Meg Harris Williams

Art and aesthetic conflict

'Couple by Candlelight' by Meg Harris Williams

‘Couple by Candlelight’ by Meg Harris Williams

These days the arts are no longer seen merely as neurotic material to be interpreted or diagnosed by an outside person. Instead, art is looked to as a model for a live developmental process in which we are invited to partake. It can become part of our own ‘learning from experience’, just as psychoanalysis can. This live engagement involves ‘aesthetic conflict’. This idea (as formulated by Meltzer in The Apprehension of Beauty) has roots in the dovetailing of several disciplines or art forms: namely, clinical discoveries, infant observation, and readings of the poets.

Blake's drawing of Satan watching Adam & Eve

Blake’s drawing of Satan watching Adam & Eve

Aesthetic conflict is possibly the most universal theme in all poetic narratives: it describes the tension between love and hate that constitutes the spur towards knowledge and exploration, as for example when Milton writes about the ‘hateful siege of contraries’ that is aroused in Satan on his first sight of the Garden of Eden: he sees God’s ‘second thoughts’ in the form of his new idea, mankind – the new baby that will supplant the angels in his affections. Satan regresses to envy but others, like Oedipus, pursue their quest for self-knowledge, however intolerable the new thought may appear. It is intolerable by nature, because it ushers in a new state of mind, a new view of the world that shakes the self’s existing status quo; hence Bion’s pun on ‘catastrophic change’, which may mean disaster, or may mean self-knowledge, as in the Aristotelian sense when referring to the structure of a classical play. The personality’s default position is to stay safely as it is: even though this safety is in fact illusory and liable to become a form of self-imprisonment. The conflict is sometimes felt as intolerable, like Bion’s ‘O’ which he describes as similar to ‘passionate love’.

Yet this conflict is at the heart of our ability to make symbols of our emotional experiences, that is, at the heart of our being human. For as the philosopher of aesthetics Susanne Langer has said:

Aesthetic attraction, mysterious fear, are probably the first manifestations of that mental function which in many becomes a peculiar tendency to see reality symbolically, and which issues in the power of conception, and the lifelong habit of speech. (Philosophy in a New Key)

Beauty and awe are at the heart of symbol-making, of which language is just one manifestation. Symbols evolved initially not as a notational system, but in order to express our mental states and our need to communicate emotionally with others; hence the emotional clouds that accompany them. Contrary emotions are held in tension and this evokes a sense of awe towards the mysterious object. As Meltzer puts it:

If we follow Bion’s thought closely, we see that the new idea presents itself as an emotional experience of the beauty of the world and its wondrous organization. (The Apprehension of Beauty, 1988)

As Coleridge was the first to say, a new idea cannot be had except in the form of a symbol. It is because the psychoanalytic process is a generator of ‘new ideas’ (even those that have been had many times before) that it becomes an aesthetic object in itself, for both analyst and analysand. The process is a container for the conflicting emotions that promote symbol-formation. And as such both analyst and analysand may feel ambivalent emotions owing to the imminence of a psychic change. What rescues the relationship, and any symbol-making relationship, from ‘catastrophe’ in the sense of disaster, is finding aesthetic reciprocity between the two partners. This search for reciprocity puts into action the process that Bion calls ‘introducing the patient to himself – a marriage that will last as long as he lives’.

This internal ‘marriage’ based on ‘passionate love’, fitting two different perspectives into the harmony of a single symbol, is something that art forms of all types have always modelled. As Langer explains, art forms imply the existence of an ‘underlying idea’ which is only realised in action, by means of a struggle to actualize an unconscious fit; her primary example is that of composer and performer in music, who despite their different actions, are both responding to the same underlying idea (which is something different from the literal notation). It is the same when reading the ‘deep grammar’ of poetry that lies beneath the paraphraseable meaning.

'The Birth of the Symbolic Human Being' by Paulo Zerbato

‘The Birth of the Symbolic Human Being’ by Paulo Zerbato

In psychoanalysis, the pressure of an incipient idea creates tensions between the psychoanalytic couple, who attempt to align themselves in relation to this unknown ‘O’, in which the analytic process is itself the aesthetic object pressurising them to form a container for the symbol. In this the analyst, who leads in technique though not in phantasy, respects the ‘mysterious compositional qualities’ of the process (Meltzer). The analysts’s task, says Meltzer, is to elevate the limited sign-language of interpretation into the sphere of symbol-formation. Bion calls it ‘psyche-lodgement’ – that which slips in between the lexical surface. This is what makes psychoanalysis a ‘presentational form’, in Langer’s distinction between presentational and discursive forms.

But the example I would like to describe here is that of lifedrawing: a particular type of lifedrawing which is based on techniques for developing both ‘selective attention’ and the ‘underlying idea’ of  a pose, rather than just the surface representation of a body. It was developed by Cecil Collins to revivify a traditional academic activity which had become so stultified that many art schools ceased to teach it. In the new lifedrawing setting, the model moves to music, at the centre of a circle of drawers equipped with large rolls of paper and a variety of dry and hard, soft and fluid, drawing media. Long rolls of wallpaper lining are used which can accommodate at least an hour’s worth of continuous drawing or mark-making. The unbounded availability of the paper corresponds to the stream-of-consciousness that is the foundation of all psychic activity. Some of the media are unfamiliar or primitive, including sticks, wet clay washes, goose feathers: the idea being to deflect stereotyped hand-movements, and encourage new types of mark to emerge, without preconceived design. Poses are ‘found’ and held for a short time whilst we draw, or rather, respond with hands on paper, in the hope that something of the spirit or ‘underlying idea’ of the pose will transcribe itself.

The beauty of the model in movement is astonishing, ultimately representing the world-as-aesthetic object. This is nothing to do with conventional physical beauty, just as the drawings have nothing to do with conventionally beautiful representations. Rather it is a special kind of presence. What we know already – the anatomy of the body – is forgotten, or takes a background place. Instead we go back to the more primitive roots of our perception of beauty as founded in the aesthetic conflict, which demands a struggle toward reciprocity. Adrian Stokes, the Kleinian aesthete, describes this as responding to art’s ‘incantation’ and searching for a ‘pulse in common’, something that takes place in art appreciation as well as in artistic practice.

Roger Money-Kyrle has said that our subjectivities are in a sense unreal, because we are not all looking at the same thing. Lifedrawing helps to overcome this particular misconception, as ideally it is a work-group taking part in a mutual experience, trying to capture something quite literally of ‘life’. It is intensely hard work, and anxiety-provoking, owing to the fear that a mess may result that does not correspond to the beauty of the observed movement. Only later can reciprocity in the aesthetic conflict be evaluated.

Fig.-61.-The-Line-Of-BeautyThe ‘thing’ that we are trying to observe, whether in psychoanalysis or in lifedrawing, is something ineffable and nonsensuous, the inner essence or principle of development. Psychoanalysis often seeks spatial terms to describe what is going on in the consulting room, such as transitional space or container-contained. Life drawing, which takes place in space, grounds itself in a musical matrix in order to facilitate the incantation that leads into a symbolic congruence with the object. Without the listening element it becomes static and lifeless. The type of interpretation that is expected to succeed through content alone, forgetting these musical aspects of communication, is liable not to ‘take’, and it is the same with the kind of correct figuredrawing whose proportions cannot be faulted but which still looks unaesthetic.

Susanne Langer describes how an abstract or mental pattern is created through the sensuous movements of music and dance. There is a bodily reality, and the shapes it traces are significant, but they point to something beyond, something ineffable. ‘What is the dance?’ asks Langer:

It is an apparition.  It springs from what the dancers do, yet it is something else.  In watching a dance, you do not see what is physically before you – people running around or twisting their bodies; what you see is a display of interacting forces … single in its motion.

In the same way the lines traced by the model in space are a type of abstract dance, which the drawer strives to match with lines on paper. These are themselves an abstraction, since lines do not exist in nature. All the conflicts relating to boundaries (the dance between inside and outside, between body and space) congregate along the line; it pulls together and it separates simultaneously.  Lifedrawing is not a choreographed dance, and can indeed be very still and quiet, almost non-moving. It is a different kind of dance, undertaken by both model and drawers together, in response to an emotionally charged atmosphere evoked by the music. The model’s curve, and the drawer’s line, both express the ‘underlying idea’ – the aesthetic essence of the scene, the process of becoming.

On the occasions when I have run lifedrawing sessions specifically for psychotherapists, many have found their approach to patients refreshed by the implicit lessons that lifedrawing can teach, with effort but without pain, about the psychology of non-judgemental observation. Lifedrawing reminds us that psychoanalysis can be an adventure not merely a reversion to normality.


Meg Harris Williams

Meg Harris Williams is an artist and writer of literary criticism.  She studied English at New Hall (1970-73) and Fine Art at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, followed by research into `Inspiration in Milton and Keats’ at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.  She was a founder member of the Oxford Printmakers’ Co-op, and is now a member of the Borderlands Artists Consortium in Surrey where she runs Cecil Collins-inspired lifedrawing classes.  Her artwork is in private collections in England, Italy, Spain, France, Italy and Australia.  In her theoretical and literary writings she has always taken a particular interest in the relation between psychoanalysis and aesthetic appreciation, and has written many articles and books in this field. She is editor of the Harris Meltzer Trust and a visiting lecturer at the Tavistock Centre.

MEG HARRIS WILLIAMS: How Life-Drawing can help therapists to observe and understand the nonverbal and embodied language of patients and ‘encourage freedom from tight control.’

The-Aesthetic-Development-The-Poetic-Spirit-of-Psychoanalysis-9781855756175     27506     9781855753105

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