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Kuspi, D. (1996). Some Contemporary Psychoanalytic Constructions Of Art. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 44:257-269.

(1996). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 44:257-269

Some Contemporary Psychoanalytic Constructions Of Art

Review by:
Donald Kuspi

There's one consistent if somewhat ironical note that sounds in most of the books under consideration here: their authors assume that art has healing power, even as the lives of the artists they analyze cast doubt on the assumption. Thus, while David Kleinbard (1993) agrees with Rilke that to write poetry is a form of “self-treatment”—a way of “exorcising ‘foreign matter’” (p. 44)—Kleinbard makes it clear that the treatment did not work very well, as indicated by the pathological pattern of Rilke's life. It wildly oscillated between solitude and transient, unhappy love affairs, and generally abortive relationships. Similarly, C. Fred Alford (1992) argues that high art, especially Greek tragedy, “put[s] into motion feelings and values normally kept rigidly protected by the self-system, placing them in pleasurable tension and conflict through … form” (p. 221), even as he discusses the far from edifying family tensions and conflicts that are the substance of Greek tragedy.

Again and again the authors show, almost despite themselves, that the therapeutic relief art affords is short-lived; art makes no substantial, lasting difference in the emotional life of artist or audience. At the moment it is made or deeply engaged, art has an effect that can loosely be called therapeutic, but the effect quickly fades. It seems to be a psychic by-product of aesthetic pleasure—an aspect of the rush of recognition of art as art. It may help explain why art is addictive—certainly for the artist. Thus, however unexpectedly, the authors present art as a seductive Sisyphean repetition, all the more exciting because it never quite delivers on its “promesse du bonheur,” as Stendhal and Adorno described it.

I am suggesting that the main “theoretical” benefit of the books is that they unwittingly bring into question a standard psychoanalytic justification and conventional yea-saying of art as therapy (however short term). The notion that art induces durable psychic change for the better—indeed, can radically restructure the psyche—makes a particularly cogent appearance in the thinking of Claire Kahane and Richard Almond.

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