Geoffrey Koetsch: Letter to Nancy Princenthal published in Art in America, June, 2008, in conjunction with the MIND/matters exhibition, Laconia Gallery [May/June 2008, curated by Koetsch a Ellen Schon] and the publication in AiA in April of 2008 of several articles on the impact of recent research in neuroscience on the visual arts.
To the Editors:
Geoffrey Koetsch, Boston
Thanks to Nancy Princenthal for her brilliant and thoroughly researched article on art and the mind [A.i.A., Apr, '08]. In early 2007, co-curator Ellen Schon and I surveyed the Boston area for artists who focus on mental processes as a subject ["MIND/matters," Laconia Gallery, Boston, 2008]. Ms. Princenthals' article and the "Brainwaves" exhibition at Exit Art in New York confirmed many of the trends we uncovered. We found that much recent artwork on the mind centers on brain mapping and healing. There is a cool detachment in the work even though many of the artists had close experience with brain surgery, dementia or bipolar disorder. Some of these artists were puzzling out the phenomena consuming the mind of a loved one and looked to neuroscience for clarity. Others were working on other topics mentioned in Princenthal's article, such as the "boundary" and the "binding" problems and the "increasing porosity of the body."
I am curious to know what "groves of academe" Ms. Princenthal frequents, since she says the "big trees" there are Freud and Lacan. In Boston we found no evidence of interest in Freud, dreams, Eros or violence. This may be because Boston is also a center of scientific activity. From here, it seems that postmodern academia has reduced Freud to the role of a shaman with a quaint personal mythology.
Historically, one could argue that the Expressionists were concerned with the behavioral manifestations of consciousness, the Surrealists with making visible its contents, and the artists of the '70's and 80's with enhancing the power of mind (via psychotropic visions, paranormal experience and spiritual disciplines). In our survey at the Laconia Gallery we found lingering traces of this latter category layered in with the symbols of the new mind science.
Ms. Princenthal chides the scientists at a Columbia symposium for not appreciating that art may be driven by ideas. It may be that the scientists are simply not interested in the play of ideas as a kind of mental gymnastics. Perhaps scientific thinking is instrumental, entailing the belief that ideas may lead to cures. The scientists may have it right by insisting that artists stick to their ability to inspire and to reconnect us to our affective selves.
Nancy Princenthal replies:
Thank you for your very generous and insightful response, and for bringing attention to the exhibition you organized in Boston. With respect to the persistence of traditional psychoanalytic theory in academia, the New York Times summarized the evidence in an article of Nov. 25, 2007, titled "Freud is Widely Taught at Universities, Except in the psychology Department." It reports the frequency with which readings in psychoanalysis are required of students in "literature, film, history, and just about every other subject in the humanities," while "psychology departments and textbooks treat it as 'desiccated and dead.'" The long shelf life of Freud and Lacan in art theorizing is particularly evident in texts pertaining to gender and its visual expression--and anything descended form Surrealism, including dream imagery. Of course what happens in the halls of higher learning, and in artists' studios, are two different things. In any case it seems we agree that the growing interest, among artists, in the ways that working scientists are exploring psychology is well worth consideration.