Friday, December 24th, 2010

Psychodrama: Modern Art As Group Therapy

This is the hitherto unpublished introduction to Donald Kuspit’s latest collection in which essays on artists ranging from Karel Appel, Louise Bourgeois, August Sander, Lucian Freud, Lucas Samaras, George Segal, Helmut Newton, Rebecca Horn, Elizabeth Peyton and Richard Serra are arranged in four sections, titled: The Self at Risk, The Body at Risk, Crowd-Baiters à la Mode, and The Future in the Past.  As in the book, the text is accompanied by works by France-based American painter and fimmaker Marcus Reichert, although the selection here differs from the images in the book.

Marcus Reichert, Red Table, 2008
Marcus Reichert, Red Table, 2008

Psychodrama. A form of group therapy in which people act out their own emotional problems and conflicts in front of an audience in order to gain objectivity and understanding of them. – Andrew W. Coleman, A Dictionary of Psychology (1)

Introspective autobiography has changed its character, because the confessions of the most provocative memorialist seem puerile by comparison with the monsters conjured up by psychoanalytic exploration, even to those who contest its conclusions. The analyst’s couch reveals far more about the secrets of the human heart, and more startling too. We are less astonished by Stavro-gin’s confession than by Freud’s Man with the Rats; genius is its only justification. – André Malraux, Anti-Memoirs (2)

All aesthetic experience is feeling arising out of the realization of contrast under identity. – Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making (3)

The modern artist and her audience are implicitly in a group therapeutic relationship, that is, the artist acts out her emotional problems and conflicts in front of the audience. It is an intimate yet unnerving situation, for the artist and the audience are inherently at odds, however complementary their tasks. Art is a compound of what the Kleinean psychoanalyst Hanna Segal calls a symbolic equation and symbolic representation of the artist’s emotional problems and conflicts, and the audience ideally exists to understand and resolve them, thus helping the artist–and the audience itself – become mentally healthy. The artist takes the first step to mental health by giving her emotional problems and conflicts symbolic form, which is to present them socially – give them a hearing in front of an audience. But publicizing them – acting them out – does not mean comprehending them, which is the hard analytic work the audience or group performs.

Understanding the emotional problems and conflicts acted out by the artist makes them less disturbing and contagious: intellectually quarantined by being understood, the emotional problems and conflicts become less overwhelming and more manageable, and even seem to disappear. One might say the audience inoculates itself against the emotional problems and conflicts by becoming critically conscious of them, even as it is forced to share or at least attune to them by witnessing their artistic acting out. The audience thus completes the symbolization process by bringing the artist into the social fold. The artist stands to the audience the way the unconscious stands to the conscious, suggesting that however much the audience is acted upon it never acts out its own feelings, for that would mean to lose critical consciousness – its saving grace – and capitulate to the tyranny of the artist’s unconscious and suffering. The audience must remain self-possessed to perform its analytic work – doing so gives it a self to possess – while the artist is possessed by the emotional problems and conflicts that plague her unconscious. They may be eruptively expelled by being “expressively” acted out, but they repeat themselves with almost formulaic regularity unless they are understood by an attentive audience, which reduces their pressure, if never eliminating them entirely – for then there would be no need to compulsively act them out.

The critical audience completes the artist’s translation of her disturbed subjectivity into art by translating the art into a socially objective language. Something is always lost in such translations, just as something is always lost in the artistic translation of emotional problems and conflicts, especially because the language in which they are expressed – the so-called “language of feeling” – has no readymade vocabulary and rules of usage. It is more or less improvised and invented – seems to be an unsystematic creation ex nihilo, a perpetual experiment with no testable results – in the course of trying to articulate and communicate the feelings. There is no “regular” language of feeling, nor any language that can be consistently and convincingly “applied” to feelings, thus “regularizing” them. However many different words there are for the different feelings, each word simplifies the complex feeling by fitting it into a preconceived, not to say Procrustean, language bed, thus making nominal but not convincing sense of it. One-dimensionaliz-    ed and standardized – conventionalized, one might say – by be-ing conventionally named, and thus de-intensified, the feeling nonetheless remains “irregular,” uncanny, and slippery (even protean), which is what its artistic expression or performance tries to convey.

Modern artistic expression does so not by objectifying feeling in a socially given visual language and set of symbols (as traditional artistic expression tends to do), which from a modern perspective amounts to a reification and thus deadening of feel-ing, but by performing the tension in the feeling, thus remaining true to the dialectical spontaneity of feeling – the way one feeling changes, seemingly unexpectedly and suddenly, into another feeling, apparently different in kind yet cut of the same unconscious cloth. Emotionally convincing modern art tracks the vicissitudes of the emotions – the changeability that makes them seem problematic, unfamiliar, and difficult to communicate – conveying the sense that they are always in paradoxical flux and thus impossible to hold fast by familiar language. The best modern art shows that one never has the same feeling twice however often one steps in the same rushing underground stream of feeling. If the modern artist has the impossible task of articulating inarticulate feeling in communicable form, then the modern audience has the impossible task of understanding the extraordinary feelings performed without reifying them in ordinary language – while showing that the feelings the artist claims to have privileged access to have been experienced by everyone. This is part of the point their objectification in everyday non-artistic language makes.

If the artist acts out with the expectation that her emotional problems and conflicts will be understood by the audience (the “chorus”) into which they are projected – and hopefully contained, comprehended, and criticized by way of its empathic attention, interpretive mirroring, and perhaps reverential identification with the artist, thus suggesting that the emotional problems and conflicts have universal resonance and significance however particular to the idiosyncratic artist – then her psychodramatic performance can be regarded as successful. More pointedly, it becomes a therapeutic success, for the art has achieved its purpose – allowed the artist to gain objective understanding of her emotional problems and conflicts, and with that a critical consciousness of her art, by introjecting the audience’s capacity for reflection.

The artist gains the emotional detachment and reflective distance necessary to decipher and master her feelings – rather than be dominated by their indecipherability, possessed by their urgent power – by overcoming, if only for the duration of the artistic performance, the distance and difference (including so-cial distance and difference) between her and her audience. The artist uses the audience’s observing ego as an auxiliary ego – a sort of prosthetic observing ego that allows her to “see” her feelings rather than blindly act them out. “Authentic” art – cognitively convincing as well as emotionally exciting art – is art that has therapeutic results, in the sense of affording some objectivity on the emotional problems and conflicts the artist and audience unconsciously share, which is why it has universal appeal.

Marcus Reichert, Woman's Head in Green, 2002-2004  (Collection: Hawes Macfadyen, London)
Marcus Reichert, Woman's Head in Green, 2002-2004 (Collection: Hawes Macfadyen, London)

But if the artist acts out her emotional problems and conflicts simply to expressively expel them, that is, without wanting to gain objective understanding of them, then she is performing for her omnipotent self alone. She has no need for an understanding audience, because she doesn’t want to be understood: she wants to mystify. She doesn’t want to help herself, or be helped by the audience, but proclaim her uniqueness. Her emotional problems and conflicts are unusual and unsolvable, the audience’s are ordinary and easily solved. And she can act them out, but the audience is too inhibited to do so, which makes her even more superior to it. She confuses her audience because she expects nothing from it – not the slightest understanding – even as she strips herself emotionally naked in front of it.

Thus the artist acts out to provoke and mock the audience, making her an emotional problem for it. Increasingly conflicted about the importance of her art, and the emotional usefulness as well as artistic credentials of acting out, the audience comes to doubt whether acting out can be regarded as art, let alone serious art, however much there may be an “art” to it. The audience comes to see acting out as self-indulgence, not as art: if art is addressed to an audience and its emotional concerns, and acting out occurs whether there is an audience or not, then it fails as art, which is why the acting out artist withers on the vine of her own narcissism. And why art withers on the vine of acting out. Acting out is not an avant-garde innovation, as it has been thought to be, but the degradation of art.

Acting out for the sake of acting out debases art by depriving   it of therapeutic  purpose and value. Acting out is like the red cape the toreador uses to taunt and bewilder the bull, readying him for the kill while displaying the toreador’s art. Relying on acting out to score artistic points, the artist cunningly soul murders the audience, to use Freud’s phrase – but also commits psychic suicide, however unwittingly, for acting out in front of a dazed, uncomprehending audience suggests that there is no solution for the artist’s (and audience’s) emotional problems and conflicts. The artist is only interested in exhibiting her feelings, not understanding them, but to exhibitionistically act them out, with whatever artistic skill, is to mindlessly indulge and misunderstand them.

One can argue that when art became “avant-garde” it became a kind of acting out of emotional problems and conflicts, more or less unmediated by “second thoughts,” rather than an attempt to solve them and restore psychic harmony by the mindful contemplation and esthetic transmutation of them evident in traditional art. For the avant-garde artist, it is the “second thoughts” of the audience that solves the problems and resolves the conflicts, restoring a measure of harmony and efficient functioning to the psyche. That is, only when the audience internalizes the emotional problems and conflicts acted out and symbolized by the art, consciously thinking them through in the course of reconstructing them, can their unconscious causes be comprehended and articulated. This affords a certain perspective on them, and with that the objectivity necessary to put them in psychic place so that they cannot take over the whole psyche, that is, completely dominate one’s thoughts. (This does not preclude their re-appearance, for no artistic solution is a permanent “cure.” Acting out is no cure at all, not even a temporary reprieve from suffering, especially because it tends to exaggerate suffering, blurring the unsuffering parts of the psyche so that they cannot be recognized.)

Without the audience to empathically mirror her, the avant-garde actor-artist is at an emotional loss, the way Narcissus was in front of the mirror that he thought told him he was the fairest – and most enigmatic – being (and artist) of all. In front of such a lying mirror art remains a perverse fantasy with no collective meaning. Narcissus clearly needed group therapy; it would have saved him from the suicidal mistake of admiring himself. The avant-garde artist’s relationship to her audience – and with that her art – is peculiarly inauthentic, for she uses her feelings to hypnotize the audience into compliance to her self-glorification rather than into creative understanding of them.

Avant-garde art aims to create an epidemic of contagious feeling: think of the Surrrealists’ so-called group “experiments” in making collaborative free associational art, “séances” in which everyone acted out predictably “shocking” feelings in unconscious conformity with everyone else’s predictably “shocking” feelings, if with a ritualistic and shallow understanding of their dynamics. Avant-garde group art – and it is group art, however many different individuals are in the group (the “movement” is more important than the “individual” artist however much some individual artist is eventually elevated to the leader and star of the group) – rarely attempts to cut the Gordian knot of conflict-ed feelings with the sharp sword of conscious understanding. Only an unshockable yet emotionally serious and critically conscious audience has the strength and courage to wield it.

It seems clear that modern group art therapy needs both an artist willing and able to act out her emotional problems and an audience willing and able to empathically reflect on them to be suc-cessful. It may be that art became the acting out of emotional problems and conflicts when the traditional meta-narratives that once contained – and staged – them became obsolete and passé, not to say “deconstructed” to liberate people from the supposedly claustrophobic constraints of all-encompassing meta-nar-ratives of life. With their loss, the psyche no longer had a collective symbolic home for its contents. Thus the Pandora’s box of emotional problems and conflicts began to overflow in modernity: they had to be acted out because there was no modern meta-narrative of life – to be modern (“enlightened’) means to be able to live without any “transcendental” meta-narratives (or foundational beliefs) – to contain them. Baudelaire’s heroes of modern life could not conquer them, as his own poetry showed.

Marcus Reichert, Greek Urn, 2007 (Collection: Hawes Macfadyen, London)
Marcus Reichert, Greek Urn, 2007 (Collection: Hawes Macfadyen, London)

But the regressive sensationalization of emotional problems and conflicts – not to say of feeling as such – that occurs through their artistic acting out can be countered by the audience’s “progressive” containment of them in its critical consciousness. Without its containing purpose, the audience becomes an aimless crowd: part of the purpose of the artist’s acting out is to attack and destroy the audience’s capacity for containment and its critical consciousness – its ability to create a convincing meta-narrative to contain the artist’s narrative of her emotion- al problems and conflicts (acting out is an eccentric account    of them) – and thus undermine its power of judgment, that is,  to determine value. Stupified – rendered stupid – by the attack, the audience is no longer the wise deus ex machina on the stage of art, that is, the arbiter and herald of its fate and future, but rather a ghost left over from the artistic past. The critical audience continues to haunt the machine of art but has little if anything to do with its smooth functioning. Indeed, the audience’s critical consciousness – judgmental containment – is a stumbling block to the modern artist. Of course acting out, which has become de rigueur in certain quarters of modern art – mis-read as creative license, and thus the preferred sign of its    supposed inner freedom – cannot be judged, only studied as a symptom. Again the artist asserts that she makes art for herself not for an empathic let alone critical audience, which turns the audience against itself, so that it dissolves into a chaos of uncertain opinions, implying that there is no longer any way to evaluate art – certainly not modern art. It is after all just acting out.

Acting out may be expressively spectacular, but unless the artist’s acting out of her emotional problems and conflicts satisfies the aesthetic-spiritual-therapeutic needs of her audience and herself – perhaps the most fundamental of what the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm calls the existential needs – by encouraging understanding of the problems and conflicts, it is beside the human as well as artistic point. The aesthetic sophistication of acting out that has occurred does nothing to change the fact that it involves emotional problems and conflicts, and the fact that unless it has a psychologically sensitive audience to contain them, they will never be understood, implying that acting out is an artistic pathology. But perhaps it is the enduring difference between the psychodramatic artist and the understanding audience, despite their shared identity in the therapeutic group, that makes acting out an aesthetic experience for both, suggesting that without an aesthetic experience of it one cannot contain let alone become fully conscious of any emotional problem and conflict, for aesthetic experience is therapeutic.


(1) Andrew W. Coleman, A Dictionary of Psychology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 598

(2) André Malraux, Anti-Memoirs (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968), 4-5

(3) Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making, in Alfred North Whitehead, An Anthology, eds. F. S. C. Northrop and Mason W. Gross (New York: Macmillan, 1953), 510

Donald Kuspit, Pyschodrama: Modern Art as Group Therapy. London: Ziggurat Books International, 2010. ISBN 9780956103895, 560 Pages, with 11 black and white, illustrations by Marcus Reichert, $19.95
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Marcus Reichert, Orange Table, 2008
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book cover