The Cinematographic Freud

on December 1 | in Psychology | by | with No Comments

Peter Fuller’s Psychoanalysis and Art (1980), which looks psychoanalytically at four major art works and their corresponding historical movements, is fortunately as vivid and instructive a history of psychoanalysis as it is of art history.  Motivated at least in part by his own analysis, Fuller traces developments in both the production and criticism of art by plotting a parallel trajectory in the development of psychoanalysis; he employs Kleinian notions of destruction, fragmentation, and reconstruction in his discussion of the Venus de Milo and subsequently approaches Rothko’s signature ”color fields” using the British middle school concepts of unintegration and potential space.

The book begins in the style of most academic accounts of psychoanalysis, with a discussion of Freud and his obscure and frequently dismissed essay on Michaelangelo’s Moses.  Freud seldom wrote about art history or aesthetics in relation to Western art, and when he did, the aim was primarily to locate it outside the purview of psychoanalysis.  In fact, Freud saw the aesthetic experience in general as little more than “forepleasure” to the main event — symbolic meaning.  In this regard, the Moses paper is exceptional not only because it is about a work of Western art but also because of its decidedly non-symbolic (if also non-aesthetic) focus as well as its omission of a psychoanalytic reading of the artist, as Freud applied, for example, in his work on Leonardo da Vinci.  Freud eschews a symbolic or psychobiographical reading of the sculpture in order to hypothesize about its meaning in what Fuller proposes is a technical, scientific way — by interpreting the sculpture as capturing an instant in time, much like a photograph.  The emergence of photography as the dominant medium for observing natural phenomena conditioned the way in which Freud saw and thought about the world around him and largely informed his reading of the Moses.

Why would the father of psychoanalysis favor this technical, non-analytic reading of this piece? To be sure, the sculpture does pull for some kind of technical explanation:  Moses’ posture is not readily legible in physical terms, his body curiously turned, his hand awkwardly grazing his beard, his tablets “slipping” from his grip in a manner that somewhat defies the laws of physics, all while he is gazing deeply and furiously past the viewer toward some unknown horror.  In other words, the sculpture itself pressures the viewer to wrap his mind around its strange, physical qualities.  Fuller, a fearsomely comprehensive historian, gives a sweeping overview of the much that has been made over these curiosities, but he draws the reader’s attention to Freud’s particular hypothesis that the sculpture captures Moses as if in freeze-frame, imagining the full narrative of which the viewer is seeing but an instant in time.  Fuller calls this reading “cinematographic” for its invocation of a fundamentally photographic perspective; in turn, Fuller imagines that Freud abandoned his signature mode of analysis in order to approximate something more “objective.”

Fuller is quick to point out that this “cinematographic” reading says as much about Freud’s attitude toward psychoanalysis as toward the sculpture.  Central to Fuller’s reading of the Moses paper is the way in which it reflects Freud’s doubts about the status, function, and applicability of psychoanalysis.  Freud is motivated, consciously or unconsciously, to not think psychoanalytically about Michaelangelo and his Moses and to offer instead a reading derived from the technological cutting edge of visual observation.  Fuller suggests that Freud provides this objective analysis because of his own anxiety about the non-scientific “limits” of psychoanalytic thinking that threatened to further diminish its already tentative position as a medical science, which, to Fuller’s mind, makes for neither a convincing hypothesis about the position of the sculpture nor a compelling critique of its artistry.

Something about Fuller’s proposition is immediately familiar to my own experience of clinical work.  While not a clinician himself, Fuller has unwittingly identified a fundamental challenge of working in the field of mental health – managing the anxiety about being a doctor who may not identify as a scientist[1], a “healer” who is not a medical doctor.  While the tools have become exponentially more sophisticated (imagine what carbon-dating might have done for the Moses paper or, for that matter, how fMRI’s would have affected the early development of psychoanalysis), the struggle to elaborate the psyche in evermore precise language – and the existential threat to the field should it fail to do so – remains remarkably similar to the form it took in Freud’s day.

Perhaps what is especially jarring for Fuller about Freud’s particular reading of the Moses is the degree to which the cinematographic idea dominates his critique, putting the theoretical, quasi-scientific cart before the psychoanalytic horse, especially because the horse is Freud himself.  Indeed, a parallel version of this is precisely what offends my own clinical sensibility on an almost daily basis.  The hegemony of a medical, biological conceptualization of the human condition is even less palatable when it is imposed from within the field of psychologists (and their organizing structures) as when it is mandated by external forces like the field of medicine, not to mention insurance companies.  Ironically, as many have pointed out, neuroimaging is only now starting to identify phenomena (i.e., the unconscious) that Freud elaborated decades ahead of the “hard” sciences.

In this sense, Fuller and Freud beg the question not just of what science can illuminate about the human condition but also of what psychoanalytic thinking, even when applied to art objects, can ultimately reveal about the clinical scenario.  Fuller highlights the psychoanalyst Charles Rycroft’s suggestion that psychoanalysis is “not a causal theory, but a semantic one.”  The uniquely human capacity to make meaning only stands to gain from drawing on as many resources (cognitive, emotional, physiological, etc.) as the mind has to offer.  Throughout Psychoanalysis and Art, in response to his critics, Fuller reiterates his claim that the best writing about art aspires to bring the viewer “back to the object.”  The same could be said of successful psychoanalysis.  The rubric by which we evaluate our methods and results should rest not only on the logical and technical precision they may afford us in the pursuit of scientific knowledge and quantifiable results but also on whether and how they grant more of ourselves access to more of that which we seek to understand.

[1] German, of course, the language in which Freud wrote, distinguishes between Geisteswissenschaft, human science, and Naturwissenschaft, natural science, which both clarifies or distinguishes the disciplines while inevitably creating a tension between them.


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