Creating and consuming art has been an endeavor of humans ever since they have been living in communities. Since we can safely assume that only humans are capable of art, it is a legitimate question what the reasons and benefits are for us. Two thinkers who were exceptionally engaged with the psychological history of humankind are Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche. What are their accounts of genealogy and psychology of active and passive artistic activity?
For Freud, art is a „palliative measure“, a method of reducing and avoiding suffering. In order to see how he derives at this conclusion we have to originate from one of his primary theories that the fundamental purpose of human life is seeking pleasure, and, as subordinate goal, the avoidance of suffering: “It is simply the program of the pleasure principle that determines the purpose of life. … As the pleasure principle itself has been transformed … into the ‘reality’ principle … the task of avoiding suffering pushes that one of obtaining pleasure into the background“ (1).
For Freud, two fundamental drives constitute the sources of pleasure: aggression, as a manifestation of the ”death drive’, and the constructive libido drive, the urge to love and satisfy, The libido emanates originally from sexual love, which later became transfigured into so-called ‘aim-inhibited’ impulses, with sexual love as its unconscious motive, but prohibiting the sexual act itself. The friendly relationships we have to members of the larger society is a manifestation of this.
Since for Freud pleasure is either accomplished by acting upon aggression or libido, it is substantial that the former is restricted by civilization, thusly robbing the individual of a means of obtaining pleasure: „I take the view that tendency to aggression … represents the greatest obstacle to civilization.“ (2) He goes further in showing that the libido is transfigured into aim-inhibited impulses and harnessed for rendering aggression against fellow-humans inoperative.
Considering the restrictions to natural happiness by the shackles of civilization, it becomes almost inevitable to understand that Freud saw palliative measures all the more indispensable means for reducing suffering. He mentions three methods: „Powerful distractions, which cause of to make light of our misery, substitutive satisfaction, which diminishes it, and intoxications, which anesthetize us to it.“ (3)
Concerning passive artistic activity, he sees it fall into the second category: „Substitutive satisfactions, such as arts affords, are illusions contrast with reality“ (4), yet also saw the illusionary downside of it.
The second form art -creative activity- also falls into that category, but another Freudian aspect is crucial for understanding its nature. Renunciation of natural drives causes a transfiguration into another form. He mentions „another technique for avoiding suffering, which „makes use of the displacements of the libido.“ (5) Here the task is, according to Freud, „to displace the aims of the drives in such a way that they cannot be frustrated by the external world.“ (6). That is the technique of sublimation, and the artists work fall under that term: „This kind of satisfaction – the artist’s joy in creating, in fashioning forth the product of his imagination … has a special quality“. (7)
Nietzsche’s account of art and aesthetics have to the following prerequisite aspects: Detachment from reality and the real object, resentment of natural vigor and reclusion from the world. Concerning the latter, he shows a similarity with Freud’s view on reclusion from fellow-humans as a means of avoiding psychosocial suffering.
Concerning detachment, Nietzsche claims that the artist could not depict what he does if he were what he depicts: „a Homer would not have created no Achilles, a Goethe no Faust.“ (8). An aspect of this is the artist being detached from reality: „A completely artist finds himself separated from the ‘real’ … to all eternity“. (9).
Concerning the more significant resentment aspect, for Nietzsche art is, despite the claims of Enlightenment figures like Kant, a transfigured derivate of the sexual instinct, and denies its sexual nature insofar as the weak has to deny natural vigor as ‘bad’. He makes the mocking assumption that an artwork in not the ascetic ideal it is claimed to be: „If our aestheticians … never tire of arguing … that … it is possible to contemplate even statues of naked women ‘without interest’ … one is entitled to have a laugh at their expense.“ (10). For Nietzsche the artist and his audience delude themselves by denying and rejecting the underlying natural instincts behind aesthetics – fitting perfectly into the great scheme of Nietzsche’s theory of resentment.
In comparison, whereas Freud is more accepting in seeing art as a legitimate choice and sublimation in order to reduce suffering in face of an external oppression by civilization, Nietzsche considers it as self-delusional act of internal resentment against animalistic vigor.
What might remain to moot are possible implications of the expounded views. It seems nothing much genuinely positive is left as motivation for pursuing art. and it might leave behind a bitter taste for all those with artistic interest. Yet, we have to keep in mind that both, Freud as well as Nietzsche, have the diagnosis as their main purpose, not prescriptions for us whether or not pursuing art.
1), 2), 3), 4) 5), 6), 7) Freud, Civilization and its Discontents
8) 9) 10) Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals