The Critic Transference

          The notion of the critic transference (Alfonso and Wellington, 2002) derives from experience with the psychoanalytic treatment of artists and also draws from the work of Taketomo (1989) on the preconscious teacher transference and on the work of Davidson (2001) on idealization and reverence.  A successful analysis of the critic transference is attained by emphasizing multiplicity of meaning, the autonomous nature of a work of art, and experiencing the analytic setting as a co-creative collaborative endeavor.

          Before defining the critic transference, let us consider for a moment two notions that may be helpful in understanding the development and working through of this ubiquitous transference.  First, and of foremost importance, is to understand the artist’s complex experience of creating, and ultimately, sharing a work of art.  Also of consequence is to reframe criticism from a theoretical perspective from the point of view of Aesthetics, to perhaps extrapolate from the experience of art connoisseurs to our psychoanalytic work with artists.

Painting by New York Guild School pre-school student (2009)

          Creating a contemporary work of art is a linear and complex process that begins with inspiration and substantial incubation of ideas and affects, and continues beyond and does not end with rendering of the work.  Artists, as they engage in their craft, describe a process of contemplation that has the potential to bring about joyful feelings and a sense of mastery.  When contemplating their work in progress, the artist’s observing ego makes him or her become both critic and audience (Spitz 1985).  Re-working of the piece can be transformative and re-creative.  Usually, a period of hesitancy and additional contemplation follows before the artist feels the urge to share his or her work with an audience.  Art in industrialized countries has become a money-driven commodity (Alfonso and Eckardt 2005), creating resentment among talented artists who are eager to share their work but are not given the opportunity to do so because they have not been discovered or initiated into the elitist gallery and museum circuit.  It is only after this laborious sequence of creative events that an audience has an opportunity to actively engage with contemplation and critique.  Present-day audiences do not respond in predictable reactive ways, but rather engage, as Kris (1952) noted, in a “re-creative process”. Spitz (1985) comments on the audience’s reaction to contemporary art: “…audiences become absorbed into the aesthetic whole of a work…the goal (of artists) is to expand awareness at the risk of shock rather than to confirm the familiar and comfortable” (p.3).  Turco (1998) describes the re-creative process of the participant audience: “Unknowingly, we fuse with the product – we become one with the total experience.  The work talks to us.  We don’t have to think about it, although we may.  We don’t have to like it, although we most likely will.  We experience art… Our inner world experience is then one of abstractions and illusions… Sensing a glimpse of our true selves, we are primed for peak experience and wonderment” (p.16). Deprived audiences, for art is not readily available to the masses, react with entitlement and harsh criticism when a work does not meet all expectations, while blossoming artists are usually enraged when criticized because of accumulated frustration from the commercial and social rejection of their work.  Artists who have pursued formal training are all too familiar with the harsh and often arbitrary critiques received during their student-years. As a direct result of how art has become stigmatized, contemporary artists tend to have a low threshold for criticism of their work. This, in my view, is usually not a result of narcissistic intrapsychic conflicts.  It is more of a posttraumatic adaptive defensive reaction to fight off social alienation and inequities, and an expression of contempt instigated by the arbitrary idealization/devaluing process of irresponsible and insensitive critics, and by the assignment of monetary value to art by auction houses and galleries.

Alfonso with third graders at the Subsomboon Pittayacom school in Tak, Thailand (2008)

Just as a sophisticated level of attunement and tactfulness need to be present for our psychoanalytic interpretations to be effective, criticism of a work of art should not be done casually or in a random fashion.  Isenberg (1973) proposes that criticism’s main function should be to provide a guide, or map, to perception, and emphasizes as more useful the formal evaluation of a work of art rather than passing judgment. In the fields of Aesthetics and Art History, critics are trained to develop their ability to observe nuances of form, content and technique. Only after this is done can aesthetic judgment take place. The process of criticism is, therefore, two-fold; it begins with

an aesthetic evaluation and may, or may not, progress to aesthetic judgment. Aesthetic judgments, particularly of modern and contemporary works, need to be carefully justified, and in my opinion, should always be presented as tentative or approximate.  Polysemy, or the intrinsic plurality of meaning that contemporary artworks have, precludes absolute aesthetic judgments.  The ambiguity of contemporary artwork encourages audiences to reach different interpretations without looking necessarily for a right answer.  This potential for multiplicity of explanations and interpretations is responsible for works of art acquiring autonomous meaningfulness separate and beyond the life and experience of the artist (Alfonso and Eckardt, 2005).

          What is then, the critic transference, and how are the processes of the artist creating a work of art and the artist’s audience’s re-creation related to this transference?  The critic transference is at times a preconscious but more commonly an unconscious phenomenon where an artist relates to their analyst with an ominous concern that creative block or regression would occur when discussing the creative process or by describing, bringing in, or sharing artwork as data in treatment.  Artists can experience even the most educated, neutral, and empathic analysts as harsh critics, and fear that their work could be deconstructed and hyperanalyzed to the point of disintegration.  The critic transference is ubiquitous, and can occur in the early phases of treatment with both accomplished and established artists as well as with struggling neophytes, with or without work inhibition. The identification and analysis of the critic transference in the early phases of treatment can be helpful to promote cultural attunement, a therapeutic alliance, and free the artist patient from inhibitions if these are present.


          Kaufman (2003) compares Isenberg’s (1973) approach to aesthetic criticism to the work of a cartographer.  The Isenbergian critic as guide and not judge is an ideal that needs to enter the psychoanalytic setting in order to firmly establish a therapeutic alliance.

          Isenberg (1973) describes the exemplary critic as one who “gives us directions for perceiving and does this by means of the ideas he imparts to us”.  Spitz (1985), quoting Empson (1947) states that “critics must be both appreciative and analytical” (p. 158) and that “a critic is not a teacher, he is not there to instruct a pupil in the proper way” (p. 161).  Spitz (1985) further states: “interpretation is largely an art and the best interpreter is not necessarily the one who knows the most” (p.75).

Taketomo (1989) defined the teacher transference as a preconscious phenomenon related to certain transcultural analyses in which the patient related to the analyst with admiration and reverence, as a mentor or exemplary teacher.  The teacher transference is primarily a positive transference while the critic transference is one connected to intense feelings of shame, rage, and contempt.  Morrison (1989) views rage, contempt, envy and, at times, depression as defenses against shame.  He stated: “…shame frequently causes one to hide, to avoid interpersonal contact as a protection against rejection, and to conceal the affective experience from one’s awareness…shame generates concealment out of a fear of rendering the self unacceptable”. (p. 2) At times artists feel extreme discomfort sharing their work with an audience, to the point of phobic avoidance that could hinder their artistic development.  This could be related to their personal psychology and a successful analysis of their resistance could become quite liberating and inspiring.

Family portrait by Subsomboon Pittayacom third grade student, Tak, Thailand (2009)

César A. Alfonso

Alfonso, C. and Wellington A. (2002), Dreams and Creativity – collaborative psychoanalytic work, Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 30(4), 573-582

Alfonso, C and Eckardt, M. H. (2005) Epilogue – Creativity and Polysemy – On the limits of pathography, psychobiography and art criticism. Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 33(1), 235-237.

Davidson L. (2001), Idealization and reverence, Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 29(1), 127-136

Empson W. (1947), Seven Types of Ambiguity.  New Directions, New York.

Isenberg A. (1973) Aesthetics and the Theory of Criticism. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois.

Kaufman D. A. (2003) “Getting You to See What the Critic Sees” – On retiring a bad idea in the philosophy of criticism.  Lecture delivered at the annual meeting of the British Society of Aesthetics, St. Edmund Hall, Oxford University, September 12, 2003.

Kris, E. (1952), Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art, International Universities Press, New York.

Morrison (1989), Shame – The Underside of Narcissism, The Analytic Press, Hillsdale, New Jersey.

Spitz, E. H. (1985), Art and Psyche, Yale University Press, New Haven.

Taketomo, Y. (1989), An American-Japanese Transcultural Psychoanalysis, Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 17(3), 427-450

Turco R (1998), The Architecture of Creativity, Dancing Moon Press, Yachats, Oregon.