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Shrinking Michelangelo

In response to:

Shrinking Michelangelo from the June 28, 1984 issue

To the Editors:

Leo Steinberg rhetorically asks in his ungenerous review of Robert Liebert’s Michelangelo: A Psychoanalytic Study of His Life and Images [NYR, June 28] how it is possible that a half century of psychoanalytic exploration of art has resulted in the blatant reductionism with which he accuses Liebert. One might counter: How is it possible that after thirty years of criticism of the psychoanalytic exploration of art, Steinberg can do no better than trot out the stale arguments served up by Meyer Schapiro in his 1956 critique of Freud’s 1910 monograph on Leonardo da Vinci? Steinberg’s orchestration is different, but all his melodies are familiar—as are the misconceptions underlying the sforzandi of his performance, a performance stridently unlike that of Schapiro’s more tempered and fair-minded essay.

Misconception number one: Steinberg accuses Liebert of holding “a firm faith in psychoanalytic theory as a method of historical investigation.” Not only is this statement muddled (how can a theory be equated with a method when clearly any one theory may engender diverse methods and vice versa?), it is a travesty of Liebert’s approach in that it implies the conflation of psychoanalytic and historical methods and goals. This fundamental mistake provides the boggy ground for Steinberg’s subsequent complaints about Liebert’s book. Having convinced himself that Liebert has set out to rewrite art history by means of psychoanalytic theory, he responds with the expectable pique of one whose territory has been invaded by an enemy.

Except however for the most radically dissident (see Malcolm on Masson, 1983), psychoanalysis today is never aimed at “historical investigation.” Psychoanalysis seek not to reconstruct actual events occurring in public arenas of consentual validation, but to recover and elaborate highly individualized webs of intrapsychic fantasy woven with and around and over and under such “real” events. Psychoanalytic interpretation has to do with meaning, choice and conflict, none of which relates in simple, predictable ways to actual historical events. Thus, as Liebert fully realizes, psychoanalytic understanding is neither a substitute for historical knowledge, nor is it entirely dependent on historical knowledge: history is neither the goal nor the sine qua non of psychoanalytic investigation. In other words, knowing that certain events occurred does not mean you’ve got the fantasies right, and mistaking the events does not mean you’ve got them wrong (see Eissler, 1961).

Furthermore, truth claims in (art) history differ significantly from those of psychoanalysis, as do notions of causation. Thus, in any given case (e.g., that of Michelangelo), the relations between particular historical and psychoanalytic interpretative schemata must necessarily prove highly complex: the accuracy of any one piece of the puzzle cannot be taken as a guarantee for the cogency of any other piece. To conflate these schemata leads Steinberg to dismiss Liebert’s psychoanalytic interpretations by recourse to criteria borrowed from his own discipline of art history. This is as inappropriate as it would be to dismiss all Indian music on the grounds that it fails to conform to the rules of Western classical harmony.

Misconception number two: according to Steinberg, it is necessary to choose between alternative interpretative hypotheses. Such a view overlooks the peculiar indeterminacy of works of art and pretends that interpretative formulations can, like simple statements of fact, be falsified. One rarely hears, however, the phrase “true interpretation” (see Hampshire, 1979); on the contrary, it is generally regarded as one of the distinguishing features of works of art that they are indeed susceptible of more than just one interpretation. By offering, in opposition to Liebert, his alternative hypothesis about the circumstances of Michelangelo’s early childhood, Steinberg seems to believe that he has ipso facto discredited Liebert’s version. He fails to notice that interpretations in general and psychoanalytic interpretations in particular do not lend themselves to this species of argument/counter-argument. They do not do so for reasons intimated above, namely (1) that no simple relation exists between any given sequence of events and the intrapsychic fantasies which these events engender or to which they may become attached, and (2) that alternate and even mutually contradictory fantasies often coexist in the psyche. Thus, Steinberg’s alternative narrative neither supplants, negates, nor overrides that of Liebert. At best, it adds elements which may indeed constitute missing pieces to a puzzle which Liebert specifically claims not to have finally resolved.

Misconception number three: Steinberg seems to deny or misunderstand the role of unconscious mental processes in the creation of art. His claim that artists create their images by thought and decision, that they “preside over their work with eyes open” is indisputable but trivial. From Plato’s Phaedrus on, philosophers, critics, and even artists (as well as psychoanalysts!) have remarked the odd circumstance that artists do not stand in any privileged position vis-a-vis the interpretation of their own works. It is not, as Steinberg would have it, that aspects of works unconscious (read: unknown) to the artist represent “lapses” (read: failures) or that to explore such aspects is necessarily to impugn the artist by implying that all aspects of his creation are not within the purview of his own knowledge, power and control. On the contrary, artists—even Renaissance artists, despite their extraordinary arrogance and self-assurance—continually report the subjective experience of forces impinging upon them from within or without, forces they describe in myriad ways, from the visitations of a muse to the accidents or dictates of materials and craft.

That there should be no stigma attached to exploring such extra-intentional aspects seems obvious. Liebert, by tracing unconscious fantasies that may underlie such emotionally compelling and disturbing images as the Doni tondo and the Protean giants of the Sistine Ceiling, does not in so doing belittle the master Michelangelo. Nor does he belittle “the thousands who daily gaze at the Sistine Ceiling” when he implies that part of their fascination with this masterpiece lies in its instantiation of primitive and terrifying fantasies that resonate with all of us. Liebert does not reduce or demean Michelangelo’s work when he implies that without this infusion of primitive fantasy, the frescoes, whatever their technical wonders and visual splendors, would lose perhaps the greatest wellsprings of their power. To explore the unconscious aspects of a work of art is not to deny the artistry of its maker nor to reduce him to a “neurotic,” but rather to enrich our understanding of the deepest ways in which certain works of art become extraordinarily important to us—an issue which the discipline of art history with all its erudition has never satisfactorily addressed.

Ellen Handler Spitz

Columbia University

New York

Leo Steinberg replies:

Over “Misconception number one” Ms. Spitz and I are in no disagreement. History and psychoanalysis have distinct goals and methods, and to confuse them is a disservice to both. It was just this confusion that I deplored in the book reviewed. For when Dr. Liebert asserts as a biographical fact that Michelangelo was subjected to oral deprivation in infancy; or that for Michelangelo, even in his old age, the image of the Madonna “necessarily carried with it feelings of rage toward the mother who in his real life had left him frightened”; or that the relation between the artist and Pope Julius II was continually threatened by “the eruption of strong unconscious homosexual impulses toward each other,” he is historicizing from supposed fantasies and laboring under that prime misconception. But why rub it in, when the aim is to exonerate Dr. Liebert?

I agree again that one should not “dismiss all Indian music on the grounds that it fails to conform to the rules of Western classical harmony.” But would Ms. Spitz concede that a Westerner’s interpretation of Indian music should honor that music by accurate listening? Liebert’s treatment of Michelangelo’s works distressed me by its abuse of the visual data. To make a point, he will have two small angels (in the Madonna della Scala relief) “incongruously fighting,” whereas they are clasped in an amorous clinch. Where the symbol of the Church’s foundation in the Doni Tondo appears as a regular hemicycle, architecturally articulated, Liebert’s description substitutes a stone quarry of bare, jagged rock, because he wants it to symbolize Michelangelo’s “regressive yearnings for his earliest feeding situation.” And the lively toddlers in the Medea sarcophagus—whom Liebert appoints to prefigure the alleged fright of the holy children in Michelangelo’s Tondo Taddei—are not “trying to escape death at the hands of their mother,” but chasing each other while playing ball. Thus, for the sake of a theory, incongruity, obduracy, and terror are imposed on contrarious evidence, and this is no way to approach Indian music.

Misconception number two” has me agreeing again. Works of art may well be susceptible to more than one interpretation, and so, perhaps (though they are hardly art), are “the circumstances of Michelangelo’s early childhood.” But I should have thought that this was exactly my point. Liebert believes that his method—psychoanalytical theory backed by clinical studies and observations of bereaved American children—has firmly established the actual circumstances of Michelangelo’s early childhood, along with their necessary effects on the artist’s creations and character. Whereas I urged that Liebert’s arbitrary construction of Michelangelo’s childhood experience is precarious ground for his superstructure of alleged necessities. And I argued the point by pleading, against Liebert’s relentless determinism, that the known facts permit us “to fabricate an alternative childhood experience [for Michelangelo] no less plausible” than Liebert’s artifact. Who then needs to be told that Michelangelo’s early childhood is interpretable in more ways than one?

The case for flexible interpretations of Michelangelo’s images is similar. The meaning Liebert attributes to them “at the deepest level” is usually a commonplace of psychoanalysis; it resides wholly outside the image, which itself is left flat.

Misconception number three” seems to involve a simple misunderstanding. I have nowhere suggested that impulses from the unconscious informing a creative process must needs produce lapses or failures. What I said was that the specific unconscious motives Liebert assigns to Michelangelo and imputes to his works do not visibly inform the artist’s paintings and sculptures; and that if they did—if Liebert’s readings of these creations were right—Michelangelo would have failed to meet the requirements of his subjects. But perhaps this point will only be grasped by those who can see how profoundly Renaissance artists respected their subjects. To viewers who think of Renaissance artists as “arrogant,” this quality of respect in Renaissance art is probably inaccessible.

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