Psychoanalytic Theory of Art Appreciation

In what concerns our argument of who can develop the capacity deeply to enjoy art, psychoanalysis has an explanation that is neither genetic nor self-managed.

Here’s the great Donald Winnicott on the subject:

Very little children live in a world where unicorns, princesses, and magic are completely real. And the child herself is the source of the magic. When Klara was 3, for instance, she believed that she could make traffic lights turn green when I drove up to an intersection or that she could heal my “boo-boos” by touching them with her magic unicorn horn. This is a way for a child to avoid the anxiety of an encounter with a complicated, uncontrollable, threatening world. “What if mommy disappears, gets sick, dies? Ah, it’s OK, I’ll cure her with my magic.” This is called “infant omnipotence.” Gradually, we all figure out that we can’t control reality with our magical horns but when it happens we are ready to accept it.

Now, people who aren’t allowed to go through this process slowly and at their own pace don’t learn to perceive the symbolic order as a wonderful place. Art doesn’t bring them to the childhood place of joy and comfort because they weren’t allowed to experience it.

Moreover, children who grow up in abusive homes can’t afford to enjoy mermaids and unicorns. They have to be very attentive to reality to avoid danger. So they never develop the capacity to enjoy the symbolic order. To the contrary, they perceive it as dangerous.

This means that there is a genetic component to all of this, and I was wrong to dismiss it. A more intelligent mother is less likely to accuse a small child of being a liar when she says that mermaids spilled the water or he slayed a huge dragon outside. There’s also less likely to be a chaotic environment if the parents aren’t drug addicts or drunks. Less likely, of course, isn’t a guarantee. N. grew up in a family of poetry-loving PhDs who chased each other with meat cleavers.

3 thoughts on “Psychoanalytic Theory of Art Appreciation

  1. This is a very interesting train of thought. Would this relate somehow to the movements in art that are decidedly against symbolic order? Today when I go to a modern art museum it seems like all art is deliberately designed to be not enjoyable. What’s going on there?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hah. Fascinating. I really need to think about this but yjeres definitely something there. It’s art that can engage the intellect but it’s completely given up on offering a sublime experience. There isn’t even an attempt to do it.


  2. I don’t know. According to my readings, the two primary non-genetic determinants of practically all kinds of thinking are nutrition for the sake of brain development, and trauma avoidance for the sake of avoiding personality disorders or pathologies due to things like excitotoxicity etc.

    On that basis it seems neater to say that the appreciation of art simply depends on having a normal healthy brain, which means having developed the cognitive circuits needed for it through correct nutrition early in life, while having preserved the necessary unimpeded high cognitive function through the avoidance of things like trauma throughout.

    Thinking of it that way avoids having to contemplate unexplained or unknowable things like what True self or False self is, or what might constitute an impingement, or what cultural poverty means for one person against another etc.


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