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Friday, December 27, 2013

The Unconscious and 20th Century Art



  I think if I had to pick a single theme to differentiate art from the 19th vs. art from the 20th century it would be the development of the unconscious as an artistic theme at the beginning of the 20th century.    This shift was really brought to the foreground by the theories of Sigmund Freud, who essentially made "scientific" what had been a non-scientific/philosophical subject in the late 19th century.  Prior to Freud you can see an interest in the philosophical side of the unconscious in the works of Henry James, but it isn't until after Freud that the 20th century would see a full flowering of interest in the role of unconscious in our day-to-day conscious life.

 The unconscious was present as a theme in the art of the Romantics as early as the late 18th century- the poetry of Wordsworth, Blake and Coleridge for example.  However, in the context of Romanticism there was no interest in understanding the unconscious.  Rather, the dream state/state of unconsciousness served as a proxy/substitute for ideas of CONSCIOUSNESS that derive from Christianity- state of grace, etc.

 An interest in understanding the role of the unconscious in art is traceable to the work of William James, who published his landmark, pre-Freudian, Principles of Psychology, in 1890.  An interest in this subject first manifested in literature in terms of experiments with the presentation of the consciousness of the narrator within a novel.  Here, the later works of Henry James are illustrative:  You can think of the narrator of The Ambassadors- where nothing outside his scope of vision is presented the reader.  What Maisie Knew (1897) similarly restricted the omnipresence of the narrator.  However, for Henry James it was more about restricting information than exploring meanings and the interior landscape of emotion.

  In the 1910s-1920s, important steps where made both by novelists like D.H. Lawrence and Gertrude Stein as well as by visual Artists who would be dubbed "Surrealists" by critics and academics.  It was the explosion of Surrealism in the 1920s that would really put the unconscious in the foreground of artistic thought for the next hundred years.   Even Artists who could not ever be described as Surrealists were influenced by the Surrealists obsessions with the unconscious, dreams and symbols.

 This influence was magnified by the development of "art film" in the 1920s, by Carl Th. Dreyer in his landmark The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and by the German Expressionist Films of the 1920s: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920),  Metropolis (1927) and The Last Laugh (1924), among others.   By the dawn of the 1930s, the unconscious was the pre-eminent consideration for "serious" Artists, and this pre-occupation in turn influenced arts  in the more capitalistic/market influenced spheres that were also developing at the same time: mass market advertising, mass market media to name two.

  This influence continues today, unabated, a century later, so taken for granted that it almost goes without mention.  "We are want we think, except when we are influenced by what we don't think."  It is a paradox at the hear of the modern condition, and well worth spending time and intellectual energy investigating.

  Happy New Year everyone- it's all pre written posts between now and the second week of January, so feel free to tune out until then if you don't totally dig the Criterion Collection and early 20th century Literature, because that is all I have left.  I appreciate my regular readers! There are only maybe of 50 of you guys- thank you for reading this blog!

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