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Psychoanalysis 101: Psychoanalysis and Art


This psychoanalysis course is based on the main object of study of the theory, the unconscious, and its multiple stipulations. It is a theoretical series that aims to explore the complexity of psychoanalysis not only from a clinical view, but from a social one as well. It will discuss the science behind psychoanalysis, a debate this school of thought has had since the beginnings of Freud. A century ago, neurologist Sigmund Freud developed a theory from a medical and scientific perspective, yet found himself dealing with the impossibility of positioning psychoanalysis in such disciplines. This generated a century-long discussion where the value of psychoanalysis has been constantly questioned. However, its clinical and philosophical value remains intact nowadays. There is not one exclusive way of studying psychoanalysis, to think of this theory as a general worldview science is to disregard the vision this theory has: singularity. To study the unconscious is to study that which is singular, that which is unknown. The aim is to create a paved road of the psychoanalysis theory where the reader can walk through it with a considerate timeline on one hand while grasping the fundamental concept of the unconscious and its diverse applications when studying the human mind on the other hand.

Psychoanalysis Theory 101 is divided into the following sections:

Psychoanalysis Theory 101: Psychoanalysis and Art

Since its introduction in the early 1890s under the guidance of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), psychoanalysis has followed a parallel trajectory alongside the study of art. Fundamentally, both art theory and psychoanalysis involve the keen examination of images, whether real or imagined, in order to appreciate deeper significance. Before Freud's pioneering work on the unconscious mind, the field of art history and the discourse surrounding images primarily revolved around the final artistic product. It wasn't until 1910 that Freud penned the initial account of psychological art theory, and through this convergence of art criticism and psychoanalysis, scholars commenced discussing art as a means of uncovering concealed motivations and latent meanings.

In 1910, Sigmund Freud published the essay titled Leonardo da Vinci, A Memory of His Childhood, where he interpreted events from Leonardo's early life as the potential sources of inspiration for his artwork. Within the essay, Freud delves into Leonardo's painting The Virgin and Child with St. Anne [Figure 1], suggesting that due to Leonardo's 'illegitimate' birth and his brief upbringing by his biological mother before being adopted by his father's wife, the portrayal of two mothers in the painting held particular significance for the artist. This serves as an illustration of how the unconscious mind can manifest in art, as both the Virgin Mary and her mother, Saint Anne, are depicted as similar in age, despite the expected generational gap between them. This kind of analysis laid the foundation for the development of psychoanalytic approaches to art.

Figure 1: "Saint Anne, the Virgin and the Christ Child" (Da Vinci, 1508-1513).

Like Freud, Lacan made a significant impression on literary and visual arts theories. Lacan's writings played a role in the shaping of the contemporary critical understanding of textual arts, particularly in the realm of film studies and the interpretation of film imagery. While Lacanian theory has connections, whether direct or indirect, to various aesthetic concerns, it does not offer a comprehensive aesthetic theory but rather provides a wide array of analytical concepts that pertain to issues within the realm of aesthetic experiences. Lacan introduced new interpretations and reinterpretations of certain literary works, using them as an extended metaphor to illustrate psychoanalytic theory (Rapaport, 1998).

Lacan's psychoanalytic methodology holds a significant position in the realm of cultural studies, and it intricately invokes essential foundations like structuralism, Ferdinand de Saussure's linguistics, and Hegel's philosophy. The influence of structuralism is a constant presence in Lacan's theoretical developments. The main objective in Lacan’s method is not the artist’s intention; rather, it is the reading and analysis of the links in artistic discourse. These links serve as metaphors to illustrate some of Lacan’s most important ideas.

Psychoanalysis studies the unconscious and its multiple signs, not only from a clinical perspective but also the paradigms that arise from human experience. Art has always been a fundamental attester of our culture and the manifestations of the unconscious in a society’s experience. For psychoanalysis theory, artistic creation is the product of sublimation, a defense mechanism of transforming socially unacceptable impulses of the unconscious into culturally accepted ones, and art opens the way to understanding the philosophy psychoanalysis attempts to portray. However, there is an essence in art that psychoanalysis can barely glimpse. Contrary to Freud's initial attempts to use psychoanalytic theory to study art and its 'deeper significance,' in the late 1950s, Jacques Lacan states that applying psychoanalysis to art production is misleading. In the attempts to analyse and understand aesthetic compositions of art and its effects on society, psychoanalysis falls short. On the contrary, art is a way to 'understand' psychoanalytic theory, for it is always ahead of what any philosophy or theory can comprehend.

In an analysis of Hans Holbein's painting, The Ambassadors (1533), Lacan departs from the conventional methods of examining how psychology and philosophy influence the way art is received. He suggests that the core of the relationship between an entity and its appearance is situated elsewhere. Similar to other postmodern thinkers, Lacan emphasizes the fragmented and diverse nature of reality, challenging the idea that human thought can provide an objective representation of reality. Fixed identities do not exist in his view, and he goes as far as asserting that any form of individual autonomy or self-determination is unattainable. According to Lacan, one's identity is always shaped by external factors. In line with this perspective, Lacan discusses the constant shift of the signifier beneath the signified (the two main components of a sign) endorsing a system of fluid and ever-changing meanings that lack connections to things beyond language. In linguistics, a sign is the whole that results from the association of the signifier with the signified. The signifier is the form which the sign takes and the signified would be the concept it represents. For example, a signifier would be a word and the signified would be the underlying meaning. However, French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure's theory highlights the idea that the connection between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary, suggesting that the meanings assigned to symbols are not naturally connected to their physical representation but are established by societal agreements and cultural norms. Hence, the concept of stable signs, which is any symbol that communicates meaning, is criticized, and attention is drawn to the interaction between the reader and the text as a productive process (Saussure, 1983).

Figure 2: "Pasiphae" (Pollock, 1943).

Lacan's method of examining artworks serves as both an illustration of analytical interpretation and a demonstration of his psychoanalytic concepts. In other words, both aspects of Lacan's approach are not primarily concerned with providing insights into the texts themselves, but rather with utilizing the texts as a means to convey psychoanalytic ideas. This fundamental distinction between Lacan's approach to artworks and Freud's is perhaps the most significant one, as noted by Evans (2006, p. 14). Lacan's discussions about literary texts are not intended as exercises in literary criticism but are constructed to convey how the unconscious can be deciphered. It can be deduced that Lacan's approach shares similarities with the techniques employed by formalists and structuralists. In this approach, the emphasis is placed on the signifier rather than the signified, and the content is separated, often set apart within brackets, in its relationship to formal structures (Evans, 2006).

When we perceive art in its structural form, its aesthetic composition is based on an organization of signifiers which would fall under the symbolic function of the human experience. Nevertheless, after his sixth seminar (1958-1959), Lacan made an interesting turn when he found that the essence of art is closely related to the 'real'. This article explores such turn, a fundamental rotation from Freud’s initial position of applying psychoanalysis to any piece of art. Instead, Lacan works his way through a psychoanalysis that is implied in art, meaning that by studying art and its aesthetic, we can appreciate psychoanalytic theory. Psychoanalyst Massimo Recalcati (2006) published a fascinating study of Lacan’s three aesthetics and what artistic sublimation is in terms of Lacanian theory.

Lacan's Aesthetics

Lacan was interested in art and its place as a signifying system in relation to the 'three orders' of the Real, Symbolic, and Imaginary. In his Seminar VII, Lacan proposes his thesis of art as "an organization of the void" in relation to the ethics of psychoanalysis. This thesis implies that art must not be considered a symptom, a sign, or something that comes forward from the artist’s phantasm. Instead, it suggests that art has something to teach psychoanalysis about the nature of its own object. Hence, Lacan is interested in understanding "what is" art itself. He finds himself with the challenge of defining art not simply as an organization of signifiers, in a semantic dimension of language (Symbolic order), which would be somewhat reductive, but under the dimension of the void, in the order of the Real.

Figure 3: Lacan's Three Registers (Hook, 2012).

Art is a textual organization. It is a composition of symbolic traces, figures, colours, and texture, which manifests particularly dense syntaxes. According to this, the homology between a work of art and the rhetoric of the unconscious seems evident. The function of the unconscious is structured like a language, it works in the dialectic of a signifier. However, in this Seminar, Lacan finally centralizes this function to a dimension irreducible to that of that signifier. This means that the functions of the unconscious, that is structured like a language, work around this resistance, around the void, and it is such dimension of the void which allows new representations, new signifiers.

Art functions as mimesis, or a form of imitation of reality, only in an imaginary order. In the symbolic order, art comes as a piece of work on its surface and according to how one arranges the signifiers, it produces a meaning that opens the doors to reality. Just as the unconscious is 'structured like a language', so is art. Art plays with the surface, with aesthetic compositions of signifiers that provide the signified. A great example of this is Oscar Wilde's intake on the fog of London from his essay The Decay of Lying (1891):

Where, if not from the impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge. The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art. At present people see fogs, not because they are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we know nothing about them. They did not exist until Art had invented them. Now, it must be admitted, fogs are carried to excess. (p.15)

Figure 4: "London, Parliament. Sunlight in the fog" (Monet, 1904).

However, if art is understood as a game of organized signifiers, what does Lacan’s thesis of 'an organization of the void" mean? Art, Lacan suggests, borders the central void of the Thing. Lacan takes the concept of the Thing both from Heidegger's and Freud’s concept of das-Ding, and defines it as that which is outside of meaning, of the signified, what is not there, what is absent and where there is no sense of logic concatenation. On this, Joël Dor in his book Introduction to the Reading of Lacan: The unconscious structured like a language (1998), mentions the following:

Language therefore has the singular property of representing the presence of a reality to the advantage of the absence of this reality as such. As Lacan (1953) puts it, "Through the word, which is already a presence made of absence, absence itself comes to be named. (p. 135)

In this void we find what Lacanian psychoanalysis names as the object a, an object of which there is no concept or elements that constitute it into an idea, an object of pure jouissance; we speak, then, of an order of the real. This process of organization can be considered as an energetic process, or what psychoanalysis calls sublimation. When we speak of energy in psychoanalytic theory, we are talking about drive. However, Freud formulates this reasoning on the basis of the law of conservation of energy, proposed by the German physicist Helmholtz, which states that energy is one, it can neither be destroyed nor created, only transformed (Nadeje, 2018).

The thesis proposed by Freud in 1905 distinguishes man's instinct from his sexual drive, with drive being understood as free energy that impels the subject towards indeterminate objects that can offer him full satisfaction. The subject, in search of pleasure, must find a way to bind this energy in a socially acceptable way. Freud suggests that this is the very constitution of culture in society. These ways of finding satisfaction through "different" objects, in a singular way, are what will later be developed as sublimation. A transformation of the bound sexual drive away from the primary sexual desire. For the same reason, artistic activity is based on the transformation of real energy into the desire of the subject. Thus, the concept of sublimation that Freud formulates in A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (1920) is the following:

Sexual desire relinquishes either its goal of partial gratification of desire, or the goal of desire toward reproduction, and adopts another aim, genetically related to the abandoned one, save that it is no longer sexual but must be termed social. This process is called "sublimation," and in adopting this process we subscribe to the general standard which places social aims above selfish sexual desires. Sublimation is, as a matter of fact, only a special case of the relation of sexual to non-sexual desires. We shall have occasion to talk more about this later in another connection. (p. 303)

Figure 5: "Embrace (Lovers II)" (Schiele, 1917).

It is important to emphasize that not every satisfaction of the drive is sublimation, not every bound energy, also known as libido, or reorientation of the drive towards an object is a sublimatory process. The essential difference is the position of the subject before the object. In Lacan's terms (1986), to sublimate is "to elevate an object to the dignity of the Thing." (p. 112) This implies that the object is placed in the position of the Thing, i.e. of the emptiness or essential lack mentioned above. However, not just any object can be placed in this position, since the anguish would be unbearable for the subject when approaching the extreme good that the Thing can offer him, this emptiness. Therefore, the object that is placed as close to the Thing must be something unrepeatable, something that contains a singular and inaccessible beauty (Gerber, 2007).

For psychoanalysis, this place of emptiness, the place of nothingness, is also the place of truth (Gerber, 2007). Thus, creation borders this place of truth, it makes the material contour to contain the emptiness, to contain the "truth". Inaccessible, never known, impossible to know and eluding knowledge, creation (sublimate) manages to position the subject of enunciation before it. This is what metaphor, in its function of substitution, accomplishes to structure the materiality in art, it creates the empty hole by bordering it. Lacan (1953) says "Thus the symbol manifests itself first of all as the murder of the thing" (p. 77) , if one cannot have the thing, the lost object or object a, one kills it, by symbolizing it through the word. Thus, the metaphorical process that occurs when the subject is inscribed in language is understood within the symbolic order. Hence, we can conclude that it is impossible to reach the truth by means of the word.

As mentioned before, art preserves a relationship with what escapes from the word, from language, and therefore it speaks to us of what the ethics of psychoanalysis can only attempt; to achieve the singular truth of the analysand. As an organization of the void, it borders on the central void of the Thing; which refers us directly to the aesthetics of the real. And it is important to emphasize the word organization, since we are not talking about art presenting the real of the Thing, since this would be terrifying for the spectator and the work would lose its aesthetic component. Its aesthetic is precisely an arrangement of the elements where emptiness becomes a vortex, like a kind of abyss that attracts us, but to be attracted, the aesthetic composition must come in the form of beauty. We understand, then, that artistic creation, sublimation, as Lacan puts it, is "raising the object to the dignity of the Thing" (Recalcati, 2006).

For the Lacan of the '50s, the 'real' is the limit of experience. Therefore, the real is a limited experience as well and it manifests itself in the insistence of the signifier. The result of this insistence is that the signified escapes us. Art as a result of a symbolic operation, a product, presents something that also escapes this operation, something that remains outside. A signifier always returns and insists on us because there is no signified, even in the very absence of the signifier itself. Things are only lost in the symbolic order, the real is always in the same place, because it is nowhere. Hence, art does not come to exercise the function of organizing and bordering the Real, it comes to open the possibility of an encounter with the Real. The aesthetic composition in art, through the organization of signifiers, functions as an encounter of what comes irreducible to such an organization.

Figure 6: "Las Meninas" (Velazquez, 1656).
The Gaze

Lacan first introduced the concept of the visible realm through the mirror stage. This serves as the foundational point for discussing everything related to what can be seen. During this stage, as we behold the image of another's body, we project the idea of mastering our own body and unifying our reflection in the mirror. This process is the basis for experiencing a narcissistic sense of self-satisfaction. When a child observes themselves in the mirror during the mirror stage, they initiate their integration into culture and language. This process involves the establishment of their own sense of self by creating a fantasy image within the mirror. This ideal image serves as a lifelong aspiration, representing a stable and coherent version of themselves that doesn't align with the chaotic instincts of their physical body. After entering the symbolic order, this narcissistic ideal image is preserved within the realm of imagination. As Lacan explained in his seminar on the structure of the psyche, other individuals, such as role models or objects of affection, can fill in this fantasy image as someone to emulate in adulthood. Essentially, anyone we regard as a mirror for ourselves in what is fundamentally a narcissistic connection contributes to this idealized self-image.

In his later writings, Lacan moves on from the conventional understanding of the narcissistic reflection in the mirror by drawing a distinction between the eye's gaze and what he terms the Gaze. In Lacan's later work, the Gaze refers to the unsettling sensation that the object we are looking at with our eyes is, in some eerie way, looking back at us. This uncanny experience of being observed by the object we are gazing at affects us in a similar manner as castration anxiety, reminding us of the absence at the core of the symbolic order. Castration anxiety comes from our childhood fear during the Oedipus complex, of when we were once "castrated" from being an all-powerful subject usually by a father figure. We might think that we have control over where our gaze falls, but any sense of possessing visual authority is perpetually undermined by the realization that the physical reality of existence (the Real) always surpasses and undermines the meaning systems of the symbolic order.

Lacan's concept of the 'dialectic between the eye and the gaze' is associated with the scopic drive, where desire finds its place within the realm of vision. Lacan identified a conflict between the eye and the gaze, wherein the Imaginary notion of achieving wholeness through the gaze of another is disrupted by the eye's relationship with a third element: the symbolic order. This symbolic order implies a recognition of the absence of the lost object that triggers desire (Wright, 1998). The contrast between the eye and the gaze symbolizes the subjective division within the visual field (Dylan, 1996). The real, in this context, poses a threat to disrupt both orders, manifesting itself in the gap that exists between the eye and the gaze (Wright, 1998).

In Lacan's analysis of The Ambassadors (1533) [Figure 6], he illustrates the concept of the gaze and the uncanny effect it has on the subject's experience. When you first examine the painting, it might create the impression that you have control over your vision. However, upon closer inspection, you notice a stain at the lower part of the canvas. This stain becomes apparent only when you view the painting from a certain angle. From this perspective, you realize that the stain is, in fact, a skull that seems to be gazing back at you. This experience of the object you are gazing at returning your gaze serves as a reminder of your own inadequacy, highlighting the fact that the symbolic order is separated by a delicate boundary from the materiality of the Real. Consequently, the symbols of power and desire within Holbein's artwork, which encompass themes like wealth, art, science, and ambition, are fundamentally undermined. In Lacan's words, this enigmatic, floating object "reflects our own nothingness in the figure of the death's head" (Lacan, 1963; p. 92).

Figure 7: "The Ambassadors" (Holbein, 1533).

In Seminar XI, Lacan delivers a series of lectures called Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a (1964) where he asserts that there exists a close connection between the object a, which orchestrates our desire and the Gaze, which has the potential to disrupt all desires by bringing forth the Real. Desire fundamentally involves a misperception of completeness where, in reality, there is only a surface for our self-centred fantasies. It is this absence at the core of desire that ensures our ongoing yearning. However, because the object a (the object of our desire) is ultimately nothing more than a facade for our own self-projections, approaching it too closely risks giving us precisely the experience of the Lacanian Gaze. This experience reveals that beneath our desires lies nothing but our deficiency: the materiality of the Real, staring back at us. This absence within desire simultaneously permits desire to endure and persistently threatens to lead us onto the unyielding foundation of the Real.

Desire, as per Lacan's perspective, isn't primarily about physical sexuality. Instead, it's entangled within social structures and limitations, woven into a version of reality that is driven by fantasies perpetually held in our lives once we enter the realm of language. Lacan (1960) asserts that "the unconscious is the discourse of the Other," implying that even our unconscious desires are structured by the linguistic system of the symbolic order or "the big Other." In essence, our desires aren't entirely our own; they're shaped by fantasies rooted in cultural ideologies rather than physical sexuality. Therefore, the superego's directive to the subject is, surprisingly, "Enjoy!" What may seem most personal and rebellious about us, our desires, is actually regulated, even commanded, by the superego.

In constructing our fantasy-driven version of reality, we establish parameters for our desires. We define our own position, the object of our desire, and the relationship between the two. As Slavoj Žižek (1992) points out, "It is only through fantasy that the subject is constituted as desiring" (p. 6). Consequently, our desires inherently involve a sense of lack because fantasy, by its nature, doesn't align with reality. The object of our desire, the object a, serves as a means to establish the coordinates for our desire. At the core of desire lies a misunderstanding of fullness, where in reality, as mentioned above, there is nothing but a surface for our self-centred projections. This lack at the heart of desire is what keeps our desire alive. Getting too close to our object of desire risks exposing the absence that is essential for our desire to endure. Ultimately, desire is more concerned with maintaining a certain distance from its object rather than completely attaining it. Desire is, to a certain extent, fueled by its own impossibility because it is articulated through fantasy.

Hence, the possibility of fulfilling one's desire, our own hidden desires, which are now presented to us becomes uncanny. We can say, then, that the uncanny comes from the most intimate and familiar aspects of the individual. It precisely arises from there, but it ceases to be so the moment it becomes real to the subject’s experience. When fantasy turns into reality, it is no longer our own, and that's when the sensation of it being uncanny emerges. In essence, this is what art teaches psychoanalysis theory. The artist creates a material piece for the public's eye, for the subject's visual experience, which moves the viewer through the mere fantastic impression it presents. The arrangement of signifiers that construct, encircle, and delineate the void without presenting it directly. In its aesthetic composition, the painting invites us to see what lies behind its attractive surface, what seems to be hidden, while simultaneously protecting us from falling into the void itself. It allows us to gaze upon it, approach it, and then retreat as soon as this void gazes back at us. Beauty in art is both a condition and a boundary between the symbolic, the universal, and singularity. That which is impossible to present: between what exists and what has no place. Thus, art speaks to us about our own intimate desires, presented to us with utmost subtlety.

Bibliographical References

Dylan, E. (1996) An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Tavistock Routledge.

Dor, J. (1998). Introduction to the reading of Lacan: The unconscious structured like a language. New York: Other Press.

Evans, D. (2006). An introductory dictionary of Lacanian psychoanalysis. London: Taylor & Francis e-Library.

Felluga, D. F. (2015). Critical theory: The key concepts. Routledge.

Freud, S. (1920). A general introduction to psychoanalysis. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 52(6), 548-549.

Fróis, João Pedro. (2010). Lacan in Art Education. Visual Arts Research. 36. 1-14. 10.1353/var.2010.0011

Lacan, J. (1949) The Mirror Stage Pp. 1-3 and 172-175 in Écrits: A Selection. New York: Taylor and Francis, 1977

Lacan, J. (1963–1964/1981). The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Book XI, trans. A. Sheridan. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Lacan, J., Sheridan, A., & Bowie, M. (2020). The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious. In Écrits: A selection (pp. 323-360). Routledge.

Maclagan, D. (2001) Psychological Aesthetics. London: Jessica Kingsley

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

Saussure, F. (1983): Course in General Linguistics (trans. Roy Harris). London: Duckworth

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

Wilde, O. (2020). The decay of lying. Penguin UK.

Wright, E. (1998) Psychoanalytic Criticism: A Reappraisal. Oxford: Blackwell.

Žižek, S. (1992). Looking awry: An introduction to Jacques Lacan through popular culture. Cam- bridge, MA: MIT Press.

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