artist. They agree that the primary process involves the deliberate reversion to a different, more childlike (syncretistic) way of functioning, where there is a special kind of interplay between the two levels of experience. But where Ehrenzweig sees this as part of a natural rhythm between various psychic layers, involving disruption and re-integration, Kris constructs a rather more rigid theoretical framework, construing all artistic activity in terms of a 'controlled regression of the ego to the primary process'. (For further analysis of the dialogue between Freud, Kris and Ehrenzweig, see chapter 5, section 1, below.)

Ehrenzweig elaborates this further, linking the role of the primary process with the death instinct - the destructive force which will allow the eventual death and rebirth of reality through Eros. He emphasises the influence of instinctual life on perceptual experience and the way that unconscious phantasies structure our perception of reality. This raises questions of how objects come to be selected for perception in the first place. The disintegration of the ego is not viewed as an altogether regressive experience - thereby explicitly opposing Kris, who does not give the unconscious a sufficiently constructive role in the creative process. Where Kris thinks of the primary process as an essentially primitive regression to earlier phantasies, Ehrenzweig postulates a developing unconscious which turns disruption and chaos into constructive, ordered experience - a notion of 'unconscious scanning', whereby the ego and id both sort from an undifferentiated matrix of experience - a process where rational preconceptions are temporarily suspended. (This phenomenon has also been studied by Marion Milner in her analysis of the 'wide focus' and 'diffuse stare' characteristic of artistic perception.See Chapter six above.)

As we will see in Part Two, the development of a psychoanalytic aesthetic by the British School has done much to redress the balance between the pathographical approach of the classical id-psychoanalysis theorists, on the one hand, and the limitations of the ego-psychologists, on the other. The developments by Klein and her School have led to an approach to art which is able to address the way the unconscious and instinctual energies inform the creation of art and its reception. It does not rely on a psychobiographical interpretation, and like the ego-psychologists, regards the artwork as the outcome of a process. However, as we have seen, the aesthetic approach of those such as Kris, does not address the relationship between artist and his medium fully, nor the intersubjectivity of aesthetic experience. This is largely because such theorists regard the ego and the strengthening of its defences to be the raison d'tre informing the psychoanalytic encounter. Thus, the interplay between the life and death forces is not given a constructive role in creativity. Ehrenzweig's work builds upon the insights of Kris and the ego-psychologists (and a critique of Gestalt theory), to incorporate the insights of Freud's later writings which were developed by Klein. Thus, his approach includes the significance of the interplay between instinctual energies, together with emphasis on the vital structuring role of unconscious phantasy in art.




Freud's account of art, although incomplete and somewhat limited, is certainly stimulating. He was a cultured man, well-read in philosophy and the classics, and an avid collector of antiquities. However, as his biographer, E. Jones, points out, he was not really concerned with what makes a work of art. Lionel Trilling, who had great respect for Freud, wrote that 'he is always, I think, outside the process of literature. Much as he responds to the product, he does not really imagine the process. He does not have what we call the feel of the thing'.29.

Freud's approach to the understanding of art was limited by a number of factors. Firstly, he over-emphasised the neurotic aspects of artistic experience, and his analysis of individual artists was fuelled largely by his need to develop and demonstrate the psychoanalytic theory he was working with at the time. He admitted that he was less able to deal with the formal and technical aspects of art, and that psychoanalysis was not yet able to delve into the 'innermost secret' of the artist's 'mysterious ability'. Although he did not elaborate his joke-theory fully for the understanding of art and aesthetic value, he did realise its significance and potential.

However, Freud's theory of the primary process and his analysis of the related structure of the joke have laid the foundations for a psychoanalytic approach to art and creativity which can address the formal aspects of art, as well the way they shape the reception of its content. This has had important consequences for psychoanalytic aesthetics, particularly through the work of Kris and Ehrenzweig. Their contributions demonstrate how Freud's theory of the primary process and the joke-structure have offset the pathographical model with which Freud (and classical psychoanalytic criticism) is associated. As I shall show in more depth in chapter five below, both Kris and Ehrenzweig, with differing emphasis, demonstrate that psychoanalysis can address the nature of creative work without recourse to 'wild analysis' and delving too deeply into the psychopathology of the artist.

Chapter two and chapter three below will explore the valuable contributions that Kleinian theory makes to psychoanalytic aesthetics: largely through forging a link between the formal, specifically aesthetic elements of art (aspects which orthodox psychoanalysis largely ignored) and specific psychic mechanisms. Because of its focus on the formal, structuring role of our unconscious phantasy life as well as its content, Kleinian theory is well-equipped to explore the artist's relationship to his medium and also the viewer's encounter with the aesthetic object.

For orthodox psychoanalysis, art interpretation was modelled on the paradigm of dream interpretation the piecemeal analysis of individual symbols. Naturally, this was impractical for it demanded access to biographical information so that art interpretation became a form of detective work. As we will see below, not only did Klein and her co-workers re-evaluated the significance of symbols, but also the process of symbol-formation itself (the mechanism responsible for all art, dream and phantasy) and its developmental role. With this new account, it is not so much the meaning of individual symbols or phantasies that are paramount, but how psychic mechanisms are themselves implicated in symbolic activity. So, rather than analysing what is 'in' the dream or 'in' the artwork, Kleinian theory explores what the activity of making and experiencing art means to both artist and spectator - thus one could say that the concern is not so much with the pattern, but more with the structure of the fabric itself upon which the pattern is printed.




1. J. J. Spector (1972), p. 34.

2. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 13, p. 213. (All references to this edition will be abbreviated to'S.E'.)

3. For two contrasting readings of Freud's identification with Moses, see Fuller (1980) and Wollheim (1974).

4. For further analysis of this aspect of Freud, see A. Storr, The Dynamics of Creation (1976), ch. 1.

5. S.E., 20, p. 65.

6. S.E., 13, p. 187.

7. For example, Otto Rank (1912); H. Sachs (1942); O. Pfister (1913); E. Jones (1911, 1914) in his Papers on Applied Psychoanalysis II (1951)

8. S.E., 12, p. 224.

9. S.E., 16, p. 376.

10. S.E., 9, p. 153, my italics.

11. See J.J. Spector (1972), and Wright (1986) for an overview of the various approaches to pathography.

12. S.E., 14, p. 37.

13. For example, the art historian E. Gombrich (1966), E. Kris (1952), A. Ehrenzweig (1967), and R. Wollheim (1974).

14. S.E., 8, p. 120, p. 122.

15. 'Freud's Aesthetics', Encounter (January 1966), p. 35

16. S.E., 22, p. 73.

17. Kris (1952), p.225, p. 207.

18. In Part Two, we will see that Kleinians do not regard play as an innocent activity, but one that is fraught with painful unconscious phantasies, usually of a sadistic kind. Winnicott, however, took a more benign view of play, regarding it as a safe space in which the growing child is initiated into culture and learns to endow the outside world with enriching symbolic experience.

19. British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 12 (1962), pp. 301-317

20. See Freud (1900, 1911, 1917).

21. Ehrenzweig (1962), p. 303.

22. Ibid., pp. 303-4.

23. Ibid., p. 317.

24. The Hidden Order of Art ([1967] 1971), p. 266.

25. Ibid., p. 269.

26. Ibid., p. 305

27. Ehrenzweig (1967) describes this three-phased creative process thus: first, there is an initial fragmentation of reality, followed by the 'manic-oceanic' de-differentiation of these fragments into a 'receiving womb' within the unconscious, and then an eventual re-integration of fragmented reality into the new structure, which may or may not result in the creation of a physical object per se. See chapter 5, sec. 2 above.

28. In 'Beyond the Pleasure Principle' (1920) S.E.18, Freud realises that 'the original opposition between the ego-instincts and the sexual instincts proved to be inadequate'. He recasts it in the form of a new dichotomy, between the life and death instincts: the former including both sexual and survival instincts, the latter being the drive to return to the inanimate state - entropy. In the early 'thirties, Klein developed Freud's theory of the silent death instinct and emphasised that far from being silent, it is a significant clinical phenomenon, visible in the harsh, persecuting superego itself. (See Chapter two)

29. L. Trilling, 'Freud: Within and Beyond Culture', in Beyond Culture (1966), p. 92.