How We See Art Helps Explain Our Psyche

In our assessment of art as a creative, emotional and psychic expression, we can understand its nature to be based almost entirely on the innermost workings of our personal psyche. Art, just as dreams, can be completely meaningless, simply a mixture of nonsensical images, colours and lines. However, upon further analysis these may represent archetypes, unconscious and internalized problems, or act as a mode of wish fulfillment. As an onlooker, we are unable to fully understand the meaning behind an individual’s artistic expression – in fact we analyze it in such a way that we ascribe our own unconscious feelings and conflicts onto the image. Jung illustrates this in Modern Man in Search of a Soul when he says: “whatever we look at, and however we look at it, we see only through our own eyes” (Jung, 1933). This portrays that although there may be multiple interpretations of a particular image, our analysis of the image will assuredly express more an aspect of ourselves than any aspect of the artist.

Jung summarizes archetypes and their meanings in his book “The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious” (Jung, 1969) and though these may assist in our initial assessments we should not rely on them to get at the core of the image. Just as what we see in an inkblot helps determine our internal processes, so to does our assessment of another person’s art. Therefore we should allow for projection in our interpretations. Through this projection of our self in the assessment, we can be led to understand ourselves more through the viewing, and analyzing of others art. What we assess as an artists motives, are more closely our motives.

This is not to say that in our assessment we may not get at, to some degree, a better understanding of the artists personal motives (for by chance or human nature, we may share the same or similar motives as the artist under analysis. In fact, if we are to follow suit with the idea of the collective unconscious and our understanding of archetypes presented by Jung, it is not too far off to say that our assessment, although I am speculating it will mainly be our own self projected onto the piece, will in fact have some element of truth to it). We will not be able to determine what an image is expressing without asking the artist himself. Even then, we may be at an impasse, because our question may be met with trepidation. Perhaps the artist has created a most intimate piece illustrating his inability to fulfill his self in any realm of his existence – and this is embarrassing to express. An alternative scenario; the image in fact, means absolutely nothing. It is absolute nonsense, and this too, is embarrassing to express. We hold our artists in absolute reverence, we put them on a pedestal and see them as higher beings with greater insight and understanding of the human psyche – they are more in tune with themselves, with nature, with their fellow man. Why then, would an image an artist create mean absolutely nothing? We automatically feel the need to ascribe meaning to an image. In fact, even in its nothingness, we still find meaning – “artist A created an image of lines and boxes, circles and splashes of paint. He indicated that it means absolutely nothing, with that we can deduce that he feels that he is absolutely nothing and life has no meaning.” These statements are not entirely erroneous, but they are unfounded. They are based entirely on speculation.

A pressing issue we need to address in regards to interviewing the artist about the meaning behind the image is that introspection is not entirely scientific. Although Wundt demonstrated its importance through his voluntarism (Wundt, 1894), it lacks reliability and we are unable to measure or quantify it. If we consider the scenarios above, although the artist is of course, capable of introspection, he can very easily modify what he finds in his psyche. That is, we may ask “what does this image mean” and he may be embarrassed to share the truth, therefore, he may alter the truth and we may receive an inaccurate understanding of the image. Therefore we should not focus on understanding what the image means from the artists eyes, but instead we should allow our analysis to help us better understand our own psyche, through the projections we make in our analysis.

Though archetypal images may suffice to supplement our depiction of the images we should not rely too heavily on them, and in the process of analyzing images we should use them solely as motivating forces. If we rely too heavily on them we will be faced with resistance. When we are met with resistance surely this indicates that what we have uncovered is not only true of the image, but also true of our selves. Though we may be encouraged to protect our egos through this resistance, we should not work against it. In fact our resistance indicates that we have uncovered a truth about our selves previously unknown. This truth may frighten us to some degree, hence we will respond with resistance. Resisting the truth will not result in a protected ego, as we are wont to believe; in fact, it will result in a fragmented, damaged, and fearful ego. Fearful of what we are aiming at discovering – our true self.

It is easier then for us to determine the meaning behind an image using an archetype because we can separate our self from the interpretation. There is no aspect of our psyche in an interpretation that relies solely on archetypes.

How then, should our interpretation follow if we are to focus our attention mainly on our unconscious psyche? This interpretation would be similar to our assessment of a Rorschach inkblot; assuredly, our interpretation of art can be used as a projective measure involving Freudian free-association. To the reader who is confused in the importance of our allowing these deep, potentially dark truths being revealed to us through our interpretations, the answer is simple. We uncover these truths so that we may face them and deal with them. We uncover these truths so that we may consolidate them into the whole of our being, in order to actualize and find congruence between all the selves –the perceived, real and ideal.

As humans we use art to express ourselves and to connect with others, and for this reason it is one of, if not the most, important ways we can understand the self.

Let us take for an example one piece of art along with my interpretation of said piece of art. I have provided my affect state and preoccupations prior to my interpretation so as to provide a reference point for my interpretation.

I have also provided a previous interpretation I have made on the same piece of art in order to compare the two interpretations, and determine the extent to which my affect and preoccupations have had on the interpretation.

Current affect/general feeling:

  • Proud (of what I have achieved in the past few weeks)
  • Confident
  • Content
  • Reserved
  • Insecure

Current preoccupations:

  • Self image
  • Others perceptions of myself and body
  • The change of seasons
  • Creativity and being successful through my creativity (recognition from others, acceptance from others based on my artistic abilities, being recognized as artistic and creative)untitledSalvador Dali “Dream caused by the flight of a bee around a pomegranate a second before awakening”

The image above is by Salvador Dali, and I have interpreted this image before, nearly a year ago. The main focus of the image is a nude female figure prostrated on the stone floor exposing her self, seemingly proudly. Her form seems to be based off of an ideal figure, and the gaze is very focused on her body rather than on her face. The soul can be found through looking into someone’s eyes, which demonstrates to me the potential that this woman is idolized as the perfect female figure, without her internal aspects being taken into consideration.

On the other hand, if we look at this from a female perspective, we are able to understand the image more so as a woman being proud of herself, (we could still apply the same understanding of the soul here, and say perhaps that she is proud of what society has told her to be proud of, namely, her body, while shunning “unfeminine” aspects of herself – her mind, her creativity, her self).

If we look closely we can see there is a rifle pointed at her face. Perhaps this is a “shaming” her for being so expressly proud of her self, and failing to be modest. The tigers fall in line with this understanding as well, and can be seen as an extension of the rifle. They are leaping towards the woman in a rather aggressive fashion – their mouths agape. This could represent another form of shunning – telling women how to behave, how to dress, how to demonstrate her pride (or to not do so).

What is interesting to note however, is that the focus is still on the woman –regardless of whether other aspects of the image are pointededly demeaning her for her confidence, pride, and immodesty. This to me indicates that although women are told on various occasions in various different ways how to behave or how to feel about their bodies and minds, they still continue to persevere, and are able to determine if they will be proud, and how they will express said pride. There is a constant battle between woman and societal demands indicating what is and what is not “feminine.”

My previous interpretation was made August of 2015, and can be found below.

My initial interpretation was made from a Freudian perspective; that is, I assumed the guise of Freud, and my interpretation followed in suit of his dream analysis approach. Therefore, there was none of my own psyche being reflected onto the image.

The image is riddled with sexual desire and motivation. The woman is prostrated on a rock exposing herself to the oncoming tigers (representing men); begging to be devoured. The fact that tigers represent men here demonstrates their animalistic tendencies and their express interest in the female figure represents the carnal urge of eros. We must also pay close attention to the pomegranate from which the tigers are springing. The pomegranate is a representation of the female womb; the female womb bears fruit, that is, provides life. Here then, we can see a life cycle in action; men come from women, and spring to women following their carnal urges, in order to perpetuate the cycle. Similarly, the fish too, often represents the woman.

The atmosphere of the image as a whole supports this idea of sexual reproduction. The main focus in the background of the image is the body of water which is a life force, a source of baptismal renewal, rebirth. Water is found to be necessary in every instance of life – we as humans need it to survive, as do animals and plants.

Further, the rifle could be seen in two ways: holding the female figure hostage against the male advances, or, as shaming the female figure for submitting to male advances. Should we consider this from a modern societal perspective, we can see how true the latter is. Women tend to be held hostage in their own bodies: they are met with a plethora of demands – demanding them to be sexual beings while simultaneously maintaining their modesty (because their worth is linked very strongly to their chastity). Therefore, in this image the woman is simultaneously submitting to the male desire and being shamed for it.

The reason I am not providing an affect scale or preoccupations for this final interpretation is because it was completed from a Freudian perspective, therefore it was not influenced by my personal experience.

If we look at the first interpretation provided and compare it with the affect scale provided, we can see just how related they are. At the time I mentioned feeling quite preoccupied with my personal worth, based predominantly on my physical appearance and how others perceived me. In my interpretation of the image I focused on the female figure and her exposing herself to the viewers (namely society). Further, I found it easy to associate her turning her face away from us as viewers as a demeaning of her cognitive, internal functions (her intelligence, soul, creativity). As we can see, I mentioned I was preoccupied with my own creativity – being creative while obtaining appreciation and acknowledgement for my creativity and ability.

In this instance then I was seeking said appreciation and acknowledgement (hence the audience of tigers ascribed in the image). Tigers are a wild animal characterized as vicious therefore it makes sense that I would interpret these tigers as society (society being any onlooker, not necessarily society as a whole. It has an additional connotation). Although I am seeking validation (validation of my appearance, acceptance as an aesthetically pleasing being, as well as validation in my creativity), I am simultaneously trying to survive without it. I acknowledge my want to express myself freely, to accept myself (the inner and outer aspects of my self) without relying on the approval of others while waiting for said approval; hence the female figure prostrated on the rock for all to see (and be judged and shamed for her exposing herself both physically and psychically). There is a dichotomy in the interpretation, as well as in my preoccupations and affect states (as is normal for us as humans to experience.)

For instance, my affect states were noted as content and confident (in my creative abilities, and the past successes I had made) but also referring to my body and aesthetic. I, as many women, struggle with accepting my body and with seeing myself as “beautiful” or worth recognizing as such. Typically my feelings of self-worth fluctuate, as does my confidence in myself as an aesthetically appealing person. It is interesting to note that my confidence in my internal abilities fluctuates, but not as often as my confidence in my external qualities. It makes sense then that I should not only be focusing mainly on the external aspects of the female in this image, but too that my affect state of confidence/contentedness would be juxtaposed with reservation and insecurity. In fact, this is relatively normal for me. Although I may feel confident with myself, there tends to be an underlying feeling of insecurity in my body. I mention too that the female figure seems to be idealized; perhaps unconsciously I was comparing myself to the image of the female figure already calling into question my current confidence.

As we can see, my interpretation of Dali’s image falls closely in line with my current preoccupations and affect states. Does this indicate that my hypothesis is correct, and that we should be right in assuming that our personal interpretations of art may uncover unconscious aspects of our psyche? Perhaps, but as mentioned before, we cannot conclude with any certainty that this is correct, because these speculations are relying very strongly on introspection. Introspection is helpful, but as already mentioned, cannot be quantified, and therefore cannot be scientifically studied. This is not to say that we should not be using art interpretation as a way of understanding others and ourselves.

Consider our dreams, which Freud determined were manifestations of our wishes and desires (typically of an erotic nature). These help us to understand aspects of our selves that may be buried within our unconscious, and through interpretation may come to light so that we may incorporate them positively into our self. The same can be said of our interpretations of artistic pieces (they, like dreams, are comprised of symbols, archetypes, images that denote specific meaning). There are a plethora of different meanings we can ascribe to an individual image, just as we can ascribe to a dream image, or a poem. Found within the meaning we ascribe to the image are aspects of our unconscious, aspects of our psyche that may have not been fully consolidated into our self – bring them to consciousness and we may incorporate them into our self, or should they be of an entirely neurotic nature; deal with them appropriately.

Just as the Rorschach inkblot test acts as a projective measure, our interpretations of artistic images can act in the same manner, providing us with another venue for understanding our self and coming closer to actualization.

 

References:

Dali, S. (1944). Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening [Painting]. Retrieved from http://www.dalipaintings.net/dream-caused-by-the-flight-of-a-bee-around-a-pomegranate-one-second-before-awakening.jsp

Jung, C. G. (1933). Modern Man in Search of a Soul. New York: Harvest. p. translators’ preface

Jung, C.G. (1969). Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious [sic], Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 9 (Part 1), Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Wundt, W. (1897). Outlines in Psychology. Trans. Charles Hubbard Judd. Leipzig, Germany.

 

 

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