Art as the Cognition of Life

Freudianism and Art

Response to Boris Grigoriev’s 1925 article, “Psychoanalysis as a Method of Investigating Imaginative Literature”, which attempted to apply Freudian psychoanalysis to art criticism. Freud had a significant following in Russia in the 1920s, amongst a demographic eager to develop a greater scientific understanding of the wider world. Here Voronsky explains why Freudianism is fundamentally incompatible with a materialist conception of reality.

Voronsky attacks the Freudian conception that artistic expression consists of “dream-symbols”, that hidden, personal, unconscious intentions particular to the individual are carried out by a consciousness unaware of the mind’s own real intentions, rationalising these actions as driven by some other conscious desire. (p.178)

…the cardinal question in Marxism is the question of the relationship of thinking to being, of the subject to the object. Not only in philosophy, not only in science, but in art as well, it is impossible to take a single step forward without having clarified this question. …People who adopt Marx’s materialist point of view propose that our sensations and ideas have not only subjective significance, but objective significance, too, and that they reflect reality, both in science and in art, not as hieroglyphs and symbols, but as images of the world. …these reflections are not symbols, i.e., conditional, arbitrary signs, behind which are hidden only our intentions. The reflections are relatively exact, true, and objective.

Voronsky points out that objective understanding of the world is not a static, unchanging monolith, that science is a subject of heated debate, that it too is a social phenomenon, that subjective conditions (especially the conditions of competing class interests) also affect our day-to-day understanding material reality (p.179):

It could be said that artistic truths, as opposed to scientific truths, are exclusively subjective. “Outside of science, the word ‘truth’ has no meaning whatsoever.” This statement is incorrect. There is no agreement amongst scientists either. General recognition of scientific truths is… almost always questioned by scientists belonging to various tendencies and schools… Art is more subjective, science is more impersonal—this is true, but here the difference is relative. Subjectivism in science is sometimes stronger than in art, especially wherever class interests are openly touched upon. There are more arguments about Marx’s theory of surplus value than about Tolstoy’s The Caucasian Prisoner or Kholstomer. Darwin’s theory even now meets a host of the most vehement opponents.

He continues:

Art is a social phenomenon; whoever states that the truths of art are exclusively subjective by the same token denies the social origins of art and the social significance of artistic works. He looks upon a work as the product of narrow, individualistic creativity, and upon the artist as a being without social bonds. Such a view is alien to Marxism.

Psychoanalyst art criticism fixates on uncovering the hidden, probably traumagenic (and under Freudianism, sexual-biological) needs which the artist is attempting to satisfy in their artwork. Voronsky is not content with this explanation. (p.184)

The task of the critic in each case amounts to explaining the intentions of the artist, but this is only one side of the matter. Another, no less important, task consists in revealing the extent to which these intentions have helped or hindered the reproduction of reality.

What is a man? An ape, certainly, but a man is not simply a bundle of cells and traumas and urges. A man lives in a world, and, under class society, develops under class forces. Voronsky explains that in order to understand an artist and a work of art they have produced, one must understand the particular historical moment that has produced them. (p.193)

In analysing different aspects of social consciousness, including works of art, Marxists have invariably started from the proposition that they are not dealing with the separate, isolated individual, but with the social man. …Starting from these propositions, Marx’s followers assume that the main source of the changes and the evolution of morals, convictions, and feelings must be sought in the social-historical milieu. …From psychology [the Freudians] pass over to sociology, yet they remain on the foundations of studying man who is isolated from society.