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Reprinted at with permission January, 2004 from Artnet © D. Kuspit

The Psychoanalytic Construction of Beauty

by Donald Kuspit


The Venus de Milo

Venus de Milo
Parian marble, 2.02 meters
130-120 BC
Musee du Louvre, Paris

I think the best way of understanding the basic difference between the psychoanalytic approach to beauty and the traditional approach is by beginning with two quotations, one neatly summarizing the traditional approach, the other stating the essentials of the psychoanalytic approach. The first quotation is from an essay by the novelist, literary critic and philosopher William Gass, the second, as you might expect, is from Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Rather touchingly and defiantly in the present situation, in which art seems to have become the servant of ideology, at the expense of beauty, Gass, in an essay called "The Baby or the Botticelli" -- the original title "Goodness Knows Nothing of Beauty" is more to the point -- declares:

"I think it is one of the artist's obligations to create as perfectly as he or she can, not regardless of all other consequences, but in full awareness, nevertheless, that in pursuing other values -- in championing Israel or fighting for the rights of women, or defending the faith, or exposing capitalism, supporting your sexual preferences or speaking for your race -- you may simply be putting on a saving scientific, religious, political mask to disguise your failure as an artist. Neither the world's truth nor a god's goodness will win you beauty's prize.

Finally, in a world which does not provide beauty for its own sake, but where the loveliness of flowers, landscapes, faces, trees and sky are adventitious and accidental, it is the artist's task to add to the world's objects and ideas those delineations, carvings, tales, fables and symphonic spells which ought to be there; to make things whose end is contemplation and appreciation; to give birth to beings whose qualities harm no one, yet reward even the most casual notice, and which therefore deserve to become the focus of a truly disinterested affection." (1)

Contrast this rather idealistic statement with Freud's more down-to-earth statement, in Civilization and Its Discontents (1929),in the context of a discussion of happiness:

" ...consider the interesting case in which happiness in life is predominantly sought in the enjoyment of beauty, wherever beauty presents itself to our senses and our judgment -- the beauty of human forms and gestures, of natural objects and landscapes and of artistic and even scientific creations. This esthetic attitude to the goal of life offers little protection against the threat of suffering, but it can compensate for a great deal. The enjoyment of beauty has a peculiar mildly intoxicating quality of feeling. Beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any cultural necessity for it. Yet civilization could not do without it. The science of esthetics investigates the conditions under which things are felt as beautiful, but it has been unable to give any explanation of the nature and origin of beauty, and, as usually happens, lack of success is concealed beneath a flood of resounding and empty words. Psychoanalysis, unfortunately, has scarcely anything to say about beauty either. All that seems certain is its derivation from the field of sexual feeling. The love of beauty seems a perfect example of an impulse inhibited in its aim. "Beauty" and "attraction" are originally attributes of the sexual object. It is worth remarking that the genitals themselves, the sight of which is always exciting, are nevertheless hardly ever judged to be beautiful; the quality of beauty seems, instead to match to certain secondary sexual characters." (2)

What Freud means by "secondary sexual characters" is clear from an earlier statement in "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality" (1905). Remarking that "seeing . . . is ultimately derived from touching," Freud asserts:

"Visual impressions remain the most frequent pathway along which libidinal excitation is aroused; indeed, natural selection counts upon the accessibility of this pathway -- if such a teleological form of statement is permissible -- when it encourages the development of beauty in the sexual object. The progressive concealment of the body which goes along with civilization keeps sexual curiosity awake. This curiosity seeks to complete the sexual object by revealing its hidden parts. It can, however, be diverted ('sublimated') in the direction of art, if its interest can be shifted away from the genitals on to the shape of the body as a whole. It is usual for most people to linger to some extent over the intermediate sexual aim of a looking that has a sexual tinge to it; indeed, this offers them a possibility of directing some proportion of their libido on to higher artistic aims."(3)

Botticelli, The Birth of Venus

Sandro Botticelli
Birth of Venus
ca. 1482
Uffizi, Florence

Titian, Venus of Urbino

Venus of Urbino
Uffizi, Florence

Titian, Venus with a Mirror

Venus with a Mirror
ca. 1555
National Gallery of Art, Washington

Titian, Venus and the Lute Player

Venus and the Lute Player
ca. 1555
Metropolitan Museum

Peter Paul Rubens
The Toilet of Venus
ca. 1613
Leichtenstein Collection, Vaduz - Leichtenstein

Goya, Naked Maja

Naked Maja
Madrid, Museo del Prado

Picasso, Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon

Pablo Picasso
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
Museum of Modern Art

Courbet, The Origin of the World

Gustave Courbet
The Origin of the World
ca. 1867
Musee d'Orsay, Paris

Uccello, St George and the Dragon

Paolo Uccello
St. George and the Dragon
ca. 1456
National Gallery, London

Rodin, Burghers of Calais

Auguste Rodin
Burghers of Calais

Rubens, The Assumption of the Virgin

Peter Paul Rubens
The Assumption of the Virgin (detail)
ca. 1626
National Gallery of Art

What Freud means by diverting sexual attention from the genitals to the body as a whole is quite clear when one studies the history of the representation of the female nude. From such ancient representations as the Venus de Milo, ca. 150 B.C., to such Renaissance representations as Botticelli's Birth of Venus, ca. 1482, and Titian's Venus of Urbino, 1538, the genitals of the goddess have remained hidden, whether by her hand or drapery. This apparent modesty is not what it seems, for it directs attention to the rest of her body, which becomes sexually charged. Even Titian, perhaps the greatest painter of female flesh, rarely reveals the genitals of Venus, however much he suggests them, which is what the fur hiding them in Venus with a Mirror, ca. 1555, does. When he does, as in Venus and the Lute Player, ca. 1555, he gives that flesh a kind of pudendal richness, in effect transferring the most visible aspect of the female genital to the female body as a whole, making it all the more seductive. Rubens carries this to greater extremes in his Venuses, which seem like fleshy vaginas turned inside out. In The Toilet of Venus, ca. 1613, the folds of the exaggerated flesh seem to follow the contours of the vagina, a no doubt all-too-speculative idea for art historians.

If interest is not shifted to body as a whole, but "restricted exclusively to the genitals," then, as Freud writes, "the pleasure in looking [scopophilia] becomes a perversion." (4) This seems to occur in Goya's Naked Maja, 1800, who brazenly puts her hands behind her head, making no attempt to hide her genital, thus calling attention to it. Marked by pubic hair, the Maja's genital is all the more perversely fascinating. Interestingly, one of the standing nudes in Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, also puts her hands behind her head, but her genital remains draped -- none of the nudes has exposed genitals -- indicating that even in this perversely modern work traditional sublimation continues to operate. Clearly Goya was more daring than Picasso, as was Courbet in The Origin of the World, ca. 1867. Picasso remains bound by the idealistic tradition that declares the genitals can be suggested but not directly shown -- evoked, but never enough to provoke. As Otto Kernberg writes, "a naked body may be sexually stimulating, but a partially hidden body becomes much more so." (5) This is a form of "sexual teasing," typically linked to "exhibitionistic teasing," which is "frequently interwoven with the character style of women." If "the wish to tease and be teased is [a] central aspect of erotic desire," then Titian and Picasso, however unconsciously, reveal woman's desire, even as they consciously shown their own.

Now if one looks at Gass' statement from a historical perspective, one sees that what he calls the "truly disinterested affection" with which one regards beauty is essentially the same as what Kant calls "entirely disinterested satisfaction." Here is the full quotation, from the sixth section of the Critique of Judgment. Defending the assertion that "the beautiful is that which apart from concepts is represented as the object of a universal satisfaction," Kant states that "this explanation of the beautiful can be derived from the preceding explanation of it as the object of an entirely disinterested satisfaction." (6) The preceding explanation deals with taste, which Kant defines as "the faculty of judging of an object or a method of representing it by an entirely disinterested satisfaction or dissatisfaction. The object of such satisfaction is called beautiful." For Kant, disinterested satisfaction is always universal:

"For the fact of which everyone is conscious, that the satisfaction is for him quite disinterested, implies in his judgment a ground of satisfaction for all men. For since it does not rest on any inclination of the subject (nor upon any other premeditated interest), but since the person who judges feels himself quite free as regards the satisfaction which he attaches to the object, he cannot find the ground of this satisfaction in any private conditions connected with his own subject, and hence it must be regarded as grounded on what he can presuppose in every other person. Consequently he must believe that he has reason for attributing a similar satisfaction to everyone." (7)

Kant is moving toward the idea that beauty is an objective rather than subjective quality, that is, a recognizable property of an object rather than the private taste of the individual. He distinguishes between "material esthetical judgments," which "assert pleasantness or unpleasantness," and are thus "judgments of sense," and pure or formal esthetical judgments, which "assert the beauty of an object or of the manner of representing it," and "are alone strictly judgments of taste." (8) Comparing the beautiful with the pleasant, he writes:

"As regards the pleasant, everyone is content that his judgment, which he bases upon private feeling and by which he says an object pleases him, should be limited merely to his own person. . . The case is quite different with the beautiful. It would (on the contrary) be laughable if a man who imagined anything to his own taste thought to justify himself by saying: "This object (the house we see, the coat that person wears, the concert we hear, the poem submitted to our judgment) is beautiful for me." For he must not call it beautiful if it merely pleases him. Many things may have for him charm and pleasantness -- no one troubles himself at that -- but if he gives out anything as beautiful, he supposes in others the same satisfaction; he judges not merely for himself, but for everyone, and speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things. Hence he says "the thing is beautiful". . . Here, then, we cannot say that each man has his own particular taste. For this would be as much as to say there is no taste whatever, i.e., no esthetic judgment which can make a rightful claim upon everyone's assent."(9)

As he says, "the judgment of taste" postulates "a universal voice. . . and thus the possibility of an esthetical judgment that can. . . be regarded as valid for everyone." (10) Hammering home the difference between the judgment of taste and the pleasure of sensations, which have only "private validity," (11) Kant declares "that taste is always barbaric which needs a mixture of charms and emotions in order that there may be satisfaction, and still more so if it makes these the measure of its assent." (12) Kant lets the cat out of the bag, as it were, when he asserts that "In painting, sculpture and in all the formative arts -- in architecture and horticulture, so far as they are beautiful arts -- the delineation is the essential thing; and here it is not what gratifies in sensation but what pleases by means of its form that is fundamental for taste. The colors which light up the sketch belong to the charm; they may indeed enliven the object for sensation, but they cannot make it worthy of contemplation and beautiful." (13) Kant associates delineation with form and color with sensation, and argues that "we can abstract from the quality of that mode of sensation (abstract from the colors. . .)" to realize "pure" form, which is not "troubled and interrupted by. . . foreign sensation." (14) It is "a common error and one very prejudicial to genuine, uncorrupted, well-founded taste" to suppose that "the charm of the object" can augment "the beauty attributed to the object on account of its form." In the debate between line and color -- a debate which has now become academic -- Kant comes out on the side of line, and builds a whole theory to justify his taste.


I will tell you in a moment why I have quoted so extensively from Kant, but first I want to note that the scientific, religious and political interests that art often serves, to the detriment of its beauty, and even to hide its lack of beauty, as Gass suggests, are, from a Kantian point of view, part of its charm, and as such have nothing to do with its form. They make it sensational, as it were, to the extent that we no longer bother to ask whether or not it is beautiful. The scientific, religious or political aspect of a work of art makes it interesting for people who are interested in science, religion and politics, but this does not mean that they find disinterested esthetic satisfaction in it -- that they appreciate and contemplate it as pure art. Indeed, to the extent art presents definite scientific, religious or political concepts, and thus takes a scientific, religious or political stand, it is not strictly speaking art. As Kant says, artistic representation involves "cognition in general," by which he means "the free play of the imagination and the understanding (so far as they agree with each other...)," rather than "definite concept[s]" that limit "the cognitive powers... to a definite rule of cognition." (15) If we understand a work of art in terms of the science, religion or politics implicit in it, and sometimes quite explicit and transparent, we limit our understanding of it as art, for we are seeing it an all too definite rather than imaginative way. If it is truly art, it is not making a scientific, religious or political statement, however much it seems to, but playing with a scientific, religious and political ideas to achieve a certain esthetic effect. It does not involve precise scientific, religious or political cognition, but general cognition of the world -- a certain imaginative sense of things, which involves the esthetic awareness of their forms -- which may have scientific, religious or political implications, or rather arouse scientific, religious or political "sensations."

Now for Freud this whole line of reasoning is beside the psychological point. For him there is no such thing as disinterested satisfaction. It is always sexually interested. Disinterested satisfaction is an illusion created by sublimation -- by the displacement of sexual curiosity from the genitals to the body as a whole. But even the contemplation of a beautiful body -- the body as pure form, as Kant would say -- does not afford disinterested satisfaction. Sexual satisfaction always lurks in pure form. Similarly, taste, however pure, always has a sexual aftertaste. Sexual excitement and pleasure are implicit in beauty, however unacknowledged, and however repressed by pure judgments of taste. They are never pure for Freud, but ingeniously impure, for they always involve infantile sexual feelings, however muted by sublimation. The taste for beauty is rooted in one's sexual tastes and wishes, which means in one's experience of one's body. Kant's theory of beauty is in effect a desperate attempt to play down the importance of sensing and feeling -- bodily sensation and sexual feeling -- in the experience of beauty. Indeed, for Kant the contemplation of beauty is not exactly an exciting experience. It is striking, at least from a Freudian point of view, that Kant never connects pleasure with sexuality -- never speaks of sexual pleasure, as though the pleasure of the senses have nothing to do with it. No doubt sexual sensations would be the most foreign, charming, corrupting, tasteless and barbaric of all for him -- especially because they are the most colorful and intense -- and as such irreconcilable with beauty. It is disembodied in principle for Kant, however much the material body may be its vehicle. All satisfaction has to do with the body, and it was the body and its libido that Kant got rid of with such abstractions as disinterested satisfaction, pure form and objective beauty.

These are supposedly conveyed by line. But for Kant the intellectual definiteness of line exists to suppress the emotional indefiniteness of color. It is all too charming for him -- too seductive and libidinous, and thus impure or foreign, and as such corrupting of beauty. We are not supposed to be attracted to beauty -- not supposed to desire it -- and yet, as Freud makes clear, it doesn't come into its own -- even truly exist -- without our desire for it. There is an ancient story of a young man so taken with the beauty of a statue of Venus that he kissed its buttocks. From a Kantian point of view this is a gross misunderstanding of it -- not exactly the right kind of appreciation. But perhaps the young man understood beauty better that Kant did -- understood it instinctively rather than intellectualized it away. He recognized that beauty was part of sexual foreplay, and as such had a polymorphous dimension to it, which seduced one for all one's pretense of contemplative detachment. Unless one is drawn to beauty, and takes deep pleasure in it, it has no point, except, no doubt, an abstract one. Beauty's place on the heights of thought is quite different from beauty's place in the lowdown senses.

In a sense, Freud restores everything that Kant denied, even trivialized -- certainly repressed -- in the contemplation of beauty, namely, sensation, the body, and above all sexual feeling, which Kant ignored altogether. It was taboo to connect beauty and sexuality, and it is exactly this taboo that Freud broke, and that makes his esthetics revolutionary. It is worth noting that Kant never spoke of the love of beauty. Indeed, the contemplation of beauty is the dispassionate antithesis of the passionate love of beauty. For Kant, contemplation replaces love, and is preferable to love, which supposedly is blind, that is, understands nothing about its object, in contrast to contemplation, which can understand it completely because it is entirely detached from it, that is, emotionally uninvolved with it. Kant could not imagine that emotional engagement with an object could give one a deeper understanding of it than abstract contemplation of it. It could be understood from the inside -- from its own point of view -- rather than the outside, from some general point of view. Kant did not realize that contemplation, because it was emotionally disengaged, was blind to the inner beauty of the object.

Even more important than Freud's remarks about the sexual etiology of beauty is the fact that they occur in the context of a discussion of happiness. For Freud the overriding issue is whether or not beauty makes us happy. His examination of happiness makes it clear that for him beauty only affords what might be called secondary happiness -- the happiness of compensation, that is, consolation for suffering or unhappiness, rather than the primary happiness that comes from sexuality. In other words, beauty is a rather minor, limited, even trivial happiness -- unless, of course, one is fixated upon it in contemplation, which is no longer happiness, but obsessional neurosis. Esthetic pleasure is poor compensation for living in a painful world, in which esthetics plays a superficial role. Indeed, it seems to mask scientific, religious and political interests, rather than the other way around, as Gass thinks. What is missing in the traditional theory of disinterested satisfaction advocated by Kant and Gass is acknowledgement of the dissatisfaction that life invariably brings. To acknowledge it would be to make beauty less transcendental than they think it is. Beauty is little more than a temporary respite from life's unhappiness -- a way of forgetting it for the moment, which is hardly the same as rising above it once and for all. Beauty is indeed skin-deep, as conventional wisdom insists. Beauty is an inadequate band-aid, covering the wounds life inflicts but hardly curing them. One bandages one's wounds to hide them from the world, and to make a proper social appearance, but the wounds remain and continue to fester. The world does little or nothing about them, because it is one of their causes. Freud writes:

"One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be "happy" is not included in the plan of "Creation." What we call happiness in the strictest sense comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree, and it is from its nature only possible as an episodic phenomenon. When any situation that is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged, it only produces a feeling of mild contentment. (Or, in the case of the obsession with beauty -- an attempt to sustain contemplation beyond the point when it fades into mild contentment -- pathology.) We are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things. Thus our possibilities of happiness are already restricted by our constitution. Unhappiness is much less difficult to experience. We are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our own body, which is doomed to decay and dissolution and cannot even do without pain and anxiety as warning signals; from the external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction; and finally from our relations to other men. The suffering which comes from this last source is perhaps more painful to us than any other. We tend to regard it as a kind of gratuitous addition, although it cannot be any less fatefully inevitable than the suffering which comes from elsewhere." (16)

Clearly from Freud's psychoanalytic perspective, beauty is a small happiness indeed, although, no doubt, the happiness it affords can be sexually stimulating, and thus function as a fore-pleasure to a greater happiness -- a deeper satisfaction than disinterested satisfaction.

Freud's remarks are somewhat pessimistic, but later psychoanalysts are less pessimistic about beauty, and in fact think there is a deep emotional need for it, rooted in infantile experience. But for them it is not a matter of infantile sexuality, but of infantile relationships -- the most intimate of all relationships. Indeed, even Freud suggests as much, if Robert Fleiss is correct in stating that "Freud saw the origin of the experience of 'beauty' in the infant's perception of the milk overflowing the breast," (17) that is, in the infant's relationship to the mother at her most giving and nurturing and dependable -- the infant's experience of the bounty of the mother.

Certain poets have been aware of the fact that the sense of beauty originates in a loving relationship with a loving mother, as Mallarme suggests in the last stanza of his poem The Windows. He writes: "And I die, and I love -- whether the glass be art or mysticism -- to be reborn, wearing my dream, like a diadem, in the earlier heaven where Beauty flowers." The "earlier heaven" is of course childhood, more precisely, infancy, the earliest heaven, as it were. Art and mysticism are ways of recovering it. Like Wordsworth, for Mallarmé poetry is childhood -- the beauty of childhood and the childhood where Beauty flowers, that is, where the mother's breast blossoms with milk -- recovered in mystical tranquility.

In mystical experience -- and artistic experience at its best is mysticism at one remove or mysticism in disguise -- one merges with the divine, that is, the mother of one's being. To be reborn thus means to become an innocent infant again -- an infant innocently and happily nursing at the beautiful breast of the divine mother. The good breast -- the nurturing, satisfying breast -- is the first object of beauty, as Melanie Klein suggests. It gives us our first idea of beauty. Perhaps even more than the mother's breast, her body is experienced as beautiful. Donald Meltzer and M. H. Williams think that "the infant's love for mother... is expressed by idealizing the surface of her body and, by introjection of the mother's love expressed in her idealizing the infant's body, by identifying with her in self-idealization. Such idealization would give rise to the earliest sense of esthetic value, of beauty." (18) When Mondrian insists that a straight line is preferable to a curved one -- he's even stricter than Kant, that is, more uptight or, if one wishes, austere -- he is trying to liberate himself from the mother's breast and body. In a sense, his abstract art is an attempt to prove that beauty can found in the straight lines of the grid -- most ambitiously in the late paintings he produced in New York, in which color and line fuse -- but the effort to do so seems forced, and in the end unconvincing, however subliminally dynamic. Gass, then, is clearly wrong from a pschoanalytic perspective: goodness and beauty are one, at least as long as they are one in the breast.

In short, Mallarme yearns to be in heaven with the beautiful, divine, mothering breast, full of satisfying milk. Need one say that the mother is always beautiful and sacred -- they are in emotional effect one and the same -- to the infant? Mallarme in effect infantilizes himself by writing poetry in order to restore a state of childhood intimacy with his mother. It is a happy state of pure being, just as his mother is the best of beings. Indeed, Mallarmé's famous ineffability and marvelous obscurity are infantile in import, if one recalls that the word "infant" means not to speak or to be unable to speak. Ironically, Mallarmé achieves the illusion of speechlessness by his sophisticated language -- a kind of speechifying which seems sophisticated but is primitive, for it involves the use of words as though they are concrete objects rather than symbols for them -- a further irony. 19 Clearly, art and mysticism are wish fulfillments -- dreams come emotionally true -- for Mallarmé.

Even when the mother is uncaring she remains beautiful, if also destructive -- terrifying. That is, her emotional absence or indifference or stupidity arouses terror -- the feeling of impending annihilation. The famous lines that begin the fifth of Rilke's Duino Elegies convey this annihilation anxiety: "For Beauty's nothing but beginning of Terror we're still just able to bear, and why we adore it so is because it serenely disdains to destroy us." And yet it is about to destroy us. Rilke's contradictory feelings about his mother -- she's beautiful but she's bad, she's a higher being but she's dangerous -- remind me of Fairbairn's remark that a child would rather stay with a mother who is bad than have a new mother however good, because the old mother will always be more beautiful than the new mother. This suggests that beauty involves a deep feeling of attachment, which precedes the feeling that the mother is good or bad, although it may be reinforced by the experience of her as good. Rilke's problems with his rather grandiose, controlling mother are brilliantly conveyed in an astonishingly direct poem, which is remarkable for its psychological insight and sophistication:

Alas, my mother will demolish me!
Stone after stone upon myself I'd lay,
and stood already like a little house round which the day
rolls boundlessly.
Now mother's coming to demolish me:
demolish me simply be being there.
That building's going on she's unaware.

The poem ends with the lines:

No warm wind ever blew to me from her.
She's not at home where breezes are astir.
In some heart-attic she is tucked away,
and Christ comes there to wash her every day.

Rilke's cold mother was too self-absorbed -- and there is corroborating evidence for her awesome narcissism -- to be much of a mother to him. Her milk was sour, to say the least, and Rilke never lost "his fundamental antagonism to her," as Donald Prater writes in his biography. (20) As Rilke wrote, she plucked all the flowers out of his life, in effect annihilating him. "Works of art," Rilke wrote, "are always the result of being at risk," and Rilke was clearly at great risk in his relationship with his mother. (21) Freud, in fact, in his obituary for Lou-Andreas Salome, who was involved with Rilke, noted his general helplessness in life, which Salome, a kind of surrogate mother, could not mitigate. As though to confirm Rilke's feeling of being annihilated by his mother, Melanie Klein notes that "one root of the constant concern of women (often so excessive) for their personal beauty" is their "dread that this. . . will be destroyed by the mother," along with their "capacity for motherhood." (22) Among other abuses, Rilke was treated and dressed as a little girl by his mother -- her first child, a girl, died at birth, and Rilke was a poor substitute for the lost child -- which is perhaps one reason why his father tried to make a man out of him by sending him to military school.

What post-Freudian thinking about beauty suggests is that it makes one feel good about life -- that it concentrates in itself a sense of the value of living and the goodness and happiness possible in living. It is the grand alternative to the feeling of being annihilated and humiliated -- belittled -- by life. I think the difference between the Freudian and post-Freudian approaches to beauty can be understood in the difference between Freud's and Klein's ideas about happiness. Freud writes:

"The feeling of happiness derived from the satisfaction of a wild instinctual impulse untamed by the ego is incomparably more intense than that derived from sating an instinct that has been tamed. The irresistibility of perverse instincts, and perhaps the attraction in general of forbidden things, finds an economic explanation here." (23)

In contrast, Klein writes: "the happiness experienced in infancy and the love for the good object which enriches the personality underlie the capacity for enjoyment and sublimation, and still make themselves felt in old age. When Goethe said, "He is happiest of men who can make the end of his life agree closely with the beginning," I would interpret "the beginning" as the early happy relation to the mother which throughout life mitigates hate and anxiety and still gives the old person support and contentment. An infant who has securely established the good object can also find compensation for loss and deprivation in adult life." (24)

Whether happiness comes from the mother's mirroring, as Kohut calls it, or the sense of value conferred upon one at birth, as Fairbairn describes it, or the experience of reciprocity with a good enough, facilitating mother, as Winnicott argues, the point is that one's sense of beauty derives from the goodness or badness of one's relationship with one's mother. That is, one's mother, in her good aspect, is beautiful, and in her bad aspect is ugly -- annihilative, more particularly, annihilative of one's sense of being and having a self. It is selfhood at its most integrated that the harmony of beauty conveys.

In fact, wherever there is beauty, there is ugliness. There is never one without the other, however hidden the other might be. A comprehensive psychoanalytic theory of beauty necessarily involves a comprehensive psychoanalytic theory of ugliness. In the end, it is their relationship that matters more than one or the other. If the beautiful object is narcissistically gratifying, as the post-Freudians think, as well as sexually gratifying, as Freud thought, then an object is ugly when it is narcissistically as well as sexually unsatisfying -- when it sabotages one's sense of self as well as one's sexual feelings. Ugliness is annihilative, indeed, it terrifies us because it represents annihilation of the self, and with it the loss of vitalizing libido, while beauty seems transcendental because it represents a self that is so well and seamlessly constructed -- so perfectly harmonious -- that it seems able to withstand any threat of annihilation, indeed, to be completely immune to death. It thus represents salvation and immortality, just as ugliness represents damnation and death. In other words, ugliness and beauty are manifestations of what Freud called the death and life instincts -- thanatos and eros. We want to possess beauty -- cathect it and unite with it, in a kind of erotic embrace -- while ugliness repels us, indicating its power to decathect, that is, its hateful anti-life character. The ugliness evident in so much modern art suggests its destructiveness, necrophilia and hatefulness -- and to regard the ugly as beautiful is a kind of perversion -- while the beauty that we find in traditional art is biophiliac, all the more so when it holds its own against ugliness. This is represented in the tension and final victory of the youthful St. George over the age-old Dragon or in the image of a beautiful woman terrorized by a dragon. (From a Kleinean point of view, beauty and the beast are opposite sides of the same coin, that is, a representation of the unresolved conflict between the good and bad mother in the infant's psyche.)

As Ella Sharpe says, ugliness means "destroyed, arrhythmic, and [is] connected with painful tension" -- all rather unhappy phenomena. One might add it is the opposite of what Michael Balint calls the "harmonious mix-up" that occurs in love, that is, the sense of attunement and intermingling between the lovers. In contrast, Sharpe equates beauty "with the experiences of goodness in rhythmic sucking, satisfactory defecation and sexual intercourse." (25) For John Rickman, beauty equates with "the whole object" and ugliness with "the fragmented, destroyed one." (26) Indeed, since antiquity beauty has meant harmony and wholeness, and ugliness the complete absence of harmony and wholeness. This conception of beauty re-appears in modern science, as Heisenberg's essay on "The Meaning of Beauty in the Exact Sciences" indicates: "beauty is the proper conformity of the parts to one another and to the whole." (27) This is the sign of truth, as he says. A true theory is one whose complex parts form an exact and simple harmony. The reconciliation of truth, associated with the reality principle, and beauty, associated with the pleasure principle, is one of the great ambitions of civilization. One is gratified to know that science finds it immanent in being -- that it finds beauty hardwired into reality.

Hanna Segal, building on Sharpe and Rickman, writes that "ugliness is what expresses the state of the internal world in depression," while beauty conveys "an undisturbed rhythm in a composed whole [which] seems to correspond to the state in which our inner world is at peace." But for Segal the crucial point is that esthetic experience is not just the experience of beauty, but of the tense relationship between ugliness and beauty. Creativity consists in articulating this relationship, more particularly, in creating beauty that can contain ugliness -- that can balance ugliness with beauty. Taking classical tragedy as "a paradigm of creativity," she writes: ...the ugly is largely in the content. . . including [the] emotionally ugly -- hubris, treachery, parricide, matricide -- and the inevitable destruction and death of the participants. There is an unflinching facing of the forces of destruction; and there is beauty in the feeling of the inner consistency and psychological truth in the depiction of those destructive forces of conflict and their inevitable outcome. There is also a counterbalancing of the violence by its opposite in the form: the rhythm of the poetry and the Aristotelian unities give a harmonious and particularly strictly ordered form. This form contains feelings which might otherwise be uncontainable. (28) Segal quotes Rodin, who says something similar:

"What we call "ugly" in reality, in art can become great beauty. We call "ugly" that which is formless, unhealthy, which suggests illness, suffering, destruction, which is contrary to regularity -- the sign of health. . . We also call the ugly the immoral, the vicious, the criminal and all abnormality which brings evil -- the soul of parricide, the traitor, the self-seeker. . . But let a great artist get hold of this ugliness; immediately he transfigures it -- with a touch of his magic wand he makes into beauty." (29)

It is worth noting that Segal's account of the dialectic of beauty and ugliness can be found in St. Augustine. In Meyer Schapiro's words, Augustine held that "beauty is a compound of opposites, including ugliness and disorder," and that "God is an artist who employs antitheses of good and evil to form the beauty of the universe." (30)

What Segal calls "an unflinching facing of the forces of destruction" is the moment of creative inspiration, which is always a moment of courage. What Rodin calls the "magic wand" that "transfigures" ugliness into beauty is not only his artistic labor, as Segal says, but his identification with what Wilfried Bion calls the container-breast which transforms raw, concrete, primitive sensations and feelings (Bion calls them beta elements) into symbols so that they can be stored as memories (Bion calls them alpha elements) and eventually be understood. In other words, the artist identifies with the mother, and to identify with the mother is to wish to create life as she can, and even to be able to do so -- not literally, in the case of the artist, but symbolically. The artist becomes pregnant and gives birth, but at one remove, as it were. I think this is what Otto Rank means when he says that the artist "needs only to create and not to beget." (31) Also, when Rank writes that the artist's creativity begins "with the self-making of the personality into the artist" -- her first work is in effect herself as creative artist -- he neglects to say that this self "appointment to the genius-type," as Rank calls it, comes about through her identification with her mother, more particularly what Bion calls her ability to perform the alpha function. The artist's identification with her mother's capacity for containment makes her an artist. The artist's activity is one of creative containment -- of creating a form that is beautiful enough to contain an ugly content -- creating beauty that is strong enough to withstand, endure and finally neutralize and tame destructiveness.

The only philosopher I know who regards beauty as strength is Whitehead, and he neglects to say that it is the mother's strength, the strength to be able to contain without being destroyed by what she contains, which is what makes her sublimely good. More particularly, her goodness consists in her ability to encompass the destructively anxious self in a capacious womb of care, thus calming the self so that it can grow and develop and have its own strength. To be an artist is to be a good mother, and good mothers have been regarded as divine -- no doubt in part because they are relatively rare, as their idealization and apotheosis in myth suggests, and mothers are not always predictable in their goodness or good effect -- which is why artists have come to be thought of as peculiarly divine. They are adjuncts to the goddess -- the mothering muse. The mother is indeed the first and last divinity -- in the Christian legend, the entire existence of Christ is predicated on and contained by her presence, as the Nativity and Pieta indicate, implying that she is more sacred than he is. Indeed, she created him by containing him, from the beginning to the end of his life. The mother is always virginal to the infant, who in the unconscious is married to her for life, and continues to be after death, as her ascension into heaven -- Mallarmé's heaven -- suggests.

The distance from the traditional objective conception of beauty, as represented by Kant and Gass, to the revolutionary modern psychoanalytic conception, with its emphasis on the unconscious meaning of beauty -- the subjective reasons we experience an object as beautiful -- is enormous. It seems impossible to bridge the distance. And yet even in tradition there was a thinker who realized that something was amiss in beauty. When Francis Bacon declared that "there is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion," he seemed, at least from a psychoanalytic perspective, to being calling attention to the fact that there is something uncanny about classical beauty -- something unclear and indistinct, or, as we might say, something unconscious and anxious in what seems so self-conscious and self-assured. It is this sense that beauty represses more than it expresses -- that there is something barely under control in what seems so controlled -- that is the link between the contradictory conceptions. Beauty becomes objective only when it satisfies subjective needs, especially the need for narcissistic gratification and for instinctive satisfaction. As Segal emphasizes, this means the satisfaction of destructive urges as well as sexual impulses. The feeling that there is something strange or peculiar about beauty is the unconscious recognition that it is informed by inescapable needs, and that it satisfies them, however indirectly. The strangeness that Bacon experienced in beauty is the strangeness of our own needs to ourselves, as they come back to us contained by beauty.

In short, the peculiar lack of proportion Bacon perceived in the harmony of beauty suggests that it is as inwardly troubled and precariously balanced as we are. It signifies the emotional ugliness and powerful sexuality we struggle to control and contain, but which make themselves unconsciously felt, making us feel strange. Indeed, it is the strangeness of the unconscious -- the unexpected presence of unconscious forces -- in our consciousness of beauty that Bacon is acknowledging, however unwittingly. He unconsciously realized that the disinterested satisfaction beauty affords is tainted by all kinds of emotional interests, which are as universal as beauty itself, and in fact may lend beauty its universality beyond its different cultural appearances. From a psychoanalytic point of view what Gass calls disinterested affection -- a contradiction in terms, suggesting ambivalence -- is sexual lust tamed into sentimental irrelevance. Similarly, what Kant intellectualizes as contemplation is containment of desire for the seductive object -- the object that promises complete satisfaction, and is thus strongly cathected. Bacon recognized, without understanding, the psychodynamic underpinning of beauty, which could not help make itself evident as a feeling of strangeness, that is, a kind of parapraxis and imperfection within the practice of perfect beauty.

DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.


1 William H. Gass, Finding A Form (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), pp. 291-92
2 Sigmund Freud, "Civilization and Its Discontents" (1929), Standard Edition (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1961), vol. 21, pp. 82-83
3. Sigmund Freud, "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality" (1905), Standard Edition (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1953), vol. 7, pp. 156-57
4. Ibid., p. 157
5 Otto F. Kernberg, Love Relations: Normality and Pathology (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 27
6 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment (New York: Hafner, 1951), p. 45
7 Ibid., pp. 45-46
8 Ibid., p. 59
9 Ibid., pp. 46-47
10 Ibid., p. 50
11 Ibid., p. 51
12 Ibid., p. 58
13 Ibid., p. 61
14 Ibid., p. 60
15 Ibid., p. 52
16 Freud, "Civilization and Its Discontents," pp. 76-77
17 Robert Fliess, Ego and Body Ego (New York: International Universities Press, 1961), p. 255
18 Kernberg, p. 25
19 Hanna Segal, Dream, Phantasy and Art (London and New York: Tavistock/Routledge, 1991), pp. 36-38 distinguishes between "concrete symbolization," in which no distinction is made between an object and a symbol, and "true symbolization," in which such a distinction is made, so that the symbol can be used independently of the object, for it is understood to be separate from it, that is, not the same as it. Mallarmé's poetry seems to be in a process of regression from true symbolization to concrete symbolization, that is, from exoteric language, publicly comprehensible and communicable, to the private use of an esoteric language. His poetry seems to construct a private language of reverie or self-communication out of a public language of communication to others, which in a sense is to deconstruct language. The move from a shared to an all but unshareable language is at the defensive core of modernist poetry. Ironically, it requires all one's imaginative sophistication to regress to a primitive state of self-identity or self-sufficiency, that is, a state in which one is totally identified with the mother, and thus deluded into believing that one is sufficient unto oneself.
20 Donald Prater, A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986) p. 5
21 Quoted in ibid., p. 148
22 Melanie Klein, Love, Guilt and Reparation And Other Works 1921-1945, (New York: Free Press, 1984), p. 194
23 Freud, "Civilization and Its Discontents," p. 79
24 Melanie Klein, Envy and Gratitude and Other Works 1946-1963 (New York: Free Press, 1984), pp. 203-204
25 Segal, p. 90
26 Ibid.
27 Quoted in S. Chandrasekhar, Truth and Beauty (London and Chicago: University of Chicago, 1990), p. 52
28 Hanna Segal, "A Psychoanalytic Approach to Esthetics," The Work of Hanna Segal (Northvale, NJ and London: Jason Aronson, 1981), pp. 200-201
29 Segal, Dream, Phantasy and Art, p. 90
30 Quoted in ibid.
31 Meyer Schapiro, "On the Esthetic Attitude in Romanesque Art" (1947), in Romanesque Art, Selected Papers (New York: George Braziller, 1997), vol. 1 p. 26, n. 10

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