GUESTCRITIC

Wellsprings Reconsidered

The idea for this issue of the Brooklyn Rail came from a conversation I had with Donald Kuspit regarding his book The End of Art, as well as discussions I have had with artist Michael Zansky, whose art begins with a Freudian perspective and travels into uncharted realms. The inclusion of Jung’s Red Book and the blackboards of Rudolf Steiner by Massimiliano Gioni in the 2013 “Venice Biennial” perhaps signaled a long overdue re-examination of the role of the unconscious in art making, “insider” versus “outsider” categories, and the artist as solitary visionary and explorer.

Portrait of Ann McCoy. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Since Abstract Expressionism, much art has turned to sources other than the unconscious for inspiration; some theoretical approaches dictate that art should be motivated by politics and society rather than by subjectivity. Critics, rather than artists, now dictate the path art is supposed to travel. Artists like Henry Darger and Leonora Carrington would never have survived the Whitney Independent Study Program, or been invited to speak at the Vera List Center for Arts and Politics. The unconscious has often been relegated to the “outsider” artist and the mental patient. Under the Frankfurt School’s reductive Inquisition, dreams, synchronicity, the occult, and the irrational led directly to Himmler’s Grail Castle, and the notion of the artist’s inner life as a spiritual quest was reduced to a psychopathology. Bill Viola’s Room for St. John of the Cross (1983) set off a firestorm of criticism when he chose Christian mysticism and reclusion for inspiration. Many artists interested in depth psychology, visionary experiences, and practices such as alchemical active imagination have been marginalized and shut out of the current politicizing discourse. An artist participating in the Sioux Sun Dance vision quest, a Tibetan dream workshop, or working from their inner life would have no place to discuss this experience in print. For many, the perimeters of the discourse have felt stifling.

Artists tend to ignore boundaries between schools (Freud versus Jung) to include all approaches that take into account the unconscious dimension of the psyche. The writings of Artemidoris may inspire an artist as much as those of Félix Guattari or Donald Winnicott, while artists involved with Sufi and other Eastern practices expand on the Western concept of the unconscious. For example, Lesley Dill’s works about ecstatic inner voices and unexplainable yet tangible synchronicity don’t fit into the current discourse. The mere mention of Jung has been taboo in many art departments.

Where does this leave the artists who deal with depression, addiction, and other difficulties of psychic life? Are their sufferings not also the sufferings of large segments of society? Does not their journey through these states also benefit society because the transformation of a society depends upon the transformation of the individual? These are some of the questions I wanted to present in this issue. I tried to include artists and psychologists of every stripe. As Donald Kuspit has said: a lot of art is “running on empty.” Would a reconnection with the wellspring of the unconscious once again link art to the depths of human experience in our age of materialism, superficiality, and art as a commodity?

Ann McCoy and Maeve, “Lunar birth” (2001), 9 by 14 ft, pencil and water color on paper on canvas Photograph by Peter Dressel.

The unconscious is also part of nature. We have forgotten the words of Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus, the 15th-century ecologist and nature doctor: omnia una creata sunt, macrocosmos et homo unum sunt (Everything was created in One, macrocosm and Man are one). When I see my students swept up in the latest continental theoretical fad (which Europe has usually already discarded), I wish they had read the pre-Socratic Anaximenes or Posidonius the Stoic. Posidonius never wrote of microcosm and macrocosm as a pair of opposites. They were complements, and part of the same whole. We have lost that universe within which links us to creation and to the cosmos. In our age of narcissism, we have lost this link to something greater than ourselves—the collective unconscious, the numinosum, and, in many cases, human history. If only we had a new door in the world of art discourse inscribed with the quote from Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf:

“Tonight at the Magic theater
For MADMEN only
Price of Admittance your MIND
NOT FOR EVERYBODY

Contributor

Ann McCoy

ANN MCCOY is an artist and writer who lectures in the Yale School of Drama.

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