Month: April 2014

The Ego’s Place in the Art World: Is There Such a Thing As “Egoless” Art?

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I would like to develop my understanding of the ego through the exploration of spiritual and philosophical ideas. I would then like to look at the art world(s) and find examples in which I think the ego is particularly evident in the process, meaning or reasons for the artwork. I would also like to try and find artwork where the ego appears not to have existed in the production, therefore tackling my query; is there such a thing as “egoless” art?

One of the early explorers of the notion of the ego was Sigmund Freud. (1856 – 1939) He described the ego as “the idea that in each individual there is a coherent organisation of mental processes” (Freud 1923: 8) He relates the presence of the ego to consciousness, whereby the external world is linked to our internal world through the ego (Freud 1923: 8) I am also in agreement with Freud on the link between the ego and human consciousness and before further defining the ego I would first like to touch on the theory of consciousness.

There are several meanings relating to the concept of consciousness. I however am concerned with consciousness as ‘mind.’ Whilst some definitions relate to behaviour and experience, I am looking at “our growing understanding of the neural basis of the waking state and the contents of our experience” (Zeman, 2002: 21)

A good example of consciousness and it’s relation to the ego is in Jacques Lacan’s (1901 – 1981) concept The Mirror Stage. Lacan uses Freud’s ideas on narcissism that occurs when a person becomes conscious of their own body and when “the libido passes through from auto erotism” their body then becomes their love-object, (Mc Feely, n.d) a love-object in this instance is an object to feel love for. (Benevenuto and Kennedy, 1986: 50) Lacan also works with Freud’s analysis of ego formation; the relationship between the theoretical super-ego and Lacan’s idea of the Ego-Ideal. We will explore Freud’s model of the Human Psyche later on.

Where Lacan disagrees with Freud, is that when a child recognises his or her own reflection in a mirror, alienation and discordance occurs (Benevenuto and Kennedy, 1986: 58) as opposed to Freud’s concept; that perception is organised by the reality principle (Benevenuto and Kennedy, 1986: 60) (The reality principle is the Freudian Theory of “striving to satisfy…..desires in realistic and socially appropriate ways” (Cherry, n.d) The discordant Lacanian view of the child in the mirror stage, referred to as meconnaissance; a French word meaning recognition, was used by Lacan to describe the imaginary image seen during the mirror stage being the ideal (or the “ego-ideal” (Cherry, n.d)) as opposed to reality. This means that the subject is forever striving for an unobtainable perfection. (Anon, 2013) However you look at the minor details, the development of the start of consciousness is evident in this experiment as well as negative effects such as anxiety, neurosis and psychosis. (Cherry, n.d)

Earlier I spoke about Freud’s model of the Human Psyche; I would like to discuss this now and then compare it to other theorists who have concerned themselves with the ego.


Fig. 1
Fig. 1


Fig. 1 is a visual representation of Freud’s theory. Firstly it deals with the levels of consciousness, whereby unconscious stands for repression and the inability therefore to become conscious. The second form of the unconscious has a capability of becoming conscious and this is referred to as “preconscious.” Finally there is the conscious, which is the perception of experience. “The conscious mind includes such things as the sensations, perceptions, memories, feeling and fantasies inside of our current awareness” (Anon, 2009) Within the unconscious lies the ego with its counterparts; the Id and the Superego (Anon, 2013) The Id is the psyche working to satisfy basic urges and desires. (Cherry, n.d) It works with the pleasure/pain principle; “an instinct seeking to avoid pain and to obtain pleasure” (Anon, 2014) The Id is with us from birth; however the Superego is a construct of social standards gained from our parents and society. It is made up of two parts – the Ego Ideal (rules and standards for good behaviour) and the Conscience (more concerned by things deemed as bad by parents and society) Floating between all three levels of consciousness is the ego. This works to satisfy the desires of the Id, through the control of the Superego. (Cherry, n.d) As discussed previously, this organisation is otherwise known as the Reality Principle (Cherry, n.d)

Jung had a different approach to the ego. He agreed that it was the bridge between the external and internal world, but was associated to different corresponding parts. These deal with the objective and subjective parts of the human psyche. The ego is the subjective identity, part of the conscious mind (which was defined by Freud) and Jung believed that the ego is intrinsically connected to the part of the psyche called “The Self” which is the objective identity (Edinger, 1972: 3) and is the “all embracing symbol of the unconscious” (Jung, n.d) The Self and the ego are paradoxically separate and yet also part of the same thing.

“We generally define the Self as the totality of the psyche, which would necessarily include the ego…..If we speak rationally, we must inevitably make a distinction between ego and Self which contradicts our definition of Self” (Edinger, 1972: 6)

Jung believed that the ego was one of three parts of the psyche, the second and third being the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. He groups the Self as an archetype of the collective unconscious. Archetypes are “innate, universal and hereditary. Archetypes are unlearned and function to organize how we experience certain things.” (Cherry, n.d) Other main archetypes are The Shadow which represents the parts of the personality that has been repressed, and also the Anima or Animus (gendered) which is the part of the personality that coaxes us out of our internal world, the narcissism of the ego and the comfort of our close family circle to experience the wider world (Stephenson, n.d) The last of the four main archetypes is the Persona. This is the “mask” that we use in different social situations (Cherry, n.d)

The dominant archetype is the Self; “it surrounds and contains them [other archetypes]” (Edinger, 1972: 39) Therefore any alienation between the ego and any of the abundance of possible archetypes is alienation between the ego and the Self; this relationship is called the ‘ego-Self’. Jung discusses the relationship between the ego and the Self at different stages of our life proposing that there is a potential for the ego and Self to become disconnected (Edinger, 1972: 6) see Fig 2. I would like to explore this as well as the ego-Self relationship more later on in the essay in relation to spiritual theory. I would first like to look at the development of consciousness as the development of discomfort. As the ego separates from the Self, consciousness develops. Jung uses the Garden of Eden myth as an example of this:

“There is a deep doctrine in the legend of the Fall; it is the expression of a dim presentiment that the emancipation of ego consciousness was a Luciferian deed” (Jung, 1959)

In Ego and Archetype, Edward Edinger further discusses this example as a representation of the birth of the ego and with it the discomfort of consciousness (Edinger, 1972: 17-21)

“They [Adam and Eve] sacrifice the passive comfort of obedience for greater consciousness. The serpent does indeed prove to be a benefactor in the long run if we grant consciousness as a greater value than comfort” (Edinger, 1972: 21)


Fig. 2
Fig. 2

Where Jung differs to spiritual theorists is the context in which the relationship between the ego and the Self is deemed successful. Edinger using Jungian theory, discusses that a complete separation of the ego from the Self, or a break in the ‘ego-axis’ as illustrated in Fig.2 can result in “emptiness, despair, meaninglessness and in extreme cases psychosis or suicide” (Edinger, 1972: 43) Without the attachment of the ego to the Self, the ego would be representing us from a completely subjective perspective without the control of the Self and the other contributes that allow our development and place within the external world “the ego is the Self’s representative in external reality” (Shepherd, n.d)

Buddhist philosophy celebrates the egoless state. “…a perfected one who had reached the egoless state of nirvana” (Fowler, 1999) The ego in Buddhist terms is “a collection of mental events classified into five categories, called skandhas” (Butler, n.d) Skandhas is a term for five types of existence – Form, Sensation, Perception, Mental formations, Consciousness (O’Brien, n.d) From the Skandhas the ego can then choose which of the six realms of existence it can manifest itself in (Butler, n.d) The six realms are heaven, humanity, angry gods, hungry ghosts, animal and hell. Although these are the realms that a soul can be reborn into during reincarnation, all realms are interlinked and humans can experience all realms. Whether it is the anger of the realm of angry gods, the craving and dissatisfaction of the realm of the hungry ghost or the ignorance of the animal realm (Anon, 2009)

Eckhart Tolle (1948) also discusses the different types of ego-based suffering. He calls this the ‘pain-body’ which is the emotional part of the ego (Anon, n.d) just as Jung denoted that the ego is the subjective part of the psyche.

“There is such a thing as old emotional pain living inside you. It is an accumulation of painful life experience that was not fully faced and accepted in the moment it arose. It leaves behind an energy form of emotional pain. It comes together with other energy forms from other instances and so after some years you have a pain-body, an energy entity consisting of old emotion” (Tolle, 2010)

All theories seem to agree that the ego is a link between the internal and external world. It is not however a complete representation of the human psyche or personality, but a part of the self which seeks pleasure and avoids pain and seeks to connect emotionally to the world. They all disagree on the particulars displayed by the ego, but all agree that the ego is the cause of internal conflict and discomfort. Freud and Lacan both spoke of object love “Instinct of love toward an object demands a mastery to obtain it, and if a person feels they can’t control the object or feel threatened by it, they act negatively toward it.” (Freud, 1923: 20) Lacan also spoke of the struggle to attain the Ideal-Ego and the negative psychological effects sometimes caused. Freud spoke of the conflict between different areas of the psyche in relation to instinctual desires our attempt to attain them in a socially appropriate way (the Id, the Superego and the Reality principle). More simplistically, Jung described the birth of the ego as the start of consciousness and the discomfort that this brings. “The biblical fall of man presents the dawn of consciousness as a curse,” (Jung, 1933: 99) He also spoke about the internal conflict between the Self and the ego. Buddhism aims for an egoless state, where Eckhart Tolle aims for awareness of the pain-body and the integrity of egoic traits. (Tolle, 2010) All theories agree that the ego causes emotional suffering. I would now like to explore some contemporary artist’s stories and discuss where this suffering is evident in their artwork as well as how they deal with the subject of the ego. I would like to make three case studies of artists that display the ego in different ways.

My first case is Andy Warhol. (1928 – 1987) Warhol’s childhood was a poor one. Growing up in the great depression, his mother struggled to put food on the table. He was struck down with a childhood illness which left him shy and reclusive, so his family kept him occupied inside with magazines, films and colouring books. These started Warhol’s obsession with popular culture and famous celebrities. The explosion of consumerism and branding that then transpired in the 1950’s further fascinated Warhol and when he started to make it big on the art scene he created a brand out of his own self-image. He was obsessed with fame and wanted to be famous himself. “Someone [Warhol] who wanted something very much, which was fame” (Anon, 2013) He was his own love-object in Freudian terms showing narcissistic tendencies. (Anon, n.d) In his reflection he saw what Lacan would describe as the Ego-Ideal. Warhol describes his own reflection: “self-admiring carelessness….The knobbly knees. The roadmap of scars. The long bony arms, so white they look bleached….The pinhead eyes. The banana ears…” (Warhol, 1975:10) Warhol however strived for his Ideal-Ego. He had a large collection of wigs that he said he wore so you can’t tell how old he is (Anon, 2013) He also had work on his nose “At one time the way my nose looked really bothered me…and I decided that I wanted to have it sanded” (Warhol, 1975: 10) The image that Warhol had created was in fact one of Jung’s four main archetypes – The Persona. Warhol’s artwork was an extension of his narcissistic obsession with fame, beauty and the creation of a brand. He created many pieces using famous icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley as well as brands such as Brillo and Coca Cola. Ultimately, Warhol’s idea which he executed throughout his career was to take things which you wouldn’t immediately think of as an object of beauty and turn it into a work of art (Anon, 2013); whether that was a soup can, a photograph or himself. He was striving for the Lacanian Ideal-Ego (Lacan’s “ideal ego” is the ideal of perfection that the ego strives to emulate (Anon, n.d) and therefore as well as being a product of the times, Warhol’s artwork was a product of his ego.

My second case is Tracey Emin. A lot of her work reflects painful past experiences and she uses her emotional ego struggles to create her artwork. She writes openly in a column for the Independent where we get an insight into her emotional states: “I went on a bit of a journey today. For at least half an hour my mind went into an upset, jealous rage, full of imaginary graphic detail” (Emin, 2008) Historically, Emin had suffered sexual abuse, abortions and miscarriages as well as bullying in her home town Margate. She revisits these experiences frequently throughout her work such her drawings about abortions and her films “Scream” and “Why I Never Became a Dancer.” This is reflective of Eckhart Tolle’s pain-body theory, where all the pain of Emin’s earlier life is carried with her and manifests itself as artwork.


Fig. 3
Fig. 3


“My Bed” Fig. 3 shows the effects of the pain-body. You could also relate Jungian theory to the emotional issues that she was having, where her past experiences may have created a separation between the Self and the ego. One of the symptoms of this, as we have discussed previously, being psychosis as is described by Emin in relation to the inspiration for the work “I was at a point in my life where I was pretty low and hadn’t got out of the bed for four days….drinking like an absolute fish….also I was in this weird nihilistic thing, where I thought well if I die it doesn’t matter.” (Emin, n.d)

Emin has admitted that “There’s parts of my [her] character that I [she] absolutely hate[s]…getting jealous, violent, paranoid..” (Emin, n.d) We can compare her in this instance to the five Skandhas of Buddhist philosophy where these emotional states are true of the realm of the angry gods. Her alcohol abuse was famously exposed publically and such would be true of someone experiencing the realm of the hungry ghosts.

My third case is Bill Viola (1951). I would like to step away from the negative effects of the ego and use Viola as an example of how the ego can take us on a journey of self-discovery. Like Jung, Viola agrees that the ego is the conscious part of the psyche whereas the Self is the unconscious and there is a separation between both, unless a gate is found whereby harmony is found and awareness begins. The gateway he uses is nature, which includes the human psyche (Anon, n.d)

In ‘Tactics of the Ego’ the ego is discussed in terms of “I,” “identity” and “individualism.” (Brockhaus, 2003: 8) Cornelia Bruninghaus-Knubel discusses Viola’s film “I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like”:

“Man and animal, nature and technology, consciousness and subconsciousness are inseparably interwoven in the infinite cycle of birth and death, and the artist’s self makes sure of itself by his subjective perception of the outside world through the camera”

This piece is a typical representation of Viola’s exploration of self and its passage from birth through to death and beyond. Most of his work follows suit – “Nine Attempts to Achieve Mortality,” Five Angels for the Millennium,” and “The Passing” for example. David Morgan discusses “The Passing”:

“Without doubt ‘The Passing’ epitomizes a narcissistic attitude[…] For what could be more narcissistic than the opening up of one’s own private family album to a large audience of television viewers, to share in the joys and grief of lived human experience” (Usselmann, 2013)

As discussed by David Morgan Viola’s films can be taken as narcissistic exploitations of particularly sensitive subjects, however they are also simply examples of someone sharing their experiences of self-discovery through a medium that just so happens to be particularly graphic and real.

So we have looked at the different theories on and interpretations of the ego and explored where these different takes are evident in the art world. Artists are generally known for being emotive, troubled and somewhat narcissistic, and now we have an insight into the psychology behind these troubles.

“The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.” (Picasso, n.d)

“A new British study finds people with narcissistic tendencies are more likely than others to think of themselves as creative, and to engage in creative activities. If your opinion of yourself is unusually high, there’s a good chance you long to share your brilliance with the rest of the world.” (Jacobs, 2013)

I think in my conclusion I was hoping to find some pure, untainted artwork without a trace of humanity attached to it. Through my exploration of the ego however I have realised that the ego is an intrinsic part of being human and whether you are trying to communicate ideas on things internal or external to you, it will have to go through the ego first. So my answer to my original question “is there such a thing as egoless art?” would have to be no; although not all artwork has to identify with the discomfort and suffering that sometimes accompany the ego it still has come from inside us, through the human consciousness and the ego to the outside world.

“Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.” Henry Ward Beecher (Beecher, n.d)