The holy house of Hal Foster

Simulacrum, 19, 18-22.

The holy house of Hal Foster.
A critical enquiry of psychoanalysis as art historical method

Recently, a new art historical bible was published under the title Art since 1900 (2005). This yet renowned synopsis reviews modern art of the past century through four leading methodologies, the holy houses of art history. Hal Foster (1955), professor at Princeton University (USA), is presented as spokesman of the psychoanalytic art historical method. Introducing his method, Foster states that there are extensive parallels between the development of the psychoanalysis and modern art. Derived from the inspiration artists gained from the psychoanalytic theory by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Foster aims to apply the psychoanalytic theory to reach an understanding of diverse modern art historical expressions.

Validating his method, Foster states that “one can critique Freud and Lacan, […] and still remain within the orbit of psychoanalysis.” This might be your typical argument to keep a holy house on its feet, but from a scientific point of view one might wonder how adequate such a statement is. The current essay  reports the research I did for my bachelor thesis, in which the scientific adequacy of Foster’s method is tested. In his method Foster pleads to follow the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud and, secondarily, the revisions made by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981). The hypothesis however, is that Foster confuses basic psychoanalytic concepts from Freud with Lacan’s, which might result in what I call the ‘Dictionary Effect:’ the use of concepts as given by the dictionary, lacking adequate consideration of their theoretical context. I tested Foster’s appliance to the theories of Freud and Lacan, which resulted in an amount of conclusions with reaching consequences for the scientific adequacy of one of the holiest houses in art  history.


Psychoanalysis as art historical method of Hal Foster
Successfully working his way through art historical resistance and critique, Hal Foster victoriously became a renowned expert of psychoanalysis as art
historical method. This again might be your typical path to establish a holy house: once called an expert, your laurels will be passed onto your method. However holy Foster’s methodological house may seem, its fundaments are  meddled in the current research. I assumed that Foster, pleading to follow Freud’s psychoanalysis, does not apply Freud’s theory properly by neglecting a fundamental system in the total theory, and moreover confuses Freud’s basic concepts with the theory of Lacan. Due to this confusion I accuse Foster’s method to be subdued to what I call the ‘Dictionary Effect.’


The Dictionary Effect is particularly perceptible in Foster’s use of the Freudian concept of the uncanny. Losing track of the system of defense mechanisms, Foster also neglects its direct connection to the uncanny: the uncanny appears when a stimulus in the outer world evokes a sense of recognition caused by the memory of a repressed situation, but lacking a  conscious source; this results in an unconsciously destructive feeling of  uncomfort. In his appliance Foster however follows the intention of  surrealist artists “not to cover up the real with simulacral surfaces but to uncover it in uncanny things, which are often put in performances as well.” Foster thus handles the uncanny as a consciously applicable ‘approach’ in the creation of art, following artists in their removal of the concept out of its  original Freudian context.

Foster not only neglects the unconscious and spontaneous feature of the uncanny, he also repudiates the intrinsic  hierarchy of the defense mechanisms. According to Freud the artwork follows out of the defense mechanism sublimation. When an instinct is  sublimated, that specific instinct will never again be involved in the conflict  between the lust principle and the reality principle, as it has already passed  the judgment of the Ego and is manifested in altered form in the outer world.  The sublimated instinct could thus not also be repressed. An uncanny feeling  is evoked by an external stimulus that causes a surprising sense of  recognition of a repression; but for the artist such a feeling can never be  evoked by his own artwork, because the artwork is the consequence of a sublimated instinct, not of a repressed one. Moreover, the artist could never  imply a true uncanny experience into his artwork for its viewers, because according to Freud the sensitivity to uncanny experiences differs tremendously between individuals due to the extensiveness of their own  repressions, and is thus not predictable. Following the intention of artists to imply such uncanniness in their artworks, Foster thus undermines the  theoretic reliance of his method to the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud.


Pdf: Simulacrum 19 (2010) The holy house of Hal Foster

Een kritische analyse van Psychoanalyse als Kunsthistorische Methode

Bachelorscriptie Kunstgeschiedenis
Universiteit van Amsterdam (Juni 2010)


In Art since 1900 (2005), een recent en vermaard overzichtswerk van moderne kunst, wordt Psychoanalyse gepresenteerd als een van de vier leidende kunsthistorische methoden. Hal Foster (1955), hoogleraar aan Princeton University, past psychoanalyse in diverse publicaties toe op het Surrealisme, waarbij hij de persoonlijkheidstheorie van psychoanalyticus Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) als uitgangspunt neemt. Het huidige paper gaat in op de vraag in hoeverre Fosters berusting op de Freuds psychoanalyse wetenschappelijk adequaat is. Gesteld wordt dat Foster de theoretische assumpties van Freud niet naar volledigheid hanteert en veelvuldig verwart met de persoonlijkheidstheorie van psychoanalyticus Jacques Lacan (1901-1981). Fosters werk wordt getoetst aan de psychoanalyse van Freud en Lacan, waarbij de concepten Afweermechanismen, Sublimatie, het Unheimliche en de oppositie bewust-onbewust elementair zijn, naar aanleiding waarvan de rol van kunst in de persoonlijkheidstheorieën van Freud en Lacan fundamenteel verschilt. Geconcludeerd wordt dat Fosters theorie niet met recht kan worden gefundeerd in de psychoanalyse van Sigmund Freud. Gesteld wordt dat de psychoanalyse als kunsthistorische methode, teneinde het wetenschappelijk fundament te handhaven, alleen historisch kan worden toegepast ter verklaring van inspiratie van specifieke kunstenaars, maar in de huidige conditie, zonder adequate fundering in de oorspronkelijke psychoanalytische theorie, niet langer pragmatisch kan worden gehanteerd.