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Beauty and the Sinister: A Psychoanalysis View on Art

Art must be like that mirror that reveals our own face" (Borges, 2000) writes the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges in his poem Arte Poética, which translates into Poetic Art. The title of this poem refers to his conferences concerning a writer's work; an artistic form of creation that lies in revealing the innermost, the self, that hasn’t been embellished with the editing process. However, in his verse, Borges speaks to us about what psychoanalysis has tried to interpret about art and its mobilizing power on society. Truly, the author may be speaking merely of writing about his own self and not what someone else can interpret or feel when encountering any piece of artwork. Even so, it speaks of a fundamental relationship the psychoanalytical theory has found when studying arts.

For psychoanalysis, artistic creation is a product of sublimation without a form of repression. Art, as psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan postulates and, unlike Freud's perspective, opens the road to psychoanalytic theory. He believed that without the evidence of art, psychoanalysis wouldn’t hold a solid theoretical structure. When speaking of theory, we could say that both arts and psychoanalysis begin on the same side and head towards the same direction. However, there is an essence in art that psychoanalysis can barely attempt to follow. As psychoanalysis understands it, art, as a form of expression, falls within the symbolic order. Nevertheless, Lacan succeeds in finding the essence of art when he understands its close relationship with what he calls the order of the Real: the opposite of expression, a black hole, that which cannot be said.

The aesthetics of art is structured not only by its condition of beauty but by its sinister condition as well; which is presented to us in a veiled form. This veil reveals to the spectator something that escapes all knowledge and symbol. Both what is beautiful and what is sinister are fundamental to art, and it is this interplay between both conditions that the spectator cannot translate but which, in turn, is understood by admiration only. What does a person look at when he sees a piece of art? Is Borges' verse close to the answer when he says that it reveals our own face?

Figure 1: Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez, 1656

In the early 20th century, the Russian Formalists introduced the concept of ostranenie to explain a technique of art and poetry that translates as defamiliarization. The technique is used to give a new perspective on what we usually consider as reality. It basically presents an object in a different context from what we would consider normal to evoke a sense of unfamiliarity when seeing a familiar object. According to formalism, artistic creation does not consist in presenting the unknown as known, but to present the known as unknown. To make that which is considered common, or usual, as something strange and unfamiliar for the spectator.

Art as a form of language can be understood as a symbolic construction that works with image and superficiality, a materialistic form of an image, an organization of what linguistic theorists call signifiers that shape a reality. However, it presents us with something that is irreducible to the symbolic order only, something that has no place in language but somehow the eye finds it. The Real manifests itself in the when there is an insistence of a signifier, causing meaning to escape us. We become unaware of what is usually known and the spectator captures this sinister aspect of art. But what is sinister then, if not what we already know? This insistence of the signifier is a repetition, which leads to the question of how this condition of the sinister works in aesthetics and its relationship with that which is repeated.

Repetition in Art

As far as the material aspect of art is concerned, we could consider an artistic piece as a"text". It handles a series of symbols, iconic signs, in which a deeply interpretative semantic body is manifested. This could be understood as if the piece handled what we called before an organization of signifiers open to the interpretation of the spectator, which is true, but we would be left with a "text" that represents a narrative managed by the artist. Art is not reduced to a symbolic representation, in fact, the word representation alludes to the fact that we are talking about the absence of something that has to be represented by something else. An expression of melancholia, for example, could be represented in a painting by a man staring at the sea. That "absence" is covered with language, with symbols. However, art does not merely represent something, it presents instead. There is a difference between reading symbols and seeing an image instead, a painting. This “organization of signifiers” shows us something that actually escapes language. It is as if the artist constructs an assortment to express, to present, that absence exists. That emptiness is somewhere in there, and language makes us "disremember".

art, painting, munch
Figure 2: Melancholy by Edvard Munch, 1894

Art preserves a relationship with that which escapes language, and that is why it speaks to us of what the ethics of psychoanalysis tries to achieve as its final purpose. It is an organization of the void, as Jacques Lacan's first aesthetics presents it, it borders the central void of Hegel’s das Ding; which refers directly to an aesthetics of the Real. And it is important to emphasize the word organization since we are not talking about art presenting das Ding itself. This would be terrifying for the spectator and the painting would lose all its aesthetic component. Aesthetics is precisely an arrangement of the elements where emptiness becomes a vortex, like an abyss that attracts us, but to be attracted, that which is terrible, as Austrian poet Rilke would say, must be veiled. We understand, then, that artistic creation, sublimation, as Lacan expresses it, is "to raise the object to the dignity of das Ding." (Recalcati, 2006)

In other words, beauty must be maintained in relation to the Real in order to preserve the power of this aesthetic function. Beauty must function as a veil that covers das Ding and can attract the eye of the subject, of the spectator. This means that beauty, as a condition, is not the opposite of the terrible. It cannot be understood as that which lacks the real of das Ding, rather, in order to fulfil its aesthetic function in art, it must bring us closer to it and at the same time keep us at a distance. Only in this way can we really experience the aesthetic power that art provokes and that the subject appreciates.

Now, how does an object become sinister? How does art manage to elevate the object to the dignity of das Ding? Schelling's definition of the unheimlich says: all that which should remain hidden, is revealed. That is to say, for an object to be sinister it must fulfil two conditions: it must be something already familiar, intimate, hidden, and it must become strange due to its revelation. Freud suggests that unheimlich occurs when the fantastic, a subject's desire which is in essence hidden and unconscious is presented to us as real.

In other words, Freud tells us that what is sinister for the spectator is when some repressed infantile complex is made present to us by an impression external to us. When something familiar is repeated but has been hidden from consciousness under the command of repression. Trías (1982) comments that "as soon as something happens in this life, susceptible of confirming those old abandoned convictions, we experience the sensation of the sinister..." (p. 34) From a Freudian conception, we can say that a condition of repetition is that this appears as a novelty. To repeat is not the same as to remember, but its opposite sense instead. In order not to fall into repetition, it is necessary to remember. Repetition is the memory that takes the form of oblivion. What is sinister, then, speaks to us precisely of repetition in terms of an encounter with the Real. The artist, with his work, shows us how repetition is found in the improbable. Bosch (2001) in his article El arte y el objeto, says:

"To pursue the void, to contour it, to surround it, to veil it, to try by means of some representation to veil that which by definition is impossible to veil, that which by definition is unrepresentable: the void. This is the goal of art, which goes beyond the satisfaction of the drive, even beyond repetition, because the artist, by elevating an object to the dignity of das Ding, "grafts" into the repetition the encounter, the chance, the tyche."

art, hopper, woman
Figure 3: Morning Sun by Edward Hopper, 1952


Taking the Russian concept of defamiliarization, a work of art shows us the known object with a perspective that escapes from automatism. The defamiliarization causes the viewer to confront the object in another realm, transforming it from its own to the foreign. Recalcati (2006) says, "Consequently the object separated from its function of use reveals the Thing, of which that is indexical, but beyond itself." (p. 17) The work of art presents us with an imitation of known, familiar objects, but only to produce a new meaning. The represented object, then, is not related to what is natural to it, but to the emptiness of das Ding (Recalcati, 2006).

The artist creates a piece that mobilizes the spectator with the mere fantastic impression it presents, with the organization of signifiers that construct, border, and delimit this void Lacan, Hegel, and many other philosophers discuss regarding the doctrine of being. In aesthetics, the veil serves as beauty to invite us to see what is "behind", what art hides, and at the same time protects us from falling into the vortex itself. However, it allows us to look at it, to go towards it, and later on to return. Beauty, in art, is both a condition and a frontier between what is symbolic and universal, and what is singular, Real, that which is impossible to represent: between what is there and what can not be said. Thus, art speaks to us of that which the spectator does not want to know. It reveals our own face, that hidden and unconscious desire, presented to us with full subtlety.

Bibliographical References

Borges, J., (2000) Arte Poética : Seis Conferencias (1967-1968) Harvard University, EEUU

Bosch, M., (2001) El arte y el objeto. Revista Freudiana nro. 32 ELP – Catalunya. Barcelona, España retrieved from

Teitelbaum, A., (2018) Sublimación: un avatar de la pulsión. De la falta a la causa. X Congreso Internacional de Investigación y Práctica Profesional en Psicología XXV Jornadas de Investigación XIV Encuentro de Investigadores en Psicología del MERCOSUR. Facultad de Psicología - Universidad de Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires.

Trías, E., (1982) Lo bello y lo siniestro/The beauty and the wicked (Filosofía / Philosophy) (Spanish Edition). Published by DEBOLSILLO (2006).

Recalcati, M., (2006) Las tres estéticas de Lacan: arte y psicoanálisis - la ed. Buenos Aires, Argentina

J. Lacan, The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, New York/London 2009, 85–90.

Shklovski, V., (1917) El arte como artificio: Teoría de la literatura de los formalistas rusos Tzvetan Todorov (ed. lit. 2012)

Visual Sources

Cover Image: The Scream from Edvard Munch, 1893

Figure 1: Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez, 1656

Figure 2: Melancholy by Edvard Munch, 1894

Figure 3: Morning Sun by Edward Hopper, 1952

Author Photo

Gabriella Yanes

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