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Freeland, C. (1988). Psychoanalytic Theory of Art: A Philosophy of Art on Developmental Principles. Richard Kuhns. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983, xi + 169 pp.. Psychoanal. Rev., 75(3):482-484.

(1988). Psychoanalytic Review, 75(3):482-484

Psychoanalytic Theory of Art: A Philosophy of Art on Developmental Principles. Richard Kuhns. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983, xi + 169 pp.

Review by:
Cynthia Freeland

In this original and concise book, Richard Kuhns draws upon a variety of Freud's works — clinical studies as well as writings on art and culture — to sketch a theory about the interpretation of “enactments.” Enactments are defined as “cultural events, objects, actions that are used, presented, and honored … they are made things that can be classified in terms of their media” (p. 53). Kuhns's title, then, misleadingly downplays his book's real ambition: to articulate a contemporary psychoanalytic theory of interpretation generally — a theory that would encompass works as diverse as Cycladic statuettes, medieval religious chants, fairy tales, and the poems of Emily Dickinson. Ultimately this book is about the methodology of the human sciences; Kuhns's concluding sentence suggests some sympathy with critics who claim Freud “self-misunderstood” his own endeavor as a kind of natural scientific one (p. 150). Though I have doubts about Kuhns's success at defending this new general theory, I found that the book presented intriguing notions that deserve attention. Kuhns strikes the right balance between respect for Freud's works and thoughtful criticism. He also refers lucidly to more recent analysts' views (including those of Winnicott, Hartmann, and Kernberg). This book would work well in a criticism or aesthetics course; the view it elaborates is supported by illustrative examples just long enough to serve as models and provoke discussion; the central examples concern King Lear, a Melville tale, and some of Dickinson's poems.

Although Kuhns does not locate his theory in the context of contemporary philosophical literature on art, readers may remark some relation to the views of Kuhns's Columbia University colleague Arthur Dan to, especially in remarks such as the opening sentence: “The art of every cultural tradition presupposes a theory of art” (p. 1). Kuhns thinks that enactments are all in some way embodiments of theories, but not as mere intellectual products, rather as combinations of primary and secondary process thought (p. 78). Thus, these complex objects exhibit the intentions — both conscious and unconscious, personal and social — of their makers.

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