Aesthetic Transcendence And Transformation by Donald Kuspit



What I have to say is hardly new, but I hope that the way I say it brings out its necessity, reminding us that the exposing of necessity—here the existential inescapability of aesthetic experience--brings with it the sense of revelation which is the core of the durably new.  Let me begin with several quotations, which may not seem complementary, but which converge on a common theme, which is my theme:  the idea that aesthetic experience is a species of religious experience, that they are implicated in each other, more pointedly, that aesthetic experience is the foundational core of religious experience, even as religious experience is a deepening and extension of aesthetic experience, and as such the fullest realization of its psychic potential, its climactic expression and intensification and as such the experiential limit of what Mondrian called “man’s drive toward intensification.”(1) 


Aesthetic experience “alters” nature, as Mondrian says, that is, alters man’s perceptual relationship to natural objects, because it alters consciousness, and with that man’s relationship to his own nature.  As Mondrian says, “the one thing that counts in art is to reflect aesthetic emotion:  to the extent that we feel the purity of color more intensely, we are able to express color more purely….once we have begun to see in a more consciously aesthetic way, the task becomes to reflect clearly, that is, determinately, our aesthetic emotion.  Then we can break completely with optical vision.”(2)   That complete break is a conversion experience, a fundamental alteration of consciousness.  


And that conversion experience involves the resolution of what the post-Kleinean psychoanalyst Donald Meltzer calls the “aesthetic conflict.”  In Mondrian’s terms, it is the conflict between optical vision and aesthetic vision:  “aesthetic vision is something other than ordinary vision,”(3) he writes, and optical vision is ordinary vision.  “To have aesthetic experiences we must first expose ourselves to ravishment by the external formal qualities of the object,” Meltzer writes.(4)  This occurs in ordinary optical experience at its most intense.  It is the kind of experience that Mondrian speaks of when he describes “the power of the first intuitive emotion [in] naturalistic painters’ studies and sketches,” which is why they are often expressively “stronger” and more sensuously “beautiful than their paintings.”(5)  But “then,” Meltzer writes, “we must grapple with our doubts and suspicions about its internal qualities,” indicating, as he argues, that “the tragic element in the aesthetic experience resides, not in the transience”—as Freud thought—“but in the enigmatic quality of the object.”(6)  To have aesthetic experience requires not only great capacity for and tolerance of intensity, but great capacity for and tolerance of contradiction—for Meltzer, between outer appearance and inner reality, external and internal qualities--without being overwhelmed by anxiety. 


It requires what Keats called “negative capability,” that is, “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”(7)  The most aesthetically rewarding modern art seems fraught with negative capability, and also contradiction, as the object relational psychoanalyst Michael Balint argues.  That is, modern art demonstrates that it is possible to hold opposing ideas simultaneously without being torn apart, even deliberately and playfully cultivate their opposition until they almost drive one mad, although, as Balint convincingly argues--convincing at least from a psychoanalytic point of view--modern art tends toward anal sadistic regression, that is, destructively messes with and messes up objects so that they lose their wholeness and unity of presence, as Balint also argues.


Now in religious experience—the ultimate aesthetic experience—sensuous ravishment by the external formal qualities of the object and doubts and suspicions about its internal qualities paradoxically converge in a sense of the numinous character of the object.  In the intimate relational experience of numinosity—which, following Rudolf Otto, generates feelings of awe, majesty, and urgency(8)--the external and internal qualities of the object inform one another.  The more sensuously ravishing the external object becomes in experience, the more inherently mysterious it seems to be, and vice versa.  Achieving the maximum of optical power, as Mondrian might say, the object becomes ontologically enigmatic, so to speak, which makes sensuous experience of it all the more intense, even consummately intense, which makes the enigmatic object emotionally provocative, that is, arouse what Mondrian calls an “aesthetic emotion.” Similarly, experienced as impenetrably enigmatic, the ontologically enigmatic object becomes optically potent, that is, aesthetically pure.  Doubt and suspicion become awe and urgency, and the object as a whole comes to seem majestic. 


Unless this dialectical conversion occurs, to use Clement Greenberg’s term, there is no transformation—perhaps transfiguration is a better word—of ordinary external objects into extraordinary aesthetic objects.  That is, there is no transcendence of the profane world of everyday sensuous and emotional experience—no leave-taking of ordinariness--for the sacred world of aesthetic experience, with its aesthetic emotions and sensuously pure perceptions.  To extend a thought of Harold Rosenberg’s, it is a world in which anything—or everything—suddenly seems miraculously given, numinously charged, acquires auratic presence, according it momentary immortality, which however illusory makes it memorable, indicating that it has had a lasting if unconscious transformative impact on the psyche.     


More directly to my psychodynamic point, extraordinary aesthetic objects become valued, inalienable parts of the self, because their aura of awe, majesty, and urgency gives them intrinsic value.  They function as selfobjects, to use the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut’s term, objects which are as necessary to one’s existence as oxygen, as Kohut famously said.  In contrast, external objects make no aesthetic and existential difference—dare one say which have not been aesthetically differentiated so that their external formal qualities ravish us—which is why they are experienced indifferently, and thus remain ordinary.  They aren’t particularly important to the self however important they may be in everyday life.    


I am saying, in somewhat different terms, what Mondrian said when he declared that “the abstract is the inward that has become determinate or the most deeply interiorized externality.”(9)  To change my psychoanalytic language yet again, good internal objects are completely aestheticized external objects—objects experienced as numinous, that is, awesome, majestic, and urgent all at once.  These so-called non-objective objects have what Mondrian called abstract reality, which makes them uncannily concrete.  To use still different psychoanalytic language, they are what Winnicott calls subjective objects rather than consensually validated objects.  Nonetheless, they have great social effect, and may have as much, even more existential consequence than objects acknowledged in common—commonplace objects, as it were--at least from the point of view of how one lives one’s life and what one expects from life.  For they—aesthetically pure and numinously intense objects, to reiterate—have aesthetic agency in one’s life, consciously as well as unconsciously.  They have the power to shape the self’s external appearance as well as internal quality, that is, give one’s social and emotional life aesthetic purpose, and with that intrinsic value.  The self becomes aesthetically demanding, that is, evaluates objects in terms of how well they measure up to its aesthetic criteria and expectations.  If they don’t—if they seem unlikely to afford an aesthetic emotion—if they don’t satisfy one’s sensibility, that is, one’s feeling for the aesthetic significance of things—they become beside the point of one’s life.  Objects must be aesthetically nourishing, which gives them exceptional value, and leads us to revere and respect them.  We respond to them with our whole being, and even find it impossible to live without them.  Out-of-the-ordinary, we mourn their loss or destruction because they have become inalienable parts of ourselves.  Objects that have no aesthetic value for us—that seem all too ordinary for our good--are relegated to secondary status as everyday food for routine thought and daily feeling. 


I am saying that the self acquires taste, and even arguing that to be a self one must have taste—the power of discrimination and judgment--and use it to distinguish—ideally with spontaneous insight--between tasteful and tasteless objects.  The self with taste organizes experience so that it becomes as aesthetically satisfying as possible under the social circumstances.  This assumes that one has a deep, ingrained need for aesthetic experience—Meltzer convincingly argues it is evident from the start of life, especially in  one’s relationship to one’s mother, a so-called primary object, and in fact is the medium through which they playfully relate—and that it operates throughout life, unconsciously and/or consciously.  The aesthetically unsatisfying or tasteless has less significance in one’s life, however much it may be an evil necessity, than the aesthetically satisfying or tasteful, which is more easily metabolized, and thus more life- and health-giving.  I am even prepared to argue that aesthetic experience is necessary to remain young and fresh at heart and in mind, as well as a constantly good influence on social life. 


I have already used too many different ideas from not easily reconcilable arenas of thought to make one hopefully fundamental point about aesthetic experience, but I want to emphasize that I am venturing into territory where, as Otto put it in the foreword to the first English edition (1923) of his book The Idea of the Holy, “the feeling…remains where the concept fails,” making the non-rational feeling all the more difficult to analyze because there are no rational concepts adequate to it.  Along the way I hope to show Derrida’s misconception of what he calls “immediate presence” or “originary perception”—his terms for what I would call aesthetic immediacy and perception of the numinosity of the original or primary aesthetic object.  In De la grammatologie Derrida writes:  “Through this sequence of supplements there emerges a law:  that of an endless linked series, ineluctably multiplying the supplementary mediations that produce the sense of the very thing that they defer:  the impression of the thing itself, of immediate presence, or originary perception.  Immediacy is derived.  Everything begins with the intermediary.”(10)  I will argue that aesthetic immediacy—related to what Whitehead calls presentational immediacy--is not derived from supplementary mediations, and involves numinous originary perception, that is, a religious experience—and I don’t exaggerate in using the word “religious”—of a primary or existentially necessary and thus original object. 


I think Derrida misuses Freud’s concept of the substitution of one object for another, from which Derrida derives his idea of supplementary mediations—an endless chain of supplements which Jonathan Culler calls “generalized substitution.”  I also think Derrida misuses Freud’s concept of the deferment of instinctive satisfaction, from which Derrida derives his idea of deferred—infinitely?—meaning.  For Freud, substitution involves unconscious recurrence to an original or primary object, and is a way of maintaining an internal relationship with it, that is, of staying in psychic touch with it and even under its power and control, indicating that it is always numinously immediate and present, and also behaviorally influential however cognitively obscure and inaccessible.  One never gives up the original or primary object, as Freud emphasizes, but re-experiences and re-possesses it through the substitution, which then acquires the inner character of the original or primary object, becoming its new external form.  It is responded to as such, and is experienced as deeply satisfying, because it is no longer alien and distant.  Thus the substitution is related to in the same instinctive way as the primary or original object.  It may be its intermediary in theory, but it is not its intermediary in psychic practice.  As Melanie Klein might say, the primary or original object is always numinously present in unconscious phantasy, both as a sensuous and emotional presence.  Or, as Balint writes, “as already described by Freud, all sublimations, and especially the form of sublimation called art, are a kind of deception, are underhand ways of getting back to real personal objects.”(11)  The point is that the personal primary or original object remains as awesome, majestic, urgent as ever, if in enigmatic numinous internal form, not to say uncannily sublime and emotionally intense form.  It is dominating however enigmatic, indeed, all the more dominating because it is enigmatic, that is, more intensely experienced and vivid in phantasy than it ever may have been in reality.


I am now going to bombard you with a sequence of quotations not to overwhelm with you with the ideas of their authors but to show that I have allies however different my elaboration of the ideas, and my compounding—some might say conflating--of them.  First, two psychoanalysts, Erik Erikson and Erich Fromm.  Erikson writes:  “I submit that [the] first and dimmest affirmation of the…polarity of ‘I’ and ‘Other’ is basic to a human being’s ritual and esthetic needs for a pervasive quality which we call the numinous:  the aura of a hallowed presence.  The numinous assures us, ever again, of separateness transcended and yet also of distinctiveness confirmed, and thus of the very basis of a sense of ‘I.’  Religion and art are the institutions with the strongest traditional claim on the cultivation of numinosity, as can be discerned in the details of rituals by which the numinous is shared with a congregation of other ‘I’’s—all now sharing one all-embracing ‘I Am’.”(12)  It is interesting to read this in conjunction with Coleridge’s description of “primary imagination” as “the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”(13)


Describing what he calls the existential need for transcendence, Fromm writes, in a statement that can be related to Erikson’s, that transcendence involves “a need to transcend one’s self-centered, narcissistic, isolated position to one of being related to others, to openness to the world, escaping the hell of self-centeredness and thus self-imprisonment.”  It “concerns man’s situation as a creature, and his need to transcend this very state of the passive creature.”(14)  It has nothing to do with the belief in transcendent beings, such as angels and devils, although, as Fromm writes, “to destroy life is as transcendent as to create it.”  It is interesting to read this in conjunction with the psychiatrist Silvano Arieti’s assertion that “it is one of the aims of man to increase his capacity for choice and to decrease determinism in every way,” thereby creating a “margin of freedom” in human life.(15)  Aesthetic experience functions as such a margin of freedom, suggesting that aesthetic transcendence can be understood as freedom from biological and social determinisms.  The same point is made by the psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl, who argues that the refusal “to be subjugated and blindly obedient to the constraints imposed by the biological factor (race), the sociological factor (class), or the psychological factor (characterological type),” is the profoundest expression of the human spirit.(16)  Aesthetic experience refuses these constraints and limitations, as Frankl also calls them, which in part is what Kant meant by calling it disinterested.  To my mind this also means becoming sufficiently conscious of the unconscious to oppose what one psychoanalyst called its tyranny. 


Arieti and Frankl imply that Freud was wrong in calling art substitute gratification or sublimated instinct, and comparing what he called its aesthetic premium to foreplay, which I suppose can be artistic, that is, involve what has been called the art of love as distinct from the sexual act.  The aesthetic satisfaction that art affords—as distinct from the aesthetic unsatisfactoriness of what Allan Kaprow called “postart,” which is “anti-aesthetic” by definition since it is concerned to blur the boundary and difference between art and life—is not a premium or supplement but a creative end in itself.  That is, the basic purpose of art is to generate aesthetic experience—the experience of beauty, if you please, the Keatsian realization that “beauty is truth, and truth beauty,” the “disinterested affection” for “beauty for its own sake,” as the philosopher-poet William Gass writes, in a world in which the beauty of nature is “adventitious and accidental,” and a society in which artists tend to put “on a saving, scientific, religious, political mask to disguise [their] failure” as artists, that is, to “win…beauty’s prize.”(17)  For Winnicott the creative apperception of beauty—conventionally called aesthetic experience—is the sign of primary creativity.  It makes life worth living, as he says, because it makes one feel more alive and real, and thus true to oneself, than everyday social life does, in which compliance makes the self slowly but surely feel false to itself, or, as I would say, as banal and valueless as society feels when one realizes one is unable to change it for the better, and thus feels helpless and empty.     


Both Clive Bell and Mondrian emphasize the connection of art and religion, or, as I want to say, aesthetic and religious experience and emotion.   Bell writes:  “Art and religion are not professions:  they are not occupations for which men can be paid.  The artist and the saint do what they have to do, not to make a living, but in obedience to some mysterious necessity.  They do not produce to live, they live to produce.”(18)   Mondrian writes:  “Subjectivization of the universal—the work of art—can express the consciousness of an age either in its relationship to the universal, or in its relationship to the individual.   In the first case art is truly religious, in the second, profane.  A high degree of the universal in the consciousness of an age, even if it is spontaneous intuition, can elevate its art above the commonplace; but truly religious art already transcends it by its very nature….Such an art, like religion, is united with life at the same time as it transcends (ordinary) life.”(19)  It is interesting to read them in conjunction with Kandinsky’s assertion that art “belongs…to the spiritual life…in which it is one of the most powerful agents.”(20)  And especially interesting to read them in conjunction with William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience.  There he distinguishes between the religion of the once-born and the religion of the twice-born, a structural distinction that seems to hold for the varieties of aesthetic experience. 


In the religion of the once-born the world is a sort of rectilinear or one-storied affair, whose accounts are kept in one denomination, whose parts have just the values they appear to have, and of which the simple algebraic sum of pluses and minuses will give the total worth.  Happiness and religious peace consist in living on the plus side of the account.  In the religion of the twice-born, on the other hand, the world is a double-storied mystery.  Peace cannot be reached by the simple addition of pluses and elimination of minuses from life.  Natural good is not simply insufficient in amount and transient, there lurks a falsity in its very being.  Cancelled as it all is by death if not by earlier enemies, it gives no final balance, and can never be the thing intended for our lasting worship.  It keeps us from our real good, rather; and renunciation and despair of it are our first step in the direction of the truth.  There are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other.(21)

James’s distinction between the natural and spiritual lives corresponds in principle to Mondrian’s distinction between profane and truly religious art, between ordinary vision and aesthetic vision, between what he calls “the old [naturalistic] art” which “is an art of children” and “the New Plastic [which] is for adults,”(22) in part because it despairs of and renounces nature; and Kandinsky’s distinction between an art grounded on exterior necessity, and thus tending toward the realistic, which is spiritually impure, and an art grounded on interior necessity, thus tending toward the non-objective or abstract and spiritual purity.


Two more quotations that I think are relevant to my psychodynamic interpretation of aesthetic experience.  Ananda Coomaraswamy writes of samvega or aesthetic shock as follows:  “It will not…surprise us to find that it is not only in connection with natural objects (such as the dewdrop) or events (such as death) but also in connection with works of art, and in fact whenever or wherever perception (aisthesis) leads to a serious experience, that we are really shaken.”(23)  Let’s add to this Stan Brakage’s suggestion that “the Vision of the saint and the artist [is] an increased ability to see—vision,” which includes what mankind derogatorily labels “hallucination…for that which doesn’t appear to be readily usable,” along with “dream visions, day-dreams or night-dreams,” and also “the abstractions which move so dynamically when closed eyelids are pressed are actually perceived.”(24)   We are really shaken—shocked to the core of our being—when we have a serious experience of seeing, a so-called visionary experience, which is aesthetic experience at its purest, that is, most numinous.


The creative resolution of the aesthetic conflict, that is, the integration of our sensuously ravishing experience of the external reality of an object and our imaginative heuristic attempt to apprehend and comprehend its internal reality, in which, after severe testing by the doubt and suspicion that inevitably arise as second thoughts about the validity of our sensuous ravishment brings with it the sense that external reality is always creatively colored, or, as Winnicott says, creativity “refers to a colouring of the whole attitude to external reality” rather than to this or that “successful or acclaimed creation.”(25) (Doubt and suspicion arise in the course of sobering up after sensuous intoxication with the object’s external reality.  Sobering doubt and suspicion question whether sensuously absorbing experience in externality, total acceptance of it at face value, adhesive identification with the object’s appearance, initiates us into its mysterious depth, thus affording insight into its internal reality.  The shocking revelation that it has intrinsic as well as extrinsic value brings with it the feeling that its exhilarating surface is true to its elusive depths, that its exciting surface is not merely skin-deep but the subtle symptom of its existential significance, that its superficial appearance is the unexpected clue to its true being, however difficult it may be to trace the intricate connection between its external and internal reality.)


In other words, the created object is secondary to what one might call the creative attitude—an attitude which, as Winnicott says, becomes activated, as I would say, in what Winnicott calls the “creative apperception [that] more than anything else…makes the individual feel that life is worth living”—and, I would add, an apperception that can make any object whatsoever sensuously intoxicating, imaginatively significant, and existentially valuable when creatively apperceived, which makes it into an aesthetic object or rather an aesthetic experience.  Thus the still lives of Cotan, Cézanne and Morandi, among other artists, transform ordinary boring objects into extraordinary aesthetic experiences, giving them existential not simply everyday significance, just as many other artists have transformed human bodies, faces, landscapes, and man-made environments into aesthetically-existentially meaningful experiences. 


The point is not the object but its creative transformation—not its substitutions, as Freud says, or its supplementary mediations, as Derrida says, but its transformation by creative consciousness, or, if one wants, its change in perceptual and existential status, involving a sort of total reconceptionization of it, as it were, or recharacterization, requalification, re-experiencing and finally recreation of it, as I prefer to say.  The work of creative apperception, or creative work—on the model of Freud’s dream work and Fairbairn’s art work—involves working it through (which may extend the psychoanalytic language perhaps beyond where it should go) so that it seems given as though for the first time, that is, radically original because its being originates in creative apperception.  Creative apperception changes it utterly, changes its external qualities as well as internal qualities.  This is why the most aesthetically convincing works of art never look like the models that are their nominal starting point or creative catalysts, and that they nominally represent, but are experienced as having more intrinsic and thus inspirational value.  (I include the representation of geometrical forms and ostensibly spontaneous gestures as well as objects, landscapes, and human beings.  However empirically interesting, they only matter if they serve the aspiration to the aesthetic.)    


For Winnicott creative apperception is an expression or manifestation of primary or originary creativity, which is why aesthetic experience is not a sexual premium, as Freud says, which is also the way Darwin regarded the peacock’s colorful feathers, but a primary life experience, affording a feeling of being fully alive—a consummate sense of joie de vivre—and, crucially, reinforces a sense of being a self rather than a victim of life,  an energizing conviction of selfhood rather than melancholy submission to the circumstances in which one happens to live.  Aesthetic experience involves a sort of active happiness at being in contrast to what Freud called normal unhappiness, for him the consequence of repression, more broadly of the compromises we must make with fate.  These compromise formations—the psychoanalyst Charles Brenner believes that every experience is a compromise formation, that is, it involves a compromise between the conflicting demands of the id, the ego, the superego, and external reality--involve a sort of passive resistance to the inescapable determinisms which Arieti, Frankl, and Fromm think can be transcended, which doesn’t mean to deny them but to create a margin of freedom around them, in effect aesthetically sublating them, as I would argue.


The aesthetic brings with it a new consciousness of self—a new consciousness of its agency, its realization that it can make choices or diffentiations, which I think is an important moment in self-realization, even what the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow calls a “peak experience” of selfhood.  “We are again and again rewarded for good Becoming by transient states of absolute Being, by peak-experiences,” Maslow writes.(26)  Aesthetic and religious experiences are the alpha and omega of peak experiences, and there is a continuum of peak experiences between them—what one might calls “petites perceptions” of peak experience.  The self can make judicious determinations of preferred experiences, so-called differentiated judgments of taste.  They are not just a category of judgment pertinent to art but operational everywhere in life.  Taste is fundamental to all judgment, which is always an act of differentiation, involving differentiating between good and bad experiences of art and life.  We must be connoisseurs of both if we are to feel fully alive and be truly human. 


Fate gives one no choice—everything is pre-determined—but taste gives one choice, allows one to make a difference, which brings with it consciousness of oneself as a self-regulating or as the psychoanalysts say autonomous agent.  Among other things, psychoanalysis empowers one as an agent, so that one can outwit fate, implying that one does not have to capitulate to it, resign oneself to whatever it has in store for you, always including suffering, sickness, and death.  This is why I, along with certain British object relational psychoanalysts, think that psychoanalytic experience and aesthetic experience have much in common, and why I align art and psychoanalysis as allies against the common enemy of fate, operating in whatever quarter of life.  It is also why I think the best approach to art—which means the approach that helps us best appreciate and understand its human value, which for me is inseparable from its aesthetic value--is psychoanalytic.  One never forgets fate—it’s in one’s unconscious—but it does not have the final word about the aliveness of the self.    


Having an aesthetic experience indicates that one is “living creatively” rather than “uncreatively,” “two alternatives…that can be very sharply contrasted,” as Winnicott says.  In aesthetic experience one has moved out of the mode of compliance, as he calls it.  In “a relationship to external reality which is one of compliance”—rather than a creative and with that original relationship, in which the world has aesthetic freshness and immediacy—“the world and its details [are] recognized but only as something to be fitted in with or demanding adaptation.  Compliance carries with it a sense of futility,” Winnicott says, “and is associated with the idea that nothing matters and that life is not worth living.” Compliance sometimes involves the sense of being “caught up in…a machine”—a cog in a social machine, as it were, that is, living mechanically—and thus no longer being human, which involves feeling organically alive and, however unconsciously, part of organic nature, which is why one responds differently to organic and inorganic things, a differentiation which perhaps underlies taste. 


Thus the sense of futility underlying the feeling of ennui which Baudelaire—I mention him because he is perhaps the first self-recognized modernist, that is, avant-gardist--attempted to escape by way of spleen, but never quite did, for spleen does not transcend and transform ennui but intensifies it until it becomes an incurable sickness.  I have increasingly come to think of so-called avant-garde art, with its épater le bourgeois attitude and shock of the new, as the artist’s bitter attempt to jolt himself or herself and secondarily the audience to life—to snap the world out of the deadening boredom he or she projects into it out of despair, making the world insufferably banal and life a horror, as Baudelaire said it was.  Bitter spleen is unfortunately not creatively apperceptive and vitalizing but creatively stupid and insidiously debilitating.   


The bitter attitude to reality—I have come to think that Picasso’s Analytic Cubist portraits epitomize it, led on by his remark that they are destructive caricatures--is more subversive and destructive of the self than of the world it supposedly subverts and transgresses, to use the official legitimating lingo of avant-garde purpose.  Avant-gardism is not as critically undermining of ordinary perception and everyday attitudes as it thinks it is, which is why Picasso turned to his so-called Ingres or Neo-Classical style, in unconscious recognition of Cubism’s inadequacy as creative apperception and, even more deeply unconscious, to repair the damage done to external reality, art, and himself by his vitriolic spleen.  Picasso’s Analytic Cubist works are clearly the products of the paranoid-schizoid position while the Neo-Classical works are the products of the depressive position, to use Klein’s famous distinction.   


The shock of the new is not aesthetic shock, but the shock of the perverse, involving, as the psychoanalyst Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel writes, the destructive blurring of boundaries, including the boundary between art (aesthetic vision and aesthetic emotion) and life (ordinary vision and everyday emotion) in postart, as noted.  As Chasseguet-Smirgel writes, disrespect for and finally obliteration of “boundary or barrier…and, consequently, of all differences,” reconstitutes “Chaos,”(27) and as such is anti-creative, a sort of undoing of creativity, which begins with the creation of boundaries.  The shock of the new cannot help but wear off because chaos is finally futile and boring.  Newness quickly becomes compliance, all the more so because, as Chasseguet-Smirgel writes, “people praise what is new without worrying whether it is beautiful, good, or true.”(28) This helps to explain why avant-gardism has become compulsively repetitive, a mindless status quo in which one movement rapidly replaces another, each announcing that its predecessor is dead, dated, shallow, and obsolete—far behind the times--while preaching the same gospel of subversion and transgression--under the rubric of innovation, it should be noted--which of course includes the subversion and transgression of its predecessor. 


Avant-garde art undoubtedly rewards notice, not because it is beautiful—as Barnett Newman said, “the impulse of modern art was [the] desire to destroy beauty,” which he thought of as “sentimental and artificial,” unlike the “important truths” he thought his art expressed--but because of its perverse bitterness, which reveals the important psychic truth of destructiveness, or if, one wishes, the death drive.  This is perhaps why it cannot sustain prolonged looking—it is hard to continue to stare at death, at the chaotic ruins of art, art that has become futile and bitter because it has become completely “abstract, intellectual,” as Newman said it should be, or anti-aesthetic and conceptual, as postartists say.  Its virtue is that it compels one to acknowledge one’s own death, the chaotic ruin and eventual dematerialization of one’s own body.  It generally breeds a sense of futility and with that of lifelessness, what Winnicott calls the “death within,” which no doubt one must become conscious of if one is to live, but it doesn’t help one live so that one can purge it.  I think this inner death is evident in the peculiar listlessness and inertness of Newman’s pseudo-sublime paintings, however sublime his writings may be.   


Of course theorycrats—I owe the term to my wife--believe that theory can breed intellectual life into any dead thing, intellectualizing art replacing and ousting aesthetic experience of it, but intellectual life—intellectual life without aesthetic emotion--is not the whole story of creative living.  As Winnicott writes, “living creatively is a healthy state, and…compliance is a sick basis for life,” and there is something compliant and sick in theorizing endlessly and de-aestheticizing experience, as the Minimalist artist Robert Morris did when he officially de-aestheticized his Minimalist work—correctly, it seems, because it has no aesthetic value, arouses no aesthetic emotion.  If Morris’s work is as intellectual and theoretical as it is supposed to be—as his highly intellectual theoretical writings, designed to justify and legitimate it, suggest it is (they are not manifestos in the usual sense)—then his work can be said to illustrate the de-intensifying and

de-immediatizing effect that theory produces.  Intellectuals tend to believe that theory is superior, and thus preferable, to felt experience, which is perhaps why Derrida thinks there is no such phenomenon as first hand, immediate experience—no such phenomenon as originary perception--that is not derived from some conceptual supplement, suggesting that everything we experience is secondhand, that is, experienced through the medium of concepts. This suggests that we are only experiencing our concepts, that is, unconsciously presuppose that they are the truth of experience not to say of being, thus completing a narcissistic, not to say solipsistic circle.  It is one in which feeling is denied and thinking exaggerated, which is an extreme version of what T. S. Eliot famously called the dissociation of sensibility that afflicts modern life.  It may be that poetic language affords an originary perception of language, giving it immediacy, but in the end it still remains language, that is, a chain of generalized substitutions however spontaneous it seems.  


There is nothing that can substitute for original experience, however inchoate it may seem because it is difficult to conceptualize and objectify, even impossible to do so because of its radically subjective numinous character.  The numinous character of originary perception is foundational for the self, for without it the world of objects seems untrustworthy and even deceptive to it, that is, we remain suspicious of the world and doubt its value, making it less meaningful than it would be if it was informed, however subliminally, by numinous experience.  Aesthetic experience is an originary numinous perception, and the model for all such original, immediate, creative experiences of being. However rare they seem to be, we crave them—have a deep existential need for them.  Such experiences are spontaneous experiences, and like all spontaneous experiences have an integrative function, as Fromm says.  The rationalization or theorization of spontaneous aesthetic experience—one cannot deliberately set out to have one, or coax one into happening by looking at some favorite object, including object of art—inevitably shortchanges its spontaneity, perhaps because theorizing it involves what might be called linguistic experience, which tends to be compulsive and repetitive, that is, driven by already given language and a matter of language and convincing as language—so-called compelling language.  Language can give one an aesthetic experience, but that doesn’t mean that aesthetic experience is a matter of language—which is why it has sometimes been regarded as infantile, as Adorno does in one passage, in line with the Latin meaning of “infant,” one unable to speak, which reminds us that aesthetic experience is at its most intense in infancy and childhood, as Wordsworth thought as he mourned their loss--although it may be the case that a poem is compelled by language and convincing as language. 


But language in general may have more to do with death than life, for it can deaden the feeling for life, however spontaneously alive it may seem when first encountered.  There is always something stale and secondhand about language, sometimes that undermines the freshness and feeling and firsthand experience it claims to mediate.  Language is the graveyard of experience, even the aesthetic and religious experience it attempts to mediate.  It is a necessary medium, but less effective in conveying and arousing aesthetic and religious experience than the visual medium. Infantile communication is nonverbal, ineffable, immediate, and highly effective, as Winnicott suggests in observing that the first mirror is the mother’s smile, a remark he made in criticism of Lacan’s mirror phase, which is less fundamental to the infant’s sense of feeling alive and truly being than the mother’s mirroring of the infant’s smile and vice versa, that is, the reciprocity and simultaneity of their smiles.  Part of that smile is the  twinkle in the mother’s eye, which is the core of her spontaneous, absorbed, tender, loving glance at the infant.  As Winnicott suggests, such an exchange of smiles cannot be put into words, however metaphorically convincing the words, for the smile is too spontaneously original to be put into words, suggesting that the words one uses to do so seem to force a pattern of relational meaning on it rather than to evoke its ineffable intrinsic meaning:  the peculiarly Delphic character of a smile, and the Gordian knot of hermetic intimacy the smile of a mother and infant can form, the smile with which each discovers, acknowledges, and imagines the originality of the other’s existence, as though the smile had created the other.  The smile can only be visually exhibited and admired, as in Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, c. 1503-05 and the smiles of the Virgin and St. Anne in his picture of them with the Christ Child and the Infant St. John, c. 1498.  There are no words that are as comforting, enjoyable, comprehensible, and serious as a spontaneous smile.  One responds with an empathic smile, which stops the moment one starts writing about it, that is, finds verbal substitutes, intermediaries, correlates for it, as though it lacked substance and significance without its supplementary linguistic conceptualizations.   They in fact subtract from rather than add to its presence, and finally trivialize it.  


I suggest that Derrida could not tolerate the ineffable originality of a spontaneous smile—could not tolerate ineffability in general, certainly not the ineffability of immediacy, with its aura of unexpectedness and unfamiliarity, that is, uncanniness.  It is impossible to verbally mediate the intense impact of the visually immediate, bringing with it the esthetic sense of bearing witness to an original presence—a sense that an object perceived in esthetic immediacy has spontaneously generated itself--without undermining it, for every verbal mediation of the esthetically immediate intellectualizes its visual uncanniness away, and with that consciousness of its originality.  Losing creative immediacy, the spontaneous smile is unable to do the relational work of establishing existential intimacy and unconscious communication, which have profound transformative effect on both the smiling subject and the object smiled at, for the mutuality they establish makes them interchangeable, or, as Winnicott says, cross-identify.  The manufactured Hollywood smile at nobody in particular--a narcissistic smile asking the anonymous other to mirror its grandiose conviction that it is the fairest smile of all, the singular expression of a perfect being—is the depersonalized cultural alternative. 


More to the point of this paper, Derrida could not tolerate numinous feeling, for it is too primitive to be given linguistic form.  Every attempt to name the feeling confirms its namelessness. Balint writes:  “perhaps the fact that we have no words for these [primitive] states is a kind of avoidance magic; what cannot be described by words cannot change, must remain the same for ever.  This is the case with God’s name in Hebrew, of which only the consonants and not the vowels are known.”(29)  Aesthetic immediacy is alive with the nameless numinosity of the original object, confirming its creative power.  The mother’s numinous smile is the aura of her ineffable originality, that is, her mysterious power to create the goodness that is life.  The finest artist emulates the mother by creating works of living art, works that are art because they are numinously intense, and smile back at their creator to confirm their common goodness.  Every supplementary mediation of originary perception is bad art, for the credibility of the mediation ironically depends on the extent it denies the numinous freshness of the object envisioned in originary perception.  The supplement is less a mediation than a blindfold. Supplementary mediation is in bad faith with immediate presence, that is, it is a way of neutralizing its esthetic numinosity and undermining its transformative effect, dissuading rather than persuading us of the intrinsic value of perceptual presence.  Is it absurd to say that there is a certain relationship between Plato’s view of artistic imitation—it produces the impression of a thing by deferring it, as it were—and Derrida’s view of supplementary mediation, at least to the extent that imitation and mediation are both intermediaries that create the illusion of immediate presence?  A supplementary mediation or imitation is a failed objectification of an originary perception, for it does not so much creatively color the object as strip it of all color, devitalizing it into an artifact of thought.  In other words, a supplementary mediation negates and disavows the object that has become numinously immediate in the originary perception supposedly derived from the mediation.  To regard supplementary imitation—let’s go with that word—as prior to the object it mediates but never allows to arise in perception—certainly not enough to make a strong impression—or, to put this another way, to give supplementary mediation the power to determine immediate presence or originary perception, that is, Winnicott’s creative apperception, which is invariably esthetic and vitalizing, is to be visually indifferent or impaired, or rather to be so emotionally inhibited that one is incapable of numinous feeling.  The pleasure of words is nothing compared to the pleasure of wordless perception at its most esthetically acute and sensitive.     


It is worth noting, in this context, that the esthetic smile is the antidote to annihilative anxiety, that is, the life-poisoning anxiety that is “the experience of the threat of imminent non-being,” as Rollo May puts it.(30)  The existence-expanding smile transforms existence-choking anxiety into numinous experience of the original object by containing threatening anxiety in the smile’s reverie.  The paradise of the smile expresses and conveys this numinous experience of the revered original object to it, and it reciprocates with a numinous smile of its own—the subtly reverent smile we see in Leonardo’s pictures.  It makes one feel the originality of one’s being, that is, restores the feeling of being creatively alive lost in the unsmiling world.  Winnicott seems to suggest that the smile mothers one’s sense of being more than the good breast—precedes the good breast as a source of psychic nourishment--a view that is implicitly a criticism of Melanie Klein’s.  The numinous aura around the original object gives it esthetic and religious resonance and character—confirms that it is hallowed, to use Erikson’s word.  Objects that are not hallowed by numinosity—objects that we do not relate to with the esthetic and religious intensity necessary to experience and enjoy their being, that is, become enchanted by and grateful for their existence--are beside the point of serious life, however much they may be an unavoidable part of our lives.       


I have come to think that art has been overintellectualized—overconceptualized, overtheorized--including by me, and thus not seriously seen and experienced, although I think I seriously see it, if I don’t always seriously experience it—have an aesthetic shock or visionary experience when I see it, or find it emotionally convincing and relevant to my existence—but I blame that on the fact that however seriously I see it, it does not respond in kind, that is, much of it seems seriously unserious these unhealthy anti-esthetic days.  I don’t see much art to smile at, or much art that smiles back at me—that blesses me with its aura, brings me into it, for there is not much inwardness in it.  Or much art that engages the human smile.  I am suggesting that there is not much smiling art these days—art worth the aesthetic trouble, art that hallows what it addresses, art that affords a peak experience, art that affords a sense of creatively and fully being.  Theorizing is often consciousness’s way of compensating for one’s unconscious boredom with the defective art one seriously sees, one’s bitter disappointment with its lack of aesthetic serious and existential consequence and urgency, however otherwise serious and socially urgent or at least topical it claims to be.  At its worst, compliance to theory becomes compensation for perceptual inadequacy, that is, the inability to experience objects esthetically.  Theory becomes a defense against the psychotic inability to have aesthetic experience and pleasure.  One can invest any art with one’s seriousness but it may still remain existentially unserious and esthetically inconsequential.  Today “art is sick,” as a Kiefer work announces, like a handwriting on the wall, and its sickness—which means its badness--sometimes seems to be terminal.  The days when Nietzsche said that art was a seduction to life, suggesting that it nourished life and involved a love of life, seem over, which I think is the point that social commentary conceptual art, which uses ideas and information as facile decoration on social misery, unwittingly makes.  Such art is the last gasp of the facile irreverence of supposedly avant-garde art.       


In other words, to theorize about an art is not necessarily to be critical of the  quality of consciousness and feeling informing it, which is what it means to take it seriously--as a serious existential matter, a matter of esthetic life and death, facilitative of consciousness, autonomy, and possibility, as only a margin of freedom can be, or else a perceptual status quo in which consciousness dead-ends and there are no esthetic possibilities promising the transcendence of autonomy.  I suggest that aesthetically experiencing an art is the best way of being critical of it.  There is no more serious way of critically engaging an art than to transcend and transform it with one’s own creative apperception of it.  This involves challenging and testing its creative apperception of the world, that is, the creative criticism of the world implicit in its attempt to esthetically transcend and transform life. That is also the way critical consciousness, using the differentiating power of taste, conceived as a means of achieving esthetic mindfulness, challenges and tests art’s staying power and value for existence, perhaps with its own.         



            (1)Piet Mondrian, “Natural Reality and Abstract Reality” [1919-20], The New Art—The New Life:  The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian, ed. Harry Holtzman and Martin S. James (New York:  Da Capo Press, 1993), 101

            (2)Ibid., 100


            (4)Donald Meltzer, The Apprehension of Beauty:  The Role of Aesthetic Conflict in Development, Art and Violence (Old Ballechin, Strath Tay, Scotland:  Clunie Press, 1988), 157

            (5)Mondrian, 100

            (6)Meltzer, 157

            (7)Quoted in Nicky Glover, Psychoanalytic Aesthetics (London:  Karnac, 2009), 112

            (8)See Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1958), chapter 4, 12-14, titled “Mysterium Tremendum,” for an analysis of its elements:  “awefulness,” “overpoweringness” or “majestas,” and “’energy’ or “urgency.” 12-24

            (9)Mondrian, 101

            (10)Quoted in Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction:  Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 1982), 105

            (11)Michael Balint, Thrills and Regressions (London:  Maresfield Library, 1987), 115

            (12)Erik H. Erikson, The Life Cycle Completed (New York and London:  Norton, 1997), 45

            (13)I. A. Richards, The Portable Coleridge (New York:  Viking, 1950), 516

            (14)Quoted in Rainer Funk, Erich Fromm:  The Courage to Be Human (New York:  Continuum, 1982), 62-63

            (15)Silvano Arieti, The Will to Be Human (New York:  Quadrangle, 1972), 69

            (16)Viktor E, Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul:  From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy (New York:  Bantam, 1967), 17

            (17)William H. Gass, “The Baby or the Botticelli,” Finding a Form (New York:  Knopf, 1997), 291-92

            (18)Quoted in Charles Harrison, “Abstraction,” in Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction:  The Early Twentieth Century (New Haven and London:  Yale University Press, 1993), 221

            (19)Mondrian, “The New Plastic in Painting” [1917], 42

            (20)Wassily Kandinsky, “On the Spiritual in Art” [1912; 2nd ed.], in Kandinsky:  Complete Writings on Art, eds. Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (New York:  Da Capo Press, 1994), 131

            (21)William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience [1902] (New York:  Modern Library, n.d.), 163

            (22)Mondrian, “Natural Reality and Abstract Reality,” 105

            (23)Ananda Coomaraswamy, “Samvega:  Aesthetic Shock,” Selected Papers (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1977), I, 182

            (24)Stan Brakhage, “From Metaphors on Vision,” The Avant-Garde Film:  A Reader of Theory and Criticism, ed. P. Adams Sitney (New York:  New York University Press and Anthology Film Archives, 1978), 120

            (25)D. W. Winnicott, “Creativity and Its Origins,” Playing and Reality (London and New York:  Tavistock and Methuen, 1982), 65.  All subsequent quotations from Winnicott are from this article.

            (26)Abraham H. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being (Princeton and London:  Van Nostrand, 1968; 2nd ed.), 154

            (27)Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, Creativity and Perversion (London:  Free Association Books, 1985), 11

            (28)Ibid., 22

            (29)Michael Balint, Thrills and Regressions (London:  Marefield Library, 1987), 80

            (30)Rollo May, “Contributions of Existential Psychotherapy,” Existence, eds. Rollo May, Ernest Angel, and Henri F. Ellenberger (Northvale, NJ and London:  Jason Aronson, 1994), 50








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Donald Kuspit

Visual Arts