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French: art

Sigmund Freud

Freud valued art as one of humanity's great cultural institutions, and dedicated many papers to discussing both the process of artistic creation in general and certain works of art in particular.

Artistic Creation

He explained artistic creation by reference to the concept of sublimation, a process in which sexual libido is redirected towards non-sexual aims.

Works of Art

Freud also dedicated a number of papers to analysing particular works of art, especially works of literature, which he argued could be useful to psychoanalysis in two main ways.

  1. Firstly, these works often express in poetic form truths about the psyche, which implies that creative writers can intuit directly the truths which psychoanalysts only discover later by more laborious means.
  2. Secondly, Freud also argued that a close psychoanalytic reading of works of literature could uncover elements of the author's psyche.
Michelangelo's Moses

While most of Freud's papers on particular works of art concern works of literature, he did not entirely neglect other art forms; for example he devoted one paper to discussing Michelangelo's statue of Moses.[1]

Jacques Lacan

Works of Art

Lacan's works also abound in discussions of particular works of art.


Like Freud, Lacan devotes most of his attention to works of literature of all genres:

Visual Arts

However, Lacan also discusses the visual arts, devoting several lectures in his 1964 seminar to discussing painting, particularly anamorphotic art.[6]).

Differences - Freud and Lacan

There are, nevertheless, significant differences between the ways in which Freud and Lacan approach works of art.

Psychology of the Artist

Though Lacan does speak about sublimation, unlike Freud he does not believe that it is possible or even desirable for psychoanalysts to say anything about the psychology of the artist on the basis of an examination of a work of art.[7]

Just because the most fundamental complex (Oedipus) in psychoanalytic theory is taken from a literary work, Lacan says, does not mean that psychoanalysis has anything to say about Sophocles.[8]

Authorial Intentions

Lacan's exclusion of the artist from his discussions of works of art means that his readings of literary texts are not concerned to reconstruct the author's intentions.

Discourse of the Analysand

In his suspension of the question of authorial intent, Lacan is not merely aligning himself with the structuralist movement (after all, authorial intent had been bracketed by New Criticism long before the structuralists appeared on the scene), but is rather illustrating the way in which the analyst should proceed when listening to and interpreting the discourse of the analysand.

The analyst must, in other words, treat the analysand's discourse as a text:

You must start from the text, start by treating it, as Freud does and as he recommends, as Holy Writ. The author, the scribe, is only a pen-pusher, and he comes second. . . . Similarly, when it comes to our patients, please give more attention to the text than to the psychology of the author - the entire orientation of my teaching is that.[9]

Method of Reading

Lacan's discussions of literary texts are thus not exercises in literary criticism for its own sake, but performances designed to give his audience an idea of how they are to read the unconscious of their patients.

This method of reading is similar to those employed by formalism and structuralism; the signified is neglected in favour of the signifier, content is bracketed in favour of formal structures.[10] and by two of Derrida's followers.[11]

Illustrative Models

Besides serving as models of a method of reading, which Lacan recommends analysts to follow when reading the discourse of their patients, Lacan's discussions of literary texts also aim to extract certain elements which serve as metaphors to illustrate some of his most important ideas.

For example, in his reading of Poe's The Purloined Letter, Lacan points to the circulating letter as a metaphor for the determinative power of the signifier.

"Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism"

A new branch of so-called "psychoanalytic literary criticism" now claims to be inspired by Lacan's approach to literary texts.

However, while such projects are interesting in their own right, they do not usually approach literature in the same way as Lacan.

Analytic Interpretation

That is, while psychoanalytic literary criticism aims to say something about the texts studied, both aspects of Lacan's approach (to illustrate a mode of analytic interpretation, and to illustrate psychoanalytic concepts) are concerned not with saying something about the texts themselves, but merely with using the texts to say something about psychoanalysis.

This is perhaps the most important difference between Lacan's approach to works of art and Freud's.


Whereas some of Freud's works are often taken to imply that psychoanalysis is a metadiscourse, a master narrative providing a general lutmeneutic key that can unlock the hitherto unsolved secrets of literary works, it is impossible to read Lacan as making any such claims.

Methods and Concepts

For Lacan, while psychoanalysis might be able to learn something about literature, or use literary works to illustrate certain of its methods and concepts, it is doubtful whether literary criticism can learn anything from psychoanalysis.

"Applied Psychoanalysis"

Hence Lacan rejects the idea that a literary criticism which makes use of psychoanalytic concepts could be called "applied psychoanalysis", since "[p]sychoanalysis is only applied, in the proper sense of the term, as a treatment, and thus to a subject who speaks and listens."[12]).


  1. Freud, Sigmund. "The Moses of Michelangelo," 1914b. SE XIII, 211.
  2. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1988. Ch. 16; Lacan, Jacques. 1955a. "Le séminaire sur 'La lettre volée'", in Jacques Lacan, Écrits, Paris: Seuil, 1966, pp. 11-61 ["Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter'", trans. Jeffrey Mehlman, Yale French Studies, 48 (1972): 38-72.
  3. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre VI. Le désir et son interprétation, 1958-59, published in part n Ornicar?, 24-27, 1981-83 ["Desire and Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet," trans. James Hulbert, Yale French Studies, vol. 55/6, 1977: 11-52].
  4. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book VII. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-60. Trans. Dennis Porter. London: Routledge, 1992., Chs. 19-21
  5. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p. 218-25; Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 377-8; Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 156-8; Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre VIII. Le transfert, 1960-61. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 158-9
  6. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. Chs. 7-9, where he discusses Holbein's The Ambassadors; Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book VII. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-60. Trans. Dennis Porter. London: Routledge, 1992. p. 139-42
  7. See his critical remarks on "psychobiography"; Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. 740-1
  8. Lacan, Jacques. "Lituraterre," Littérature, no. 3, 1971. p. 3
  9. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1988. p. 153
  10. Although Jacques Derrida has argued that Lacan does not in fact follow his own method; Derrida, Jacques 1975. "Le facteur de la vérité," in The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987, pp. 413-96.
  11. Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe, and Nancy, Jean-Luc. 1973. Le Titre de la lettre, Paris: Galilée.
  12. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 747