Countless individuals have stood in front of an artwork for hours, attempting to decipher the puzzle of what the artist was thinking or from which deep thoughts and not-so-bright paths the primal idea that ignited the creation emerged. Even more enigmatic is often the process of artistic creation in artists who present works rich in symbols and/or laden with purely psychoanalytical references. If guessing an idea as the generative cause of a work fills us with questions only the artist knows the answers to, the artistic creation that involves the creation of symbols portrays the subconscious or captures an obsession, captivating its viewer. It's often said that an artwork is nothing but a depiction of the self, a totem for which only the artist knows the truth. Even when you've seen thousands of artworks in your life, your ability to approach an artwork with interpretive depth is like a slippery ladder on the deck of a ship amidst a storm.
Artists themselves often struggle to describe the birth process of a work. Or, when they try, the process they describe often doesn't resemble "birth" as someone who isn't an artist might perceive it: it's a process of self-reproduction through division, not birth. In most works that are worth critically approaching, the Self is depicted in a unique sense, from a new perspective that is both informed and innovative.
In this sense, each work seems to be a new idea embodied in an image, the complexity of which depends on the chosen means of expression by each artist. But how can we understand the unconscious work that leads to seemingly perfect ideas? What happens in the mind during that temporal void before a new idea emerges into consciousness?
The psychoanalyst, Christopher Bollas, offers an image of the processes that precede it with a theory. In "The Christopher Bollas Reader" (Routledge, London, 2011), a structured approach to creativity is presented, a theory that introduces the concept of "genera" as a complementary pole to Freudian theory of repression, in which traumatic experiences are pushed into the unconscious, resulting in their repetition despite efforts to work through them. In general, it proposes that "to complement the theory of repression, we need a theory of reception that characterizes certain ideas as received rather than suppressed," and that the goal of this reception is "to allow unconscious development without the intervention of conscious interference." Perceptions are taken into the unconscious for the purpose of incubating them, not just depositing them. Bollas suggests that when an experience one undergoes reveals intense interest, an internal space is created in which a genetic psychic structure begins to form. The initial area of interest becomes a "psychic gravity" that attracts related elements (emotions, perceptions, fantasies), and unconsciously, new connections are formed. This process concludes as the new idea emerges into consciousness. What is this ability stemming from the developmental coherence of a psychic structure created to contemplate an exceedingly vague idea? Isn't this what we call "intuition"? Bollas views intuition as an unconscious skill partially arising from the formation of psychic generations. According to Bollas' model, intuition allows the creative individual to know where to look in the external world to find elements that will aid in its development and also to interpret the world semantically, following lines of perception that diverge from the norms of perception of others in the same social context. Perhaps ultimately the birth of every new work of art is a long journey. In this sense, an artist is someone who has undergone an education in intuition, so that this enriched perceptual ability becomes more refined and responds harmoniously to elements that will advance the work. Bollas underscores the fact that the individual doesn't perceive the mechanism as it works and that the process is anything but voluntary; this partially protects it from crises of consciousness.
The artist often reshapes the universe. Moving within the somewhat indefinite state described by Bollas, the artist demonstrates the unique ability to hold in mind all the diverse elements of the work before them, to simultaneously move within and beyond an environment between detachment and complete connection with concepts that, though unintentionally, have been processed and emerge in an incomplete state in the conscious mind. There's a movement between the sense of unity with the productive process of the work that the participating artist presents, and the separation, in the distancing artist, that becomes almost an external observer of the process and the generated work. Some artists experience the state of "methexis," unity, or participation. If you delve deeply into discussions with various visual artists who have followed Kazantzakis's directive, "What does light mean? To look at all darkness with unblinking eye" (N. Kazantzakis, Askitiki, Kazantzakis Publications, 2009), you'll hear artists talk about "automatic writing" or how they lose and rediscover themselves without their consciousness ceasing. "It has its antisocial phases," others often say about the artist. The statement isn't true. If you engage in detailed conversations with many visual artists, they will tell you that they strive to maintain a state of semi-detachment constantly – to not lose themselves, yet also to remain connected to this unique state of momentary unconscious awareness in which any circumstance related to the effort to communicate with others would interrupt it.
At the edge of this process, the artist, having captured the work, has not merely re-geometrized reality or truth, not even a singular reality and truth. They have reinvented themselves, reading the work with equal astonishment, wherein paths they themselves often haven't taken are reflected. The visual artist is a human being much like all of us: presenting both great particularity as a social subject—often positioned in the perilous and admirable stance of discovering their self—and as a historical subject, since their social role remains ambiguous and undefined.
Obsession, phrases of internal self-awareness expressed in questions and affirmations simultaneously, projection of the self, seeking a constant in the conceptual formulation of objective reality, creation of new symbols through methodologies and processes of conversing consciousness, conscious and subconscious. The journey of art through obscure expanses alternating between twilight and paroxysmal eruptions of the Self becomes even more captivating when it captures it, along with the questions and existential quests that traverse the "being" of personality, which, in any case, presents diversity in the mode of operation of consciousness and the contribution of the unconscious, distinct from the "average person," thus reinforcing the myth of the "mad," the "cursed," or the excessively sensitive artist.
In 2019, I closely collaborated, laboriously and intensely, with five visual artists and a specialized Art Therapy psychologist with extensive experience in the field of psychiatric disorders for six months. We processed the ideas articulated in the above text. The result was a remarkable dialogue and an art exhibition. The preceding text constitutes the documentation of the project, which I authored as a foundation, not at the beginning, but at the conclusion of our dialogue. Part of it formed the exhibition's curatorial text and has been published. The present text is the complete version, as presented in the Psy Art - Therapy Gallery space (23 Dimokritou & Stratiotikou Syndesmou, Kolonaki, 106 73, Athens). For more about the exhibition, please read HERE.
*The artwork illustrating this article is the painting "Ereschigal-Urania,"
marker on paper, 100x70 centimeters, 2020, by Elias Kasselas.
Information about the artist can be found HERE.