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Book Forum: PSYCHOANALYSIS   |    
Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art (1952)
Am J Psychiatry 2001;158:506-507. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.158.3.506
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Evanston, Ill.

By Ernst Kris. Madison, Conn., International Universities Press, 2000, 398 pp., $29.95 (paper).

This book first appeared in a hardcover edition in 1952, during the heyday of the shaping and predominance of ego psychology. One of the famous founders of that school of thought was, of course, Ernst Kris. Now, almost 50 years later, International Universities Press offers the same book again, this time in a softcover edition. It seems to be exactly the same book; I could find nothing that has been added from the original plates. At first I was puzzled, in an era when ego psychology is in eclipse in many centers, as to why the publisher saw fit to issue a work that is one of the classics of ego psychology. Actually, it is a foundational work and in some ways could even serve as a textbook of applied ego psychology for those readers who already have a basic familiarity with it. The book remains a classic on the subject of psychoanalytic explorations in art, although it has been superseded by a number of in-depth studies, as summarized in my recent work (1).

Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art comprises a set of papers on several subjects published over a period of 20 years, up to about 1949. It is divided into five parts: Introduction, The Art of the Insane, The Comic, Problems of Literary Criticism, and Psychology of Creative Processes. The introductory chapter outlines Kris’s general approach to what he calls the two processes of artistic creation. These are inspiration (the feeling of being driven by an outside agent, often accompanied by rapturous feelings) and elaboration (purposeful organization and the intent to solve a problem). Kris elaborates all of this using ego psychology for explanatory psychodynamic principles and leaning heavily on the concept of psychic energy, which Kris believes is fundamental. For example, he says,

From the release of passion under the protection of the aesthetic illusion to the highly complex process of re-creation under the artist’s guidance, a series of processes of psychic discharge take place, which could be differentiated from each other by the varieties and degrees of neutralization of the energy discharged. All these processes, however, are controlled by the ego, and the degree of completeness of neutralization indicates the degree of ego autonomy. (p. 63)

The art of the insane is more magical, has more private meanings, and lacks the cathexis of the audience. Kris admits that his attempt to understand some of the traits in the creations of psychotic patients "must remain tentative" (p. 111). He claims that the representational creations of people with psychoses follow the laws of primary process, what he calls the language of the id. Just as dreams remain unintelligible unless translated, so it is with the artistic creations of the insane. The reason for this, according to Kris, is that the ego participates to only a small degree in the spontaneous creations of those in the grip of psychosis. Black-and-white illustrations of the psychotic art discussed in the text are included at the back of the book.

In his discussion of comic art, Kris points out that patients who lack a sense of humor recover it when the "dominating power of the ego has been restored, and thus regression to comic pleasure has lost its threatening aspect" (p. 203). Regression in the service of the ego, Kris’s most famous phrase, is used by him and his followers extensively as a basic explanatory principle in the production of art; this concept has been questioned in recent work on the topic (1). For Kris, aesthetic creation is a type of problem-solving behavior. Comic phenomena, he says, "seem to be bound up with past conflicts of the ego" (p. 215) and help it "once more to overcome half-assimilated fear" (p. 215).

In chapter 10, "Aesthetic Ambiguity," I especially liked Kris’s concept of "stringencies," which restrict the possible modes of behavior by which a problem can be dealt with properly. Kris points out that stringencies may emerge even in the process of inquiry. Stringencies, he says, differentiate the procedure of aesthetic creation from other sorts. The difference between mathematical and artistic creativity is that "in the arts, stringencies in this sense are minimal. A given aesthetic problem may be solved (and indeed even formulated) in wide varieties of ways" (p. 252).

For Kris, central to creativeness is a regression of ego functions in the purposive and controlled service of creativity, involving "a continual interplay between creation and criticism, manifested in the painter’s alternation of working on the canvas and stepping back to observe the effect" (p. 253). So the process of creation is, au fond, a fluctuation of functional ego regression and control. Kris adds, "When regression goes too far, the symbols become private, perhaps unintelligible even to the reflective self; when, at the other extreme, control is preponderant, the result is described as cold, mechanical, and uninspired" (p. 254). For anyone interested in exploring the psychodynamic aspects of artistic creation, this book definitely would be the place to begin, after gaining some knowledge of the fundamentals of ego psychology.

Chessick R: Emotional Illness and Creativity: A Psychoanalytic and Phenomenologic Study. Madison, Conn, International Universities Press, 1999


Chessick R: Emotional Illness and Creativity: A Psychoanalytic and Phenomenologic Study. Madison, Conn, International Universities Press, 1999

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