Let's say you're going to attention an exhibit of Rembrandt drawings and paintings. Do you try to read up on the artist before you go? Do you rent the audio tour? Or do you enter the exhibit deliberately unprepared, freed from someone else's vision and ready to rely on your own idiosyncratic responses? Both approaches have their perils--merely checking off features you recognize from the guidebooks, staring dumbfounded at the interchangeable little Dutch houses and murky allegories--but in neither case can we expect automatic illumination or a completely fresh eye. We're blind to some aspects of the paintings, and vulnerable to fixating on details we suspect aren't fully artistic, like a particular shade of blue on a dress.
San Francisco Chronicle culture critic Steven Winn points to the unconscious as the dominant mechanism governing our responses to art. He cites neurobiologists and psychologists to develop a notion of the unconscious as a kind of broadband network. "The unconscious, like the Internet," he writes, "can be seen as a vast interwoven fabric of data about ourselves and our connections to one another and the world." He describes looking at some Brice Marden paintings, which "work[ed] on me like an Rorschach inkblot, pulling out associative data as some skilled forensic psychologist would." Winn goes into greater detail describing a performance of Handel's oratorio Belshazzar by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.
[C]ontented as I was to be there and hearing Handel expertly performed, everything seemed distinct, separate and clear, like shiny beads on a bracelet. The singers' trills, the timbre of the strings and burbling harpsichord, the sumptuous poise of the music itself, the back of conductor Nicholas McGegan's head, a jacket that fit countertenor William Towers a little too snugly -- everything ticked through my consciousness.
And then, late in the second act, Labelle began an aria ("Regard, O son, my flowing tears") that went through me like light through glass. The spun-silver phrases, the soft tides and surges of the orchestra, one exquisitely wrenching interval all poured in, weightless and shining. It went on and on, and was over before it started. "The unconscious is the ocean of the unsayable," the writer Italo Calvino once remarked. I was out there, afloat. That's all I can really tell you about what happened that night.
What I don't understand is how unconscious meaning can lead to such equipoise, or how a computer network, which in my experience is a maddeningly unpredictable and literal-minded thing, can effectively serve as a metaphor for an unconsciousness fine-tuned for optimal aesthetic pleasure. The two great theorists of the unconscious, Nietzsche and Freud, would have been astonished at both claims. For Nietzsche, art is shot through with libidinal desire. He once growled, "Music is just another way of making children." He declared in The Genealogy of Morals that art is "in all eternity chaos . . . A lack of order, arrangement, form, beauty, [and] wisdom." To behold an art object is to put into play a form-giving power that becomes an end in itself, feeding off the pleasure of its own associative inventiveness. It is, in short, the will to power. Nietzsche laughed at the idea of disinterestedness, that somehow meanings spring magically beyond our will. In fact, he probably would have dismissed the notion of the unconscious as a network of data as idealist as the idea of consciousness itself, merely positing a stable entity as a cover for "change, becoming, multiplicity, opposition, contradiction, war"--which we know by the shorthand "unconsciousness."
Freud would have been more sympathetic to Winn's definition of the unconsciousness, but he too would have been skeptical about any claims for the ameliorative power of aesthetic experience. The Freudian unconscious is a peculiar thing, picking out things from the world for safekeeping and gnawing over other parts. This messy process forms the uncertain foundations of our identities. In contrast to the classical ideal of art appreciation handed down from Goethe, Schiller, and Matthew Arnold, with its serenely balanced subject, for Freud our unconscious is a war zone of slippery, contradictory desires barely capable of fleeting reconciliation. From the Freudian point of view the dream of the self filled up with art, from the uppermost reaches of cognition to the subroutines of the more primitive parts of the brain, is just another infantile fantasy, a self-serving and therefore entirely illusionary melding of body and mind. Our bodies--the rumblings in our stomach, the focused gaze, the sweating latecomer--don't fit very well into language. To linger at the threshold of feeling and utterance is a regressive return to the traumatic rupture of self from speech, only without suffering the pain of actually giving way to one or the other. We don't like to talk about art because, invariably, our perceptions always come across as sounding inadequate and stupid. But simply shrugging and saying nothing like Winn is a tricky approach, too, for language has a way of rushing out in front of us. Take, for instance, the image with which Winn leaves us: a grown man sitting immobilized in a dark theater, held safely in the arms of a rigorously ordered father (Handel) and a warm, loving mother (the Philharmonia).