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Sigmund Freud’s Journey from ‘Libido’ Theory to the ‘Unconscious’ Theory in Art


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Author Ridhi Sarraf Riddhima  

International renowned artist and awarded with fellowship by culture ministry of India

From time to time all art and aesthetics reflect the current intellectual trends of their time.

Sigmund Freud of Austria, a revolutionary, the great physician of the human mind, the founder of psychoanalysis, was not only a neurologist, psychiatrist, but also a philosopher, writer, poet. In short, he did not leave any subject untouched. Sigmund Freud discussed psychoanalysis as a way to deal with psychopaths and as an intellectual discipline.

  A kind of upheaval or revolution of ideas was by Sigmund Freud a medical man who founded the science of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis initially emerged as a technique to treat mental illness, which was related to mental diseases. Then Freud tried to probe deeper into the unknown realm of the unconscious and was successful in this. Freud also conducted psychoanalytic studies on art and thus attempted to find unconscious factors within the artist’s own psyche.

A famous conception about Freud’s theory-

Freud’s theory – libido is often defined only in relation to amorousness. But this theory of Freud is much broader and deeper than this. This energy generally discusses the subject of the corporeal, but it also analyzes other diverse and broader states of mind. According to them, a large part of our brain is unconscious. He explained it as saying that mental energy is like a great reservoir; it includes mental impulses, primitive emotions and desires and felt pain etc.

Freud’s ideas about art seem like sensuality. But he interpreted both art and dreams as expressions of desires powerfully active in the unconscious. According to him, art is the fulfilment of man’s insatiable desires. Freud’s aesthetic theory presented such subjective and discordant theory.

But his discovery was so important that not only it did transform psychological theory, but revolutionized the entire intellectual world and post-Freud thought was not as before.

Before understanding Freud’s ideas of art, it is necessary to take a look at his other psychoanalytic aspects as well –

Oedipus and Narcissus Doctrine –

The heroes of Greek myths have been fascinating to psychoanalysts, who regard them as symbols of human intrapsychic life, development and conflicts. Many of these gods and heroes, such as Oedipus, Electra, Eros and Narcissus, have been named after psychological conditions, conflicts, and illnesses. Freud chose the myth of Narcissus to symbolize a self-absorbed individual whose libido is invested in the ego rather than in other people. The term narcissistic personality disorder, also derived from myth, describes a self-loving character with grandiose feelings of uniqueness.

His study emphasized the identification of childhood events that can affect the mental function of adults. Genetic and then developmental aspects gave psychological theory its characteristics.

According to Freud, dynamic personality formation and other ideologies –

Freud considered the nature of the mind or personality to be dynamic.

In general, the development of the ability to do a task in a better way is called dynamic development. And it is in gross (cognitive) and subtle (ignorant) form.

According to Freud, the dynamic side of personality is formed by three stages.

1. Id

2. Ego

3. Super ego

According to him personality is the name of the activities of our mind and body. According to Freud, there are some mental elements which are not found in the conscious. In this, desires are related to childhood wishes, sexual desires and mental struggle etc., which are not even known to the person himself. Generally, the person is not able to fulfil them in his day-to-day life and by taking these distorted forms; these desires are present in front of the person in the form of dreams or sudden practical abnormalities.

Id is born with the birth of man. Its themes are desires that are related to libido and want instant gratification.

The ego is considered by Freud as self-consciousness which he described as the secondary control of human behaviour. It is the organized part of the Id, its purpose is to further the goals of the Id.

Para ego is a kind of standard of behaviour, which reflects moral behaviour. It develops over a period of time. Freud’s ideas of personality are also called the theory of psychosexual development. Freud has divided it into 5 stages –

1. Oral stage – one year from birth

2. Anal stage – 2 to 3 years

3. Phallic stage – 4 to 5 years

4. Latency stage – 6 to 12 years

5 Genital stages – 12 to 20 years

On the basis of the above theory, he gave the concept of Electra and Oedipus, which is a very complicated and controversial theory. According to him many qualities and characteristics of the lower animals are seen in man. And here in this theory he has tried to define attraction towards opposite sex.

According to him, only 1/8 part of the brain is conscious; the rest 7/8 part is unconscious. Many times in our life, we find this unconscious state when suddenly some social concepts break. Dreams, daydreams, slip of the tongue and small or major lapses of memory are other manifestations of the unconscious.

According to Freud, a work of art emanates from the three levels of the mind. Freud’s art theory is a dynamic theory and is full of energy, and he describes the artist as a creator or reservoir.

Here we will mainly explain his ideas about beauty or art.

Freud’s discussion on poetry, art and beauty –

Although Freud never presented a very mature and complete idea of ​​art, yet we can know his ideas from his various essays, books and lectures.

Some of his works –

Leonardo da Vinci,

The Interpretation of Dreams,

The Relation of Poet to Daydreaming,

Wish Fulfilment and the Unconscious,

On Creativity and the Unconscious: Papers of the Psychology of Art, Literature, and Religion

According to him, if the part of our brain remains insatiable or in repression, then it never ends. That is, those unsatisfied desires remain buried somewhere and those desires constantly struggle to come out. But these are stopped by the ego which appears as a reflection of the outside world. Those desires are seeking pleasure, yes they are not satisfied at the level at which they initially appeared as instincts.

Some of the ways that one presents the gratification of this unconscious desire are –

Anna Freud who was Freud’s daughter, herself has discussed these main defence mechanisms. Because through these the ego can block itself from external reflections and can also satisfy its unconscious desires. These brain resources are also unconscious.

His thoughts regarding art and the artist pass through the unconscious mind. Actually, therefore, first in short we have to know the explanation of these brain resources also.

Some of these are as follows –

Repression: suppression means to completely stop or restrict those impulses which are not acceptable in the outside world. As we often find, in religious places saying a person that he is completely pure and he does not have such dirty thoughts thus he suppresses many of his physical and mental desires.

Opposite: means to turn an unwanted desire into an opposite desire, such as hate with love. As it happen in the case with real brothers.

Turning towards oneself: In this the person loves or hates himself. The above mentioned narcissism is an example of love and masochism is an example of hate.

Displacement: This is also an important mechanism in which the place of one object is taken by another object. As some people themselves are suffering from the trouble they demand justice or agitate against it in the society.

Neurotic Symptoms: He has elaborated on hysteria or other imaginary diseases. According to him, all these are the result of our repressed feelings.

Up gradation: This is an advanced and socially supported dimension. This sublimation process includes art, poetry, religion etc. Freud told that this is also the form of our repressed desires but it is presented in a different way.

Freud has described in detail about Leonardo, Novelist Dostoevsky and the religious man Moses. According to Freud, the artist’s subjects are influenced by his early life. Such as the works of Leonardo –

Infantile Fantasies of Vulture.

Fantasy about female figure – Her Mother.

Monalisa – Represents her mother’s smile.

Revival of Childhood – Revival of Childhood through Colour, lines and structure.

Madonna – Mother is glorified as a portrait in art.

His Abnormal Desire to Look – A Glimpse of Childhood

For Freud, art is a symbolic summary of unconscious desires.

Here comes the theory of dreams because dreams are the workshop of symbols.

Dream and art –

Dreams are mental actions that seem meaningless but are never meaningless. They are fulfilling our desires in another way. According to him, unsatisfied desires take the form of dreams to manifest in sleep. First of all, big desires take a small form, then they manifest in a perverted form in dreams. As if anger or aggression is in the form of a knife or a pistol. The dream acts like a personal hidden symbolic code. Dreams have a symbolic construction. And similarly this symbol is cited in the form of fairy tale, folk song or poetry.

According to Freud, the creation of dreams or art is identical. In both there is a journey beyond daily life.

There are some differences between art and dream – that art is an act done consciously or in the knowledge, whereas dream is not.

Art is tied to the medium whereas the dream is not.

In art, there is variety in pictures, whereas dreams are of a strange kind.

The individual desires of the artist take the form of an art picture or figure and they are also enjoyed by other people, there are also various reasons for this –

As fiction presentation should not be personal it should be universal.

The topic should be of engaging people.

The principle of beauty should be expanded.

According to Freud, art is a kind of reconciliation between the principles of pleasure and mental functioning.

First, Freud collects examples of an infinite number of desires – whether it is about the punishment of Hamlet, or the various works about the only strong memory of Vinci’s mother, or Michelangelo’s work on Moses in all the mental attitudes or constellations are functioning in the same manner.

The art in them act like the most personal dream. The artist not only presents an imitation of the true life, but he rises above all by liberating himself.

Reference:  Krishna’s Aesthetics, Prakash Veereshwar

Nupur Sharma,, Arash Javanbakht

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