Self-psychology and Art

In the second and third week of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis, we delved into self-psychology in terms of history, ethics, modern culture, and diversity. We read Kohut’s application of self-psychology within the national context, specifically Nazi Germany, along with Riker’s application of self-psychology to the whole of European culture between 17th and 19th century. It was all very fascinating, but what drew my attention was the connection between artistic creativity and the freeing of narcissistic energy.

During the religious era of the 17th century, the idealizing energy of society was directed toward God and the monarch; individuals and their societies assumed the ideal of moral perfection in the eyes of God. When monarchs acted too brutally and harshly, and great thinkers challenged the legitimacy of religion, both institutions collapsed, leaving individuals to “reinvest” their narcissistic idealization “in new democratic secular selves.” Artistic creativity exploded in painting, music, technological innovation, and philosophical thinking. Paintings drastically transformed between the 17th and 19th century, from perfectly depicting reality to the unconventional use of mediums by impressionist painters. In other words, paintings once existed for the sake of perfection, truth, and beauty but later existed for “its own narcissistic sake, and no in service of any further kind of meaning.”

Being an artist myself, I thought a lot about narcissistic idealization in relation to art. I once strove for the ideal of perfection as a coping mechanism to control my surroundings. I stopped painting and focused on manicuring my life, from gardening to incessantly cleaning. Once I faced a challenge that threatened the way I perceived myself, known as self-structure, I was able to paint again. It was as if my narcissistic energy was no longer directed at the ideal of perfection, and it was once again re-directed toward artistic creativity. I can never apply meaning to my art because I feel that it exists for the sake of its narcissistic existence. In other words, the painting has meaning to me because of the process of creating it, but I cannot elaborate to others what the painting is supposed to mean.

Riker then led us, in class discussion and in his text, to inquire whether narcissistic transformation has occurred in society since then. The quick answer would be no as cheating is an epidemic permeating almost every sector of society. The culprit is the fragility of modernity’s values and ideals, the economic pressures causing parents to be at work instead of empathetically nurturing their children, and the domination of the workplace in the majority of adult lives. These conditions left us with “too much untransformed narcissism,” as well as undeveloped and unsustainable self-structures.