Confessional Arts

RUMMAGING THROUGH THE HARDCOVER BIN at the local dump recycling center last week, I came across a discarded library copy of Fulton Sheen’s Peace of Soul (1949). It was famous in its day. I stopped to leaf through it, curious to see if it still held up. Or was it a phenomenon of the times, a relic of made-for-television piety? Answer: It is still a terrific book by a gracious, witty scholar with a gift for speaking to non-scholars without condescension or simplifications.

Of particular interest to an arts audience is his chapter “Confession and Psychoanalysis.” That old devil, the Unconscious, has been nagging at the arts since the Dadaists went Freudian. André Breton, the “Pope of Surrealism,” proposed yet another revolution bases on Freud’s theories.  Art’s role was not to depict existing realities, since there were none. Its purpose was to record discernible configurations of images that existed in the subconscious. As Breton phrased it: “It is not a question of drawing; it is simply a question of tracing.”


Giuseppe Maria Crespi, "The Confessional"


No need to bog down in the logic of that. What matters is the subsequent invitation to artists—and, by extension, to us all—to throw off the controls of the conscious mind and let the ininimitable, limitless world of the subconcious bubble to the surface. Thence came automatic drawings, automatic “writing,” and something Breton named “psychic automatism.” That last, put another way, is thought in the absence of reason, volition, conviction, and those preferences and hankerings that are the very stuff of moral preoccupation. Surrealism is the confession, if you will, of the abandonment of intention. [Which makes the term surrealist art an oxymoron. But we can wait with that one.]

This is where Sheen comes in. He has high regard for pychiatry and psychoanalysis properly used as a method. But he is skeptical it of as a dogmatic philosophical system. Psychiatry and the psychoanalytic method are valid within their spheres. He draws the line only at those within the profession who assert that man is driven by animal instinct and reflexes; that there is no personal responsibility and therefore no guilt. He rejects the the psychoanalytic method as a substitute for confession.

Artists do love to confess. Art is the stage on which they confess their sexuality, their HIV status, their race, their pre-and-post pubescent anxieties, their politics, their café philosophies, their inner child, their intellectual pretensions, and every hidden twinge crying for expression.  All this, on the assumption that an artist’s unconscious is somehow more interesting than anyone else’s. It isn’t. But what is interesting is the way confession itself remains a vital impulse in contemporary secular setting.

Sheen makes valuable comments on the difference between the ethos of the confessional box and our own risk-free, exhibitionist variant of it. Here he is on repression:

Nothing in the whole realm of psychology is more destructive of personality than the notion that moral restraints cause unhealthy repressions through preventing the release of animal instinct and primitive urges. Destructive impulses should be repressed; knowledge of our faults should not. Individuals who have reversed this healthy rule have invariably wound up many times more neurotic than before.

Reading that, I can’t help but think of Pollock wrapped around a tree.

Psychoanalysis is an avowal of attitudes of mind in unconsciousness; confession is an avowal of guilt in conscience. . . . The revealing of mental attitudes asks nothing of our pride and never craves pardon; as a matter of fact, one can be proud of an unhealthy state of mind. Some men delight in boasting of their atheism, their agnosticism, their perversities, but no conscience ever boasted of its guilt. Even in isolation, the sinner is ashamed.

This passage, discussing the brevity of confession compared to the length of psychoanalysis, has a certain humor to it. It brings to mind Woody Allen in therapy three days a week for a century and sliding deeper into creepdom all the while:

Because there is no humiliation in confessing mental oddities—as there is in moral lapses—the patient may enjoy prolonging the story of his “symptoms” and say preeningly, at the end of a lengthy presentation, “Doctor, did you ever hear anything like that?”

Sheen continues:

It is not a wholly disagreeable process to be analyzed. A man who has been told everything is a symptom need never accuse himself or ask to be judged. He may come to look upon himself as curious phenomenon that needs to be investigated—not for the sake of bettering himself or to profit by the knowledge he analyst gives him, but to satisfy his curiosity.

And his narcissism. The analyst, like art’s audience, represents not the moral order but the emotional order. In confession, one’s life is open to the eyes of true judgment. In art, judgment on the content of the confession is suspended. Expression is the primary value; moral ingredients are omitted. Lost in this suspension, is the ancient recognition that self-discipline—including the artistic disciplines of craft—is itself a form of self-expression. And very possibly the highest and best.


© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey