No More Hidden Order of Art

Writing in 1967 about “the hidden order of art,” that is, its unconscious order, Anton Ehrenzweig notes that “the seemingly chaotic structure of handwriting conceals some hidden unconscious order, such order is destroyed as soon as it is imitated by a conscious effort. The conflict between deliberate and spontaneous methods of working is indeed profound.” Some three decades earlier, in 1935, Kandinsky said something similar: “In general, the ideal balance between the head (conscious moment) and the heart (unconscious moment—intuition) is a law of creation, a law as old as humanity.” Around the same time, in 1938, Gaston Bachelard, in The Psychoanalysis of Fire, observed that “contradiction is, for the unconscious, more than a tolerance; it is really a need. It is, indeed, through contradiction that we most easily achieve originality, and originality is one of the dominant claims of the unconscious.” He suggests that the unconscious at its most original involves “dialectical sublimation,” which he distinguishes from “the continuous sublimation envisaged by classical psychoanalysis.” Dialectical sublimation involves “joy in accepting limitations,” and such repression is a “radical transformation” of “psychic energy,” distinct from the “normal biological function” of repressing biologically grounded “sexual activities,” which is what “continuous sublimation” accomplishes.

Writing in a similar vein about “the dialectical principle that underlies the whole mannerist outlook,” which he regarded as the beginning of the modern outlook, Arnold Hauser emphasized that it involved paradox, an intricate “linking of irreconcilables,” not ordinary contradiction, but a straightforward conflict between clearly defined and separated opposites. Continuous sublimation might be said to resolve the conflict between deliberative ego and inexhaustible instinct, expressing itself in spontaneous feeling—striking a balance, or at least a truce, between head and heart. In dialectical sublimation they become paradoxically implicated with each other, as though ironically interchangeable: informed by the ego’s power to impose limits, instinct becomes self-limiting; unexpectedly as energetic as instinct, ego becomes overwhelmed by feeling.

Now this was all written and argued before what Guy Debord called the “society of the spectacle” became universal, more broadly, before we entered the age of global entertainment. All the world has become a stage, to play on Shakespeare’s words, which means everything seems staged, resulting, as Shakespeare didn’t realize, in a pervasive sense of unreality, more pointedly, depersonalization and derealization, forms of self-alienation, and social alienation. In the society of the spectacle the difference between private space and public space becomes blurred and nominal. Private space loses its quality of intimacy, public space becomes a circular system of predictable consciousness rather than an open system of free thought. In the age of entertainment everything is entertaining, including art, which means that art has lost its “hidden” purpose, which is to trigger—demand, as the psychoanalyst Hanna Segal argues—psychic work, unlike entertainment, which makes no such difficult demands, she notes.

One might say that the more psychically undemanding the art, the more entertaining it is, suggesting that it has something in common with the spectacles staged in sports stadiums—which some think, is what museums and art fairs have come to resemble, however metaphorically. Entertaining art—a spectator sport—puts one in a sort of mindless trance: hypnotically fascinated by the spectacle, one forfeits one’s power to think for oneself, and with that, one’s capacity for originality. One is blinded to the difference between appearance and reality, more pointedly between what Kandinsky called external necessity and internal necessity, or what psychoanalysts call external reality and internal reality. One no longer is involved in what the psychoanalyst Donald Meltzer calls the “aesthetic conflict” between them, the intuitive attempt to imaginatively connect them, to see if they have anything in common or to discover whether observed external reality in any way reflects or bespeaks felt internal reality. Entertaining art—the art of the society of the spectacle—tends to resemble the façade that the Russian statesman Grigori Potemkin famously constructed to deceive the public (as it successfully did) into believing that there was some actual building behind it. But there was none—nothing to inhabit, no home to live in, not even something like an empty hermit crab’s shell that one could make one’s own.

Simply said, when art serves the society of the spectacle, the dialectic of heart and head, the unconscious and the conscious that brought it to creative life, collapses. Entertaining art rarely involves what the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott calls the “spontaneous gesture” and the “personalized idea” of the creative True Self, indicating that it is art for the compliant False Self, and as such pseudo-art. It inculcates social compliance, stifling one’s personal growth. It precludes awareness that the society of the spectacle is not what Winnicott calls a “facilitating environment,” but one that hinders one’s growth, leaving one peculiarly stunted. It leaves one with an unexamined life, a life not worth living, as Socrates said. If examining one’s life involves hard psychic work, then engaging with true art—as distinct from the false art of the spectacle—is one way of examining it, and perhaps changing it for the better, that is, facilitating one’s growth and creativity, experiencing one’s own originality. I suggest that the model for a true relationship with art—true art, that is, art with an unconscious order that one spontaneously feels and unconsciously scans, to use Ehrenzweig’s idea—is the relationship that Rilke had with an “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” “You must change your life,” the poem concludes, addressing the sun-god, “suffused with brilliance from inside,” in admiring identification with him. As Rilke suggests, this involves hard, caring work, like the hard, meticulous work that went into making the beautiful statue, which he describes in intimate loving detail. To change one’s life from the inside, where true art puts one—to experience and examine the hidden order in oneself by experiencing and examining the hidden order in art is to bring the modern society of the spectacle into question, indeed, defy and countermand it the way Rilke does by returning to the origin of art, for Apollo was the god of music and healing.


Donald Kuspit

DONALD KUSPIT is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art History and Philosophy at Stony Brook University.