Chasseguet-Smirgel and the Relationship between Sublimation and Perversion in the Context of Artistic Creativity

There is, without a doubt, a strong relationship between sublimation and perversion, as Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel investigates in her book Creativity and Perversion (1984). ) However, sublimation is more strongly linked with intellectual curiosity and creativity, where energy is directed into more cultural activities. Perversion, on the other hand, is associated with aestheticism and idealisation. There is often conflict between perversion and sublimation, and they are very closely associated. With perversion, a repressed thought is idealised, to make it acceptable to the waking ego, whereas with sublimation, repressed sexual energy is funnelled into more cultural activities. 

Chasseguet-Smirgel argues that if we imagine that it is possible for various personality characteristics to coexist, this conflict between perversion and sublimation would be greatly reduced. The three areas which Chasseguet-Smirgel claims can co-exist are the following; firstly the area of perversity, which is characterised by sexual activity and is neither repressed nor sublimated. The second, the neurotic area, indicates repression; often of sexual instincts, and finally, the area where sublimation occurs. This distinction between sublimation and perversion is obvious when viewing art created by one who is suspected to be pregenital. Aestheticisation and idealisation characterise the work of the perverse artist, and it is the nature and role of this, that will be discussed in this essay, as well as a look at the conflicts and the relationship between sublimation and perversion. 

Chasseguet-Smirgel argues that an absent father and the presence of a strong maternal influence where the child believes – in terms of Freud’s oedipal complex – that he is already a suitable sexual partner for his mother, can lead to perversion. The child is then trapped in the pregenital stage, believing that he does not have to identify any further with the paternal figure as this anal stage creates the idea that everything is equal. Faeces and anal sexuality are common to everyone, regardless of their sex or age. The pervert is always threatened by the discovery of this pregenitality, and therefore feels a compulsion to idealise to prove the superiority of his sexuality. Idealisation acts like a mask; it is a mechanism to shroud the anal sexuality of the pervert. The perverse ego must be surrounded by objects and stimuli that reflect a flattering image onto the ego, and art provides one way of doing this, in its decorative form. However, the stark truth of the pervert’s pregenitality lies just below the surface of the mask of idealisation; it is not completely repressed and can resurface. For example, Chasseguet-Smirgel writes of a patient who dreamt of covering a pile of logs in silver paint to idealise them, but the logs’ inner nature was unchanged, and could be discovered if the surface was scratched.

Perversion involves knowing what is repressed and actively wanting to repress this, a term named negation (Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1984). Sublimation, however, when completed successfully means that there is no concern that what is repressed will be discovered. With sublimation, an instinct, most often a sexual one is modified to be socially acceptable. Norma O. Brown also voices Freud’s claim that desexualised intellectual curiosity is linked with childhood sexual curiosity, and that if this sexual curiosity is interrupted or prevented, it can develop in three ways, the first being repression. Secondly, it can be replaced by intellectual investigation, and, thirdly, perfect sublimation can occur.

Freud’s study on Leonardo Da Vinci and his childhood (1984) is a good illustration of how sublimation has an effect on an artist and their work. Leonardo spent the first few years of his life living with just his mother, who is thought to have pampered him. Freud claims that Leonardo became fixated on this image of his mother, and any sexual feelings were repressed due to the act of sublimation. Freud makes links between much of Leonardo’s work and his childhood. For example, Freud claims that The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne is a depiction created by Leonardo of himself with his two mothers; his biological mother and his step mother, where he is shown as Christ, who he often identified with. Leonardo became increasingly concerned with investigation and knowledge, which at first was a means to improve his painting, but eventually became a compulsion and overwhelmed him. As a consequence, he was often unable to complete his work. Leonardo is thought to have not been in any way inclined towards sexual activity, and this is obvious in his art, which, unlike other great painters, did not contain any erotic works. Leonardo’s pregenitality is not obvious in his work, marking a fine example of a successful sublimation.  

Whereas sublimation can lead to creativity and a desire or compulsion for knowledge, perversion can lead to strong aestheticism and idealisation. Pregenital perversion and aestheticism is apparent in the work of Gilbert and George.  It is common for pregenital perverts to create their own cosmology or a God-like status and when interviewed by Wolf Jahn, Gilbert and George claimed that “we are searching for the truth. There is a human God and we are it. We have got to do it, if not we are all lost.” Gilbert and George also described themselves as ‘Dandies’; a ‘Dandy’ being an individual who wishes  to create beauty within his own person. This idea of recreating beauty in themselves and their work clearly shows the failure of sublimation. Their work often depicts unsavoury objects made to look beautiful, such as Ill World (1994). Linking back to Chasseguet-Smirgel’s patient who covered the logs in silver paint, Gilbert and George mask unpleasant images with decoration in their art. 

Gilbert and George have tried to avoid people delving into their biographical pasts, but as pregenitality is characterised by the denial of paternal authority, it is interesting to note that on the occasions they have spoken about their past, they both make it clear that they had absent fathers and a strong maternal influence, which could explain the apparent aestheticism within their work and their obvious pregenitality.  

Gilbert and George were both opposed to particular emerging modernist art movements, such as the ‘Fluxus’- the Latin for ‘to flow’ – Movement.Gilbert and George saw the Fluxus Movement as untidy and unclean, a polar opposite to the structured, clean work they both created. This need for cleanliness highlights the aestheticisation and idealisation that occurs within perverse art. The compulsion to idealise insists that the pervert must create a work that is at least visually beautiful on the surface, even if something more unpleasant lies just below. 

Gilbert and George do not commonly representent women within their work, and there is a clear disregard for the significant difference between male and female. This is a trait of perverse work, as the difference between the male and the female is not signified, linking back to Chasseguet-Smirgel’s notion that anal sexuality can be common to everyone, whether they are male or female, and despite generational differences. This interest in faeces and anal sexuality which the perverse would consider to be superior is obvious in much of Gilbert and George’s work, for example, Eight Shits (1994) and Naked Shit Pictures (1995). The pregenital pervert will reduce everything to excrement, as this is something common to him and all others around him, unlike genital sexuality. 

After looking at these examples of the relationship and conflicts between perversion and sublimation, it is clear to see that the distinct difference between the two is the fear that the repressed instinct (more often than not a sexual one) will resurface. Successful sublimation ensures that this will not happen, and instead, the sexual energy is forced into creativity and investigation, as shown by the Leonardo case study. The pervert, however, is constantly aware that this repressed instinct may return, and instead surrounds himself with that which is aesthetically pleasing, so that what is reflected onto the ego projects a pleasant, if untruthful, image. The pervert masks his inner pregenital anal sexuality with that which is agreeable to the Ego Ideal. This idealisation means that for the time being, the pervert does not have to be concerned with the resurgence of his anal sexuality, until the surface is scratched. The role of aestheticism for the pervert is extremely important. It ensures they remain, what they believe to be, equal to those with a genital sexuality. Gilbert and George are a prime example of how the pregenital pervert can use art to create an Ego Ideal, and indulge in their compulsion for aestheticism. Art is a useful tool for the pervert to mask his anal sexuality, and Chasseguet-Smirgel notes that there are a greater number of perverts involved in art than the average for the general population. Therefore the role of aestheticism is crucial in the compulsive idealisation of the pregenitally perverse.

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2 thoughts on “Chasseguet-Smirgel and the Relationship between Sublimation and Perversion in the Context of Artistic Creativity

  1. test says:

    Its like you read my mind! You appear to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with a few pics to drive the message home a bit, but instead of that, this is wonderful blog. An excellent read. I’ll certainly be back.

    • kdoutsiderart says:

      Many thanks for your comment. You’re right – images would help a lot. I’ll try and add some to the post at some point. The book I predominantly used for the essay is Chasseguet-Smirgel, J, Creativity and Perversion, published by Free Association Books (1984), if you’d like to read further into it.

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