JA: How do you see the very obvious connection between psychoanalysis and art?
SS: From its inception, psychoanalysis has been beholden to art. I would almost say, too beholden. Both are so thoroughly concerned with the ways and means of seduction. Psychoanalysts have certainly made a mistake in placing seduction aid erotic love as the centerpiece or cornerstone of human behavior. Even today, when the emphasis on sexuality in psychoanalysis has mercifully been diminished most analysis still sees transference love as the basis for psychoanalytic treatment and cure. Witness Lacan's seeing the ground for Freudian transference in Plato's presentation of the workings of Eros in his Symposium. As a reading of Freudian theory, this has great value: as an indication for how (analytic practice should proceed, it requires and has undergone considerable revision.
JA: But Freud began specifically with dramatic literary art in his theory, not with the visual arts.
SS: The point is well taken. It is certainly an interesting topic of inquiry to ask whether these two are more related than we think. In prior eras visual arts functioned to accompany or to make visible the characters and scenes in familiar stories, whether real, mythical, or fictional. Perhaps the most interesting modern example is of those artists who see their work not so much as making art but as making art history, as having a place within the continuing saga that constitutes the world of art.
JA: Returning to Freud, how did he use literary texts to promote and establish psychoanalysis? Freud was providing myths and stories for people to reconstruct their lives.
SS: Exactly! But also examine how he introduced the Oedipus complex. He found this story in the world of literature. Then he said that everyone who read or saw this play responded to it with a profound emotional catharsis as Aristotle had said with considerable clarity, and therefore that it must represent a basic truth about the human condition. Obviously, the reasoning is specious; many other tragedies produce aesthetic emotions universally: to appeal to people everywhere and at all times is proper, we might say to tragedy. Comedy concerns local and specific elements of a culture: what we find funny or amusing today will be trivial or uninteresting six months from now. Maybe this means that we are less discriminating against what we laugh about than what we cry about; or, that less is required to make us laugh than to make us cry. This does not make laughter cheaper but, in a peculiar sense more dear. Instead of trying to turn life into a tragedy, because many analysts think this is the courageous and tough-minded way to go, they would do better to see it as a comedy or an amusement, something that admits resolution and solutions.
JA: How does literature enter the world of clinical practice?
SS: Freud was at first attesting to the effect the play had had on him its ability to seduce him into thinking that it was talking to him and that it concerned him as an individual. And this requires considerable skill. Certainly Sophocles did not write it for Freud or for you or I, and yet he has managed to convince many people that the play, as Lacan put it, regards us. We are presented with evidence of art's power to seduce. Such activity may well serve some very useful purposes, but, after all it is no way to run a railroad or a nation.
JA: How exactly does art seduce?
SS: Through an interplay of disclosure and concealment. Seduction requires mystery and mystery entails hiding something, making sure that what interests you is not immediately available, because if it was available and disclosed there would be no interest either. Seduction tells you that it is not available but that it might become so, and that you will be better off for having seen it or known it. Of course whatever the work of art is promising will not answer your prayers, fulfill your dreams, or solve your problems. We all know this. The functions of the artist are to allow us to suspend our judgment and entertain the belief for a time.
The play of disclosure and concealment lies in finding a median position between two extremes. If the artist hypothetically discloses too much there will be no mystery, nothing left to desire, no reason to ponder or question or interact with the art work, or to seek something that the work is not saying overtly or articulating clearly. If the work conceals everything, and does not give a hint of there being something behind the veil, then also it will arouse disinterest.
Artists are horrified by indifference. When an audience does not respond, is not moved, or simply does not care, then the artist has failed. And yet I have the impression that so some artists are so frightened of audience indifference, and so unwilling to allow the audience the option of responding or not responding to their work, that they degenerate into work whose purpose is to shock, to insult, or to offend. The problem here is that after the shock wears off, indifference can easily set in. The market will suffer.
JA: Many theorists, among them Lacan, see anxiety as one of the major emotional components of the response to art. What is partially concealed and partially exposed can be frightening as well as exciting. But seduction also concerns love.
SS: It is astonishing that someone can walk through a museum and look at a painting produced centuries ago as if though it were speaking directly to that person in a way that is relevant to his every day experience and concerns. People tend to think that this experience makes them part of the great mass of humanity. On the contrary, I would consider it a function of seduction; the artist has succeeded in making you think that he was doing it for you, that his work is uniquely relevant to your experience. Whenever someone can do that for you, you are likely to develop considerable affection for that person, because that person has gone well beyond personal egotistical concerns to address you and you alone. Art makes the spectator feel loved; and evidently we need to have such feelings from time to time.
JA: You are presenting a slightly different angle on an old idea about aesthetic emotion. This leads me to ask about the place of the pornographic image, particularly Jeff Koons' recent show at Sonnabend.
SS: Pornography exists at one extreme of the concealment/disclosure/disclosure continuum. Koons seemed to be discovering how far he can stretch the limits; in the eyes of many he went too far and broke something of the mechanism of artistic seduction. Many recent artists have dispensed it with the traditional ideas of beauty Joseph Beuys is an obvious example because they believed that the spectator would be so captivated by the form, that he would miss the idea behind it. This is neo-Platonism in modem dress. Koons' images were not uninteresting, but to many people, repellent and offensive.
Pornography discloses too much; therefore it does not seduce the spectator; it leaves nothing to be desired, and furthermore it presumes to tell you what your desire is. Outside of its proper locale, pornography made into art seems to offer to the spectator what he supposedly wants to see the artist naked and exposed, to see him engaging in a sexual act. Not only do I doubt that this is what the spectator wants to see, but also I think it is insulting to assume this is true.
In our culture the kinds of explicit, hard-core pornographic images Koons presented to distinguish them from the tradition of erotic art are designed to accompany specific kinds of actions. They have no real virtue of their own; their composition, form, color, shape, texture have no specific value beyond their ability to e evoke sexual feelings that are actionable. Erotic art may elicit an emotional response, and it may certainly in involve a seduction of the spectator by the image, but the image must function as a coherent image on its own terms, it does not necessarily elicit actions.
Pornography, in other words tells, you what you want and what to do. Erotic art limits itself to the realization of the play of seduction and compares the seduction of art with that of love.
JA: But Koons was exhibiting in an art gallery, not a peep show.
SS: Perhaps he wished to make the art gallery an opera peep show. More importantly, whatever its value as art, you cannot exhibit it in your home for fear of offending friends and family. If a man had one of Koons' self portraits in his home and he in invited a woman over for a drink, I venture that she would feel harassed and even endangered, much as if she had been exposed to an exhibitionist. The idea of free expression central to the artistic project, goes awry by being in conflict with the requirement not to be offensive. In fact I think that a substantial part of very contemporary art tends toward the offensive, certainly, it shows considerable contempt for those whose funds keep the market solvent. It is one thing to arrange objects, even when they are objects found on an afternoon walk; it is at another thing to dump a pile of junk in the middle of a gallery and call it art. Perhaps there is a difference between objects that are visually bizarre and even indifferent, and others that are simply ugly. If there is a continuum between exposure and concealment then there is perhaps also a continuum between the two extremes of ugliness and beauty, from the head of Medusa to the cloying aestheticism of kitsch.
Fortunately, the art world has discovered a new and exciting way to seduce spectators. Normally when someone insults or offends you, you will react with anger and rage. When art bases its appeal on its ability to produce rage in the spectator, it must seduce the spectator into believing that the feeling of rage is illegitimate, that he should feel guilt for feeling angry. The guilt will assuage the anger, or better, suppress it and palliate the impulse to turn away in disgust. Usually the work of art is unable to accomplish this alone; it will enlist learned commentaries in magazines like this one, which will tell the audience that if it reacts with anger to an image, then it stands accused of unrecognized sinful impulses and guilt complexes. Anyone who can convince an audience that it must like what Jeff Koons exhibited at Sonnabend because if it does not it has unresolved guilt feelings about sex is certainly engaged in a sophisticated form of seduction.
The problem artists have to face is this. It is relatively easy to offend people: forgetting to say "thank you" is often sufficient. But once the art culture sets its mind to using offensive e materials, and to immuring the public to the offense, it becomes more and more difficult to shock the public. Perhaps Koons took this to its most absurd extreme, but again the issue is whether he stretched the rules to the limit or whether he broke too many of them to be taken seriously. The fact that we can offer learned explanations does not mean that it works as art or as art history.
JA: Doesn't this have to do with the important place Freudian psychoanalysis has taken on in the art world?
SS: That is an interesting question; it suggests that psychoanalysis is being used for its value as a diagnostic and even critical and accusatory tool rather than as a theoretical mechanism to talk about art. It divides the viewing public into the enlightened and the repressed and it allows one to look into a person's soul and his innermost and private thoughts, feelings, and actions by evaluating and appraising his response to a work of art.
This article was published in Flash Art May/June 1992.