As both an artist and graduate student of psychology who has spent many years in psychoanalysis, I have often wondered about the connections between the psychological and emotional meanings of making my own art and the experience of being in therapy. What is the difference between these two engagements, and how might each process energize and revitalize the other? What do I get from each of them, and what am I looking for? For example, what does an artist crave from being in the studio alone in front of a canvas, that might be different from it is like to sit face-to-face with an analyst in a conversation of words? Which experience feels more invigorating, deeper, or healing?
These questions recently led me into the office of Dr. Danielle Knafo, an esteemed psychoanalyst and art critic, author of numerous articles and books such as “In Her Own Image: Women’s Self-Representation in Twentieth-Century Art,” “Unconscious Fantasies and the Relational World,” and “Dancing with the Unconscious: The Art of Psychoanalysis and the Psychoanalysis of Art,” among others. As a professional with her feet in both the art and psychology worlds, she has spent more than 30 years writing about the interplay between creativity and psychology and has considered artists as diverse as Cindy Sherman, Adrian Piper, Egon Schiele, Hannah Wilke, Carolee Schneeman, Orlan, and Frida Kahlo. From my perspective, the opportunity to speak with someone who has spent years traversing the rocky terrain between these two areas that I feel so passionate about was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and I brought to her many questions I had been holding on to for years: for example, why does it seem like so many artists mistrust psychologists? Do all artists have some kind of traumatic past? What does good psychoanalytically informed writing about art and artists look like? What inspires and motivates artists to make their art?
Her answers came back in a calm and soothing tone. Yes, she told me, many artists do in fact bring to their work a sensitivity to existential and personal issues, and often there is some kind of background difficulty in their lives. It is not uncommon to learn that they have experienced some form of trauma, she continued, and their way of making sense of what has happened and empowering themselves through transforming their experiences into something new by making art is almost a survival mechanism. It can keep them going.
And yes, she said, many artists perceive analysts with a degree of suspicion, and this is completely understandable. Some analysts don’t know how to work sensitively with creative artists. And some artists are afraid to begin therapy, concerned that uncovering the sources of their creativity might dry up their ideas and render them uncreative. For this reason, the most common time an artist might enter therapy is during a creative block. Another common time is when a frustrated artist is stuck in a pattern of endlessly repeating themes in their art practice without moving forward, a condition that Freud described as the “repetition compulsion” response. It starts out as an attempt to master or put some challenging memory or emotion under control, but the urge to revisit and keep attacking the painful material can sometimes just repeat over and over again without the help of an analyst or other person who can help co- create an alternative path out. In these instances, an analyst might help show the artist the unconscious sources of their creativity and levels of meaning in their art product, opening up the possibility for the artist to consciously choose whether to keep recreating the similar type of artwork continuously in the future. This type of insight can expand the types of possibilities available for an artist, opening up new paths and directions that might have previously been darkened or blocked.
Indeed, the relationship between art and psychoanalysis, and between artists going to psychoanalysts for insight into their creative process, has a long history with a mixture of distrust, insight, and often condescension from both sides. In one of the more well-known examples, Salvador Dali, who was much indebted to work of Freud and considered him a father figure, met with the famed psychoanalyst in 1938 and showed him his painting Metamorfosis de Narciso. Freud, in general, respected the work of artists, thinking that writers such as Schiller, Shakespeare, and Goethe were visionaries that could show the way of the future for mankind. He had mixed feelings towards the visual arts and music, in particular, and largely held the surrealists in contempt; he considered them as a class of incurable nutcases who had interpreted his ideas much too literally. Freud took a special liking towards Dali, however, and wrote after their meeting that this Spaniard’s fanatical and candid eyes had made him reconsider his opinion. He felt that Dali’s unquestionable technical skill had encouraged him to understand further how these paintings had been composed. Freud did remark, however, that the painting revealed some serious problems from “psychological point of view.”
Freud, nevertheless, did put a higher value in putting our subjective inner experiences into words, for this is where he hypothesized the cure and healing might occur. This privileging of language over non-verbal forms communication and understanding does not often sit well with artists, who often crave at a deep level to be understood without having to use words at all. In talking with Dr. Knafo about my own work, friendship with artists, and some of the ideas that she has been writing about, it occurred to me that there are some common misperceptions and fears on the part of artists that might be keeping them away.
First off, one of the most widely misunderstood terms that can make an artist want to turn away from psychoanalysis very quickly is “regression in the service of the ego.” This term, in its colloquial usage and with its misapplied negative connotation, can often be taken to mean having an analyst make you endlessly talk about your childhood while he or she forces you into returning into a childlike state. At least, this is the common fear of what could happen in psychoanalysis; but, in my experience, it couldn’t be farther from the truth. Few individuals desire to be infantilized and treated like a child, especially an adult, and this is not what happens in analysis (unless this is what the patient wishes). What this term really refers to is the possibility of healing by working through a traumatic event in a safe and comfortable holding environment. The reason why it is called a “regression” is that it often involves the artist revisiting places from their childhood, or traveling in the minds or in reality to locations where they can be like a child. It is a positive experience of self-repair and healing. It comes naturally to the artist in therapy, if at all; it is not forced upon her or him.
As Dr. Knafo describes it, regression can involve the loosening of boundaries and the escape from categorical, logical, analytical, or pragmatic thinking— what Freud might call “secondary process” thinking. In a regressive state, an artist is allowed the freedom to dream, to let the imagination take flight, to ponder opportunities and possibilities that might not have been available earlier in life but could be now, or any exciting new kind of combination, connection, or discovery that allows for a richer, broader, and more expansive experience of the present moment and future. It can be a very fun process, actually. It can allow for the artist to dialogue with earlier versions of themselves, to engage in make-believe or earlier modes of seeing and being the world, and playing with how they might more creatively fit into their current or future life.
For me, one of the most fascinating concepts that Dr. Knafo and I discussed was the assumed “solitude” of having a studio. As I described to her, some of the moments where I have felt most connected to myself and other people have been while alone in the studio. This realization, of course, is paradoxical since usually the traditional image of an artist is her or him alone in the working space, which seems like a setup for feeling very lonely. Not true, says Dr. Knafo, who argues that there is a false dichotomy between solitude and relatedness. She says that even when an artist is alone in the studio, she or he is still reacting to what can be called “internal objects,” or internalized representations of the important people in her or his present or past lives. Or, an artist might be working alone through a fantasized relationship to a potential audience or readership. In other words, there are relationships going on all the time. We are never really alone.
In the analytic canon, it was probably Donald Winnicott who contributed most to understanding the benefits and personal qualities required for an individual to tolerate being alone. But Dr. Knafo disagrees with his assertion that the capacity for an individual to be alone requires having had adequate enough mothering or fathering during their earlier childhoods. In her experience, it is exactly the opposite conditions. Many artists have lost mothers or fathers early in their lives and still are able to have the emotional strength to be alone and create their art. What might actually be happening, she contends, is that the artist is creating a safe space, either within their studio or somewhere out in the world, in which he or she can feel comfortable and free to create. This is often a space that they have never had before, and it can be a healing space. In her words, this creative solitude is not an escape from the world, but a different kind of participation within it.
Dr. Knafo has also written articles about the darker sides of creativity, and the linkages (in both directions) between addiction and creativity. It is a common cliché that many artists, musicians, and writers easily become addicted to some substance or drug in order to preserve their creativity or manage the uncertainty of the creative process. Sadly, there are many examples of this and many reasons for it. But what she also argues, a concept that is less understood, is that creativity itself can be addictive. It is very easy for an artist to become a slave to the process of their creation, and this compulsion to create can act as a substitute for participating in the world and can have negative effects similar to any other substance addiction. For example, an artist or writer might slip into a depression or become suicidal when the process or “fix” is out of range. Or they might become exploitative towards others, using people to accomplish their artistic goals at the cost of treating others fairly and compassionately. How does an artist know when to put down that brush or pen, and seek out a more balanced existence in the world? It is not an easy question to answer.
My conversation with Dr Knfao, ended with a question on what do artists and psychoanalysts have in common with each other? Are there similar questions, directions, or terrains that cross the two disciplines? And what might we teach each other?
To begin answering this, Dr. Knafo offered first a description of what might be a shared motivation in drawing creative individuals to making art. It would probably be an overstatement to claim that all artists have experienced trauma, but it is so often the case that an individual who chooses to pursue art has been through some kind of dark or challenging life experience—perhaps a loss of a parent, a significant death, an accident, a life-threatening illness, political violence, domestic abuse, or any other intense form of stress. Many times these kinds of life events can cause a sense of paralysis in the individual, as her or his sense of safety and position into the world can become fractured or hopeless. Dr. Knafo argues that using art as a response to trauma is one of the most inspiring examples of the strength of the human spirit that we have, and it can take people from feeling like victims into having an empowered voice. This creative transformation of trauma, when someone is able to create something out of their dark experience and use it as a way to move forward and communicate it with others who might have been through a similar situation, is a deeply poignant and powerful expression of our shared humanity.
And without a doubt, she said, artists have many things that they can teach psychoanalysts too. Many psychoanalysts believe that there is an art to analysis itself, and this topic could be and has been the subject of many articles and books; in fact, the second half of her book, Dancing with the Unconscious: The Art of Psychoanalysis and the Psychoanalysis of Art is devoted exactly to this topic.
As for myself, both art and therapy have helped me to both understand and express the nuances and subtleties of who I am. Each has contributed to an evolving process of deepening my experience with myself through the examination of thoughts, feelings, and images, and to my ability to articulate them. Both have given me a space and language to dream and experience hope, joy, and fresh ways to be in the world. Yet why I or anyone makes art is still somewhat of a mystery. More on this, including first person interviews from well-known contemporary artists, will appear in part two of this essay in the next issue of Psychology Tomorrow Magazine.