Guilt in Painting.

The painter Philip Guston once said that within the drama of the painting, he was the prosecution, defence, judge and jury. One of the key functions of painting is to mediate guilt.

This century anthropologists have encountered primitive societies which functioned without guilt, where members couldn’t understand the offers of salvation and redemption made by missionaries. But such societies also lacked the vital stimulus for creativity.

Guilt is a powerful, perhaps indispensable factor in the creative process. The early stages of a painting can provoke intolerable feelings of anxiety. The painterly process is very much about learning to tolerate this. The reasons why mere marks on canvas can arouse such powerful reactions are complex. But psychoanalytic theory shows that it is anxiety in infancy which actually provokes our initial attempts at symbolisation, so that we can displace it.

The seeds of psychosis can be sewn in the infant who suffers from too much persecutory anxiety, and is immobilised in fear and unable to initiate even the first tentative steps towards a personal process of symbolisation. Similarly, in the parallel universe of painting, the over-anxious student painter who is unable to tolerate the fragmented nature of the early creative stages, might be too constrained to make even the most rudimentary of marks. At any stage in personal development, and at any age, painting can always function to work through such anxieties. The painter who can ultimately tackle anxiety and guilt in the creative process may be rewarded with an ecstatic guilt-free experience.

This is the connection which historically has given painting an aura of spirituality, because religion is basically about the alleviation of guilt. The spiritual essence of painting derives from its creative dynamic which offers a transfigurative experience which might be described as a psychic ‘death’ to be followed by a resurrection.

At the root of ecstasy is the Greek word ekstasis, which means ‘to stand outside of or transcend oneself’. Plato considered that we can only hope to achieve true knowledge in the rare moments when the soul leaves the body in a state of ekstasis.

Painting, in the implicit potential it offers for ekstasis and a regeneration through psychic resurrection, is in fact the authentic prototype for religions and indeed for psychoanalysis. In 1908, Wilhelm Worringer drew attention to the fact that the transcendental and spiritual characteristics of abstraction in art have exactly the same psychic disposition as the transcendental and spiritual connotations of religion.

This experience can be detected throughout history. There were many religions prior to Christianity which were centred on the death and resurrection of a saviour to relieve us of our guilt.It is now perhaps more widely recognised that such parables are really only metaphors for individual development in the human lifespan.

If saviours died for our sins, and if such a metaphor is really based on the authentic painterly creative process, then how is the mediation of guilt effected in painting? Well, it can be said that within painting’s own intrinsic materiality and facture, the painter can deal with the deepest psychic levels of guilt. This is a key problem, for the essential unconscious dimension of painting is located in this formal material structure, and not as it is usually supposed, in its figuration.

The problem is that today the unconscious has become just another cliche. From Hieronymous Bosch, with his demons of the ‘hell’ of the unconscious so beloved of psychoanalysts, to the cliche-ridden symbolism of the psychoanalytic unconscious with its well-worn imagery of manacles, winged devils, snakes and serpents found throughout the world of ‘art therapy’, to the melting clocks and bowler-hatted apples of the hackneyed, so-called ‘unconscious’ imagery of surrealism, it doesn’t take much to see that the twentieth century has lost sight of something that archaic cultures clearly understood: that is, the true nature of unconsciousness. In earliest Greek tragedy, it was the wild, improvised, unconscious Dionysian chorus that determined and created the appropriate narrative of the play needed to embody such emotion.

Similarly, the unconscious spiritual dimension of painting can only be engaged through its own unique form. Surface figurative symbols only serve to describe what is happening in this deeper psychic dimension. Redemption is achieved here, in a struggle, carried out exclusively in formal terms between two opposing types of form. On the one hand there are obvious shapes and clear lines and colours, deliberately executed, which represent order and cohesion. On the other hand, there are the accidental marks and discolourations which can’t be planned, but can only be intuitively detected.

It’s in this relationship that guilt is determined. The deliberately organised conscious forms are used by agencies in the mind to ensure that conscious order prevails. Guilt feelings are induced if such conscious organisation is threatened by the disruptive force of the accidental aspects. This is a normal innate reaction, although the painter can subvert this to procure the presence of the unconscious, accidental forms.

It is possible to enter a key phase in the creative process, where the competition between these two different types of form is resolved. In this phase, the forms of deliberate conscious organisation can be painted out and subsumed within the painterly matrix. At one and the same time, the accidental marks will be joined and integrated within the whole. Now the removal from the scene of those representatives of conscious rational organisation and perception, also means that they can no longer fulfil their function to keep order by arousing guilt and anxiety often through enlisting feelings of disgust. Simultaneously, accidental forms, along with their own associated guilt and anxiety, become an acceptable part of the whole.

In effect, therefore, the repressive forces are neutralised, their representatives in organised forms are dissolved, and guilt is completely vanquished. The painter can fleetingly experience a feeling of total omnipotence and control of all forms and what they represent in the mind. In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, it is the painted portrait image which takes upon itself the anxiety and guilt of a dissolute lifestyle, whilst the subject, as a metaphor for the artist, acquires a guilt-free lifestyle and the ability to forever renew the self.

In the process of painting, a judicial psychodrama is played out, where the painter is indeed judge and jury. However, the clear and deliberate shapes not only serve to keep order, but are also in fact symbolic of the very physiological and psychological means through which we actually ‘see’, and construct our illusion of reality. Jacques Lacan perceived that we are born into the context of a language, or discourse, are a function of it and become a fragmented product of that discourse at that time. Similarly, the painter is born into a conventional set of forms.This is why the painter can experience a ‘death’, as these forms, and all that they represent, are annihilated within the creative process. In the definitive example of the abstract expressionist painting, the painter’s whole lifelong constructed self is deconstructed and dispersed into infinity. The contemporary trendy notion of deconstruction is itself only a mannerism for this authentic creative dissolution.

As the psyche of the painter is mirrored in this deep subliminal engagement with the paint medium, the unconscious structure is actually externalised and embedded within the painterly form, in a communion. This in effect is what constitutes the religious idea of transubstantiation, as the painter’s psyche is physically and materially reincarnated in the substance of paint, as in a reflected imprint or mould and is fragmented and then restructured in a ‘rebirth’. It’s as if the mind of the painter is removed from the brain, re-programmed, and then returned in its renewed state. As the unconscious structure is externalised and embodied in the ‘flesh’ of the paint, in effect the painter’s mind is temporarily vacated and a momentary trance or ‘death’ of mental faculty can be experienced as the soul appears to float free in what religion terms an ascension. This is the authentic ‘standing outside of and transcending oneself’ which defines ekstasis. This is also how the painter mediates guilt, in the reflective ‘mirror’ of the painting and induces a reciprocal reaction in the mind.

It has been recorded how reformers such as Wyliffe and puritanical zealots such as Calvin clearly acknowledged the implicit connection between painting and transubstantiation. Religious and icon painters were also well aware of such issues. Comparisons have been drawn between an 11th. century portable altar, wholly abstract with multicoloured splattering, and a Jackson Pollock. In effect the altar is a portable work of abstract expressionism for personal spiritual useage. To the early religious painter, the abstract, wildly painted panel, which might be juxtaposed alongside, or incorporated within figurative narratives and iconography, embodied the psychic experiences which were then symbolised in the figurative parables of the Passion. As in the Greek tragedy, it was the unconscious painterly process that predetermined the religious narratives.

It was in fact the paint medium which ‘enfleshes’ unconscious creative experience, that the iconoclast was really attacking, and not as is usually assumed, the surface figurative symbol of a deity. It is the access to another psychic dimension in painting, with its implicit potential for a ‘resurrection’, which the repressive iconoclast, was compelled to smash. For this access through painting to a supernatural dimension, threatened religious control of such access.

This whole scenario is symptomatic of the innate human compulsion to externalise guilt feelings. In primitive societies, natural disasters were divine retribution for our guilt, and sacrifices had to be made. So what is the relevance of painting here? It is surely not just a coincidence that during periods of puritanical iconoclastic zeal, where painting is all but eliminated, the projection and externalisation of guilt takes on far more extreme forms. As the force of iconoclasm gathered momentum in the late Middle Ages, so did the obsessional compulsion to find causation through guilt in the witch-hunt. The procedure of witch-hunting, with its meticulous and elaborate tests and experiment to detect causation, is also arguably the prototype for modern scientific laboratory experiment based on the law of causality. The connection of the word ‘science’ with the word ‘conscience’ reveals the common bond through guilt. The inexhaustive search for the devil’s marks prefigures the search for the cause of effect.

The important point about painting is that it cannot impose itself upon an unwilling participant. However, such a luxury is not extended to the witch in the ducking stool or being burned at the stake, nor in a present day context to the victim of so-called ‘recovered memory therapy’ and ‘false memory syndrome’ where patients are supposed to recall episodes of childhood sexual abuse whilst under psychiatric treatment. A damning report, commissioned by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, accuses its own members of destroying families by using dubious techniques, including those of suggestive hypnosis, to delve back into childhood events. The report further explains that the inability to recall abuse is taken as a sign that abuse has occurred but is being denied, much in the same way as the witch is proved innocent if she drowns. The techniques used in ‘recovered memory therapy’ are almost identical with the methods employed by Puritan clergymen during America’s Salem witchcraft trials in the 1690s., to get children to accuse innocent adults of ritual satanism and sorcery.

The fundamental motivation for such obsessions is the irresisitible search for causation and guilt which demands that someone must be held accountable. Whilst child sexual abuse undoubtedly has always existed, the real but covert ambition of ‘recovered memory therapy’ is ideological, to gain power over others and to destroy existing social structures. I have said that during historical periods of zealous iconoclasm where the painted image is practically eradicated, the search for guilt takes on more severe and literalised forms. This is true today where there is often an urgency to proclaim the demise of painting, or at least of authentic painting which involves a deep cohesive integration and engages with a healing or transformative spiritual dimension. As a result, more puritanical vehicles to root out guilt are established. Psychoanalyis and its offshoot psychotherapy, are fundamentally invidious, repressive and unspiritual procedures. Where once the artist-shaman was guardian of the ethics and spirituality of society, now it is in the dangerous hands of the ubiquitous therapist and spurious techniques such as recovered memory therapy.

It has been claimed recently that the whole foundation of psychoanalysis was built on a false premise, that psychoanalysis took a totally wrong path when Freud dispensed with his early use of hypnosis. Freud in fact broke with hypnosis as a therapeutic technique when his so-called ‘seduction theory’ collapsed. That is to say he acknowledged that his patients’ tales of seduction, or what we would call ‘sexual abuse’, were in fact the result of his own suggestion in the hypnotic procedure, just as today psychoanalysts have been forced to recognise that ‘recovered memories’ are in reality planted by the dubious techniques of the therapist. To salvage his claims of theoretical originality, Freud was forced to reformulate his whole theory in terms of the Oedipus complex and an unconscious desire to be seduced. Instead of trying to understand how hypnotic trance can effect change, Freud decided to ‘cover his tracks’ in order to preserve his reputation.

In its infancy, psychoanalysis began with the investigation of trance-like states, and it is now being proposed by some that this is how psychoanalytic theory and practice should be reformulated. What Freud dispensed with was only the openly suggestive technique of hypnosis, but with it he also fatefully dismissed the transformative potential of the trance phenomenon, which is still at the heart of the painterly creative structure.

This trance phenomenon basically eliminates any conscious interference and enables the painter to fully engage with the deepest psychic levels of unconscious form, but it can only be engaged where the unconscious really resides in painting, that is in its own unique form which can provide the malleable and transformative substance within which the unconscious psyche can become embodied. It is in this material reflection that a hypnotic mimetic trance can be effected along with a transformed and newly formed psyche, which is crucially a trance-formation.

Finally, there is a whole cultural function served here. Initiation rites and ritual cures in ancient tribal cultures worldwide entailed trance states at their core.It is significant, that ecstatic trance at the nucleus of the painterly creative process serves to neutralise the power of psychic agencies to induce guilt, whilst the actual purpose of the initiation rite is to effect the transition into adulthood, with its implicit overthrow of parental authority, maintained to a significant degree, by guilt.

For many millenia prior to the Renaissance, art throughout Africa, ancient Egypt and elsewhere, served a strictly functional role, to effect access to the pure integrative communion of ekstasis, and to transport a participant on to a higher psychic plane. This function of art has now been lost. It has been said that ‘to deprive a people of their inner motivation for producing works of art is to subject them to the severest psychological trauma’. This is exactly what colonial missionaries did in trying to transplant a Christian dogma which had lost all connection with its original motivation, on to cultures which paradoxically still retained their intrinsic connection to real spiritual roots.

In Western culture, the breakdown of traditional and institutional provision for such spiritual experience, resulted in its attempted preservation and dissemination by the solitary modern artist, now virtually extinct. Today, it is not surprising that our violent, cynical and decadent culture coincides with an institutionalised collusion to deprive people of their inner motivation for producing art. Today, no matter how gifted the painter may be in terms of technique, craftsmanship, irony, parody, and ingenious, provocative and subversive ideas, if the painting is devoid of the unconscious creative process then it will be barren of painting’s essential spiritual dimension.

Dr. Stephen J.Newton, 1998.

 

GUILT in PAINTING

Stephen J. Newton, 1998

The modern painter Philip Guston, like Dostoevsky and Kafka before him, saw that within the drama of the artwork, he was the prosecution, defence, judge and jury. What does this really mean? Well, it would certainly point to the fact that one of the key functions of painting is to mediate guilt.

This century some anthropologists have encountered primitive societies which functioned without guilt, where members were incapable of comprehending the offers of salvation and redemption made by missionaries. It was also recognised that such societies lacked the vital stimulus for creativity. It has further been considered that the rich creative life of Western culture, particularly in the twentieth century, has to a large degree been induced by anxiety and guilt (1). Munch’s painting of The Scream (1893) depicts the scream of modern neurotic man.

Guilt is a powerful, perhaps indispensable factor in the creative process. The early, primitive stages of a painting can provoke intolerable feelings of persecutory anxiety and guilt in the painter. The painterly creative process is very much about strengthening toleration to anxiety, both for the painter and for the receptive beholder. The reasons why mere marks on canvas can induce such powerful emotional reactions in the individual sensitive to the painterly language are complex. Psychoanalytic theory shows that it is anxiety in infancy which provokess our initial attempts at symbolisation, in order to displace and transfer that anxiety and guilt (2).

The seeds of adult schizophrenia and psychosis can be sewn in the infant who suffers too much persecutory anxiety, and is immobilised in fear and unable to initiate the first tentative steps towards a personal process of symbolisation. Similarly, in the parallel universe of painting, the over-anxious student painter who is unable to tolerate the raw and fragmented nature of the early creative stages, might be too constrained to make even the most rudimentary of marks. At any stage in personal development, and at any age, painting can always function to work through such anxieties. The painter who can ultimately tackle anxiety in the creative process may be rewarded with an ecstatic experience of omnipotence and a redemptive eradication of all guilt.

The fact that painting has historically attracted an aura of spirituality is connected to this potential to mediate guilt – religion is basically about the alleviation of guilt. The spiritual nature of painting has not only been recognised by modern painters, but also by earlier religious and icon painters. It derives from the abstract essence at the heart of the painterly creative process, which offers a transfigurative psychic experience. This fundamental, ecstatic transformation, essentially involves what might be described as a psychic ‘death’ to be followed by a resurrection.

At the root of ecstasy is the Greek word ekstasis, which means ‘to stand outside of or transcend oneself’. It is the foundation for all religious and mystic experience. E.H.Gombrich has claimed that such experience involves the ‘highest mode of knowledge’ normally denied to us, and has related how Plato considered that ‘we can only hope to achieve this true knowledge in the rare moments when the soul leaves the body in a state of ekstasis’ (3).

I have contentiously argued, that this inner painterly creative process, in the implicit potential it offers for ekstasis and a regeneration through psychic resurrection, is in fact the authentic prototype for religions. It also forms the foundation for the clinical procedure of psychoanalysis, the twentieth century’s secular religion. It is here that the idea of painting’s spirituality is rooted. In 1908, Wilhelm Worringer drew attention to the fact that the transcendental and spiritual characteristics of abstraction in art have exactly the same disposition as the transcendental and spiritual connotations of religion (4).

The ecstatic creative experience can be detected in various guises throughout history, most notably in religions. There were many religions prior to Christianity which were centred on the death of a saviour to relieve us of our guilt, and his subsequent resurrection. It is now perhaps more widely recognised that such religious parables are really only metaphors for individual psychic development and transition in the human lifespan. The experience has been well documented. Adrian Stokes, throughout his writings on art, tries to come to terms with the ecstatic oceanic envelopment possible at the heart of the abstract painterly creative process (5). Similarly, Anton Ehrenzweig significantly furthered this analysis of a universal creative essence, recognising the intrinsic healing and regenerative potential of painting (6).

If religious saviours died for our sins – to alleviate our guilt, and if such a metaphor is really based on the authentic painterly creative process, then how is the mediation of guilt effected in painting? It can be said that within painting’s own intrinsic formal language; within its own materiality and painterly facture, there is the propensity to deal with the deepest psychic levels of guilt. Herein lies a key problem, for the essential unconscious dimension of painting is located in this formal material structure, and not as it is usually supposed, in its figurative imagery.

The problem is that today the unconscious has become just another cliche. From Hieronymous Bosch, with his demons and hobgoblins of the ‘hell’ of the unconscious so beloved of psychoanalysts, to the cliche-ridden symbolism of the psychoanalytic unconscious with its well-worn dream condensations and ubiquitous imagery of manacles, chains, winged devils, snakes and serpents to be found throughout the world of ‘art therapy’, to the melting clocks and bowler-hatted apples of the hackneyed, so-called ‘unconscious’ imagery of surrealism, it doesn’t take much to see that the twentieth century has lost sight of something that archaic cultures clearly understood: that is, the true nature of unconsciousness. In earliest Greek Tragedy, it was the wild, inchoate, improvised, unconscious Dionysian chorus that determined and created the appropriate narrative structures of the play needed to embody such emotion.

Similarly, the unconscious spiritual dimension of painting can only be engaged through its own unique form and materiality. Surface figurative symbols only serve to describe what is happening in this deeper psychic dimension. The alleviation of guilt and a potential redemption is achieved here, at the heart of the painterly creative dynamic, in a negotiation, or dialectic, carried out exclusively in formal terms between two opposing types of form. On the one hand there are those formal elements in the painterly language which are representatives of order, refinement or cohesion. They would include obvious shapes and clear lines, those definite, clearly perceptible organisations, which are basically the products of a deliberate engagement, and are recognised as being consciously determined and perceptible.

On the other hand, there are those contrasting aspects which might be termed the informal elements of the painterly language and which are representatives of disorder, dislocation and transgression. They would be the fragmented, dissociated, uncontrollable elements of form, which for complex reasons can often appear threatening. Such elements are the inchoate scratches, scores, scribbles and striations within the painterly structure, remnants of skin and undulations in impasto, textural anomalies, impurities and discolourations which cannot be ordered, predetermined or controlled in any normal sense. They escape deliberate conscious perception and organisation in the creative process, being only intuitively or subliminally detected. However, the painter can find ways to procure the presence of such unconscious elements, which Anton Ehrenzweig designated as inarticulate form (7).

It is in the dialectical core of the relationship between these two types of form that guilt is determined. The consciously organised formal aspects of deliberate engagement that I have described, are also employed by agencies in the mind which act to ensure that conscious rational order and perception maintain dominance, an objective which in part is biologically adaptive. Psychoanalytic theory might describe such agencies as ‘repressive’, and perhaps as being a residue in the mind of early parental discipline and social controls. In order to assert the supremacy of conscious organisation, they enlist the assistance of guilt feelings. That is to say, feelings of guilt are induced in the mind if the surface cohesive organisation is threatened in any way by the disruptive and transgressive forces of unconscious inarticulate form. Inarticulate form in its own basic characteristics as the language of the archaic unconscious psyche, also carries a loading of guilt and anxiety associated with the savage earlier stages of infancy, and embryonic symbolisation.

Now it is possible to enter a central phase in the creative process, where the dialectic between these two different types of form in the painterly structure is mediated or resolved. In this phase, those formal elements of definite cohesion, representing conscious deliberate determination and perception, can be painted out, obliterated, dissolved and subsumed within the unconscious painterly matrix. At one and the same time, elements of fragmented inarticulate form and their compounds with more definite configurations, will be joined and integrated within the whole. Now the removal from the scene of those representatives of conscious rational order and perception, also means that they can no longer fulfil their function to keep order by arousing guilt and anxiety often through enlisting feelings of disgust. Simultaneously, inarticulate fragmented forms along with their associated guilt and anxiety, are integrated and become an acceptable part of the whole.

In effect, therefore, the repressive psychic forces are neutralised, their agencies in organised forms are dissolved, and guilt is completely vanquished. The painter can fleetingly experience a feeling of total omnipotence and unchallenged control of all forms and what they represent in the mind. In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, it is the painted portrait image which takes upon itself the anxiety and guilt of a dissolute lifestyle, whilst the subject, as a metaphor for the artist, acquires an omnipotent, guilt-free lifestyle and the ability to forever resurrect a new psychic self.

So this is basically how guilt can be handled within painting’s own language. In painting’s parallel universe, a judicial psychodrama is played out, where the painter is indeed judge and jury. However, the clear and definite shapes of deliberate conscious engagement in a painting, are not exclusively employed to keep order by threatening guilt and anxiety if they are disrupted. They have far greater significance for the conscious organising mind. They are also in fact symbolic of the very physiological and psychological means through which we actually ‘see’, and which we use to locate and lock our entities within what we believe to be our reality, although it is in actuality altogether an illusory construction.

Furthermore, just as the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan perceived that we are born into the context of a language, or discourse, at a particular historical moment, are a function of it and become a fragmented product of that discourse at that time, similarly, the painter is born into a conventional set of forms, which in essence represent our conscious mode of constructing our reality. So these forms in painting are symbolic not only of our psychological processes of perception, but also of our processes of concept-formation, symbolisation and of our whole human developmental phases. This is why the painter can experience a momentary trance and psychic ‘death’, as these forms, and all that they represent, are annihilated within the creative process. As these surface forms disappear, so to does the very embodiment of all that symbolises our very sense of self. In the definitive example of the abstract expressionist painting, the painter’s whole lifelong constructed self is deconstructed and dispersed into infinity. The contemporary trendy notion of deconstruction is itself only a mannerism for this authentic creative dissolution.

I have claimed that as the psyche of the painter is mirrored in this deep intuitive and subliminal engagement with the materiality of the paint medium, the unconscious psychic structure is actually externalised and embedded within the painterly structure, in a communion. I have also said, provocatively, that this in effect is what constitutes the religious idea of transubstantiation, as the painter’s psyche is physically and materially reincarnated in the substance of paint, as in a mould. As the psychic structure of the painter is externalised in a reflected imprint, not only issues of guilt and innocence can be objectively determined, but in effect, the painter’s psyche is fragmented and then restructured in a psychic ‘rebirth’. It’s as if the mind of the painter is removed from the brain, re-programmed, and then returned in its regenerated configuration. As the unconscious psychic structure is externalised and embodied in the ‘flesh’ of the paint, in effect the painter’s mind is temporarily vacated and the painter can experience a momentary trance or ‘death’ of mental faculty as the soul appears to float free in what religion terms an ascension. This is the authentic ‘standing outside of and transcending oneself’ which defines ekstasis. This is also how the painter mediates guilt, and recreates a regenerated self in the reflective ‘mirror’ of the painting which induces a reciprocal restructuring in its real counterpart in the painter’s mind.

It can be shown that religious and icon painters were well aware of such issues. The art historian Georges Didi-Huberman in his work on Fra Angelico compares the thrown, splashed and dripped paint on early Renaissance religious panels to abstract expressionism. He also draws a direct comparison between an 11th. century portable altar, wholly abstract with multi-coloured splattering, and a Jackson Pollock (8). In effect the altar is a portable work of abstract expressionism for personal spiritual useage. To the early religious painter, the abstract, wildly painted panel, which might be juxtaposed alongside, or incorporated within figurative narratives and iconography, embodied the psychic experiences which were then symbolised in the figurative parables of the Passion. As in Greek Tragedy, it was the unconscious painterly process that predetermined the religious narratives.

In a recent article entitled Psychoanalysis and Iconoclasm, I put the case that it was in fact this materiality of the paint medium which ‘enfleshes’ unconscious creative experience, that the iconoclast was really attacking, and not as is usually assumed, the surface figurative symbol of a deity (9). It is the access to another psychic dimension in painting, with its implicit potential for a psychic ‘death’ and ‘resurrection’, which the iconoclast, as a repressive instrument of religious dogma, was compelled to smash. For this access through painting to an a-temporal, supernatural and spiritual dimension, threatened religious control of such access.

This whole scenario is symptomatic of the innate human compulsion to externalise guilt feelings and reapportion blame, whether it be through the vehicle of painting, or in religious parables, or in other forms. In primitive societies, natural disasters were divine retribution for our guilt, and sacrifices had to be made. We all need to project guilt outwards – the other person is the guilty party, we are innocent. It has been argued that this powerful and irresistible psychic force to project and externalise guilt affects other key areas of human endeavour – most notably science. The scientific imperative to interpret the whole of nature according to the law of causality – of cause and effect, has been interpreted as a psychic obsession to always search for the causation, the stimulus, and in effect, the proof. The effect follows the cause, as punishment follows on from the crime. The etymylogical root of the words ‘cause’ and ‘guilt’ betrays them as being identical (10).

Recent tensions in the philosophy of science and questions about the nature of ‘realism’ in the natural sciences, have exposed the fallacy of proofs of causality carried out in experimental laboratory ‘closed systems’ which cannot represent the complexity of real nature. In the real natural context, the laws of nature prevail, but are never presented in such neat exemplifications of causality and proof as in the metaphor of the laboratory experiment. That is to say, there is natural causality and response to stimulii, but science is constrained to isolate the immutable law.

So what is the relevance of all this in relation to the role of painting in today’s cultural context? The reference to science and causality that I have made is not just an idle diversion but connects with the whole archaic function of painting. It is surely not just a coincidence that during periods of fanatical puritanical iconoclastic zeal, where painting is all but eliminated, the projection and externalisation of guilt takes on far more extreme forms. As the force of iconoclasm gathers momentum in the late Middle Ages, so does the obsessional compulsion to find causation through guilt in the witch-hunt. It has been recognised that the procedure of witch-hunting, with its meticulous and elaborate tests and experiment to detect causation, is in fact the authentic prototype for modern scientific laboratory experiment based on the law of causality. The connection of the word ‘science’ with the word ‘conscience’ reveals the common bond through guilt. The inexhaustive search for the devil’s marks prefigures the search for the cause of effect (11).

I have contentiously claimed that it is within the authentic painterly creative process that the ideas of resurrection and transubstantiation originate and that they have been subsequently symbolised in the ritual of the Eucharist and in religious parable. It has been recorded how reformers such as John Wycliffe and puritanical zealots such as John Calvin clearly acknowledged the implicit connection between painting and transubstantiation (12). Painting is perhaps one of the oldest vehicles for the externalisation and mediation of guilt. The important point about painting in this context, however, is that it cannot impose itself upon an unwilling participant. That is to say the spectator may of a free volition engage vicariously in the creative transformative process and redemption through the transfer of sin and guilt, or completely ignore it.

However, such a luxury was not extended to the witch in the ducking stool or being burned at the stake, nor in a present day context to the victim of so-called ‘recovered memory therapy’ and ‘false memory syndrome’ where patients are supposed to recall episodes of childhood sexual abuse whilst under psychiatric treatment. A damning report, commissioned by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, accuses its own members of destroying families by using dubious techniques, including those of suggestive hypnosis, to delve back into childhood events. The report further explains that the inability to recall abuse is taken as a sign that abuse has occurred but is being denied, much in the same way as the witch was proved innocent if she drowned in the ducking stool. Moreover, the techniques used in ‘recovered memory therapy’ are almost identical with the methods employed by Puritan clergymen during America’s Salem witchcraft trials in the 1690s., to get children to accuse innocent adults of ritual satanism and sorcery.

The fundamental motivation for such obsessions is the irresistible search for causation and guilt which demands that someone must be held accountable. Whilst child sexual abuse has undoubtedly always existed, the real but covert ambition of ‘recovered memory therapy’ is ideological, to gain power over others and to destroy existing social structures. I have said that during periods of zealous iconoclasm where the painted image is practically eradicated, the search for guilt takes on more severe and literalised forms. This is true today where there is often an urgency to proclaim the demise of painting, or at least of authentic painting which involves a deep cohesive psychic integration and engages with a healing or transformative spiritual dimension. As a result, as I have indicated, more puritanical vehicles to root out guilt are established. Psychoanalysis and its offshoot psychotherapy, are fundamentally invidious, repressive and unspiritual procedures. Where once the artist-shaman was guardian of the ethics and spirituality of society, now it is in the dangerous hands of the ubiquitous therapist and spurious techniques such as recovered memory therapy.

It has been claimed recently that the whole foundation of psychoanalysis was built on a false premise, that psychoanalysis took a totally wrong path when Freud dispensed with his early use of hypnosis. It has further been shown that Freud in fact broke with hypnosis as a therapeutic technique when his ‘seduction theory’ collapsed. That is to say he acknowledged that his patients’ tales of seduction, or what we would call ‘sexual abuse’, were in fact the result of his own suggestion in the hypnotic procedure, just as today psychoanalysts have been forced to recognise that ‘recovered memories’ are in reality planted by the dubious techniques of the therapist. To salvage his claims of theoretical originality, Freud was forced to reformulate his whole theory in terms of the Oedipus Complex and an unconscious desire to be seduced. Instead of trying to understand how hypnotic trance can effect change, Freud decided to ‘cover his tracks’ in order to maintain his reputation (13).

In its infancy, psychoanalysis began with the investigation of trance-like states, and it is now being proposed by some that this is how psychoanalytic theory and practice should be reformulated. What Freud dispensed with was only the openly suggestive technique of hypnosis, but with it he also fatefully dismissed the transformative potential of the trance phenomenon, which is still at the heart of the painterly creative structure.

This trance phenomenon basically eliminates any conscious interference and enables the painter to fully engage with the deepest psychic levels of unconscious form in painting, and involves an omnipotent trance which extinguishes all guilt as conscious representatives of repression are subsumed, and which can be experienced as an ecstatic control and divine power. Painting is the authentic vehicle for this ecstatic trance of ekstasis. But it can only be engaged where the unconscious really resides in painting, that is, in its own unique material structures which can provide the malleable and transformative substance within which the unconscious psyche can become embodied. It is in this material reflection that a hypnotic mimetic trance can be effected along with a transformed and newly regenerated psychic configuration, which is crucially a:

trance-formation.

Finally, there is a whole cultural function served here. In another context I have related that initiation rites and ritual cures in ancient tribal cultures worldwide entailed trance states at their core (14). Again, it is significant, that the ecstatic trance-state at the nucleus of the painterly creative process serves to neutralise the power of psychic agencies to induce guilt, whilst the actual purpose of the intitiation rite is to effect the transition into adulthood, with its implicit overthrow of parental authority, maintained to a significant degree, by guilt.

For many millenia prior to the Renaissance, art throughout Africa, ancient Egypt and elsewhere, served a strictly functional role, to effect access to the purely psychic integrative communion of ekstasis, and to transport a participant on to a higher psychic plane. It has been said that ‘to deprive a people of their inner motivation for producing works of art is to subject them to the severest psychological trauma’ (15). This is exactly what colonial missionaries did in trying to transplant a Christian dogma, which had lost all connection with its original motivation, on to cultures which in a supreme irony still retained their intrinsic connection to real spiritual roots.

In Western culture, the breakdown of traditional and institutional provision for such transformative spiritual experience, resulted in its attempted preservation and dissemination by the solitary modern artist, now virtually extinct. Today, it is not surprising that our violent, cynical and decadent culture coincides with an institutionalised collusion to deprive people of their inner motivation for producing art. Such a denial is reflected in attempts by today’s youth culture to reconnect with this essential human transformative and developmental state through the use of the manic, ritualised, rhythmical dance, allied with the aptly named drug ‘ecstasy’ at so-called ‘rave parties’. Whether this can fill the void is doubtful; Bacchus and Dionysius were, contrary to popular belief, Gods of a liberating creative ecstasy, totally devoid of alcohol or drugs.

Painting is the original prototype for the analogies of transformation and healing. To a large degree, the intrinsic art of painting has been lost. Today, no matter how gifted the painter may be in terms of technique, craftsmanship, irony, parody, and ingenious, provocative and subversive ideas, if the painting is devoid of the unconscious creative processes I have discussed, then inevitably, it will be barren of painting’s essential spiritual dimension.

 

NOTES

1. See Anton Ehrenzweig’s The Psycho-Analysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing, (1953) Routledge and Kegan Paul, London. Postscript, p. 256.

2.This refers in particular to the work of Melanie Klein in such papers as Infantile Anxiety Situations Reflected in a Work of Art and in The Creative Impulse (1929), A Contribution to the Psychogenesis of Manic-Depressive States (1935), and Mourning and its Relation to Manic-Depressive States (1940).

3. E.H.Gombrich, Symbolic Images, Studies in the Art of the Renaissance, (1972) Phaidon, London, p. 157

4. Wilhelm Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy – a Contribution to the Psychology of Style, (1953) International Universities Press, Inc. New York. pp. 101 &132

5. See The Critical Writings of Adrian Stokes, (1978) Thames and Hudson, in particular vol.111, Painting and the Inner World.

6. See The Hidden Order of Art (1967) Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London

7. See chapter 11 Gestalt-free Art Form in 1953, as above.

8. Georges Didi-Huberman, Fra Angelico – Dissemblance and Figuration (1995) University of Chicago Press. p.30

9. This article will be published in Free Associations, Process Press, late in 1998

10. See Ehrenzweig (1953) p.250

11.See Ehrenzweig (1953) Chapter XV1 The Scientific Truth Feeling and the Externality Illusions of Art and his paper: The Origin of the Scientific and Heroic Urge (The Guilt of Prometheus) International Journal of Psychoanalysis, nos.30,32, 1949

12. See Margaret Aston’s England’s Iconoclasts – Laws Against Images, (1988) Clarendon Press, Oxford. p.7

13. See the Free Associations Interview between Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen and Chris Oakley in Free Associations, (1995) vol.5, part 4 (no.36) pp.423-52

14. S.J.Newton, The Politics and Psychoanalysis of Primitivism, Ziggurat, London. pp.101-106

15. Boris de Rachewiltz, Introduction to African Art, (1966) John Murray. p.xx