Jung and the Role of the Artist


I am always intruiged to read the work of artists’ and writers when they attempt to describe the character and role that the artist plays in society. Art historians tend to dramatize the artists’ role, emphasizing events or relationships in their life as the key to understanding their work. I find this completely flawed. As an artist myself, I know it is the work, the image seeking materiality, that compells the artist. And all other factors are sort of the fall out that happens from such a commitment. Jung believed that, “The essence of a work of art is…[its ability to rise above] the personal and speak from the mind and heart of the artist to the mind and heart of mankind.” (The Spirit,p.101)

In Carl Jung’s book, The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature, he describes the role of the artist from this point of compulsion.  Jung makes clear,”Art is a kind of innate drive that siezes a human being and makes him its instrument.” (Ibid.,p.101It is a relentless compulsion that allows for no rest and in many ways consumes the energy and strength of the artist as he produces the work. I find myself saying, “I can rest when I’m dead, but the moment is now to do the work.” And many of my friends think I am crazy and how do I manage to keep going. But this ignores the key element- that the artist must do the work. If he refuses to be engaged, it will eat at him and cause him to be restless and unfulfilled. In the end it is not his choice. There are greater movements in the cosmos that he is a part of. Jung states, “He is in the highest degree objective, impersonal, and even inhuman- or suprahuman- for as an artist he is nothing but his work, and not a human being.” (Ibid.,p.101)

A war takes place within every artist. There is an innate desire for happiness and the comforts of life that every man shares, but there is also this “…ruthless passion for creation which may go so far as to override every personal desire.”(Ibid.,p.101) In many ways, the artists’ inherent willingness to sacrifice his personal happiness for the image underlies his estrangement from society as a whole. It is an inherent contradiction that he expends his energy to reveal a truth to society while simultaneously set apart, separated from the audience that he is compelled to reach. There is a certain insanity in this. I often think of the character of the fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear. He is constantly compelled to state the truth even though it will be his eventual demise. He cannot have it otherwise. The fool is driven to stay with Lear even if it means desolation and journeying through the storm that consumes all life and energy. Jung states, “Whenever the creative force predomonates, life is ruled and shaped by the unconscious rather than by the conscious will, and the ego is swept along on an underground current, becoming nothing more than a helpless observer of events.” (Ibid.,p.103)

Although the artist appears as an outsider traditionally, he has the ability to tap into those images that need to be expressed at a particular moment in time. Jung refers to these Images as symbols. “By this I do not mean that it is an allegory pointing to something all too familiar, but the expression of something profoundly alive in the soul (of all members of the society in which the image evolves as well as in the soul of the artist)…” (Ibid,p.103) “Whenever conscious life becomes one-sided or adopts a false attitude, these images “instinctively” rise to the surface in dreams and in the visions of artist and seers to restore the psychic balance, whether of the individual or of the epoch.” (Ibid.,p.104)

The artist is basically an instrument of psychic healing that needs to take place. The artwork itself becomes the very medicine, sometimes the bitter pill, that society is in need of. And society as a whole must allow itself to be fully engaged in the work of artists in order to be transformed and renewed. But does this happen anymore? Are we at all in touch with our artists? Do we believe that artists utter a necessary truth? “And if they do, in what way would we have to regard the work of art?” (104) Possibly with the utmost seriousness.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

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