What the artwork wants: thoughts for, against and around interpretation in art and psychoanalysis

Laura Gonzalez & Sharon Kivland
Sheffield Hallam University


It is quite common to see art and psychoanalysis as disciplines related to each other, especially in the gallery space and in academic contexts. Their relationship, however, is more often than not an interpretive one, with art giving itself up and psychoanalysis offering a masterly reading of the artist’s intention, or the meaning of the work. This is disconcerting to us, who have been or are engaged in both. Through our activities as artists and analysands we found that they have a lot in common when thought of as practices, rather than bodies of theory, critical tools or scientific endeavour.

Interpretation of the patient’s repressed material is a tool of psychoanalysis, but one that is less important than construction or transference, its most arduous task. A transferencial relation, where repressed feelings are redirected towards a new object, can also be established with works of art, as Sigmund Freud revealed in his 1936 letter to Romain Rolland. Certain works of art – Simon Morris or Marcel Duchamp’s, for example – do not apply psychoanalysis, or its interpretive methods. Instead, their disruptive constructions, much like those Freud spoke about, capture everything interpretations do not. What these works show is that interpretations may get in the way of an encounter with the work of art.

In this paper, which takes the form of a particular encounter, we develop arguments for, against and around interpretation in relation to art and psychoanalysis. When it comes to these practices, things may be more complex than the production of an explicative structure. This will pose questions around certain contemporary debates, such as the frame of reference for practice-led PhDs and their outcomes. No matter how much we try, however, works of art resist interpretation.

Paper, delivered at the Royal Society of Arts, London, on the 31st October 2008

Glasgow, August 2008

Dear Sharon,

Faced with the task of writing about our thoughts for, against and around interpretation in art and psychoanalysis – an area of research interest to both of us – and in answer to your suggestion of creating a piece that elicits response, I considered the form and structure of a letter, something relational, just like art and psychoanalysis, and also, why not, our student-supervisor connection. It seems to me that the format may help us to reflect and ask each other questions, if not to interpret [1]. A letter is also the format Sigmund Freud chose to talk about a strange disturbance he felt in front of the Acropolis [2], one you know so much about and which I suspect will crop up in the course of this encounter.

Dear Laura,
I have taken the liberty to interrupt your letter. Forgive me for breaking into the flow of your thoughts. When you write to me, are you also writing to yourself? A letter is often designed to elicit a response (it is a demand): identification, sympathy, recognition, money … I have just watched Max Ophul’s film with Joan Fontaine, based on a short story by Stefan Zweig: In Letter from an Unknown Woman, the dashing hero receives a letter from a woman he does not remember, and yet he has fathered her child. Letters are much on my mind. As your supervisor, my role is to give you a response, one that recognises you and then either validates or criticises your research (which is offered to me as an obligation); you would then do a little more reading, a bit more looking (I would hope), and some rewriting (if not at once, then later, say, in four years time). As your supervisor, I am supposed to know more than you; I am the one supposed to know and that phrase will resonate for you, won’t it? We can say it in French: sujet supposé savoir. We can say it in Lacanese, too: the supposed subject of knowledge, and Jacques Lacan himself will say: ‘As soon as the subject who is supposed to know exists somewhere there is transference.’ If this were a conference paper, rather than a letter, I should cite the source, shouldn’t I? But this, my dear Laura, is a letter, a letter, shall we say, about knowledge and transference. It is even a letter about letters. When Freud writes his letter to Rolland in 1936, it is an open letter, a letter to salute Rolland on the occasion of his seventieth birthday. It is a letter he was reluctant to write. On 6th January 1936, Freud writes to Victor Wittowski, in reply to the suggestion that he writes something for the seventieth birthday of Roman Rolland. He says he will be eighty. He would like to give, of course, but he has nothing to give. Producing something new for the occasion, well, that will not be forthcoming at his time of life, no, not for him. The previous year he wrote something that would have interested Rolland, but it had a defect, which prevented its publication. His ability to produce has dried up since then, and it is probably too late now to revive it. It is easier for him to refuse, as there is a constraint on what he may write: any reference to politics must be excluded. If he were to write, then evidently he would have wanted to praise Rolland’s courage of conviction, his tolerance and love of truth, and so no, he will not write under this paralysing restriction, no, he could not do anything, even if he were in his prime. On 29th January, he informs Wittowski, he will write a few affectionate lines to Rolland, now that he knows the date of his friend’s birthday. When I write to you, will you take these as affectionate lines? I would like to give, myself, but what do I have to give, except myself? And of course, as analyst or supervisor (and I would add, as work of art), that is a gift that is not on offer, though you must continue to believe in its possibility for a while.

As we mentioned in the abstract we submitted to the conference, interpretation is seen as one of the tools to answer problems encountered both in art and psychoanalysis, which more often than not, it seems to me, are problems related to meaning, in dreams, photographs, jokes, scenes, slurred speech, installations, forgotten names, positions, bungled and unintended acts… Freud, of course, tackled those related to psychoanalytic technique in many of his texts [3]. The main issue for him was the heads I win, tails you lose argument [4], highlighted by his critics: when the analyst interprets a particular symptom, he becomes the master, he is always right, whether the meaning he assigned to it is correct according to the analysand – in which case, there will be insight – or wrong – in which case the workings of repression will be unveiled. If multiple interpretations are thus possible and indeed useful, for example, in a treatment, why and how interpret? I must admit that, as an artist working within the intellectual territory of psychoanalysis – both in relation to theory and practice – I am torn between the positions for and against interpretation.

The analyst’s role, despite anything received opinion and the movies tell us, is to listen to the analysand. The analysand speaks or stumbles over speech or is completely silent, and the analyst must be attentive to the words, ruptured, stammering, choked out in tears, tumbling out of the mouth, and to the moments when words fail. The analyst plays another role simultaneously, that of intervention in the speech of the analysand. While the intervention may take many forms, appear as no more than the lighting of a cigarette, a cough, or the notorious ‘hmm’ of the analyst (which at least reassures that the analyst is awake), it is more usually considered to take the form of an interpretation. An analytic interpretation is the offering of something that breaks into the conscious discourse of the analysand, and which has an effect on that discourse at the level of the unconscious. An interpretation makes unconscious thoughts become conscious, recognised, and articulates something repressed from memory. An interpretation in this sense brings to light what has been left out of the analysand’s account of events; it displays the symptom – ‘dreams, slips of the tongue and flashes of wit (…) are structurally identical with symptoms.’ The display of the symptom and its further articulation results in a cure. This is how Freud starts and if it seems simple enough, it still has an effect (though its effects wear off, as analysts, including Freud, began quite soon to notice). I may have to break off for a moment, to have a little cigarette.

I want to tell you where my thoughts are at before I ask you for some help. I also want to show you that I am a diligent student and that I have carried out my literature survey on interpretation. So let me start with the positive. For is undoubtedly Freud’s position in The Interpretation of Dreams, as the title itself confirms. Although he qualified and refined his viewpoint later on, the model developed in his seminal work was based on free associations made by the dreamer herself in her representation, rather than on the fortune-telling approach of more symbolic methods –a framework where particular elements of the dream would have an answer by the book. Interpretation is a primary tool in psychoanalytic treatment, and has the role of turning unconscious thoughts into conscious ones. In that way, interpretations may help subvert the usual (and known) ways the analysand looks at something. That’s why Paul Ricoeur, called the psychoanalytic technique of interpretation hermeneutics of suspicion and hope, emphasising its critical openness. He said that ‘three masters, seemingly mutually exclusive, dominate the school of suspicion: Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud [who] represent three convergent procedures of demystification’ [5].

Yes, indeed, dear Laura, I am delighted to see you have done your homework, and must thank you for your diligent production. No doubt, you will feel I am never grateful enough for the gifts you bring me. You will remember when I took on the role of your supervisor- when I agreed to fulfill that function (for I am not a personage but a function), I told you to go into analysis. I felt that you would not be able to write – even think – about your enquiry if you did not understand the situation. You know, anything can be an interpretation, if we do not dwell too much on the uncovering of hidden meanings, if we do not insist upon a premature symbolisation. As your supervisor, and not your analyst (though the same would apply if I were) I can say anything, anything at all, and whatever I say, however banal, however stupid (and I am often banal and stupid) will have affect, precisely because of our relationship and what you invest in my function. What I say will disrupt meaning. You will nod, as though what I say makes sense, but it does its work – if it works – in the non-sense it produces. You will feel, no doubt, that you have not made your point, which will leave you in doubt, in anxiety. Or that I am wilfully missing it, as I ask you to produce yet more associations, and you will be irritated, frustrated. You will wonder why I persist in refusing to understand you. Am I even listening to you? Another cigarette, I think.

A while ago, I dreamt my partner left me for another woman. When he told me so in my dream, he said I was ‘mere drapery’ in his life. ‘Mere drapery’ was in English but that is not how I usually dream, Dr S pointed out. The associations I built outside of my recounting of the dream during my analysis – I found the words funny, like a pun, and that surprised me given the loss theme of the dream – didn’t explain why I dreamt that, or what it meant, but invariably led me to the reason why I laid down on the couch in the first place. This changed my relationship to that reason, or shall we say problem, or symptom. Analysis allowed me to get a better view of the iceberg. [6]

In writing to me of your dream, you make another gift, and I should ask you more, to keep you writing and writing well. I have to read you as a text, of course, but I also must forget what I know at times, and resist the impulse to be smarter than you, more of a doctor, so to speak. You do not know what you know yet, but you are the only one who does know. And you also know that it is a repressed wish or desire that instigates your dream thought. You have dreamt, but do not know the meaning of your dream and I – or whomever you put in my place – will talk your dream back to you. I could give an excellent interpretive performance, but until the moment you understand it yourself, my interpretation, however convincing, however expert, would have no effect at all. I think we are about to move on to the work of art, no? Well, the situation may not be so very different.

It seems to me commonly acknowledged that, in the gallery space, it is the viewer who does the interpretive work required. Art and psychoanalysis are parallel practices in many aspects, as you have seen me argue in chapters of my thesis. [7] If we take this analogy, a stronger link between artwork and analyst emerges. It is the element of the relation that speaks in the gaps, and is ambiguous, who interprets: the artwork interprets the viewer, who, of course, resists looking at what has been left out of her usual accounts and is frustrated by the lack of clear insight the artwork offers. I think art and psychoanalysis’ relationship to the impossible, [8] the gap between their aim and reaching it, is also of particular relevance to the question that concerns us. Are interpretations of works of art statements of its possible, but failed, aim? And then there is the issue raised by Nobus and Quinn, [9] that of knowledge and its failure as constitutive of the practice of psychoanalysis and, I would add, of art… If so, what does one do with the knowledge obtained from interpreting? As a tool, interpretation may help to take a critical stance against obvious and predictable patterns, stopping the inertia of old frameworks that don’t really work anymore. But I wonder how soon it is before new models are repeated and taken for granted again.

Shall we agree that it is a mistake to offer an interpretation too soon, to hasten to symbolise (as Lacan criticises Melanie Klein for doing in her analysis of little Dick) in a psychoanalytic encounter? Let us consider this in the encounter with the work of art. The work of art is singularly mute, even when it is quite noisy. It may appear to be saying something, but what? Wherever there is a gap, one hysterically seeks to fill it – Freud calls these false connections, a way of making sense when there is no sense. Where else does one look for sense, for meaning, when one cannot find it at hand in the work?

The main thrust against interpretation in art, comes from Susan Sontag’s 1966 essay. She questioned art’s need for defence, which comes from what she calls the ‘hegemony of content’ and its separation from form. Interpretation is a perennial problem, one never consummated, as it presupposes a gap between the demands of the viewers and the meaning of the work of art, the existence of which, by itself at least, has become unacceptable. Interpretation is aggressive and destructive, destroying manifest content in favour of a latent one, as she argued in her attack on Freud’s model. She writes:

Interpretation must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of human consciousness. […] Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. […] To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.” [10]

Indeed, Sontag has taken Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of suspicion to its literal meaning! I sympathise with her criticisms every time I remember a certain psycho-biographical account of Jackson Pollock’s work (and whose author shall remain unnamed), by which the particular way his paintings manifested themselves, as well as his relationship to drink, were due to him being born with his umbilical chord around his neck. In this case, at least, like Sontag says, there is a ‘refusal to leave the work of art alone’.

Moreover, it is also a refusal to leave the artist out of it, while the artist really should disappear. However, we do so like the artist to be there, as a personage, that is, not a function. We like a nice critical review as well. In addition, we do not accept either as expert, should we disagree. I remember, if you will forgive me being anecdotal, a conference in which the keynote speaker gave an erudite and convincing paper on the work of a great British artist, and the somewhat self-congratulatory response from an academic in the audience (who had earlier in the day given a paper on Proust, I think). He sat back, folded his arms, and remarked that although he had not seen the work under discussion, save in the form of slides in the paper, it certainly had not provoked the response in him the speaker appeared to be proposing. The work, the artist too, failed in what he supposed was its endeavor. He challenged it to do its stuff and found it sadly wanting, like much of contemporary art. He assumed that it should follow form, perform, and if it did not, well, it was to blame.

But where does this leave me in my task of producing an original contribution to knowledge, partly aided by works of art, mine and of others? Sure, the relation viewer–work may be more complex than the production of an interpretive structure, even a very seductive one. If I leave the work of art alone, what can I do other than make it, present it, or point at it?

Yes, dear Laura, yes.

I wonder if a golden mean is a useful position to take in relation to interpreting works of art; not for, or against, but around interpretation. By that, I am mainly acknowledging Jacques Lacan’s take on it, which has a certain echo of Freud’s argument in Constructions in Analysis. Lacan did not understand interpretation as a psychoanalytic tool for discovering hidden (or latent) meaning, but rather for disrupting it and the theories behind; interpretation is a tactical device to help the analysand to continue speaking when things get difficult on the couch [11] – and they always do! It is meant to produce certain effects. Like in the gallery, interpretation is interpersonal, singular to the situation, and dependent on the context. It has to be taken on a case-by-case basis and there are no universal rules or meanings. In that sense, Lacan, whilst following Freud, acknowledges some of the concerns expressed by Sontag. For that encounter to take place, though, listening – really listening – and ignoring what we know [12] are of paramount importance.

Despite increasingly longer catalogue essay, works of art do not depend on what one has to say about them (as Freud accepts). Yet, paradoxically, in order to be works of art they can exist only in a world already structured by language in a network of social relations that contains the concept of such enigmatic things as works of art. In this sense, if the work of art touches something that persists as untransformed by language, the impossible in the chain of words, the work also produces something beyond the symbolic order, which is formed by the symbolic itself, as a result of it.

The encounter I am trying to pinpoint, happened to me a couple of times, when faced with the works of Simon Morris and Marcel Duchamp, especially Le Grand Verre and Étant Donnés. Perhaps it is because they have a particular way of disrupting – Duchamp – and listening, or promote listening – Morris. With Duchamp, I can never fully see, yet, I gain more insight about my relationship to it than with other works. Morris, especially his works Interpretation and The Royal Road to the Unconscious, [13] change my relationship to sources, move me into action, one that has an interpretive slant to it.

If I may return to an analytic model, deflecting the encounters you raise above, if the work of art is treated as a symptom of its maker, then it is indeed possible to say something about the psychology of the artist. If something may be said about that, one can position oneself as a viewer in a relationship of recognition or identification with the symptom, a symptom gratifyingly shared. In this way, psychoanalysis would function as a metadiscourse, holding the key with which to open the undisclosed secret of another human being. Its general theory could be applied in any place, at any time, to any (art) object. ‘Aha,’ one might exclaim with confidence, ‘I spot an unresolved Oedipus complex in Simon Morris’ reconstruction of a work by Ed Ruscha.’ One could make a fairly decent living at it, applying psychoanalytic theory in the field of art criticism, as long as one forgets that works of art do not lie down on the couch, even when their makers do.

From the place of a viewer turned wild analyst, unhesitatingly launching into his own venture, refusing or unable to recognise ‘his own raison d’être in the disorder he denounces in the world’, it will remain only to make an interpretation.

Best wishes, as ever,


After much reflection, I think the only way is to circle around the problem of interpretation in a creative way, like Freud did, with his analogy of the analyst as archaeologist and his favouring of construction over interpretation. Still, I am without bearings to understand the work of art (in particular Duchamp or Morris’!) and I suspect this may turn out to be an issue of desire rather than of interpretation. You have approached these issues in your recent work on translation, Lacan’s Discourses and the social bond, and, if I am not wrong, also in some of your writings and curated shows [14], where you created a scale between interpretation and mastery. What does the artwork want from me? And does it matter? Once again, I need your counsel.

Yours cordially,


PS: No sign of the Acropolis, yet. I am hoping for disturbance.

P.S. This interpretation may be a creative act, a construction of a new work founded on the experience of an ‘original’ – an act of translation in the best of senses. The hallmark of bad translations, according to Walter Benjamin, is that they transmit only information, or inessential content, somewhat like airport novels, whose real intention is the tedious accuracy of the account of the functioning of their standard locations, showing that the writer has done his or her research. Benjamin says that the consideration of the reader is misleading – that art is not concerned with his/her response. Although the work of art may not care about that, any analysis of a work is fundamentally engaged with the nature of its reception. The sign of a bad viewer (or reader or PhD student) is his or her constant demand for facts, for useful information, unaware that this may be quite unnecessary. However, even in a bad translation something is communicated or integrated, just as a wild analysis may achieve some punctuation in the analysand’s speech, in the immediate communication of an apparently satisfactory explanation of the significations s/he has expressed. This occurs to the plagiaristic patient of Kris, as you know. It is good, I think, to be without a compass from time to time – and to consider, that in an analysis what occurs in the encounter must be taken as the compass with which to guide the treatment.

London, October 2008

Dear Sharon,

Thank you so much for the gift of your letter, for your disruptions, which helped construct this, our encounter. Responding to each other, we bring interpretation in and out of focus, somehow talking in it, rather than on it. You brought with you the Acropolis and its disturbance, which I longed for. Still, like in any encounter, there are things that elude us, missed opportunities. Lacan’s discourses, with the work of art in the place where discourse is not constituted yet, playing with what a discourse can’t fix has been present with us throughout. The same goes for the images we chose to project, the other disturbance, the third voice. Like in Poe’s story ‘The Purloined Letter’ [15], what we want to conceal is hidden in the most evident place. Like the analyst does, our speech should be read as if it were a text, à la lettre.

Best, as always,


[1] For examples of an interpretation of works of art through letters, see Berger, J & Berger K. Titian: Nymph and Shepherd. London: Bloomsbury, 2003
[2] Freud, S. A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis. SE XXII. London: Vintage, 2001 [1936]
[3] See Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams. London: Penguin Freud Library, 1991 [1900]. SE IV and V; The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. SE VI. London: Vintage, 2001 [1901]; and Constructions in Analysis. In Wild Analysis. London: Penguin, 2002 [1937]. SE XXII, amongst others
[4] Freud, Constructions, p. 211
[5] Ricoeur, P. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970, pp. 32-34
[6] At the APCS conference, Elio Frattarolli said life was like the Titanic and the only thing the analyst could do was to arrange deck chairs to get a better view of the iceberg (2007).
[7] Laura González’s PhD thesis, to be competed in 2010 and provisionally titled ‘Make me yours: the psychodynamics of seductive artworks in the gallery space’, argues for a number of parallels between the practices of art and psychoanalysis. These are: their relational nature – particularly between a subject and an object –, their taking place in privileged enclosures, governed by particular rules of engagement, the received ideas that condition the perception of both practices, their connection to resistance, commitment, distance, absence and the gaze and the fact that they are both practices of the impossible, as argued in this text.
[8] Benvenuto, B. The Impossible. In Kivland, & du Ry. In the place of an object. Journal of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research. Special Issue. London: Aldgate, 2000, p. 59
[9] Nobus, D. & Quinn, M. Knowing nothing, Staying Stupid. Elements for a Psychoanalytic Epistemology. London: Routledge, 2005, p.118)
[10] Sontag, S. Against Interpretation. In Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1966. pp. 4-14. Available from: [Accessed 31.08.08]
[11] Evans, D. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1996, p. 89
[12] Lacan, J; Fink, B trans. Variations on the Standard Treatment. In Écrits. New York, London: W.W. Norton, 2006, p. 290
[13] In The Royal Road to the Unconscious (2003), Morris cut every single of the 333,960 words in Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams and threw them out of the window of a car in Dorset, reconfiguring the text by means of free associations, as they fell into the floor in aleatory ways. A psychoanalyst pointed out slippages in the new text to the camera gathering the video documentation. In Interpretation, he invited two writers to contribute and set out the parameters for the works as follows: 1) construction: two academic writers construct texts on subjects of their own choosing; 2) erase: the title and the main body of each writer’s text are erased; the remaining footnotes are e-mailed to the other writer; 3) reconstruction: each writer reconstructs the other’s work from the other’s references; 4) publication: the interpretation publication includes the project proposal, the constructed texts, the isolated footnotes, and the reconstructed texts. For these and other works, see Simon Morris’ website, available from
[14] See, for example, Kivland, S. Lexicon. In Kivland, S & du Ry, M. In the Place of an Object. Journal of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research. Special Issue. London: Aldgate, 2000. pp. 13-37
[15] See Poe, The Purloined Letter, in Tales of Mystery and Imagination, London: CRW Publishing, 2003 [1839-1850] pp.220-244; and Lacan, The Purloined Letter (The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955, London: W.W. Norton, 1991 pp. 191-205), and Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’ (Écrits, pp. 6-48)

Note: For Freud’s texts, the volume of Standard Edition (SE), as translated and edited by James Strachey, has been noted at the end of the reference, if this edition was not the consulted text.

Benvenuto, B. The Impossible. In Kivland, & du Ry. In the place of an object. Journal of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research. Special Issue. London: Aldgate, 2000. p. 45-59
Berger, J & Berger K. Titian: Nymph and Shepherd. London: Bloomsbury, 2003
Evans, D. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1996
Frattarolli, E. As Rodney King asked: “Why can’t we/I just get along?” Association for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society Annual Conference: Hope for Hard Times: Anxiety, Alienation, and Activism. Rutgers University, NJ: APCS, 2-4 November 2007.
Freud S. The Interpretation of Dreams. London: Penguin Freud Library, 1991 [1900]. SE IV and V.
——. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. SE VI. London: Vintage, 2001 [1901]
——. A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis. SE XXII. London: Vintage, 2001 [1936]
——. Constructions in Analysis. In Wild Analysis. London: Penguin, 2002 [1937]. SE XXII.
Kivland, S. Lexicon. In Kivland, S & du Ry, M. In the Place of an Object. Journal of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research. Special Issue. London: Aldgate, 2000. pp. 13-37
Lacan, J. Variations on the Standard Treatment. In Écrits (trans. Bruce Fink). New York, London: W.W. Norton, 2006, pp.269-302
——. Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’. In Écrits (trans. Bruce Fink). New York, London: W.W. Norton, 2006, pp. 6-48
——. Lacan, The Purloined Letter. In The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955, London: W.W. Norton, 1991 pp. 191-205
Morris, S. Simon Morris. Available from , 2008. [Accessed 31.08.08]
Nobus, D. & Quinn, M. Knowing nothing, Staying Stupid. Elements for a Psychoanalytic Epistemology. London: Routledge, 2005
Poe, E. A. The Purloined Letter. In Tales of Mystery and Imagination, London: CRW Publishing, 2003 [1839-1850] pp.220-244
Ricoeur, P. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970
Sontag, S. Against Interpretation. In Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1966. pp. 4-14. Available from: [Accessed 31.08.08]