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Lieberman, J.S. (1999). Health and Happiness in 20th-Century Avant-Garde Art: Donald Kuspit and Lynn Gamwell. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996, 96 pp., $29.95.. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 47(4):1439-1441.

(1999). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 47(4):1439-1441

Art And Culture

Health and Happiness in 20th-Century Avant-Garde Art: Donald Kuspit and Lynn Gamwell. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996, 96 pp., $29.95.

Review by:
Janice S. Lieberman

This book was written in conjunction with an exhibition at the Binghamton University Art Museum (where Gamwell is director), as part of a series sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences in their Art and Sciences division (where Gamwell is curator). Both Kuspit and Gamwell are known for their psychoanalytic readings of art. They address separate themes in two essays written individually. No introduction or conclusion relates one to the other.

The works of art reproduced in this book and (somewhat) alluded to in the text are glorious, and well able to foster the “health and happiness” of readers, curing, at least momentarily, whatever ills they may be suffering from. They are among the most aesthetically pleasing and stimulating works of this part of the twentieth century, and by artists one knows, or should know. The cover of the book describes these works as avant-garde art that affirms life emotionally and intellectually, that is positive and joyful, and that challenges “those who see disintegration and negativity as the most authentic artistic response to this century's gloomy zeitgeist.”

But in raising the banner for the position that art should have the function of fostering health and happiness, Kuspit makes a frontal attack on most avant-garde art. And those who feel that art has other functions as well as that one will feel neither healthy nor happy reading what Kuspit has to say. He quotes a series of European critics who see modern, especially avant-garde, art as degrading of man. They see it as nihilistic, destructive, self-destructive—the antithesis of happy. Kuspit backs this up by saying that Freud (who died in 1939) thought so, too.

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