The strengths and weaknesses of applying psychoanalytic theory to art history

The strengths and weaknesses of applying psychoanalytic theory to art history

Written by Alix Greenberg

Author, Vernon Hyde Minor, of Art History’s History, addresses the issue of applying psychoanalytic theory to art history with an exact precision. He asserts, “There are two remarkable but contentious attributes of psychoanalysis as a critical method in art history: the unconscious and the ‘reductive.’”[1] In taking this logic as true, we can apply it when examining the issues present in Terry Eagleton’s “Psychoanalysis,” Steven Z. Levine’s “Monet, Madness, and Melancholy,” and in Bradford Collins’ “The Dialectics of Desire.” In this paper, these articles will be utilized to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of appropriating psychoanalytic theory to art history. It must be noted that each article takes the position of psychoanalysis, arguing that psychoanalytic theories are apt in their application; however, as the reader, it is important to value psychoanalytic thought while still remaining somewhat objective.

Psychoanalysis as a reductive medium makes sense when we approach the issue practically, meaning we evaluate a work of art and reduce it into basic human drives. Although these drives can be considered obsessive and compulsory within Freudian psychoanalysis, when we take a step back and formulate an overall gist of his theory, the application of his principles to art history can be considered appropriate. In “Psychoanalysis,” Eagleton argues that when Freud said, “The motive of human society is in the last resort an economic one,”[2] he was stating an indisputable truth. She writes, “What has dominated human history to date is the need to labour; and for Freud that harsh necessity means that we must repress some of our tendencies to pleasure and gratification.”[3] The gist of Freudian psychoanalytic theory lies here: all people must forego pleasure for reality, in that, we are all interminably repressed, which when excessive can cause neurosis.

For the purpose of this paper, we must answer this question: does this neurosis caused by repressed human desires manifest itself in an artwork? The answer should not lend itself purely to iconography within the work, for that would eliminate technique and style as indicators of repression. This can be problematic when psychoanalyzing a work, and may lead to inconsequential results and findings that are all smoke and mirrors. In “Monet, Madness, and Melancholy,” Levine attempts to reconcile this notion. Levine concludes that due to Monet’s psychological state he was drawn to an iconography of melancholy, as seen in his water-filled landscapes or motifs and moods largely associated with Corot and Courbet, who were also depressed men. As evidenced by the biographical details in this article, Monet was a withdrawn and depressed man. However, it remains tentative to conclude that his chosen imagery can be reduced to his depressed state.

Psychoanalytical criticism can do more than hunt for recognizable imagery, it can tell us something about how art works are actually formed and reveal something of the meaning of that formation.[4] Freudian psychoanalysis is conclusive when understanding the artist himself. Over the course of Monet’s life, he was in constant battle with the idea of necessary labor/reality over pleasure. In a letter to his patron, Monet wrote, “Each day brings its pains and each day difficulties surge up from which we will never get out. So I am renouncing altogether the struggle and the hope to arrive and I do not feel the strength anymore to work under these conditions.”[5] If we implement Freudian psychoanalysis here, it can be said that Monet is not seeking beauty in his work, but gratification as he confronts his anxieties and purges his psyche onto a canvas. Through his art, Monet’s life problems harmonize with his primitive urges; no longer is he tied down to the reality principle, for reality and pleasure can coexist. Levine writes, “Trying to arrest the flow of time by stripping the leaves from trees, by rearranging the patterns of water lilies on his pond, by holding the instant in check amide the desperate beatings of his brush, Monet fought all his life to forestall the loss of his dream through the interjection of a desired image.”[6] Coming from a Freudian standpoint, it can be said that because Monet could not satisfy his own desires in the real world, he turned to painting.

The problem with Levine’s psychoanalytic criticism of Monet is the elimination of formal and technical qualities of his artwork. The criticism really focuses on his life as a man and an artist but not the actual work. It is evident that biography as a methodology can shed light on the way in which a work is made, however, it is a narrow approach and can close off further interpretation. This notion is evidenced by “Monet, Madness, and Melancholy,” in which use of biography overshadows all other ways to looking at the artist’s work. The stuff of Levine’s biographical interpretation, such as Monet’s letters, have a built in subjectivity, may be unreliable in content, as letters are not necessarily products of a stable mindset, and a truth-value that can change from audience to audience. The issue of truth-value comes secondary to the strength of the argument – if the argument is feasible and cogent, whether the issue is true or not is insignificant. In the case of “Monet, Madness, and Melancholy,” Levine’s argument, though plausible, is weakened by its own limitations, as it has reduced the meaning of the artwork very specific to Monet and his life. To claim that a work was executed due to a pathological mental state is a universal statement that is far too reductive and weakens the application of psychoanalytic theory to art history.

The second problematic attribute in applying psychoanalytic criticism to art history is the issue of the unconscious: much of what appears in a work was not present in the artist’s conscious.[7] It is clear that the issue of the unconscious is not necessarily applicable to Monet within the context of “Monet, Madness, and Melancholy,” as he was, ostensibly, prolific in issues of his own psyche; according to Levine, Monet was well in tune with whatever he painted on a canvas. In Bradford Collins’ “The Dialectics of Desire,” the issue of the unconscious is evident through use of Lacanian psychoanalysis and the mirror phase, which is implemented in discussion of Manet’s A Bar at the Folies - Bergère. Collins writes, “In arguing against the view that the Bar mirrored the social conditions of the era, I have attempted to demonstrate that the work mirrors, instead, Manet’s deepest and long-standing convictions about the male condition. If, as I claim, the painting successfully reflects some fundamental aspect of Manet’s consciousness, it would have provided him with a means to overcome the alienation pictured therein.”[8] This quotation provides evidence of assumptions made about Manet; there is no biographical foundation. Collins claims that Manet constructed A Bar at the Folies – Bergère to reconcile and overcome his own psychological issues, issues described in general, reductive, and universal terms, non-specific to Manet.

This assertion, then, is solely based on formal qualities of the painting and the belief that an artwork acts as a mirror of the artist’s conscious. Although Collins’ interpretation is intriguing and possibly correct, it is clear that what appears A Bar at the Folies - Bergère was not necessarily present in the artist’s conscious. Eagleton writes, “The psychoanalysis of ‘content’ – commenting on the unconscious motivations of characters, or on the psychoanalytic significance of objects or events in the [painting] – has a limited value.”[9] Due to the lack of testable concrete evidence and large breadth of conjecture based on Lacanian psychoanalysis in “The Dialectics of Desire,” Collins’ argument is a curious one.

Although I have found the articles, “Monet, Madness, and Melancholy” and “The Dialectics of Desire,” to illustrate more of the weaknesses associated with the application of psychoanalytic theory to art history, both arguments shed light on how psychoanalysis allows us to think of the development of the individual artist in social and historical terms. Eagleton writes, “What Freud produces, indeed, is nothing less than a materialist theory of the making of the human subject.”[10] In “Monet, Madness, and Melancholy” and in “The Dialectics of Desire,” psychoanalysis is used to provide information on how artist’s works are formed and reveal something of the meaning of that formation.[11] However, as discussed, both articles rely heavily on the psychoanalysis of ‘content’, which has a limited value and is too often reductive. One article is too dependent on biographical methodology providing limited interpretation and the other with issues of the unconscious, providing no evidentiary support or testable cues. In both articles, it is evident that the application of psychoanalytic theory to art history, although interesting and sometimes ingenious, can reduce an artwork to the temperament of the artist, so much so, our experience with the work becomes overwrought and weakened by superfluous information on, perhaps, unreliable data.

Works Cited 

Collins, Bradford, "The Dialectics of Desire, the Narcissism of Authorship: A Male Interpretation of the Pscyhological Origins of Manet's Bar," in Twelve Views of Manet's Bar, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996). 115-142.

Eagleton, Terry, "Psychoanalysis," in Literary Theory: An Introduction, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996). 131-155.

Levine, Steven Z., "Monet, Madness, and Melancholy," in Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Art, (Hillsdale: Analytic Press, 1987). 111-132.

Minor, Vernon Hyde, "Psychoanalysis and Art History," in Art History's History, (Upper  Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001). 194-203


[1] Vernon Hyde Minor, "Psychoanalysis and Art History," in Art History's History, (Upper Sddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001). 194.

[2] Terry Eagleton, "Psychoanalysis," in Literary Theory: An Introduction, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996). 131.

[3] Eagleton, 131

[4] Eagleton, 155.

[5] Steven Z. Levine, "Monet, Madness, and Melancholy," in Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Art, (Hillsdale: Analytic Press, 1987). 123.

[6] Levine, 130.

[7] Minor, 194.

[8] Bradford Collins, "The Dialectics of Desire, the Narcissism of Authorship: A Male Interpretation of the Pscyhological Origins of Manet's Bar," in Twelve Views of Manet's Bar, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996). 133.

[9] Eagleton, 155.

[10] Eagleton, 141.

[11] Eagleton, 155.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.