In his 1940 poem In Memory of Sigmund Freud, W.H. Auden wrote: “… if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd/to us he is no more a person/now but a whole climate of opinion/under whom we conduct our different lives”. That climate of opinion has done nothing but intensify in the decades since Auden wrote his ode. This year is the 160th anniversary of Freud’s birth and he remains a totemic cultural figure, although this is less the case in the field of psychology.
Almost ten years ago, the American Psychoanalytic Association said that psychoanalysis was widely addressed in the humanities but treated as “desiccated and dead” in university psychology departments. So Freud is largely ignored in science, but continues to exert his influence over the arts. During its 30 years, the Freud Museum in London has prompted all manner of artists to explore his theories, collections and biography. And if proof were needed of Freud’s continuing potency for artists, it can be found in Mark Wallinger’s show (until 7 May) at Hauser & Wirth in London, in which the artist explores identity within a Freudian framework. So if science today largely rejects Freud, what accounts for art’s continuing fascination with him?
Mark Edmundson Professor of English, University of Virginia
Freud and art is an inexhaustible subject. The man himself was something of an artist. He wrote brilliantly speculative essays, full of invention, full of life. He was a conceptual poet, not unlike William Blake. Freud sang about repetition compulsion, the death drive, the transference, the primal horde, sublimation, Eros and authority. His powers of analytical invention were boundless, or so it sometimes seemed. The short essay On Narcissism has more to say about love than the works of many purported love poets. He was as fertile as any artist, and as daring as all but a few. Need evidence? See his footnote in Civilization and its Discontents about how mankind gained control over fire. Hint: some primal fellow overcame his instinct to piss the flames out. From this, much followed.
Freud was imaginative, but he had little respect for what many considered to be the sources of imagination. Dreams, he told us, never give us anything that is new. They combine material from the prior day (the day’s residue) and from the repressed past. Childhood (pace Wordsworth) is not a time of bliss to which we can repair through memory for inspiration in the present. Children are miserable: they cannot have what they most want, and suffer and pine accordingly. And they are too young to find substitutes – substitutes for mum, substitutes for dad. Nature is not a halcyon world full of beauty to Freud, not a source of peaceful inspiration (pace Wordsworth twice). Nature is what Darwin said it was: red in tooth and claw and full of aggression at every turn, especially between people, who no more have souls inside them than lions or wolves.
And why do artists create? Freud knows. They do so for fame, wealth and the love of beautiful women and men. Is that really why Milton wrote Paradise Lost? Is that the only reason the writer of today, gone up-garret, enters the body of her novel to perform draft number six? What is fiction to Freud? It is wish-fulfilment, given a dram of dignity by the distancing power of form. Freud is an artist. Freud loves art. Freud responds to art with a cordial distaste. Freud is something like a cosmos, when we pause to think of it. Is it a surprise that this “cosmos Freud” contains no end of complexities?
• The writer is the author of The Death of Sigmund Freud: Fascism, Psychoanalysis and the Rise of Fundamentalism
Josh Cohen Professor of English, Goldsmiths, University of London, and psychoanalyst
The dismissive rejection of psychoanalysis by academic psychology aspiring to hard science, and Freud’s continued importance for the arts and humanities, are two aspects of the same phenomenon.
Although Freud never wavered from his self-description as a man of science, building his theories of the mind on the stable foundations of clinical evidence, he was also aware that the unconscious, his primary object of inquiry, was a force that undid all claims to scientific mastery.
He would speak, in his great essay on The Uncanny, of psychoanalysis as “thinking itself become uncanny”, implying that science doesn’t so much impose its concepts on the unconscious as become infected by it. The unconscious guarantees that the human being always exceeds any laws, metrics or principles we can impose upon it. This, I’d argue, is its primary affinity with art, and its fascination for the supposedly more “inexact” humanities.
Psychoanalysis speaks for a broader conception of science, one premised on its own limits, that recognises that obscurity and strangeness are woven into the very texture of human experience and can’t be cleared away like so many obstacles. It conceives of us as concealed from ourselves, our thoughts, feelings and actions conditioned by forces we never fully comprehend.
So the contemporary scientific dismissal of psychoanalysis as outdated, rooted in baseless and unfalsifiable speculations, is part of a broader positivistic mode of thinking that sees the inner life as so much chemical, neuronal or economic data to be quantified and explained. I tend to think of art as more rather than less exact than science in this regard—that is, more attuned to the singular texture of human experience. This, I suggest, is why artists and thinkers continue to find resonance in psychoanalysis in spite of its lowly status in the world of hard science.
Michael Craig-Martin Artist and former tutor at Goldsmiths, University of London
The obvious and most important thing about Sigmund Freud is that he located sexuality as being at the centre of human identity and consciousness. This belief remains one of the cornerstones of modern Western society. It is inevitable that artists, understanding Freud to have redefined our understanding of the self, recognise that his great insight is the key to our understanding of creativity.
Freud thought in a very lateral way and the richness in what he thought about and what he came up with in terms of how to understand the world is so complex—he is obviously one of the great minds of the 20th century. It is not so much a question of whether he’s right about everything, rather that he brought into thought a lot of ideas that nobody had considered before. This is something that is close to the creative process of artists.
In my own work, one of the things I really like about drawing simple objects is the fact that, on the one hand, that is what they are—just simple objects. But so many objects have such rich references and ramifications; not just social ones but personal ones. There are some things that are irresistibly symbolic—objects that are phallic symbols, or you put certain things in conjunction with other things and there is a symbolic tension between them. But I’ve always liked the idea of mixing the ones that were dead ends with the ones that were rich, so I am not saying that this is true of all things, but I am certainly not denying that it’s true of some. Objects have different levels and qualities of reverberation.
In the 20th century, artists as different as Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dalí and Louise Bourgeois were obsessed with sexuality. Today, we’ve got Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas. Jeff Koons is absolutely obsessed with sexuality. Although it’s not surprising that it’s a continuing consideration, it has been very interesting to see for how many major artists it has been such a central concern. It was fascinating in the 1970s, when you started to have sexual politics—the politics of feminism, the politics of gay rights—so that certain questions of sexuality that would have been explored by a Surrealist were addressed very differently by a feminist. But the area is not entirely distinct.
Freud is very relevant today, but his influence is much less direct than it once was. And yet it’s pervasive. There are very few people in history who have had such a profound impact on all of us, in terms of how we see ourselves and the world.