THE AESTHETIC AND THE THERAPEUTICby Ricky D'Ambrose
“I think there’s something spiritual in a very day-to-day, mundane existence. It’s impossible to articulate, and it’s happening now, almost like a perverse secret.”
—Miranda July, in an interview1
“In this sense, religion is much like art, and both express a terrible futility, instructing us as they do how we ought to feel rather than how we ought to act in the world.”
—Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic2
The kids who stood in line last winter to watch Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, or the audiences charmed by the knit-and-sew Weltanschauug of Miranda July’s The Future, might as well have been this summer’s ticket-holders to Matthew Lessner’s The Woods. And perhaps they were; visually bold and aesthetically attractive, curious about the lifestyle choices of a predominantly young and urban cohort, these three films concoct images familiar to the taste culture of a certain demographic of a certain age, although their allure is less explicit and potentially more latent than their intended expressions of generational ennui. Steeped as they are in a brooding and boorish longing for an unfathomable yet-to-come, nostalgic about political and psychological premises they seem incapable of handling with any thematic interest, all of these films are also, to varying degrees, triplet expressions of a very modern, very pervasive style of psychic upkeep. One can be stuck between a comforting, private past and a mysterious, although potentially promising and pleasurable future, as long as one can devise habits of mind that make the transition between the two more manageable, and thus more consoling. For the characters of these films, contemporary experience is encumbered by all kinds of defiling, disconsolate matters of fact—there will always be better careers to be found, better lovers to be had, better politics to develop, better relationships to cultivate. The task at hand, then, is to exercise judgment, to make distinctions between the competing, often banal and unexceptional objects of our attention, a process stylized to great effect by July, Dunham, and Lessner in their rather dubious conflation of taste with living well. For underlying each of these films is a naïve conception of aesthetics; the experience of art is—or might as well be—a lot like the experience of deciding how to express our feelings, or of taking political positions, or of having to choose what to cook for dinner. Between the gap that once separated the mundane and the minute from the important and the serious there now exists a type of aesthetic experience that forms the link between them; art, under these circumstances, and within the purview of these films, becomes a peculiar form of psychotherapy.
The therapeutic attitude toward works of art responds in part to an 18th-century conception of aesthetics, a conception that it repudiates. For Kant, writing in his third Critique of 1790, judgment depends not only on the quality and intensity of our private responses to works of art—the pleasure we have listening to music or looking at painting, for instance—but on our capacity to effectively communicate those responses to other people, to participate in a sensus communis that situates our aesthetic judgments vis-à-vis those of our peers and that, in the process, invests them with universal validity. To judge a work of art entails not an act of comparison with the actual but, rather, with the “merely possible judgments of others,” an experience that permits us to temporarily and imaginatively inhabit selves other than our own—that is, to place “ourselves in the position of everyone else.”3
This species of judgment, with its faith in what Kant calls “an anticipated communication with others,” potentially hints that the murky, sometimes frustrating and ambiguous relationship between aesthetics and ethics is not necessarily impracticable. Schiller, remarking nearly five years later that “it is only through beauty that man makes his way to freedom,” shares with Kant an effort to produce convincing intersections between our aesthetic judgments and the community we share, between art and public life, taste and civitas. As Hannah Arendt compellingly argued in her reading of the third Critique:
That the capacity to judge is a specifically political ability is exactly the sense denoted by Kant, namely, the ability to see things not only from one’s own point of view but in the perspective of all those who happen to be present; even that judgment may be one of the fundamental abilities of man as a political being insofar as it enables him to orient himself in the public realm, in the common world. . . . We owe it to the fact that our strictly private and “subjective” five senses and their sensory data can adjust themselves to a nonsubjective and “objective” world which we have in common and share with others.4
But that judgments can only be made in reference to what Philip Rieff calls the “communal perspective,” political or otherwise, is undermined by a therapeutic aesthetics.
What matters now is less whether our experiences of works of art have ethical import than an incessant interest in how those experiences can be compartmentalized for later use, in how they can be directed more efficiently toward ends that are psychologically satisfying and ameliorative.
And yet, a therapeutic aesthetics isn’t always manifest in the same way, nor is it always put to use at the service of identical goals or implemented under the same conditions. Preoccupied with transformation—whether in the guise of crises that are ostensibly conscience-driven and private (The Future and Tiny Furniture) or structural and political (The Woods)—July’s, Dunham’s, and Lessner’s films, while all very much seduced by a therapeutic attitude, each conceive of different ways of putting therapeutics to work, of expressing their therapeutic commitments.
In The Future, July’s couple of 30-somethings—Sophie, a pale-faced dance instructor, and Jason, a tall and shapeless computer technician—spend a disproportionate amount of their leisure time at home, anxious about their impending citizenship among the middle-aged and forlorn. Their decision to adopt Paw Paw—a cat whose likeness in the film appears only in the form of two black and white front feet, and whose diminutive voice (the cat speaks) is given a soft and steady, nearly agonizing mood of despair—becomes for the couple one of several imminent events to feel unprepared for. July’s is a film that plays like a case study of the rectilinear paradigm of apocalyptic thinking; the coming of the cat is what gives this film its dominant key, and both Sophie and Jason treat their 30-day wait as an interim period during which they will quit their jobs, concoct rituals (Sophie pledges to perform 30 dances over 30 days for YouTube), itinerantly preach (Jason volunteers as a door-to-door environmental activist), perform miracles (with sleight of hand, Jason stops time), and encounter portents (a moon that speaks, a shirt that slides on its own across the floor).
Discoverable in this arrangement of events and objects is a taste for what July herself has called a “kind of looser spiritual believing in just about everything,” 5 an attitude that doesn’t necessarily substitute apostasy for a world of creeds so much as it develops a therapeutic framework in which minutiae acquire theological significance. A couple cast adrift at the waning moment of their young adulthood become messengers of their own imminent demise; the locus of their attention, and the occasion for their anxious, psychic reevaluations and lifestyle adjustments, is what July treats as the irrevocable and impending destruction of their youth (“We’ll be 40 in five years,” says Sophie. “40 is basically 50. And then after 50, the rest is just loose change,” Jason replies).
Like a flash, the future appears before us as a new kind of apocalypse, an end of days that makes the petty and trivial—the “loose change” of aging—thick with eschatological significance: “Apocalypse depends,” Frank Kermode writes, “on a concord of imaginatively recorded past and imaginatively predicted future, achieved on behalf of us, who remain ‘in the middest.’” 6 But therapeutics makes the task of remaining “in the middest” less disheartening psychologically than its religious predecessors, promising a culture—or a future—that will be, to borrow from Philip Rieff, “purchased at lower cost to our nerves, and at larger magnitudes of self-fulfillment.”
Naturally, there are other ways to amplify one’s feelings and console the nerves, ways of participating in a therapeutic aesthetics without proceeding exclusively from the personal or the private. Matthew Lessner on the genesis of The Woods:
I took an internship at Democracy Now and I started following current events a little bit closer and reading a few books and just getting interested in this idea of collapse. And just playing with this idea of dropping everything, moving to the woods and starting over. And this idea of being aware of all these crazy problems that are going in the world and not really knowing how to react to those problems and that really became more of the motivating force [behind the film]. . . . Having this feeling and not really knowing what to do about it and [making a film] was the best way to figure out how to do something instead of taking to the streets with a picket sign or throwing a brick through a bank window. Making a film about people with the same sort of sensation.7
If the therapeutic thrust of The Future depends upon what Arthur Danto might call a transfiguration of the commonplace—and if this transfiguration is consoling precisely because it dulls what is most painful and terrifying about apocalyptic thinking—then its effect in The Woods relies on a reversal of this operation. The achievement of Lessner’s film is in its gauche taste for primordial origins and redirected feelings, a taste that manages to turn acts of transfiguration, whether religious or political, into the ur-texts of commonplace experience.
The Woods, which rather loosely involves a collective of dispirited young men and women compelled by their political malcontent to don face paint and relocate permanently to the forests of Portland with their videogame consoles and flat-screen television monitors, is too frequently complicit in the feelings it seems to want to satirize. (And how could one not suspect the pleasure that was involved in the making of this film? The restlessness of the camera, the beautiful pastoral images of attractive men and women lying on rocks and swimming in creeks, the fun with which the film’s sense of humor is given to us all culminate in an exhilarating and immensely seductive visual style.) Behind this effort there exists an interest in making a “film about people with the same sort of sensation” one might experience while attending a political rally or vandalizing a bank; an equivalence of events, however dissimilar or otherwise irreconcilable they may be, is established by a therapeutic aesthetics, and the remark that one can have feelings and not know what to do with them becomes, under these new circumstances, the battle cry of an art that gives a whole range of thwarted political commitments their domestication and refuge. The therapeutic component of The Woods is thus one product of a perverse sensibility described by Christopher Lasch over 30 years earlier, a feature of a culture that longs for “the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security,” a tendency that finds its contemporary iteration in Zelda Bronstein’s remark that “To ask politics to nurture authenticity . . . is to pervert political life in the service of therapeutic concerns.”8
Tiny Furniture, by contrast, returns us to the therapeutic impulse typical of July’s film, in a modified way. Here, Lena Dunham’s film about a young woman experiencing a self-described “post-graduate delirium,” sequestered in her artist mother’s TriBeCa apartment, utterly despondent romantically and uninspired artistically, shares with The Future a thematic preoccupation with private miseries, although rather than at the service of an impending non-disaster, it is contained almost entirely in the image of the filmmaker-actress on screen.
As Aura, Dunham, plainfaced and unkempt, would like you to know, as one poster for the film announced, that “she’s having a very, very hard time”; she would also like you to know about her failed past relationships (her boyfriend left and never returned) and her inability to maintain new ones (a cocksure YouTube performance artist, a mustached chef on the cusp of 30 with a questionable sexual history), her taste in movies (“I don’t like foreign films”), her complicated relationship with her successful mother (the successful artist Laurie Simmons), and even her sexual preferences (from behind, no protection).
While the therapeutic momentum of July’s film is a consequence of its handling of its characters and their anxieties, Tiny Furniture doesn’t console through a spiritualization of the everyday; rather, Dunham’s is a therapeutics that, if it has any relationship to July’s theological preoccupations, plays like a contemporary, self-dramatizing form of spiritual autobiography. Rieff’s prophesy that “modern society will mount psychodramas far more frequently than its ancestors mounted miracle plays” has been sanctioned by a filmmaker whose preference for the confessional (“I was just trying to make something that feels honest,” says Dunham) degenerates into a knowing and confident moment of artistic winking. “Will I be as successful as you?” Aura-Lena asks her mother; the mother’s affirmative reply (and not just affirmative: “You will be more successful than me”) has been so thoroughly predetermined by the fact of the existence of this film—the fact of its film festival success and distribution, the fact of its critical appraisal and commercial success, and, most recently, the fact of its home video release by the Criterion Collection—that its intended function as one mother’s words of reassurance to her world-weary daughter feels patronizing to its audience.
The future need not arrive and the Last Judgment need not bother: Dunham’s film works according to a form of therapy that treats the self as one, very luminous, very compelling, and fully disclosed event. Here is Rieff again: “It is conceivable that millennial distinctions between inner and outer experience, private and public life, will become trivial.”
The objective of therapeutic thinking—indeed, of a therapeutic aesthetics—is to mobilize and modify consciousness, to create a sustainable and self-regulating psychic project out of very complicated human feelings. The therapeutic commitments of these three films are not specific to July, Lessner, and Dunham alone, nor are they limited to the cinema (they are discoverable in the visual art of Laurel Nakadate, for instance, or in the novels of Tao Lin and Zachary German); they are, however, qualities that impoverish whatever adversarial predispositions a work of art may have, that domesticate and shrink its capacity for other-directed feelings, feelings that don’t include the self—the self of the artist, the self of the characters—as its primary point of reference.
The Kantian hope for a coincidence of aesthetic judgments and ethical prerogatives—the vision of Arendt’s reciprocal and reciprocating political community—requires continual nourishment. With its fancy for psychic gratification, its nagging religious fellow-traveling, and its penchant for artistic and political solipsism, an aesthetic appropriation of the forms of psychotherapy (and vice versa) risks cheapening what constitute, in Arendt’s memorable phrase, the pleasures and virtues of human living-together.
1 Katrina Onstad, “The Make-Believer” in The New York Times Magazine, July 17, 2011, 24-29.
2 Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.
3 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment.
4 Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future. New York: Viking Press, 1961.
5 Katrina Onstad, “The Make-Believer” in The New York Times Magazine, July 17, 2011, 24-29.
6 Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.
7 Kevin Jagernauth, “Matthew Lessner Talks About His Edgy, Ambitious Debut Feature The Woods” from IndieWire, January 21, 2011, http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/sundance_11_matthew_lessner_talks_debut_feature_the_woods.
8 Zelda Bronstein, “Politics’ Fatal Therapeutic Turn” in Dissent, Summer 2011.
Ricky D'Ambrose is a writer and filmmaker. He has contributed most recently to N1FR and Undercurrent.