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
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.
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.”
(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.
(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
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.
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.
Chessick R (2005) What grounds creativity? Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry, 33 (1), 3-27.
Freud, S. (1908), Creative writers and daydreaming, Standard Edition, Volume 9, pp. 142– 156.
Freud, S. (1910a), Leonardo Da Vinci and the memory of his childhood, Standard Edition, Volume 11, pp. 59–137.
Freud, S. (1910b), Wild psychoanalysis, Standard Edition, Volume 11, pp. 221–227.
Freud, S. (1912–3), Totem and taboo, Standard Edition, Volume 13.
Gedo, J. (1996), The Artist and the Emotional World, Columbia University Press, New York.
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.
Klein, M. (1929), Contributions to Psychoanalysis, Hogarth Press, London.
Kris, E. (1952), Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art, International Universities Press, New York.
Rank, O. (1932), Art and Artists: Creative Urge and Personality Development, W. W. Norton, New York.
Segal, H. (1952), Psychoanalytical approach to aesthetics, International Journal of Psy¬choanalysis, 33, 196–207.
Spitz, E. H. (1985), Art and Psyche, Yale University Press, New Haven.
Winnicott, D.W. (1967), The location of cultural experience, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 48, 368–372.