Lacanian Psychoanalytic Theory and Art
Importance of the issue
Appreciating pieces of art is a great pleasure as it gives us time for imagining the personalized meaning of those objects through our own personal mirrors of our egos and minds. Sometimes, we try to find the meaning of what we see or hear with the help of our instinct or intuitive feeling beyond the logic and strict reasoning to understand the pictures or sculptures.
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The same can be claimed about psychology and different theories that are aimed at explaining human desires and unconscious intentions. The perception of art objects can be understood with the help of applying Lacanian psychoanalytic theory to objects depicted and the way people usually understand those.
As psychological interpretation of contemporary art suggests abundant sources for comprehending our experience on art, it is possoble to use Lacanian psychoanalytic theory to understand the essential aspects of postmodern artworks in terms of the concept of desire. The relation between the concept of desire according to Jacques Lacan’s theory and such aspects as what is shown, what is seen, and the way of perception in the objects of art are of the main focus of the current paper.
Aim and scope
The current paper is aimed at showing the number of different explanations that can be evoked by implementation of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory while observing and discussing the objects of art such as mixed media sculptures created in contemporary conditions with the help of modern materials, techniques and methods including postmodern tendencies.
In particular, reviewing the works designed by Louise Bourgeois including Arch of Hysteria (1993) and Cell (Eyes and Mirrors) (1989-1993) and Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field (1965) and Narcissus Garden (1966) can demonstrate the most prominent features of Lacanian theory in these art objects regarding desire in postmodernities.
The art objects mentioned above will be analysed in the current paper in accordance with the Lacanian psychoanalysis theory that includes such aspects as concept of mirror, phallocentrism, femininity, and mirror with regard to desire and psycho-sexual tendencies.
Lacanian Psychoanalytic Theory
Lacanian psychoanalytic theory’s main purpose is to evoke hidden side of human mind, the unconscious, so that people could explain things that seem ambiguous or, on the contrary, obvious. The number of explanations of the unconscious desire can vary due to the background of every person involved in the process of discussion. For instance, certain events, either negative or positive, in the life of a person influence his/her perception of self and individual desire in different ways.
According to Lacanian theory of mirror stage in terms of personality development, the aspect of Narcissism is the shared feature of personal human desire. “The mirror stage is also closely related to narcissism”1 as the Greek myth dwells on the beauty of a young man who fell in love with his own reflection in the water.
“Lacan develops Freud’s concept by linking it more explicitly with its namesake, the myth of Narcissus”2. The mirror image in early childhood serves to mould a self-image that is not actually a self-image, but an ideal one of what we want to be, and, consequently, it serves to set a psychological drive toward self-definition based on a imaginary structure forced by the identification with external social order.
In this respect, Lacan’s theory does not focus only on biological aspect of mirror stage of psycho-sexual development; the mirror stage is suggested as the primary stage in the perception of a person that helps to conceive the real image from the self and from others. The scope of ideas on the concept of mirrors can be presented in a multivolume work whereas the main ideas can be found in the theory of psychoanalysis established by Jacques Lacan.
Though Lacan’s theory has proven to be one of the most insightful interpretations of our time, some critics found explanation and analysis of certain concepts gender-oriented and discriminating. For example, French feminists Julia Kristeva and Helen Cixous have argued about the objectivity of presentation of concepts of phallocentrism made by prominent theorists, philosophers, and psychologists Jacques Lacan and the person influenced by Lacan’s ideas, Jacques Derrida.
Female writers criticized Lacanian theory because it suggested lack of self in women making them penis-less creatures deprived of the ego and associated more as a part of the male essence. In this respect, Helene Cixous’s essay ‘The laugh of the medusa’ is aimed at discussing the influence of gender aspects on cultural life of people, art objects, and language in particular.
The author dwells on the difference between cultural concepts and gender aspects that, as the author claims, should not be mixed with one another and with biological peculiarities of life.3 The more we try to tie the aspect of gender to other areas of human life, the less appropriate these concepts may become.
Different problems with the perception of this or that idea or object of art can be the main reason for treating the phallocentric concepts as those discriminating femininity as a feature of the gender. Julia Kristeva suggests the idea of “drives [that] involve pre-Oedipal semiotic functions”4; this statement can be considered one of the most appropriate ideas for discussion with regard to desire and drives in the process of analysing the objects of art.
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Phallocentrism is defined here as irrelevant panegyric on make sexual organ and behaviour of male representatives associated with their attitude to this organ as well. In this respect, the desire related to the objects of art can be found in the issue of glorification of the male sexual organ.
The more theories try to approach the concept of the mirror, the more ideas appear in the process of analysis even on the simplest phenomena that did not suggest that many explanations of a specific term before. In this respect, it is necessary to emphasise that Lacanian psychoanalytic theory is aimed at provoking human thoughts on different subjects as a person who knows about the suggested concepts would use those ideas while analysing the objects of art.
For instance, Jacques Lacan introduced a concept of mirror and explanation of the function of the unit I as suggested in psychoanalytic practice. His work “Mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience” demonstrates the inner stage that is suggested to analyse as the initial condition or a ‘mirror’ as the inner reflection of all actions performed by a person.
This mirror is treated as a specific place or an object used for analysis of actions, behaviour, and deeds by a person; such a self-analysis and counter-analysis are used for signification and counter-signification of the self.5
This concept was not critically perceived by female writers Cixous and Kristeva because it was not treated as the one that is posted against the femininity, female concepts, and feminine gender in general though the concept of mirrors helps to assess the role of desire in the analysis of the self.
Desire in Postmodernities
Postmodernism is a movement in art and architecture that can be considered one of the most influential trends in twentieth century due to its simplicity and complicatedness at the same time. Though different styles in art can be claimed to have found their application in culture, postmodern movement had a prominent impact on the architecture and art objects.
As suggested by Tobin Siebers in his book Heterotopia: postmodern utopia and the body politic, the postmodernities can be compared to desire that cannot be explained and understood completely.6 On the other hand, it is necessary to trace the real meaning of postmodern art objects that can be insightfully explained using psychological analysis theories aimed at explaining human desires, fears, and intentions.
The analysis of the self can be performed through the use of mirrors that represent the relations between what a person wants to show and others want to see or are able to see. Besides, as suggested by Jacques Lacan, the desire can be clearly understood after analysis of the body: Fragmented body is analysed in terms of the desires and fears and the hidden intentions behind the reflection of different parts of the human body.7
Most postmodernists are sceptical of the concept, ‘certainty’ or ‘authentic truth’ because the function, meaning, and symbolic value are varied in the context or situation; the same can be traced in psychoanalysis where every detail is thoroughly examined to trace the connection between the desire and images usually reflected in the inner mirror.
Though every object of art can be analysed in a different way, there is a number of traits that can be traced in most of them with regard to the gender of the author, the inner reflection of the actions, and attitude to the self, and other concepts that can be easily found in psychoanalytic theory established by Jacques Lacan.
So, the objects of art created with regard to the tendencies and concepts established for postmodernities can be easily analysed with the help of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory designed merely at the same time as the postmodern movement.
In this respect, it is possible to apply the concepts of psychoanalysis such as self-criticism by Freud8 to the objects of art designed by contemporary authors due to the background of authors and their reflection of the self in those art objects.
Position of Theory to the Art Object
Louise Bourgeois, Arch of Hysteria, 1993
The first object of art that should be analysed with regard to the concept of desire in postmodernities and the basic concepts revealed in Lacanian psychoanalytic theory is the one designed by Louise Bourgeois. This piece of art was created in 1993; the Arch of Hysteria can be considered one of the most feminine and delicate works created by this author.9
At the same time, it is powerful demonstration of the human body. And the name of the sculpture created using polished patina on the hanging piece made of bronze talks for itself. The attack of hysteria makes people change the positions of their bodies.
The same can be traced when a person experiences some strong emotions or feelings and is not able to control the movements, gestures, and emotions expressed on his/her face. Every attack of hysteria can be depicted in another way because every individual has his/her own reflection of the self and is able to analyse the self using the inner mirror.
The discussion of femininity is related to the ideas the author of this object of art found relevant due to the feminism movements and active involvement in those.10 The author manages to create her works without being too gender-discriminating toward the representatives of the opposite sex. Moreover, her work Arch of Hysteria (1993) can be considered the one that makes the male body the core concept of the overall image created.
In this respect, the idea of phallocentrism vigorously criticised by Cixous and Kristeva can be easily traced in this particular object. Moreover, the body hanging in the air can be analysed using the concept of fragmented body with regard to the wholeness of the subject, totalization and autonomous self. In other words, the concept of desire in postmodernities can be explained with the help of this sculpture that seems to be aimed at dethroning the power of the male body by making it more feminine with the help of hysteria that was considered a female disease.
Every person has certain secrets whereas all hidden desires and intentions can be revealed with the help of the psychoanalysis suggested by Lacan who based his theory on the concepts explained and analysed by Sigmund Freud.
The main idea of the current object of art can be considered the real human emotion captured in the earthly body while every gesture and movement made by the person helps to reveal this emotion and explain the reasons for experiencing it.
In the same way, every person can be read as a book with the help of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory when every image, dream, or idea is the result of some events and situations that took place in the life of this person; the same events and situations can be treated as the reasons or causes of other events.
The concept of desire can be considered the core idea of every piece of art because every author has certain desires and intentions and can use those as inspiration while designing the object of art. Moreover, the sexual desire can be traced in every art object that is aimed at reflecting the author’s intentions through the presentation of the human body.
Louise Bourgeois, Cell (Eyes and Mirrors), 1989-1993
The next object of art is designed by the same author. This creation is represented through the cell which contains specific eyes and mirrors. In this respect, it is necessary to trace the meaning transferred with the help of those objects to the meaning of the whole piece of art.11 The more different objects we introduce to the piece of art, the more complicated it becomes.
The complicatedness of the object can be traced through the number of meanings attributed to every object it contains. In other words, the meaning of this Cell (Eyes and Mirrors)12 should be analysed with regard to the meaning of cell, eyes as parts of the human body, and mirrors and the concept of desire in postmodernities.
It is possible to analyse every concept in turn and, after that, try to explain the meaning of the whole object of art bearing in mind the meaning of each separate object that is included in the structure. For instance, the work of art Cell (Eyes and Mirrors) designed by Louise Bourgeois in 1989-1993 can be analysed as a set of objects each having its own meaning and contributing to the meaning of the entire object.
As every object can have meanings with regard to the context, it is necessary to analyse the possibility for occurrence of meanings and the number of meanings that can depend on different factors. In other words, the background knowledge and situations that occurred in the life of a person prior to observation of a concrete object of art should influence his/her perception of this work.
So, cell can be considered as the limitation or restriction imposed on a person by his/her parents, friends, or supervisors. Besides, certain prohibition can be treated as the reason for author to use such an object in the overall construction. If a person had no negative experience related to the image of a cell, this work of art would not evoke any negative emotions.
The concept of eyes in combination with mirrors represents the reflection of the ideas with the help of mirrors. In addition, this combination can be treated as the desire of the author to show the audience something hidden in her inner self which can be seen only through the eyes. Thus, the eyes reflected in mirrors suggest a hidden desire of the author to reveal her hidden feelings or something she cannot say aloud.
Another idea that comes to mind while looking at this object of art created by a woman is the female aspect of this work. In this respect, it is necessary to remember about the concern of all women about their look. As they often look in the mirror, they can see something that cannot be seen without a mirror.
In other words, the mirror can be used as an instrument to show and see something mysterious or at least something that cannot be seen without this magical device. The desire to say something can be treated as the core concept of this work because mirrors and reflections can often say something a person is afraid to reveal to him/herself or is confused about the consequences of such information transferred to a stranger.
Masks and disguise contribute greatly to the overall image of the object of art called Cell (Eyes and Mirrors) designed by Louise Bourgeois in 1989-1993 because it is a feature of most women to have many identities and play many roles while only a mirror can reflect the real image of a woman.
Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field, 1965
It is necessary to mention that the object of art designed by Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field created in 196513 can be considered one of the most original objects of art designed under the influence of postmodern trends and technologies. This work can be easily analysed applying Lacanian psychoanalytic theory to practice because mirrors play the core role in this work.
The more a person reflects on his/her self image in the mirror, the more he/she is likely to change in the inner world to adjust to the conditions of the outer world. On the other hand, it is possible that a person changes the inner world to have it as a shelter from the oppression and all negative factors that exist in the outer world.
In this respect, it is possible to treat the mirrors as an instrument for initiating self-analysis. As suggested in the work by Peter Gay who analyses Freudian theory of psychoanalysis, “The physician should be opaque to the patient and, like a mirror, show nothing but what is shown to him.”14
For Lacan, however, mirror image has some deceiving aspects that alienate human from the real self by representing the Narcissistic illusion of self-autonomy. In this regard, the mirror in the Kusama’s work is the place for searching human identity on the dialectical relationship between ‘seeing and to be seen’.
Lacan’s key concept regarding the mirror stage is for challenging the integrated identity that reflects human’s narcissistic desire for wholeness, totalitarian or self-autonomy which we should overcome to be mature.
In addition, he thought integrated identity to be illusion of synthesis which is not really existent in the real world. For Lacan, human is in fragmented body in the real world and the fragmented body refers not only to images of the physical body but also to any sense of fragmentation and disunity.
The life in society can be considered another influential feature in creation of this object of art due to postmodernities with regard to desire and values typical of times and cultures; many identities are reflected in the mirror and it is up to a person to see or not to see them.
The objects on the floor of the mirror room can be treated as obstacles for analysis because the roles we play in the everyday life can differ greatly from what we are and who we are because of the necessity to adjust to the conditions of the outer world. Besides, the society that we live in often imposes the roles on its members in order to protect itself from misunderstandings.
This aspect can be regarded as a great obstacle for analysis of a person, his/her real desires, fears, intentions, and beliefs. In addition, the efforts of a person to take away those obstacles can be considered unavailing because the mirror room is closed whereas all objects are inside it and there is no way out except the door.
It is possible that the only way to walk through the door is to recognise the reflection in the mirror and confront the uneasiness of the fragmented body in the number of identities assigned by contemporary life.
Yayoi Kusama, Narcissus Garden, 1966
The next object of art for analysis is the mixed media Narcissus Garden created by Yayoi Kusama in 1966.15 The author managed to use the reflection received while looking in the water. This object consists of a pond and silver balls in the water. These balls are light enough not to drown while their reflection in the water can be treated as the reflection of each person in the mirror in the previous work of art.
As suggested by Sigmund Freud in his study ‘On Dreams’, every dream has specific content16 that can be analysed. Moreover, every object depicted in the dream has a specific meaning with regard to the situation in which it appears. In this case, the balls that can be seen on the water surface can reflect the desire of a person to swim opposed to the possibility of drowning.
Every object that can be analysed can be influential in terms of hidden desires or fears that can be revealed in the process of analysing those dreams. Though some dreams may seem strange, it has some points to try to analyse each of them in order to see the real nature of the soul.
The pond with silver balls can be associated with a desire to see the number of identities. If a person reflects the pond with silver balls in the object of art, she may have some problems with self-identification. In other words, a person that experiences difficulties with analysis of the self can try to reflect those problems in this way.
For instance, the number of balls can correspond to the number of identities or roles a person has in everyday life and uses those while communicating with colleagues, building relationships in the family, and other situations.
However, the surface of the water shows everything that is reflected while some reasons can be found for this. In this case, the balls are reflected in the outer world while an inner mirror is situated in the inner world. In this respect, the number of identities will be reflected in the water every time.
Every identity has its own reflection in the outer world as well as every person can find his/her reflection in the mirror being a parent, a friend, or performing some other roles. In this respect, an inner mirror of the ego should show our Narcissistic desire towards independent entity.
Every concept of life can be reflected in the inner world whereas it depends upon a person whether to let certain concepts into the inner world or leave those outside. As the personal life of every individual is full of certain events, all those events can influence successive events and the condition of the inner worlds.
Thus, a reflection in the inner mirror can distorted due to the impact of all events that take place in the life of a person. The pond with silver balls can also be treated as the outer world with all its imperfectness and obstacles that appear on the way of a person when he/she wants to look at the Narcissistic reflection on self but can only see the numerous identities. Every identity can be reflected in the mirror of the outer world though it is up to a person whether to let those identities into the inner world to be reflected in the inner mirror.
The concept of self, reflection in the mirror, the number of identities and roles assigned to every person, feminism and male sexual organs can be traced in the objects of art. As the theory of Lacan is mainly based on the theory established by Sigmund Freud, it is necessary to mention the significance of his study for analysis of sexuality and gender differences.
The Arch of Hysteria reflects the power of human body whereas it can be treated in a different way when applying Lacanian psychoanalytic theory to it. In this respect, a human body can be considered the symbolic representation of human desires reflected with the help of postmodernism trends.
Female critics of Jacques Lacan’s theory do not blindly criticise his theory; they try to see the discrimination of identity of woman in the analysis through rejection of the phallocentrism as a core aspect of most psychological analyses. In other words, Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva apply Lacan’s psychoanalysis as the assessment of sexual features, desires (often sexual), and fears related to the gendered self.
Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage demonstrates that our self-identification is based on an illusion of an idealistic image of completeness that does not actually exist in the real. And the imaginary identity created by the co-operation between Narcissistic desire and external forces is subject to the fragmentation of identity in reality.
Thus, the ideal-I acts in similar way as Sigmund Freud’s ego in that it prevents this fragmentation from emerging to the surface. The main aspect that can be traced in the objects of art such as Cell (Eyes and Mirrors) by Louise Bourgeois and Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field and Narcissus Garden designed by Yayoi Kusama is the mirror and reflection of the self including the further analysis of the self.
Bourgeois, Louise, Arch of Hysteria (1993). Web.
Cixous, Helene, ‘The laugh of the medusa’, in Peter Simon (ed.), The Norton anthology of theory and criticism (London: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001), 2039-2056.
Evans, Dylan, An introductory dictionary of Lacanian psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1996).
Freud, Sigmund, ‘On dreams’, in Alan Sheridan (tr.), Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.), Art in theory: 1900-2000 (Oxford: Blackwell, , 2003), 21-28.
Freud, Sigmund, ‘The ego and the id’, in James Strachey et al. (tr. and ed.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 19, London: The Hogarth Press Ltd., , 1961), 19-27.
Gay, Peter, Freud: a life for our time (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998).
Kristeva, Julia, ‘Revolution in poetic language. The semiotic chora ordering the drives’, in Peter Simon (ed.), The Norton anthology of theory and criticism (London: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001), 2169-2179.
Kusama, Yayoi, Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field, (1965). Web.
Kusama, Yayoi, Narcissus Garden, (1966). Web.
Lacan, Jacques, ‘The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience’, in Peter Simon (ed.), The Norton anthology of theory and criticism (London: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001), 1285-1310.
Lacan, Jacques, ‘The mirror-phase as formative of the function of the I’, in Alan Sheridan (tr.), Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.), Art in theory: 1900-2000 (Oxford: Blackwell, , 2003), 620-624.
Nixon, Mignon, Fantastic reality: Louise Bourgeois and a story of modern art (MIT Press/October Books, 2005).
Nixon, Mignon, ‘The she-fox: transference and the “woman artist”’, in Carol Armstrong and Catherine de Zegher (eds.), Women Artists at the Millennium (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press/October Books, 2006), 275-303.
Siebers, Tobin, Heterotopia: postmodern utopia and the body politic (Lansing: University of Michigan Press, 1994).
1 Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1996), 119.
2 Ibid., 123.
3 Helene Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, in Peter Simon (ed.), The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (London: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001), 2039-2056 at 2039.
4 Julia Kristeva, ‘Revolution in Poetic Language. The Semiotic Chora Ordering the Drives’, in Peter Simon (ed.), The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (London: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001), 2169-2179 at 2172.
5 Jacques Lacan, ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience’, in Peter Simon (ed.), The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (London: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001), 1285-1310 at 1288-1289.
6 Tobin Siebers, Heterotopia: Postmodern Utopia and the Body Politic (Lansing: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 2.
7 Jacques Lacan, ‘The Mirror-Phase as Formative of the Function of the I’, in Alan Sheridan (tr.), Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.), Art in Theory: 1900-2000 (Oxford: Blackwell, , 2003), 620-624 at 622.
8 Sigmund Freud, ‘The Ego and the Id’, in James Strachey et al. (tr. and ed.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 19, London: The Hogarth Press Ltd., , 1961), 19-27 at 33.
9 Louise Bourgeois, Arch of Hysteria, (1993).
10 Mignon Nixon, Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art (MIT Press/October Books, 2005).
11 Nixon, Mignon, ‘The She-Fox: Transference and the “Woman Artist”’, in Carol Armstrong and Catherine de Zegher (eds.), Women Artists at the Millennium (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press/October Books, 2006), 275-303 at 277.
12 Louise Bourgeois, Cell (Eyes and Mirrors), (1989-1993).
13 Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field, [online image] (1965). Web.
14 Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), 111.
15 Yayoi Kusama, Narcissus Garden, [online image] (1966). Web.
16 Freud, Sigmund, ‘On dreams’, in Alan Sheridan (tr.), Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.), Art in theory: 1900-2000 (Oxford: Blackwell, , 2003), 21-28 at 21.