Convergences of art and psychoanalysis

How works of art interpellate their viewers is a question posed by most contemporary art theorists and critics. In contrast to much of the discourse around aesthetics of the past, we assume today that works of art pose questions in themselves. And this questioning is so often supposed to challenge dominant conceptions of categories like identity, production and desire. Whereas advertising is supposed to tell us what we want, art -or at least some of it -is supposed to ask us what we want.

Although a major section of the history of Western art does not make such efforts prescriptive, it has emerged progressively as an ideal in the last two centuries. If artworks, as Breton put it, are supposed to be created ‘in opposition to the things of the external world’, they might be expected to work against or question culturally dominant modes of the imposition of representations. In this sense, art and psychoanalysis have something in common.

Psychoanalysis in its most general sense aims at putting in question submission to irrational forms of authority, and, by extension, at investigating the mechanisms of such submission. Freud’s theory of transference would be one example of this. Lacan’s theory of discourse would be another. Central to such analyses is the question of language and its imposition on the subject. Language is construed in a broad sense here, to include the act of speech, family narratives and myths, educational constraints and ideals, social networks and any system of signs pre-existing our birth.

One of the effects of language is the creation of lack, and psychoanalytic theory describes this in a number of ways. Classically, the symbolic, normative structure of the Oedipal scenario establishes prohibitions: this generates desire, a movement within the network of representations that circles around the empty space created by the prohibition. Lacanian psychoanalysis also stresses a lack introduced by the structure of language itself. Signifiers take on their value in relation to other signifiers. In themselves, they have no substance and are not tailored to the subject: on the contrary, although a signifier may represent a subject, it does this only for other signifiers, introducing an effect of alienation. The subject can be defined simply as a lack of a signifier, the failure of linguistic representation to subsume the subject’s being.

This failure has at least two consequences. On the one hand, a call to other signifiers to give the subject some ‘identity’. We can see this, for example, in the way in which we identify with traits of family members or significant others, or in the ways in which advertising is effective. On the other hand, a movement away from the field of representations towards the libidinal satisfaction of the drive and its articulation in the phantasy, a fixed point which the subject can rely on when confronted with the experience of signifying alienation. Satisfaction responds here where language fails to.

We can see this, for example, in the private methods of enjoyment that each individual constructs for himself or in the repetitive scenarios that we play out without knowing it throughout our lives.

Art explores both of these dimensions, and in doing so stimulates an encounter with our experience of representations as such. On an immediate level, it can question our relation to representations by presenting us with a focus on representation as such, on a conventionality or artificiality that we ignore in our everyday existence. Showing how the meaning or recognition of some object or image can be transformed can highlight the way in which the realities we take for granted are constructed ones. In this sense, works of art can create an empty space within the field of concepts and representations. And this can extend from a household object to an ideology itself: think, for example, of the way that constructions of gendered behaviour have been questioned and subverted by many artistic practices.

One could also evoke here the introduction of the perspective systems of the Renaissance, the way that works of art refer implicitly and explicitly to other works of art, the focus on the production of a representation within the representation itself, and the reflexive character of modern works with their attention to surface, the process of creation, the duplication of representations and the relation of works to the place these works find themselves in. Despite the many differences between artistic practices, one common element is arguably this investigation of the effects of representational systems on human reality, even if what this ‘human reality’ may be will be culturally specific.

If artistic production is concerned with both the threads we have described -our alienation in representational networks and the modes of our presence outside them -it follows that it provides a unique space to question dominant forms of the imposition of identity, be this through universalizing brands and trademarks to more subtle forms of ideological injections. The tendency of the conveyors of these systems to try to assimilate artistic practice and to use it to perpetuate their own messages raises many problems. If we choose to construe artistic production as a refusal of what comes from the Other, through the fashioning of works that carry the trace of the individual desire of their maker and the creation of an empty space, what sense do we make of it when ‘difference as such’ is then used as the key to marketing a product?

In the Absolut campaigns, for example, artists are invited to impress their own signature style on the same vodka bottle. The styles are always uniquely theirs, but the bottle is always uniquely Absolut’s. Individual difference is used here as the marketing feature of a universal, showing how specificity itself can become a trademark to be reproduced.

Rather than being encouraged to buy things to become like other people, consumers are enticed to buy the idea of their own singularity. This resonates with the idea that today we not only buy things to enrich our lives, but that our actual lives have to be bought, as we see in the marketing of time itself as a commodity -as Renata Salecl showed, in the Starbucks advertising campaigns we buy not coffee but a slice of time to relax, for example.

Such tensions are not necessarily antithetical to artistic production. On the contrary, they form one of the dialectical features which continue to make art an active interpellator of our relation to systems of representation and power. The fact that such systems give a special and valued place to art might seem like a paradox, but in fact the very tension between them is constitutive. Martin Kippenberger once said that art is like a running joke. If jokes are a language’s way of housing a message about how a language works in the first place, so art might be seen as a culture’s way of showing how its own systems of representation function. This role is made more complex by the fact that works of art can also do more than show.

Darian Leader, psychoanalyst and founder member of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research in London, for Zamyn

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