On ‘Civilization & Its Discontents’

Freud’s opinion on art and beauty in context to the culture and the civilization comes from a place of pure reason which does sound sensible at first but then later exposes the biases and assumptions which Freud himself is vulnerable to as a human being. For example, though Freud largely dismissed art and beauty, he used to keenly study the life of artists from his psychoanalytical lens – he studied, appreciated and even critiqued the work of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Dostoyevski. This stance softens in his statement on the description of beauty and the importance it holds to civilization – it is almost like a surrender of a very rational man to something which he cannot explain. That, and the fact that he had travelled and collected art gives, in a way, a look at how pained yet fascinated by art the man was. But, that is something which applies to all of us too at an individual level – a person who claims to appreciate the beauty in the world around themselves would have as sensible a definition of it as someone who is always dismissive of it and or is cynical about it.

He also mentions in the second chapter of Civilization & its Discontents the difference in the working of art for the creator and the viewer. While art has the tendency to sway the artist in a direction away from ‘unpleasures’ (often to places of delusion if left unchecked), the viewer experiences it from behind the safety of its temporariness. I would add to this by stating that any change in the way either of these roles work, that of the creator and the viewer, results in bad art or cult-like obsessions.

For me, all art is sourced in religion, or at least inspired from an unachievable ideal that is beyond our reach – this might be a godlike father figure for which it is created as form of reverence, or it might just be a state the artist wishes to see the world as or himself in – whether it is political in nature or a means of rebellion against the existing systems, it is an aspiration for the better even when it is showing the grim face of the society (shock art). Through Freud’s lenses, both these scenarios are states of delusion where an alternate explanation of reality aids the individual to avoid the ‘unpleasures’ offered by this world. Though initial idea of art was completely dependent on religion of that time, art has now become a tool that competes with religion in certain cases – this separation and shift in the attitudes of the societies is observable where art which exists within and without religion becomes aimed at it when it is on the outside. Though this might be because of historic events which have made art a tool to  express concerns and achieve higher levels of self awareness as a culture – one must remember that all the great works of art have arisen amidst suffering and in case that ideal is ever achieved, there will be nothing to dream of nor anything to create towards. This is similar to the example Freud presents with respect to religion, where the unpleasure needs to be for an alternate watered down path of religion to exist for the masses.

The point about art being accessible to a few is indeed a true one, though anyone can create with almost anything available as a raw material or a tool – only a few enjoy the act of this creation. The phenomenon of being in a flow state shows very clearly as to how the process of creation can be meditative. An example that immediately comes to mind, arising from the common task of writing, is shuji or Japanese calligraphy where no stroke is alike and every stroke captures the mood and emotion of the calligrapher. Though an activity requiring a high level of skill, it is described as something which is highly meditative for both the creator and the observer. As said, even when art is accessible to anyone who wishes to create, it is accessible to viewing and appreciation only to a few who can afford – I see it as something which only holds value once the bottom layers of the Maslow’s hierarchy are satisfied. An example of this is the presence of public art spaces in my city, which is the capital of the country India – these brilliant and at times expensive installations stand unnoticed, unappreciated and often vandalized. This is very much different from how public art exists in developed countries where the primal needs of the vast majority are fulfilled. Art is best appreciated when the viewer has a full stomach, a comfortable home to go back to and someone with whom he/she can discuss its meaning – only then would they stop and smell the roses. I have yet another example to back this opinion of mine, there is a huge difference in people opting for fine art education in developed countries versus the developing countries where the focus is primarily above what interests the self in fields that provide job security. Even if not wished for, this brings in the aspect of class into art and design – within these societies, art remains exclusive to the ones who have ‘self-actualized’ while outside these regions, the creative works from these societies are either often outright dismissed or presented with a blanket that keeps them separate (and at times beyond criticism – a positive bias).

But this difference also brings to mention the concept of beauty. Freud looks at beauty as an extension of the sexual, he looks at beauty positive sexual traits which we assign to objects and secondary sexual characteristics even if the primary sex organs themselves are not really considered beautiful (which does explain the development of object-fetishes for many individuals) but doesn’t fully explain the oceanic feeling of oneness in countless other situations. This explanation might just be the weakest among his attempts at explaining this beauty.

Looking away, the complexity and subjectivity of beauty and art in itself explains their purpose. Beauty is subjective not just at an individual level but at a cultural level as well. This subjectivity also influences what the art of that society addresses and considers important – in a way art does find a purpose as a documentation of history, an interpretation free from what the writers of history see the same events as, where the dreams frozen in time can be stared at long enough to view the aspirations and the spirit of those times.

Originally written as a critical response paper for a course.

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