Sigmund Freud
(1856 - 1939)

You may recall that Plato, in his Symposium, painted a picture of Beauty Itself as the Ideal Form which motivates philosophers and lovers. This Form of Beauty Itself was perfect, unchanging, non-material, and the ultimate object of all desire. Lovers who stop at physical desire, or even at the delights of friendship, have failed to pursue their desire to its ultimate end.

For Freud, it is the physical and not the ideal world that is ultimately real. And within the psychological world, the springs of human action derive from the two fundamental drives of Sex and Aggression (Love and Death). Like the workings of a computer, the most complex human thoughts, emotions and motives are ultimately reducible to this primitive binary code. So the ideal, for Freud, is somehow derived from our basic physical drives. Freud stands Plato on his head.

What, then, does Freud think about the making and appreciating of art? He thinks of it in relation to Beauty, relates it to the pleasure principle, and sees it ultimately as sublimated sexual satisfaction. Freud distinguishes sublimation from repression. Repression pushes a desire down into the subconscious. A degree of repression is normal; too much will result in neuroses, and requires psychoanalysis. Sublimation, rather than hiding desires in the unconscious, substitutes activities that are more socially acceptable and more within the individual's reach as providing a degree of satisfaction to those diesires. Sublimation is both healthy and necessary for civilization. Civilization is not compatible with unchecked libido. And no human being who lives only by "the pleasure principle," i.e. by attempting to satisfy libidinal drives whenever they show up, will in fact find happiness. As Freud puts it in Civilization and its Discontents, the program of the pleasure principle "is at loggerheads with the whole world. There is no possibility at all of its being carried through; all the regulations of the universe run counter to it. One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be 'happy' is not included in the plan of 'Creation'." Hence, measures that help us to gain satisfaction by what we can control and depend on are of great benefit to us, both as individuals and in society. Work, science, creative effort, and the arts are among the more valuable of these measures. Successfully sublimated sexuality is a positive force. Here is what Freud has to say about aesthetic appreciation:

...Consider the interesting case in which happiness in life is predominantly sought in the enjoyment of beauty, wherever beauty presents itself to our senses and our judgement--the beauty of human forms and gestures, of natural objects and landscapes and of artistic and even scientific creations. This aesthetic attitude to the goal of life offers little protection against the threat of suffering, but it can compensate for a great deal. The enjoyment of beauty has a peculiar, mildly intoxication quality of feeling. Beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it. Yet civilization could not do without it. The science of aesthetics investigatges the conditionsunder which things are felt as beautiful, but it has been unable to give any explanation of the nature and origin of beauty, and, as usually happens, lack of success is concealed beneath a flood of resounding and empty words. Psychoanalysis, unfortunately, has carecely anything to say about beauty either. All that seems certain is its derivation from the field of sexual feeling. The love of beauty seems a perfect example of an impusle inhibited in its aim. 'Beauty' and 'attraction' are originally attributes of the sexual object.

Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, trans. James Strachey
Norton, 1961, pp. 29-30

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