A Post-Kleinian Model for Aesthetic Criticism
by Meg Harris Williams
March 30, 2008
This paper presents a piece of writing by the Kleinian art critic Adrian Stokes as a model for aesthetic criticism in general. First the limits of psychoanalytic interpretation are considered, with regard to the definition of an ‘art symbol’ made by the philosopher of aesthetics Susanne Langer. The problem formulated by Langer is the irreducibility of the meaning in an artwork. Then Stokes is used as an example of the type of psychoanalytically informed writing that is not reductive but aesthetic and, it is suggested, a species of artwork in its own right. Stokes demonstrates there is room for the critic’s verbal creativity through immersing the ego in the artwork and identifying with the artistic process it embodies. Finally this is related to recent developments in post-Kleinian theory that value the artistic and intuitive features of clinical analytic practice, in particular regarding the transference-countertransference relationship.
1. The limits of interpretation
My starting point is the symbolic nature of an artwork as described by the philosopher of aesthetics Susanne Langer. Following in the tradition of Wittgenstein, Whitehead and Cassirer, who all describe man as a “symbol-making animal,” Langer draws a distinction between discursive and artistic modes of expression. She writes:
The reason why literature is a standard academic pursuit lies in the fact that one can treat it as something else than art. Since its normal material is language, and language is, after all, the medium of discourse, it is always possible to look at a literary work as… a piece of discursive symbolism functioning in the usual communicative way. (Feeling and Form 208)
Discursive symbolism, in her definition, is the usual way we “talk about” things, using words as signs to point to things or ideas, whereas artistic symbolism is more exploratory, style-dependent, reliant on the evocative effects of “deep grammar” to mean more than it appears to say. Langer addresses the problem of the inscrutability of the art-object, pointing out that
The import of an art symbol… cannot be built up like the meaning of a discourse, but must be seen in toto first… Artistic import, unlike verbal meaning, can only be exhibited, not demonstrated, to anyone to whom the art symbol is not lucid … A symbol that cannot be separated from its sense cannot really be said to refer to something outside itself. (Feeling and Form 379-80)
The “elements” of an art-symbol are part of a “virtual reality,” she writes, and get their meaning from their aesthetic context - their formal patterning in relation to an “underlying idea” that governs the work’s structure.
This goes back to Plato and, in the neo-Platonic tradition, to Romantic aesthetics and existentialist philosophy. Coleridge, arguably the first modern critic, from whom the Richardsonian and New-Critical schools took their cue, observed how a literary work is an “organic” world-of-its-own and that “Such is the life, such the form” (65). In the same tradition, Langer emphasizes the untranslatability of the art-symbol, and how its essential meaning or “underlying idea” is bound up in its particular symbolic form and cannot be explained in the terms of ordinary discursive symbolism: “To understand the idea in a work of art is more like having a new experience than like entertaining a new proposition” (New Key 263).
The creative artist employs his medium to engage in a process of exploration and discovery under the aegis of this governing “idea.” This is frequently described by artists and aestheticians as “artistic inevitability” – when the links in the art-symbol seem to be constructed not by authorial control but by internal necessity, and the work takes on a life of its own. As Bernstein writes: “Form is but an empty word, a shell, without this gift of inevitability” (30).
The art-symbol is “untranslatable” in the sense of a reductive summary of its meaning, but this does not mean there is no way of reading or accessing its central essential “import” – it would then be of no value to its audience. It means that there are implications for the techniques we employ and the psychological stance that we adopt, as readers or viewers and especially as writers of criticism. I would like to consider for a moment how the idea of an untranslatable art-symbol affects psychoanalytic modes of interpretation: in particular how it affects our attitude to the artwork and the way that psychoanalytic theories (from whichever school) are applied.
The early Freudian approach to art was one of interpreting the psychopathography of the artist, which Freud himself regarded as limited in its scope, and of no help in explaining the aesthetic impact of the work. Writers on hermeneutics have focussed on structure, but consider the “secrecy” of an artwork to be something that requires decoding, in other words translating into a different type of discourse. Often a hermeneutics that appears scientific and objective is in fact just reductive. When psychoanalytic interpretation is applied with the intention of explanation, the danger is that this becomes a substitute for the more abstract and ineffable meaning that is contained in aesthetic form – a meaning for which “mystery” is a more appropriate term than “secrecy.” Other approaches again regard the work’s existing structure as material to be deconstructed by the reader, so are in effect solipsistic and cannot tackle the formal inevitability of the art-symbol.
There are however ways of using psychoanalytic knowledge that can enhance our appreciation of the “mystery” or “underlying idea” of the artwork, and probably much psychoanalytic criticism falls into this category in practice. The work need not appear reduced, nor its author pathologised. These ways take into account the reader’s subjective response, but not at the expense of the artwork’s objective structure. Rather they attempt to find some accommodation between them that has psychological validity. One of these ways considers the viewer as gaining pleasure from “completing” the artwork, as was suggested by Gombrich in Meditations on a Hobby-Horse; another considers the artwork as complete but its achievement as secondary to its function of facilitating playful, protected, pleasurable processes in the mind of the beholder – as in Winnicott’s Playing and Reality. Both these views suggest that the critic is stimulated to some type of creative activity, of personal benefit, by the formal qualities of the artwork. Yet the view of creativity, inevitably, is predetermined and so affects what can be observed of the interactive (intersubjective) processes in the meeting of minds.
There are limitations in any psychological or psychoanalytic model. Models are necessary, nonetheless, in criticism as in psychoanalysis, so long as they are always in process of being developed. In The Kleinian Development for example Meltzer writes of the “amplified model of the psychoanalytical method that grows out of [Bion’s] amplified model of the mind” (98). Model and method continuously modify one another. The model for aesthetic criticism that I wish to focus on here is the least limiting I have come across, and the most empathic to both the creative artist and the created artwork. It is based not on a fantasy of completing the artist’s work, nor on one of wish-fulfilling illusion, but on “having a new experience” (Langer) or “learning from experience” as Wilfred Bion describes it in his book of that name. To illustrate the experiential process I shall discuss a piece of writing by the Kleinian artist and critic Adrian Stokes - highlighting not only his ideas but also how he puts them into operation to create and modify his own working model.
In so far as any piece of writing is artistic or has aesthetic qualities, it functions through expressive symbolism as well as ordinary discursive symbolism. Stokes writes in Three Essays on the Painting of Our Time:
In painting his picture the artist performs an act of integration upon the outside world that has reference …first… to some resolution of his own inner processes, next in regard to the organization of the ego in a generalised sense, and finally in regard to a cultural significance. (11)
He adds that “There is no hard and fast division between the appreciator and the creator of art” (13). In critical writing as well as in primary artwork, aesthetic qualities are not just decorative or “accidental” (in the classical distinction) but substantial, in the way they contribute to the overall meaning. Art criticism may or may not be an art form, depending on the degree of success in marrying these two forms of symbolism: the didactic argument, and the expressive – namely, emotional discovery and identification with the author.
It is in this area of identification with the author or artist, and the effect this has on the critic’s own writing, that modern psychoanalysis can shed some new light. I shall explore this further after the following survey of Stokes’s method in the field of art criticism.
2. Stokes on Turner
Stokes was an analysand of Melanie Klein and of the same generation and Kleinian group as Winnicott, Bion and Meltzer. Stokes, Bion and Meltzer participated for some years as members of an “Imago Group” founded to discuss the interaction of psychoanalysis and the arts. The group in general regarded the old Freudian approach of psychopathography as a sad travesty of the “transcendent” or “effervescent” or “widely significant” psychoanalytic spirit as Stokes put it (Painting and the Inner World 42). They acknowledged that tumult and distaste are a natural part of our confrontation with art forms, part of the adventure, part of art’s raison d’être. The rhythm of attack and reparation is continuous for both the artist and the viewer or critic. The critic’s task is to focus on his or her personal response to this jostling and realignment of emotional elements evoked and also resolved by the formal structure of the work.
In his early writings on art and Italian architecture, Stokes was considered one of the greatest prose writers of his era, but lost popularity with the critics after his immersion in Kleinian psychoanalysis. Stokes’s point of departure was his architectural sense of worlds within worlds, of three-dimensional structures, spatial volumes and lines of force, which he recognised as dramatising psychic tensions. He wrote in these terms before he ever encountered Kleinian ideas, but he then found that Klein’s emphasis on a concrete inner world and on the prevalence of unconscious phantasy in all mental activities seemed to rest quite naturally on his spatial and architectural preoccupations. Architecture, he said, was like a “solid dream” in which “directions and alternatives and the vague nature of a weighty impress” are captured, held, integrated with “full cognizance of space,” until the “changing surfaces, in-out, smooth-rough, light-dark, up-down, all manner of trustful absorption by space, are activated further than in a dream” (Three Essays 22). He wrote:
Owing to the corporeal nature of the adult’s inner objects, it seems that a dream can deposit a residue of sensations of shape, as does art the more general… perception of inner objects (Painting and the Inner World 8).
In particular he focused on the resonance between inside and outside, where the dual functions of envelopment and incorporation – the essence of aesthetic appreciation – takes place. Here he found particularly empathic Klein’s view of the contents of the inner world as “part-objects” in a “split” state (the paranoid-schizoid position) requiring integration in relation to an “independent, self-sufficient, outside good object” (the depressive position). There are both structural and ethical implications to the Kleinian framework, in which the self oscillates between splitting-and-idealization and the more integrated and realistic orientation that comes with acknowledgement of dependence on the object and relinquishment of attempts at omnipotent control. These Kleinian dynamics seemed to him to capture vividly the nature of our relationship with a work of art as we contemplate and try to digest its effect on our own mind through “contemplating and following out” its formal network of tensions and directions. As he saw it, our own search for comprehension mirrors the artist’s own search for aesthetic completion of the artwork itself. These transient features of the search never disappear but stay forever encapsulated in brushstrokes, colours, chisel-marks etc., and it is this quality of mental exploration that invites our identification. Observing the integration of artistic elements, we become “in touch with a process that seems to be happening on our looking, a process to which we are joined as if to an alternation of part-objects” (Invitation 26).
How then does Stokes work his way to a symbolic congruence with the aesthetic object, and with the creativity of the artist? I take as my example here his essay on “The Art of Turner” from Painting and the Inner World. His picture of Turner’s “beginnings” – drawn from sketches and the underlay of paintings – is the simplest statement of the existence of two opposing or contrary forces, in this case sea and sky which cover the entire scope of the picture’s surface and will contain the drama which emerges within it:
One element assaults the other in the simple, zoned beginnings. Concentrating upon sky with land or sea, the artist was under compulsion to record faithfully and repeatedly a stark intercourse, then to reconcile, then to interpose, perhaps with a rainbow. (Painting and the Inner World 64-65)
Figure 1 Turner, Colour Beginning
This general statement about a typical late Turner canvas concludes with a touch of specific local colour, the motif of the rainbow, and heralding the resolution of the drama like an emblem of what artist and critic know must be if the picture is to become a world-of-its-own, though its particular tensions (“reconciling, interposing”) are unknown and have yet to take sensuous shape. In the course of reviewing and considering in general terms the evolution of Turner’s individual genius, the particular inside-out drama between the painter and the canvas, Stokes remembers sketches which suggest “the carver’s elicitation upon the stone’s surface of a prevalent form attributed to the block,” or which “suggest messages that have appeared from within a wall upon its surface” (66) – that is the sudden appearance or discovery in visual terms of the inside of an object externalised, manifesting itself through patterning on a sensuous surface in response to the artist’s observation rather than through creation ex nihilo. The mystical, abstract expanse of sea and sky becomes peopled from within, as internal objects take the stage, and a few sketchy hieroglyphics suddenly become meaningful and establish the appropriateness of their existence. At the same time the viewer has a sense of illumination as it appears that these “messages,” although part of the object’s self-sufficiency, have some quality of radiating outwards and inviting the viewer’s participation. Through looking steadily at the object, a pattern emerges. Yet the pattern itself is not explanatory but disturbing, at this early stage of aesthetic response.
Stokes’s most intense struggle with Turner occurs in this area, over the “primitive and aggressive compulsions” which he sees operating throughout his work, and which have an uncomfortable effect on the viewer, demanding an empathic subjective identification, being swept along with the artist in what is feared may lead to “ferocity and consequent despair.” Stokes notes, almost with surprise (as if this observation ran counter to the expected moral diagnosis of a “Kleinian interpretation” about greed and possessiveness of the object) that this “compulsively unitary, forcing side of Turner’s art” does not impair but rather enriches his “lyrical vein”:
In many supremely lyrical works, a linking, a co-ordination, an integration, of different degrees of compulsion and different tendencies of the mind were achieved. In the last great period, not only is the world washed clean by light, but humidity is sucked from water, the core of fire from flame, leaving an iridescence through which we witness an object’s ceremonious identity: whereupon space and light envelop them and us, cement the world under the aegis of a boat at dawn between Cumaean headlands, or a yacht that gains the coast… Together with Turner’s whirlpool of fire and water we experience beneficence in space. (69)
The original “stark intercourse” between sea and sky is no longer a straightforward attack, but a mutual incorporation of qualities: light, like rain, washes the sky downwards, while the sea’s humidity is sucked upwards like a column of fire. The resulting “iridescence” both enhances the “ceremonious identity” of a pictorial object, and draws in the viewer, whose tiny exploring soul becomes symbolised by the boat which is protected, set in perspective, by the vast masses of coast and headlands (enveloping light and mother earth); the boat is both insignificant in stature and yet central to the composition, cementing the world in its passage. This “beneficence in space” is a far richer “reconciliation” than the overtly symbolic statement of the rainbow. In subsequent paragraphs, Stokes then examines further Turner’s “envelopmental” explorations over the picture’s surface and within the picture’s illusion of three-dimensional depths and recesses. He describes Turner’s characteristic flat figures or messages patterning these underlying spatial volumes: the “salmon-like siblings…glued on banks and bases” or “flitting about the declivities and rises of an encompassing breast” (78). These messages of form then become reinforced by the descriptions of motifs in the paintings for which Stokes has now found a language capable of containing the emotional quality of these marks and colours: such as the massive Temeraire “full of distance from the funnelled infant steamboat by which it is tugged, to which it is closely attached” (75).
Figure 2 Turner, Temeraire
In the midst of this intense concentration on the process of finding a containing, descriptive language congruent to the artist’s own symbolic explorations, Stokes inserts his image of the artist at work – confronting the ineffable via the canvas, through what he calls “embracing conceptions”:
We can take it that in the act of painting, even his vast distances were pressed up against the visionary eye like the breast upon the mouth: at the same time it was he who fed the infant picture. In these embracing conceptions, no wonder that figures glue themselves on banks and bases, variegated figures, salmon-like dully flashing films of colour, perhaps floating beneath a cloud – like architecture, perhaps pressed to the ground like the catch in baskets upon a quay, glistening at dawn. (74)
For the artist, the “line of equivalence” between self and object, classic-romantic, carving and modelling values, is felt and its resonance accepted; resulting in “embracing conceptions,” a reciprocity between eye and picture. (For contemporary accounts of Turner on “varnishing day” see weblink to Varnishing Day).
Meanwhile the critic’s identification with the artist, which has moved him to insert a picture of the artist at this point, and which followed on the relinquishment of sitting-in-judgement and the acceptance of art’s “invitation,” now gives him a firmer grasp of the workings of the “deep-laid symbol of form” and its supremacy over overt symbolic linkages. He returns to the battlefield between sea and sky with which he began: to the “tension, the counterpoint, the bringing together of storm with sun, the good with the bad” (76), the integrative threshold of the “depressive position”. In one particular painting, The Wreck Buoy, he finds “more significant” this type of “deep-laid symbol”:
The high, lit, sail-tops, ghostly against a sky that falls in curtains of rain, cleave to the rainbow’s half-circle triangularly, in contrast with foreground water, wastes rich in light flanked by darker mounds of sea, that topple over towards the spectator yet seem at the back to climb up to the boats and to the falling sky. The meeting of these movements occurs near the centre of the canvas from where one has the sense of extracting the heart of so vertiginous, so desert, yet so various a scene, in terms of the rose-red jib on the nearer sailing boat: at either side verticals incline outwards and thereby stress that centre. Awareness of a centre in great space will favour a rencontre of contrary factors in whatever sense. (76)
Figure 3 Turner, The Wreck Buoy
In a passage such as this, it is clear that the critic’s achievement is to follow the artist’s movements, not in the literal or technical sense of how he painted it, but in the abstract or essential sense of finding a pulse in common, and thinking with the aesthetic object. This is possible because he has immersed himself in the artist’s struggle to achieve formal integrity, and has evolved a descriptive language of his own, to meet the corresponding struggle of his own relationship. Making contact with the deep-laid symbol of form, and fastening himself on to the drama between warring forces which traverse “great space,” he ultimately comes like the artist to the awareness of a “centre” – here the rose-red jib at the heart of a “various” scene, like the boat which “cements” the world. The lines of tension direct inwards and the governing centre radiates outwards. Instead of the frightening feeling of loss of identity and of objects in the normal pictorial sense, which alienated Turner’s first viewers, the viewer here – through a “containing” mode of criticism – has his self held and reinforced even in the midst of Turner’s fiery whirlpools, in the midst of awesome “great space,” like Milton in the “formless infinite” (Paradise Lost III.12). He is both inside and outside the picture; space and light “envelop them and us”; “wastes rich in light … topple towards the spectator” then climb upwards again, governed by the heart of the picture imaged in the red jib, which is at the same time experienced as the viewer’s heart or his umbilical or nipple-link with the art-symbol.
In Stokes’s conclusion:
Accepting his sublimity, and entertaining thus a merging experience, the spectator shrinks as a complete or separate entity but regains himself as he absorbs the stable self-inclusiveness of the art object. (78)
This drama of identifications is what the aesthetic critic can exemplify for the viewer; being drawn inside the art-object in such a way that its and his own independent integrity is established. In this way, not only does the final shape of the work of art become known, but also the developmental thrust of its author’s mind become introjected. This is the experience of “beneficence in space” (69) – space for a life-formative event in the mind of the observer.
3. The meeting of minds – some post-Kleinian implications
The feature I want to draw attention to is not primarily Stokes’s personal style, but the model of identifications that is demonstrated by his non-reductive use of the language of Kleinian theory. He exemplifies a particular psychological stance: how to subjectively access the aesthetic structure of the art-object in its object-ivity. Stokes speaks of “the invitation in art” and how it stimulates a creative quest to know the interior of the object:
The great work of art is surrounded by silence. It remains palpably “out there,” yet none the less enwraps us; we do not so much absorb as become ourselves absorbed. (Three Essays 20)
The object must be experienced simultaneously as both “other” than the self, and as inviting mergence and envelopment. This entails finding “a pulse in common” and it results in “the symbolic image of an integrated ego” together with “the answering image of a reconstituted and independent good object” (20-21). Unless the viewer or critic can respond to the “incantation” of art, there is no sense of self-exploration. And if there is no self-exploration, then neither is there full appreciation of the objective qualities of the art-symbol. This is of course a traditional crux in aesthetics, which has come closer to a solution as a result of modern psychoanalytic thinking about the interface between two minds – whether these belong to living people or to the relationship with an artwork.
The problem of how to manage the “meeting of minds” has preoccupied post-Kleinian thinkers. In different ways Stokes, Winnicott, Bion and Meltzer developed the cognitive implications of Klein’s perception of projective communication between baby and mother, or between the self and its internal parental or deistic/godlike objects. This meant developing the idea of the transference-countertransference between analyst and analysand and how this could enable “knowing” in the sense of intimate mental feeding, not just “knowing about.” It came to be recognised that this was a reciprocal task – not just one in which the analysand was the receiver of the analyst’s wisdom. Bion and Meltzer stress the analyst’s need to “dream” in response to the dream evoked by the patient (Bion, Learning from Experience 105; Meltzer, qtd. in Williams 181-82). Meltzer explains how the goal of “correctness” in psychoanalytic interpretation is subsumed by the new post-Kleinian focus on analytic reverie:
How does this view differ from Melanie Klein’s formulations, and what precisely are the alterations in the consulting room which are generated by it?
Undoubtedly the first and most important alteration is a diminished emphasis on the “correctness” of interpretation, perhaps a lessening of the urgency to interpret altogether. Instead the focus moves forwards, as it were, into the interaction, the relationship from which interpretive ideas emerge. The model of container-contained places a new value on receptiveness and the holding of the dynamic situation of transference-countertransference in the mind. But perhaps to state this as if the analyst were the container misses the point that it is the fitting-together of the analyst’s attentions and attitudes to the cooperativeness of the patient that forms and seals the container, lending it the degree of flexibility and resilience required from moment to moment. (Extended Metapsychology 208).
It is through the transference-countertransference dream that the symbol expressing the central emotional problem of the session is formed. This is the sense in which psychoanalysis is an art form that relies on more than discursive symbolism. Langer’s distinction between ‘presentational’ and ‘discursive’ modes applies to the analytic consulting room, to the artist, and to the critic or the art appreciator.
“Knowing” through intimate identification with the artist restores a place to pleasure: not in Freud’s original sense of the pleasure principle as wish-fulfilment, but in an almost opposite sense of something that stirs and reinvigorates and rearranges our existing desires, including our preconceived ideas of beauty or harmony. Such is the view taken by Bion, Stokes and Meltzer, though not by Winnicott. Winnicott’s is currently the most popular view: regarding cultural pleasure as basically escapist, but as a necessary relief from the real world and its troubles. Where Winnicott is liberal, Bion is radical. The pleasure in “beauty” is a complex one that demands a conflictual response and internal drama on the part of the beholder. In Meltzer’s view the presence of the aesthetic object (whose prototype is the internal mother) causes greater anxiety than its absence. Bion has described how turbulence results from the meeting of minds or the links between different “vertices” such as, transference and countertransference, contrary emotions, different cognitive perspectives (religion, science, art), pre-natal and post-natal parts of the mind, unconscious and conscious, etc. He calls the boundary or interface between these the “caesura,” and this is both the locus of conflict and the place where thinking is generated. It generates a cloud of unknowing which requires some emotional strength to tolerate – and the phrase often quoted by Bion to describe this is Keats’s “negative capability” (Attention 125). The creative or symbol-making space is a turbulent not a comforting one. In addition to the drama of part-objects described by Stokes in original Kleinian terminology, Bion indicates there are even more primitive “elements,” the proto-emotional factors of a psychical pattern, that only begin to “mean” when there is a meeting of minds (Attention 7-10).
In the post-Kleinian model of Bion and Meltzer, the way to solve the turbulence is to embrace the process of “knowing” rather than to withdraw into a thinner, two-dimensional type of “knowing about” which is really a reaction against the internal conflict that has been stirred by the art-symbol or aesthetic object. The work of Stokes vividly demonstrates this meeting of minds, reverberation, and the struggle for symbolic congruence in his own verbal fabric. The network of identifications into which the viewer is drawn, following the critic who is following the painter, is the equivalent of the “countertransference dream” and is at the heart of the analogy between psychoanalytic and literary practice. This aesthetic criticism is what Stokes means by “embracing conceptions” - a pun on openness, inclusiveness, passionate commitment, and cognitive development. Bion calls it “identifying with the evolution of O,” the “absolute essence” or “central feature” of the type of emotional conflict that is the focus of attention in either art or psychoanalysis (Attention 26, 118), and that enables us (in Langer’s terms) to “have a new experience” rather than just “entertain a new proposition.” The aesthetic critic shows by example how it is possible to think with the book, not just what to think about it.
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--- . The Fighting Temeraire. Mhttp://www.j-m-w-turner.co.uk/artist/turner-temeraire.htm
--- . The Wreck Buoy. http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/sudley/collections/diningroom/wreck_buoy_turner.asp
---. Varnishing Day at the Royal Academy. http://www.j-m-w-turner.co.uk/artist/turner-vanishing-day.htm.
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Received: January 1, 2008, Published: March 30, 2008. Copyright © 2008 Meg Harris Williams