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Esman, A.H. (1993). Image and Insight. Essays in Psychoanalysis and the Arts: By Ellen Handler Spitz. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. 273 pp.. Psychoanal Q., 62:681-683.

(1993). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 62:681-683

Image and Insight. Essays in Psychoanalysis and the Arts: By Ellen Handler Spitz. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. 273 pp.

Review by:
Aaron H. Esman

In her first book, Art & Psyche, Ellen Handler Spitz, a psychoanalytically trained art historian, performed the great service of outlining with clarity and penetration the several ways in which psychoanalysis has been used to illuminate the lives of artists, works of art, and the processes of both creativity and aesthetic response. The present volume brings together a dozen essays of varying length and depth on a number of aspects of the cultural scene, ranging from classic Greek drama to subway graffiti, in which she demonstrates once again the sharpness of her critical faculty and the scope of her command both of psychoanalytic ideas and of cultural phenomena.

Spitz's ambition is substantial. The first essay in this collection, "Looking and Longing," aims at nothing less than the formulation of a psychoanalytic aesthetics, i.e., the restoration of the notion of pleasure into aesthetic discourse. Spitz is impatient with the austere formalism that, she finds, has come to dominate art-historical and art-critical theory; she wishes to emphasize the role of the object in evoking or resonating with the viewer's desire, in filling a lack or restoring a felt loss in the viewer's unconscious life. Freud's dictum that the finding of an object is actually a refinding applies, then, in the realm of aesthetics as it does in "real" life. The paradox here—that many art objects appear to evoke aesthetic responses in individuals with widely varying life experiences (and, therefore, "desire" structures)—is not fully explored, but Spitz's concept would presumably imply "panhuman" needs/lack/desires.

Or, at least, within a particular culture. This point is germane to Spitz's essay on African sculpture, which she speaks of as "Charged Objects"—charged, that is, with intense spiritual meanings specific to the culture in and for which they were created. She addresses here the oft-argued issue of the possibility of meaningful response to such objects detached or uprooted from their cultural context.

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