Psychodynamic Aspects of Artistic Creativity

           Over the last century psychoanalysts have theorized on what motivates artists to create, studying the creative personality through the lives and works of artists. The following summary presents important contributions to our understanding of the psychodynamics of artistic creativity.

           Freud (1908) observed children at play and proposed that creativity in adults could be derivative behavior.  He stated: “every child at play behaves like an artist”, and theorized that the adult artist’s world of fantasy allows for the gratification of partially satisfied infantile wishes.  With the publication of“Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood (1910a) Freud introduced the concept of pathography, defined as the psychoanalytic study of an artist through a retrospective examination of his or her life and work.  Art historians and artists rebelled against and resented pathographic analyses as reductionistic and inaccurate.  Psychoanalysts are not formally trained as art historians or aesthetes and can inaccurately conclude that works of art represent or depict intrapsychic conflicts or overt pathology. Spitz (1985) warns us against pathography turning into wild analy­sis (Freud, 1910b) if one relies on inaccurate data, unanalyzed bias or on overgeneralizations. Unfortunately, pathographic studies in psycho­analysis tend to focus on deficits and fail to emphasize mastery, skill, or the emotional essence of the artistic work. Spitz (1985) reminds us that creative works are autonomous and have a life of their own. Multiplicity of meanings, or polysemy, is characteristic of all works of art (Kris, 1952; Spitz, 1985; Alfonso and Wellington, 2002; Alfonso and Eckardt, 2005). Carl Jung (1930), in his early critique on the limits of pathography, stated the following:  “It is of course possible to draw inferences about the artist from the work of art, and vice versa, but these inferences are never conclusive.  At best they are probably surmises or lucky guesses… The personal psychology of the artist may explain many aspects of his work, but not the work itself.  And if ever it did explain his work successfully, the artist’s creativity would be revealed as a mere symptom.  This would be detrimental both to the work of art and to its repute.” (p. 86)

Melanie Klein (1929) understood successful artistic creation as a re­sult of the sublimation of the depressive position. A normative depressive posi­tion results when an infant develops the capacity to experience complete objects rather than split fragments. This realization that people are whole leads to an overwhelming fear of disintegration by fearing the loss of the loving parent. This fear of anticipated loss or actual loss is remem­bered in adult life, and according to Klein, creativity serves the purpose of restoration and replacement, alleviating lingering infantile depressive anxieties.

Otto Rank (1932) stressed the functional aspect of artistic creativity as an adaptive attempt to master environmental demands. Rank also identified the conflict between deprivation and renunciation as preva­lent in the creative struggle: “And the creative type who can renounce protection by art and can devote his whole creative force to life and the formation of life—in return for this renunciation will enjoy, in person­ality—creation and expression, a greater happiness” (p. 431). Rank fur­ther stated that artistic creativity aims at the “eternalization of the personality.”            

         Hanna Segal (1952) further elaborated this concept: “All art­ists aim at immortality; their objects must not only be brought back to life, but also life has to be eternal. And of all human activities art comes nearest to achieving immortality; a great work of art is likely to escape destruction and oblivion” (p. 207). These eloquent but not original state­ments were first formulated by Freud. In “Totem and Taboo,” Freud (1912–3) stated: “In only a single field in our civilization has the omnipo­tence of thoughts been retained, and that is in the field of art” (p. 90).

         The observations of object relations theorists, primarily Winnicott, further propelled psychoanalytic theories of creativity. During the phase of separation and individuation children give inanimate objects anthro­pomorphic symbolic qualities. Winnicott (1967) considered transitional objects precursors of the adult investment in culture and in works of art. Winnicott elaborated on Freud’s observation of the importance of play and fantasy as the prototype of what later would become the aesthetic experience in adult life.

         Kris (1952) described artistic creativity in terms of functional regres­sion or regression in the service of the ego. Ego strength and preserva­tion of reality allows for fluidity of regression. The creative individual can access id material and face the unconscious without feeling over­whelmed.  Chessick (2005) states that creativity requires a relatively intact ego; when the ego deteriorates, so does creative output. He proposes that emotional illness hinders and constricts creativity and does not enhance it. Gedo (1996) states that Freud’s classifications of primary process as primitive and secondary process as mature can limit our under­standing of the creative process. The creative individual can communi­cate metaphorically by using both primary and secondary process lan­guage and symbols.

Wilma Bucci (1993) states that referential activity is characteristic of artists. Referential activity is the ability to comfortably integrate primary and secondary process modes of thought. This integration is de­scribed as synergistic and not additive or complementary, and can fa­cilitate artistic creation. Gedo (1996) sums up artistic perception and transformation by stating: “creativity could be understood as the ability to process abstractions characterized in terms of perceptual metaphors in an extraordinarily flexible and sophisticated manner” (p. 11).

To recapitulate, the creative process demands an additional level of ego integration and flexibility of communication. Functional regression often serves an anxiolytic purpose. Depressive, nostalgic, and melan­cholic affects can be temporarily suspended and transformed into the elation, pride, and euphoria that characterize the contemplation of what has been created. Contemporary psychoanalysts have reconceptualized and modified Freudian theories on primary and secondary process thinking and expression by postulating that referential activity, which is characteris­tic of accomplished artists and creative individuals, is a way to express both processes simultaneously and with comfort.

César A. Alfonso


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Bucci, W. (1993), The development of emotional meaning in free association: Multiple code theory, in A. Wilson and J. Gedo (Eds.), Hierarchical Concepts in Psychoanaly­sis, Guilford, New York.

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Freud, S. (1910a), Leonardo Da Vinci and the memory of his childhood, Standard Edition, Volume 11, pp. 59–137.

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Jung C. G. (1930) The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, in The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Volume 15, Princeton University Press, p.86.

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