Thanks to everyone who wrote so eloquently and intelligently about “ego.” There were far more letters than we could conveniently put into the responses which can be found at the previous letter, Ego. So if ego is such an important part of creativity — what about that other item that’s generally mentioned in the same breath — the “id.”
The id is defined as “inherited instinctive impulses of the individual as part of the unconscious.” It’s also generally associated with sex drive. What got me going on this was the recent observation by several friends that I had what they thought was an “instinct for art.” I had to wonder, following the ideas of Sigmund Freud, if some artists suffer from benign neurotic dreams based perhaps on childhood trauma combined with accumulated family traits? And here I’ve been spending so much time suggesting to artists that it’s mostly a matter of developing a bundle of good work-habits and creative techniques.
Is it possible that art-making is a sublimated form of sexuality? Has it something deeply to do with display and invitation, perhaps even seduction and prowess? Is it linked with the greatest creative act of all — the bringing of new life? How connected to creation is creation? And, perish the thought, do we do it because we are in some way frustrated? There’s no question that we highly evolved animals, further up the evolutionary ladder than say peacocks, have a similar but perhaps more sophisticated need for display. Like Woody Allen some of us can say that we went into movie-making in order to meet girls.
And what about the girls? Why do they do it? Is art for them a form of birthing — a sort of surrogate womb-activity? Taking cookies out of the oven is one thing, faux-finishing a ceiling or painting a mural is another. Is there some appropriate glitch in the artistic feminine noodle? I know of women who think that the production of every work of art is a cosmic event. I can hear my studio computer jingling already and I haven’t even sent this letter out.
PS: “I put my orgasms on canvas.” (Pablo Picasso)
Esoterica: One of my all time best systems is to simply ask the question, “What do I want to do today?” Sometimes it takes half the morning to figure out the answer. But when it hits it’s often at a deep and primal level. You really know it when you know it. It’s right for you and you are fired up and inspired. I’ve often wondered if my private “free association” bouts have something to do with self-hypnosis — to get at the nubs of the unconscious, the instinctive, the primal. I don’t know about you, but I do like the feeling.
Much like a sexual experience
by Pam Franklin, London, UK
I thought it was interesting when you began comparing the creative process to sex, but was confused when you assumed it was a different type of experience for women (birthing process). I am a woman artist and have made the comparison of creating art to having an orgasm, also. It is passionate in its process and can border along the greatest sense of fulfillment while also teetering on the edge of pain for all its intensity. We are driven to do it instinctively and while it can leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed we still return to it repeatedly and willingly like we do to a lover. When I paint I become lost in my painting, I feel like I disappear somewhere within the process and become one with my painting. Afterwards I feel exhausted and simultaneously satisfied very much like a sexual experience.
Like a layer cake
by Janet Badger, Austin, Texas, USA
I’ve often felt my ego was like a layer cake… layers of high ego and low ego alternating endlessly. If I go through a period of feeling great about myself and my art, I know there will come a time when I won’t be so happy. Likewise when I am wondering why I even bother to try to create art I know that if I can ride this feeling out I will emerge again into a productive and successful period. I need approbation for both layers of the cake.
by Jacob DeWilde
I was slightly impressed at your connection of art and sexuality, because only about a week and a half ago I was learning a bit about the chakras, and it seems the energy of sex and art are both concentrated on the same chakra, svadistana. I thought that was an interesting connection to be making.
by Phillip Bissell, UK
It is so strange that this letter appeared today – I keep a sketchbook, which doubles as a diary/ideas book and have done so for many years – I wrote in it two days ago ‘The drive to create an artwork feels so similar to the sexual drive that I am convinced the two are closely linked. One’s libido, or mine at any rate, seems to be inextricably linked with the act of creation. Needless to say, the greater the success of the work, the greater the sense of the sexually physical as well as intellectual and emotional satisfaction.’
Ego not important to creativity
by Joseph Tany, Granada, Spain
Ego is not such an important part of creativity. On the contrary, Ego is the memory and the use of information and the cultivating of will — no real creativity is possible within its boundaries. The passion and the compassion is even unbelievably deeper than what our subconscious id could ever hold. The creativity is in the openness to the worldly (plant by plant, color by color, smell by smell) and eventually all together in an enormous, perhaps cosmic or godly phenomenon.
Profound spiritual experiences
by Aleta Pippin, Santa Fe, NM, USA
I love that feeling of being “on,” where you know the painting you’re working on has hit the mark. It just flows through you. I’ve had my most profound spiritual experiences during painting, those experiences some refer to as mystical. One very vivid experience happened as I was viewing the wonderful color in one of my paintings and listening to some favorite music. Suddenly it seemed as if I were connected to the universe, feeling (it’s impossible to describe with words an emotion that goes beyond human description) of love and of knowing that all things are in their proper order. I knew past, present, and future in that moment. Time stood still. As I’m writing this, I’m returned to that feeling of awe. I cried those happy tears that come from the core when you know you’ve touched a Truth.
by Ankevmul, Maine, USA
Freud’s writings on Eros (life force) and Thanatos (death force) has power for me — the eternal struggle between these two is reflected in the way we (and Freud says other organisms too) strive for balance, engage in or avoid activity, dare to create new forms or don’t, etc. This is the basic struggle that gives rise to all others, including the need for procreation.
Juiciness and sensuality
by Linda Muttitt
First of all — “GIRLS”???? Really! That’s quite insulting to we grown women who, yes, have an active child within us, by keeping us seeing the world in some light of innocence and wonder… but then so do men have a child within them.
Secondly, what leads you to think that only males might be expressing their sexuality through their art, and that women would therefore be expressing a connectedness to children?
I was surprised by your comments. The idea that my expressive, creative nature could be an opening out of my sexuality is not surprising. After all, those internal worlds are all up for exposure once the juices are freed to flow from within. Visual awareness and insights are certainly a part of my sensuality. I respond to the world with as much juiciness and full-alert sensuality as I can.
I think I can
by Shirley Flinn, Lacome, AB, Canada
When it comes to painting I need my Ego to tell me “I think I can.” When I finish the project, and stand back and look at it, it reminds me of the first time I canned peaches, the wonder of looking at the jars all lined up on the counter, their contents glowing in the sunlight. My thoughts — I can’t believe I did this. In both cases, canning or painting, I have had to work hard and apply learned techniques to produce the end result. It’s not really cosmic, just old fashioned satisfaction of completing a project that you can share and hopefully give others around you pleasure as well. I think very few have “id” that they can take a brush and the painting just appears off the tip. Maybe that’s what makes true greatness.
by Violette Clark
I am a folk artist. For me the act of creation is very primal — it is very similar to the sex act. I call making art like having a cosmic orgasm. Tapping into one’s creativity takes the same energy or the same chakra energy as sex does. When I am not in relationship I have noticed that my art becomes more profound and prolific.
The freedom of “Yum”
by Carolyn Smith, Victoria, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada
Art is freedom. Sex is freedom. Art is an escape into something beautiful. Sex is beautiful. It releases hormones of pleasure and happiness and accomplishment. So many feelings. Sex can be everything you want it to be. Art can be everything you want it be. You can be creative in sex pleasure and the accomplishment soars when you hit the high notes. When I finally got a painting I knew was worth selling, for the first time, it was like the best sex I ever had! I was beaming! Nothing could touch that. As for the cookies, it’s more than just taking them out of the oven. The freedom and art of creating those cookies, and the pleasure of tasting them. Yum!
More like completing an exam
by Carol Hama Chang
Freud translated every thing in terms of sex. Life is not always so animalistic! Very often other things bring on the inspiration. Woody Allen extends the appearance of being a very “animalistic creature” whose brains, I think, are in his pants! Don’t compare artists to Woody Allen, please! That would indeed be an insult to us artists! As for the idea that creating art is like birthing? Does that mean that you guys lose out??? Not quite….but the feeling I get after just having finished creating a good piece is like that feeling you got when you just finished your very last exam in the final year, just prior to graduation… the completion of a task, the lifting of a great weight.
Wildfire pregnancy hormones?
by Christine “Keena” Friedrichsmeier Payne
During university (to become a biologist) I had no urge to paint at all. But when my husband and I were expecting our first child a colleague asked me to paint his Labrador retriever. I dragged out the dusty paints and canvases and struggled through the first bit. But then something magic happened — that little spark that I had failed to beat into oblivion grew into a wildfire, having been suppressed so long! That was 8 years ago — and the fire is still raging. I could not stop painting now if I wanted to. Was that caused by pregnancy hormones? Maybe. Was it caused by having neglected my true calling for so long? Maybe. Maybe a bit of both?
Instinct for art
by Tricia Syz, Calgary, Canada
To my way of thinking, the creative urge is fairly simplistic. As humans we come into this world with the ability and urge (ie. sex drive) to create — the obvious being to create another life — and most of us follow the urge. My belief is that the “instinct for art” flows from the same stream as the “instinct to create life.”
Trust the force, Luke
by Pauline Conn
Some believe that all creativity comes from the same place — the second chakra. I believe it comes from the Force that runs that chakra — my physical structure combined with the Creative One. Is this why monks created such masterpieces in illuminated manuscripts, Gregorian chants, and wine? Is this the same as sublimation? I would choose to call it yet another divine outlet for the same energy. And what is the etymology of the word idiot? A concept that is labeled idiotic is deemed not logical (not left brain); it makes no sense. So, please let my life be more id-iotic!
(RG note) There is no relationship in etymology between the word idiot and the word that Sigmund Freud coined.
Too much analysis
by Janet Warrick, Plymouth, CN, USA
No neurotic dreams here, although erotic ones do pop up from time to time. And from this woman’s point of view at least, painting is no baby, baby (even if it is painful as childbirth on occasion). An interesting notion, equating the act of painting with sex and childbirth. However, I think we just plain old tend to analyze things too darned much. The need to feel desirable and desired, to prance and preen is part of the human condition to which even non-artists succumb. The need to paint, for me, stems from a love of color, shape and form, the feel and smell of paint, and a love of beauty and grace. Sensual to be sure, but sexual is stretching things a bit far. As for glitches in my feminine noodle, I’m sure there are many, but I paint for the joy of painting, and I make love for — well, you know….
More to Freud
by Sandra Swenby
There’s a whole lot more to Freud, and his successors than you suggest. Freud’s ideas were created along a timeline, and underwent revision as he proceeded with his “art”. His successors went further. Similarly, contemporary art is rarely measured by what ancient cave art is thought to be. Beyond Freud: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought (by Stephen A. Mitchell & Margaret J. Black, Basic Books, 1995) is an excellent review of Freud and other analysts. It is well-written, well-organized and out in paperback as well as hardcover.
Anatomy of the Spirit
Carolyn Myss, in The Anatomy of the Spirit deals with this issue. She believes, and my experience tells me she’s right, that our 2nd chakra, the energy center in our pelvis, which is responsible for our sexuality is also engaged when we do our art. I feel huge creative force from that place when I paint, and a feeling of deep satisfaction that is indeed sexual. Also, I know that when I’m in a sexual relationship, especially an addictive one, my creativity is totally derailed. I doubt that in this life time I’ll be able to juggle the 2 kinds of creative energy, so opt for my art, as experience has taught me that the results are much more fulfilling and life-giving.
Was I wrong?
by Ivan Kelly, Toledo, Oregon, USA
After reading some of the responses about ego I became somewhat troubled. Upon reflecting about my connectedness or lack thereof to the universal cosmos and even more unsettling, was it all even real or visible to myself and friends. I knew something was wrong. I realized that I have never much thought about those things or even had an inkling about them. So I am asking, should I even be calling myself an artist and more importantly is it too late to change and incorporate some of this thinking into my daily life. After all I am now fiftyish and change is difficult as one gets older. All these years I just thought that persistent hard work at the easel was enough and a desire to learn and constantly improve. Boy, was I wrong, or was I?
What drives creation?
by Dave Louis, Coventry, UK
I think a lot of the answers to this letter-subject lie in the subconscious. By creating instinctively in auto mode we can uncover our true motives, our creative drive. From the time I was 4 years old I wanted to be an artist. I can only assume that desire was purely based on instinct. As we grow older I feel other factors creep in. The peacock factor does make sense and so does the creation within this creation. God made us in his own image. I feel the answer is not singular but by creating in true subconscious mode we can better understand what it is that drives individuals to create.
by Judi A. Gorski, San Francisco, USA
I think of my art as something related to what I find sexually appealing. I often paint the clothed or partially clothed human figure usually within a beach setting; some water, some sand, some sky, some allure. To me, when I choose this subject matter to paint, I notice a calm quietness that in some way seems private, sexually inviting and romantic. Even when I leave the figure out of my paintings, I believe that the general feeling for me is inspired by at least an indirect sexual overtone of wanting to be in that landscape with someone special, feeling intimate.
Dust off the children
by Virginia Fonda, Coos Bay, Oregon, USA
WOW! If art is a form of birthing I cry over all my miscarriages but thank the Lord for all the births that survived and are admired, and for those that are now in someone else’s care, I ask for them to survive. Maybe the next generation will look on them kindly and not hide them under the bed or present them at their next garage sale. I think it’s time to look under my bed and see if any of my “children” can be dusted off and given a rebirth.
by Jillian Penney
Because this activity is new to me and because it represents quite a shift in occupation, I have been faced with questions of the basis of my behavior frequently, and thus have been forced to frame a reply. I’m doing my work because I can and because it feels good and because it lets me make other people feel good. Such a simple answer for such a profound question may not satisfy all, but it satisfies me. And it helps me move on to questions of “how.”
All the way from the gut
by Lida Van Bers
I like what Picasso said, “I put my orgasms on canvas.” I think when it comes to “id” it becomes indeed very orgasmic. Is it not that when we feel the need of painting, sculpting etc, that we become primal? The very feeling gets from your gut all the way up ending in your hands, the energy spreading like a wild fire! Hmmm, let me stop here. If we lack all this, we are very poor indeed. That is what artists are all about.
Scratch the itch
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
(Is it possible that art-making is a sublimated form of sexuality?) Of course, it is. Art-making is a sublimated form of EVERYTHING. Whatever I happen to be looking for today, I can find it in my painting. When it seems my whole life is in chaos, I can find order on the canvas. Sublimated problem-solving. Sublimated play. Sublimated relationship. Sublimated travel through time and space. (And, perish the thought, do we do it because we are in some way frustrated?) I believe it is the nature of existence to be frustrated. And making a painting is certainly a very effective way to scratch that particular itch.
Libido in the kettle of emotions
by Moncy Barbour, Lynchburg, Virginia, USA
Freud stated that all relations of the persona are motivated by the libido — sex drive. The id is the decision maker of the ego and super ego. This for the artist could cause neurosis or even psychosis and some great artist without mentioning names I feel may have been bipolar perhaps. Picasso was sexually frustrated. This shows in some of his work. I feel that when he was in a crowd at a bullfight that he may have felt isolated even then. Art is for show. There has probably never been an artist that only painted for his or her eyes alone. When an artist creates, the libido is in the kettle of emotions.
Artmaking expresses many issues
by Elsha Leventis
Eastern traditions say that creative energy and sexual energy are one. Definitely, humans are both creative and sexual beings–sometimes even at the same time. Making art is considered a healthy way of sublimating emotions. Before we learn to speak, we perceived our world in images and sensory perceptions, so artmaking taps into our dormant, preverbal “bank” accounts. For women and men, artmaking can express sexuality, repressed trauma and many other issues — there are as many variations as there are people. Art is a way of knowing ourselves — so finding out what your particular way of making art reveals about you and the nature of the personal messages in your images are wonderful, immediate clues into your subconscious.
Playing music and using aromas while you make art can help access even deeper parts of the psyche. Before we could see, we could hear — not just with our ears but with our whole bodies and skin. Try listening to music and see which parts of the body hear which sounds — highly tinkly sounds are heard in the ear while deep bass and drumbeats are often heard in the body. And ever notice how an aroma can instantly bring back long forgotten memories?
Ego in constant flux
by Jerry Waese, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
The illusion of ego is produced movie-fashion as a succession of mind moments or gestalts (whole body experiences). Each mind moment has associated gestures and mask-like expressions. Played in sequence is the appearance of a self, but it is really just a sequence of habituated poses and grimaces — kind of empty of the essence we imagine as self but very functional. Self is more like art. It is the whole process and the accretion.
The ability to sequence postures and faces (i.e. the ego) is extremely important, absolutely fundamental to everything we learn including painting. One could call it the formation and replay of habits. Most of how it plays out is simple sequenced association (like the movie frames picked off the cutting room floor and spliced into life). Sometimes the editing is elegant, often sloppy.
In painting I try to keep aware of the sequence of gestalts that are happening which gives me a bit more perspective and helps to keep attention towards the whole canvas (like a body). Looking at the whole canvas is like summoning the id — and I think this is a good thing for ego to do, it makes for a rounder approach overall. Of course id is also an illusion but it is the illusion of totality, which is constant flux and not actually any single thing.
Brain of many parts
by Kelly Borsheim, Cedar Creek, Texas, USA
Recently, I have had several people ask me if artists who create nude human forms are getting “turned on” while they create. Creating art is an intellectual pursuit. It stimulates the mind and vice versa. Since the brain is our “largest” sex organ, it would make sense to me that creating and stimulating are not too far from each other. But for myself and the artists I have spoken with about such things, while the observing of the model is happening, our brains are in spatial-thinking mode. We see shapes, light, and texture. Conscious sexual thoughts would get in the way and defeat the intention (although perhaps the unconscious id has defined our subject matter?). I read that photographer Edward Weston dismissed the public’s idea that his pepper images were erotic as “your comment tells more about you than it does about me.” But maybe the concentrated focus during the act is separate from the appreciation that happens afterwards. Perhaps the question becomes: Which part of the brain are you engaging at any given moment?
PS: If a male artist is allowed to admit his creativity is driven by his desire to meet girls, why would a girl’s desire to create have something to do with children? Or is it that the desire for (and definition of) immortality is expressed in different ways?
Women artists in history
by Faith Puelston, Wetter, Germany
Throughout history, the fact is that it has been the prerogative of the male gender to be creative, found in the monumental architecture of many centuries. We have no way of comparing the achievements of women artists within this historical perspective because there were hardly any. Their duty was to give birth to children, not works of art. Read about poor, brilliant Artemesia for just one example of the trials and tribulations of a female artist.
Things improved somewhat in the late 19th century, though it must be said that many of the women artists emerging out of the shadows had been artists’ models or in some way connected to male artists. Would Georgia O’Keeffe or Frida Kahlo, or a dozen others, have received that level of attention without their influential partners? Some male artists made their models famous. From Leonardo to Rembrandt, Goya to Dali, Gauguin, Warhol, Freud — women were and are important as subject matter. Some of them even managed to jump on the artistic bandwagon. Many remained just a pretty face/body.
The predominance of male artists is not confined to fine art and architecture. For example, female writers had huge social problems until fairly recently (e.g. Friedrich Chopin’s wife, who wrote under the pseudonym George Sand, the Bronté sisters, and dozens of others in a similar situation). Then there were the women who consciously stepped back so that their spouses could bathe in the glory of success. A good example of this is Clara, Robert Schumann’s wife, who was probably the greatest woman pianist ever. After the death of her husband she devoted most of her energy to perpetuating his name by playing the music he wrote for her. Whatever “id” women had in the old days, it didn’t help them in most cases to emancipate their creative talent.
Because I can
by John Ferrie
Why I make art is a question I get asked all the time. I love being an artist and could not imagine my life in any other form. I come from a family of readers and business minded people. Being terribly dyslexic, my report cards never made it on the fridge, but my art work always did. Sadly, when I was in grade school, when all the kids went off to arts and crafts, I was sent to remedial reading. My parents were very encouraging about my artistic interests and after school I was in every pottery, painting and arts orientated class. I remember enjoying it and being good at it. It always has and always will be what gives me my self esteem and defines the person that I am.
There must be something in me that makes me want to communicate by making art. I look at other paintings I admire and actually try and break down what that artist has done to get the results. I don’t copy the paintings of others, but I certainly try their techniques and see if I can get the same effect.
So, yes a bundle of good work habits and creative technique is one thing. The occasional applause from patrons and some cash sales is another. Maybe what Freud said has some merit. But you can apply his theories to just about every facet of living and have the same conclusions. As far as Picasso’s lewd comment, it proves once again that it was the afterthoughts of his works that fueled the interests in his career. I just paint because I can and it is something I truly love.
by Karen R. Hersey
The problem I recognize in the dialogue about ego and id being relative to creative processes is the huge assumption that primitive physiological structures, nerves and the medulla oblongata or lower brain which are denoted by some as being an “unconscious” state, determine the interpretive functions necessary to the creative process. Interpretation of sensory data is the function of the cerebral cortex, the seat of conscious intelligence. Indeed, Freud’s denoting of ego and id refers to social and personalized unconscious functions that monitor both the internal and external environment for signs of danger to the species as the fight/flight response indicates.
A case in point, it was not the primitive and unconscious fight/flight response that ruled my behaviour in two grizzly encounters. Oh, the instinct to flee was present big time but had I acted on that instinct I would probably have triggered the bear’s instinct to chase. In the fraction of a second my analytical cerebral cortex over-rode the medulla oblongata instinct to run. I got out of there because I did not act on instinct but on conscious and analytical brain functions that said, “don’t run” in this instance of sheer fear. Not that there is any great effort required to be smarter than a grizzly but on his turf against his bulk, force and speed I much preferred the a priori analytic process which played a role in my not being mauled or killed by acting to trigger the bear’s chase response. However, in the second encounter stupidity stayed around long enough for me to get eight fantastic and very hasty photos of the grizzly as I was exiting the scene !
The point is that if we are to conclude from an interpretation of Freud’s unconscious ego/id notion that painting pictures is the result of some unconscious and, therefore, indescribable function and, unconscious function admits of species survival, does it follow reasonably that we conclude painting pictures is a process necessarily related to species survival? If we could make that dog fly all artists would be as job-secure as social experts.
The next assumption that theories such as the “display and invitation” form of sexuality can be applied to art-making is just that theoretical. They are theoretical because there is only quantitative evidence and fuzzy-logic to validate the theory. In other words, a theory is not a principle or law of Nature. Theories might work in some instances, but never in all instances. If they worked in all instances then they would be principles.
If you wish to reduce women making-art to a “form of birthing” where each birth is equivalent to a “cosmic event,” I can only conclude that you have a predilection for the irrational particulars of experiential acquaintance which means that your experiences as a male maker of art are no more meaningful or valid than any woman’s. The confusion of all and some is unworthy of you, my friend, even if it is committed to generate controversy. Cheap strategy I would say but I’m almost certain you left the door to plausible deniability open. Hmmmmm?
“Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the Laws of Nature.” (John Constable)
…the better way to study art is indirectly through the study of science, history and philosophy; knowledge always precedes execution… to do otherwise… is to elevate the incompetent to fame. (Edgar A. Payne )
by Mike Lauchlan, Seville, Spain
Dull is the work that lacks a sense of the erotic (duller still is the artist). As for the inevitable fundamentalist onslaught, remember these sage words:
There’s two type of folk on this globe,
so reports a new government probe.
The one will get snotty,
when the subject turns naughty,
but the other will likely disrobe.
oil painting on canvas by
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