MADDER LAKE ED. #10: TOWARDS A HABIT [ psychoanalytically speaking ] 

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 [ psychoanalytically speaking ] 💀

By JAMES MERRIGAN  | December 16, 2017

A painter once asked me: 'What is it about painters who commit to a way of painting for, in some cases, a lifetime?' In the asking he was critically asking himself the same question as much as pointing the finger at other painters. I wondered from his self-questioning could a passion, a love, exhaust itself, and when totally expended become a habit with no where to go creatively or critically but in a straight line? Or was it a passion, a love, in the first place?


Habits are mystifying things; having neither a beginning nor end when you are in them. They can look like the passions and loves of our lives, of a lifetime, or the symptom of some disavowed secret that the habit-maker, the inhabited, has no want of discovering or confronting. 


The habit has to be pleasurable or validating enough, repressive or comforting enough, to become a habit in the first place. Some might call this a dependency, others, a commitment. Whatever your position, depressive or euphoric, habits are things that we find difficult to admit to ourselves or divorce ourselves from. Everything outside a habit is just a fling. 


A stranger thing about habits is, we know what they are in other people, or in ourselves after we divorce ourselves from them. In the latter, rare self-acknowledgement, when we admit to having a habit after the fact, we can sometimes end up hating the habit. This is when self-identification gets turned in on itself; when the habit goes from being intrinsically part of our identity and connected to our life, enriching and supplementing our other passions in myriad ways, to being perceived as something that blindsided us, like an addiction or a con. After the divorce, the habit becomes an agent that once conned us into loving it at the expense of other possible or alternative relationships with the world. A real passion for something sacrifices everything else. We sacrifice our friends for our first love. Habits depend on your dependency.


There's degrees of separation when it comes to divorcing a habit. Those that divorce themselves completely from what they were,   understandably, have to hate that aspect of what they were. Alternatively, I have come across artists who have divorced themselves bit by bit from art making and the art scene for reasons that include exhausted hope or just the vissicutudes of life. They tell themselves they no longer longingly look in at the art scene from the outside, and disdain what is being produced by the in-crowd. But hate a bit of themselves every time they take a peek. The rejected nullify the accepted.


For the past five years I have taught psychoanalysis through art at Trinity College Dublin. Over the course of three months, between September and December, I engage fully with psychoanalysis in my reading and my writing. Come the New Year I divorce myself from everything psychoanalytic until the following Autumn. Psychoanalysis is a mistress that I build up a desire to meet again in the future rather than habitualise and exhaust in the rolling present at the expense of everything else. But for some reason I can't divorce myself from art the same way, not even for a day.


Because psychoanalysis – the talking cure with no cure in sight – is interested in the stories behind other people's psychological ticks and tongues, a natural navel gazing takes place in the reading and writing of it. When reading art through a psychoanalytic reading there's a natural turning inward, especially when the artist and artwork being covered (not mutually exclusive in the psychoanalytic context) psychologically reflects either the traumas of the world or the traumas of the individual (also not mutually exclusive in the psychoanalytic context).


Although Freud feared and disregarded biography, especially when it came to himself, a fear that led him to destroy personal correspondence just in case the biographer got his hands on it, it is fundamental to the analyst/analysand relationship, a conversation through which autobiography is redescribed in subjective detail until the unconscious announces itself in the verbal slippages in the retellings. In psychoanalysis you gradually trust the tale over the teller. 


Every year I tell the students that we cannot possibly cover art history in an meaningful way here, because we are primarily engaged with the psychoanalytic story not the story of art. So we approach art appreciation through a side door, a shortcut to the backstage where the artist foregrounds the artwork on the stage, and the artwork foregrounds the audience in the auditorium. When there is no biographical evidence of the artist backstage, we use that absence of biography to speculate and explore the artist's decision making in the artwork as a stand-in for the artist, and critically reflect on our speculations as authors and critics of those fictions.


I find that contemporary art has a way of producing high emotion in those who have already made up their minds about it. Generally the students are either anxious or excited by the inclusion of contemporary art in the curriculum. But in most cases you realise how small the Contemporary-Art-Self-Appreciation-Club really is. But I ask the students to always question high or low emotion in front of contemporary art; or question easy-to-come-by words like elitism that have defined their relationship with contemporary art up to that point. I ask them to critically look inward when a flight or fight response takes hold; to stay put when the urge is to bolt. The stabilising psychoanalytic presumption is, we are always wrong in our presumptions. 


Donald Kuspit, who, like Hal Foster, Maggie Nelson and Craig Owens, sometimes writes psychoanalytically on art, wrote an essay in the 1980s titled 'Artist Envy', in which he claims that psychoanalysis envies the artist's enjoyment and sublimation of her symptoms. Freud himself wrote that artists had the power to enter their dreams and their traumas and return to tell the tale, unscathed. Kuspit's tone in 'Artist Envy', an unbalanced mix of art critical statement uncomfortably colliding with psychoanalytic sentiment, is one of a writer who has been conned by a habit: perhaps even psychoanalysis? What has come to my attention in recent years teaching this class is the artists I select to discuss within the psychoanalytic story, like Mike Kelley, Diane Arbus, Chantal Ackerman, have died by suicide. 


Gently putting to the side the tragic ends of these artists – something I plan to explore in a future Edition – peeking through the dirty keyhole backstage at these particular artists you get a feeling that through their artworks, writings and bandaged biographies, they always questioned their habits as artists. Whether it was Arbus, who went from photographing fashion to photographing 'freaks'; Ackerman, who Richard Brody observed as "recklessly personal"; and Kelley, who Peter Schjeldahl described as the artist who "went deepest". 


So when the painter asked 'What is it about painters who commit to a way of painting for, in some cases, a lifetime?', I asked, 'Is it art or habit we are talking about here, when the road gets so straight and clean that you drift into a kind of dream or death?' Every artist, no matter the medium or message, perhaps should always be asking the question when the freewheeling starts to buckle: 'What if I turned down this horizonless dirt track? 

Check out DEEP—SEATED, wherein I aim to refashion the psychoanalytic relationship between art, artist &  viewer through writing, editing, &  art projects throughout 2018. [ More Here ]

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