Anton Ehrenzweig, an emigré Viennese Jew who lived in England in the latter part of his life, died in 1966, the year before his book, The Hidden Order of Art, appeared in print. It was definitely noticed at the time, and enthusiastically read by certain artists. I don’t know what impact it had in the UK, but in America it was taken up most notably by Robert Smithson, through whom it likely had some influence on the brief moment called post-Minimalism or anti-form. The book is still in print, so it must have readers, yet I don’t have a sense of it as part of the contemporary theoretical canon. That is a pity, because for any artist it is a book that offers a lot.
One immediate obstacle to reception today might be the title, which suggests a system. In fact, Ehrenzweig is not devoid of a systemizing tendency, mostly evident in the last third of the book, which is thoroughly psychoanalytical. Personally I find his psychological ideas very interesting, but more about that later, the most compelling part is his description of how art gets made and how it is later seen.
Briefly, Ehrenzweig proposes an explanation for the mood swings that an artist goes through as he or she realizes their work. At the beginning is dissatisfaction with the work as an alienated aspect of the artist’s personality. In other words, the artist projects an unconscious aspect of themselves into the work and finds the result aesthetically inadequate. This is the schizoid stage. What follows is immersion in the working process as the artist makes everything cohere on a deep level, a level normally not accessible to conscious awareness. This is the manic stage, characterized by elation and a feeling of flow and perfect unity between artist and work. Third and final is withdrawal from immersion with subsequent grief and depression as the work appears to the now detached artist as a mess – the appropriately named depressive stage. Naturally the three stages repeat until some kind of resolution is achieved.
I don’t know how any artist can fail to find something of their own experience in this scheme. But most interesting, and here is the caution we need to take with respect to all theoretical systems, what he talks about in high-falutin’ psychoanalytical language is really ordinary stuff. But then of what use is any theory if it doesn’t illuminate the ordinary? Ehrenzweig’s rhetoric is much occupied with “depth;” his key concept is “unconscious scanning,” a process whereby the artistic mind can achieve a more comprehensive picture of reality than that available to normal cognition. Spatial markers such as below or beneath may be the most appropriate to describe the relation between artistic and ordinary consciousness, but we shouldn’t start to think about the trip down to the level of unconscious scanning as something special and rare. It happens all the time as a normal human capacity. What makes artists different from the common run is their willingness to tolerate unsureness, lack of resolution, ignorance and chaos in pursuit of an order never yet recognized.
And here is another important contribution of Ehrenzweig’s theory, that it offers a very plausible explanation as to why innovative art usually provokes strongly negative reactions from the public, and why time eventually makes it right, the merit of which is that it is grounded in his creation pattern. The process of making work, which puts the elements in an order that to the conscious mind seems like randomness, dissonance and fragmentation, leads to an inevitable revulsion by normal consciousness. His depth psychological ideas are then also completely social. What he calls “the secondary process” is the mechanism by which normal viewers eventually come to make sense out of what at first appears to be senseless; art then changes in some objective way – objective because it includes both the object and observer as a moving system. I’d like to quote one passage that illustrates what I mean. I have also included this quote on my blog:
“I can still clearly remember when half a century ago I got to know and love the harsh music of Brahms. He was then considered a modernist in the largely conservative musical circles of Vienna. Brahms’s music still sounded acid and brittle, and lacking in smooth finish; his intricate and widely spaced polyphony produced a hollow sound that failed to support the thin flow of the melody. I loved this uncompromising music…As time went by, the hard edges of his music were smoothed down. Today there is a luscious velvetiness, an almost erotic warmth about his melody that makes the same music almost too rich and sweet a fare. The once hesitant melody has duly thickened into broad, solid song…I…can quite clearly remember the harsh and hollow sound of the Brahms of my youth; but I cannot, however hard I try, associate this memory with the sweet, lush sonority which meets me when I listen to the same music in the concert-hall today. I am left with a memory of a sound that no real experience can now duplicate.”
I find this description very moving, because it testifies to the experience of art as one of constant loss. The avant-garde understands this, and co-operates with the process. Ehrenzweig was well attuned to the historical changes of his own period, and didn’t believe that his system would be eternally valid; he tracks how in his own time the pursuit of unconscious order had itself become a conscious method. But there remains a core of truth in his ideas. Practitioners can hardly fail to find encouragement or even inspiration in his sympathetic account of how art works. However, I think his greatest usefulness in the era of the digital, is as a reminder of what human capacities really are. He is uncompromising in his assertion of the superior power of holistic creative perception over the point by point accumulation of “information” that characterizes our common mental life today.
As a psychologist I believe Ehrenzweig made a contribution, but someone more versed than myself would likely be critical of his strong reliance on Freud. I’ll just mention a couple of brief points. According to Freud, when human beings began to stand upright their genitals – particularly the male – were exposed and became vulnerable. Clothing was the result, and for Freud shame is in fact based on a more primitive castration anxiety. Ehrenzweig gives this a twist by insisting specifically on oral castration, thereby connecting with the tradition of the vagina dentata, as found in Picasso and other modern artists. He gives great weight to a dialectic of shame and shamelessness; for Ehrenzweig artists are exhibitionists, and heroically so because they are shameless, or more accurately because they have the courage to stand up against guilt, which he understands as cover for a more profound anxiety. Now that everyone is shameless, in other words now that everyone aspires to the freedoms of art, this notion might be dated, but artists are still trying to find new forms of shamelessness, and I’m sure anyone can think of an example or two.
But he takes this discussion further and suggests that through the complex of shame and self-exposure art is tightly bound to science. Artists are narcissistic exhibitionists (and heroic for that) and scientists are voyeurs. He means primarily social scientists, such as psychologists, and of course art historians, but the study of nature in general qualifies. Again, the situation may have changed today, not least because now scientists are the performers, doing their black hole burlesque in the theatre of the public intellectuals while all of us, including artists, are in the audience. Yet Ehrenzweig’s insights may help to explain the discomforts of this new situation, for both parties.
Robert Linsley, Kitchener ON Canada 2013