The psychoanalytic investigation of art has been derided in two ways.
Either it is regarded as fanciful, over-interpreting what is essentially simple, or it has been regarded as reductionist, applying the cold hand of logic to the hot emotion of art. In a recent talk at Tate Modern I had an opportunity to address some of these criticisms with reference to Damien Hirst’s controversial installation ‘Mother and Child Divided’.
Nicholas Serota had given a spirited defence of this work in a lecture a few years previously. He drew out some of the multiple meanings of the work by relating it to competing social values, tradition, context, judgements about what art should be, its capacity to inspire and provoke and so on. He said:
“Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided is a work which can at first glance be read as nothing more than two brutally severed carcasses. ‘A freak show’ was how the art critic of the Sunday Telegraph responded to its presentation in the Turner Prize in 1995. For me, the undoubted shock, even disgust provoked by the work is part of its appeal. Art should be transgressive. Life is not all sweet. Walking between the two halves and seeing the isolation of the calf from the cow encourages deeper readings of the work. Perhaps this is an essay on birth and death and on the psychological and physical separation between a mother and her child, especially given that the work was first made for an exhibition in Venice, a city filled with images of the Madonna and Christ child. For me Mother and Child Divided is an unforgettable image, at once raw and tender, brazen and subtle.”
Nicholas Serota, Who’s Afraid of Modern Art?
The most common, and commonly criticised, psychoanalytic approach to art is the psychobiographical one.
What would the psychobiographer say in this case? He could say that the work embodies a kind of theory. (Remember, Serota calls it ‘an essay on…’). It is the theory that the separation between mother and child feels like being split in half or torn apart. Hirst could have read it in a book, a novel or a primer on child development, and then looked around for materials to realise this idea. He’d worked with cows before and ‘cow’ is a common insulting epithet for a woman. There may be a more illustrious connection with the animal. The Egyptian god Hathor is depicted as a cow headed or cow-eared deity. Hathor is the great mother goddess of ancent Egypt, mother of the Pharaoh and daughter of the sun-god Re. Perhaps Damien had immersed himself in the mythology of ancient Egypt and the idea came to him that way.
But somehow such explanations do not feel satisfying. We assume that there must be more.
Recently Gordon Burn’s interviews with Damien Hirst have been published and serialised in one of the Sunday supplements. It turns out that in the first few years of Hirst’s life he must have experienced a particular kind of attachment and separation from his own mother. His mother came from Leeds and she became pregnant while working in Jersey – that’s right, the place where the cows come from. The biological father didn’t want to know and she moved to Bristol, where Damien was born. When her parents found out she moved back to Leeds, but there was a year when she didn’t tell them anything at all. Then she married someone else when Damien was about two or three.
Is there an echo of this story in the work?
Whatever the case, it is not a simple or abstract contemplation of life and death. An emotional being is involved somewhere, trying to make sense of itself, trying to represent, or be represented.
Let me ask a question. What is the traumatic moment in the story of Damien Hirst’s early life – the point where the man says ‘No’ (I don’t want to know), or the point where the man says ‘Yes’ (I will marry you). What’s the traumatic moment for the child?
You know what Freud would say. It is the man who says Yes, the man who for many years was recognised as the father, who enters the family equation and effects not just a triangulation of desire – an opening up – but what might be construed by the child as a brutal division. Mother and child divided brings with it the echo and spectre of that which divides. It reenacts a traumatic moment and changes it. Because it is no longer Damien Hirst who feels the rupturing effects of the process. Rather it is he who, in the process of creation, now takes the place of the father.
In one of his greatest insights Freud noticed his grandson throwing out a cotton reel on a piece of string and pulling it back again with a delighted ‘da’ (‘there’). Freud says he was mastering the painful helplessness of his mother leaving him, and doing it through the creative use of a simple toy. Freud calls it a ‘great cultural achievement’ – being able to let his mother go away without protesting. The renunciation has been transformed into a creative act in which the child symbolically assumes the position of power. So too in ‘Mother and Child Divided’. Now it is Damien Hirst who is the one with the chain saw, and he forces the spectator to join him in the carnage. We walk through the object as if enacting the process of division. We become implicated in the drama and it touches aspects of our own experience.
For Freud, the individual story – unique of course – resonates with a universal one. The Oedipus myth, in which we all partake of a separation from the mother and a division within ourselves. In turning the Oedipal process into art Hirst both expresses the trauma and attenuates it. On the one hand he repeats the trauma of separation and division; on the other hand he, and we, are no longer the passive victims of the process, but the perpetrators. Artist and spectator are implicated in a kind of conspiracy here, or a kind of ‘deal’. The artist is saying “You can enjoy this work, but you have to get into the right mental space; the space where you want to cut things up. But you don’t have to because I’ve done it for you.”
The trauma imbues the object – whether it ís a painting, sculpture, performance or installation – but it is transformed through a symbolic process. Damien Hirst doesn’t remember the moment when this other man came onto the scene. He says it happened when he was ‘two or three’ because that is what he has been told. He doesn’t remember the sudden shock of this man appearing from nowhere. He doesn’t remember the anxiety he undoubtedly felt at the unwelcome prospect that another child might suddenly appear and take his place – a double whammy – his anguished feelings of betrayal, his impotent rage and the fervent wish to divide THIS potential child from its – his – mother. It’s all forgotten. Freud took the ordinary and universal experience of infantile amnesia as evidence for his theory of the unconscious.
It has often been said that psychoanalytic approaches to art diminish it in some way, depriving us of pleasure and reducing the complexity of the work. I disagree. In the case of Mother and Child Divided we can see that the simplest of Freud’s approaches – the psychobiographical – increases the scope and complexity of the work. Firstly, he allows us to see the work in a different way, a more expansive and complex way. We thought the work had a dualistic structure but now we see that there is another element to it. What had two parts now has three, a new and previously hidden dimension has been added to the work. Secondly it changes our relation to the work – we become implicated in it in a different way. Thirdly we can begin to see why different people will have different critical evaluations of the work, depending on their ability to occupy the strategic emotional position which allows them to ‘appreciate’ it.
And what more can we expect a theory to do?