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Elkins, J. (1994). The Failed and the Inadvertent: Art History and the Concept of the Unconscious. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 75:119-132.

(1994). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 75:119-132

The Failed and the Inadvertent: Art History and the Concept of the Unconscious

James Elkins


The history of art-historical responses to psychoanalysis has yet to be written. Art historians have imported a wide variety of psychoanalytic concepts, and psychoanalysis continues to be a major interpretive resource for the discipline of art history. But beyond the core of art-historical texts that are directly and explicitly influenced by psychoanalysis is a much larger, and I think more important, class of texts that do not cite psychoanalytic concepts, but would nevertheless not be possible without psychoanalysis and especially the fundamental concept of the unconscious. This paper examines the ways that the idea (or notion) of the unconscious affects current thinking about the control artists have over their works; I argue that, in this more general sense, psychoanalysis has tended to help art historians to take away artists' control and awareness of their own work, replacing it with the model of artists as workers largely unaware of what they do. Against this I argue that artists who are imagined to 'preside over their work with their eyes open' can be more interesting subjects, both historically and psychologically.

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