What is Art?

It’s Not All About Me!

“When a form of art is primarily personal it deserves to be treated as if it were a neurosis.” – C. G. Jung

In the history of philosophy and at the margins of popular culture there are questions that never seem to grow old, never seem to lose their relevance, and are always ready to take center stage—except for this one: what is art?

Kicking the Question as a disposable grandpa, 2020.

Unfortunately, this question has grown so old and decrepit, has become such an unseemly sight, that like many a poor elder, it has been shipped off to the nearest retirement home. Locked away in the facilities of conventional thought, happy to visit every now and then but never staying for too long, the issue originally at stake is not even recognizable as such. Consequently, the question remains abandoned and without an answer, that is, apart from the answer that the sheer existence of art makes in the face our ignorance or lack of interest.

If we are pressed on the issue, however, popular opinion always comes to the rescue with the idea that all art is “subjective,” completely unhinged from any general objectives or historic points of view. Art boils down to whatever our whims would like it to be: a subjective wish or fantasy, a mere dream or passing meme, without any serious consequences.

The Subjectivistic Reduction of Art

As a purely “subjective artist,” however, I am stuck in a vicious circle of narcissistic self-reflection. Completely centered on the personal and sentimental, I only retrace the narrow steps my ego can take, running in its own ideological hamster wheel and cage, or at the behest of my Master. Although apparently “free” of objective constraints, I become a prisoner of my own narrow-mindedness, chained to the limited scope of my personal experience.

Friedrich Nietzsche famously noted that the label “subjective artist” was of little use in trying to explain the Dionysian mode of creativity, since

Nierzche portrayed by Edvard Munch, 1906.

“to us the subjective artist is simply the bad artist, and since we demand above all, in every genre and range of art, a triumph over subjectivity, deliverance from the self, the silencing of every personal will and desire; since in fact, we cannot imagine the smallest genuine art work lacking objectivity and disinterested contemplation.”

(Nietzsche 37)

Although the personal aspect can play a positive role in the creative process, the transcendent objectivity of art forces us to look beyond the dimensions of personal feeling, opening up our private selves to the archetypal dimension of universal human experience. Failing to transcend the personal, art simply becomes an instrument of ego, an accessory of my selfish goals and private interests, and no more than that.

As every artist knows, the experience of creative being is quite the reverse; it is quick to turn the tables on ego and its sense of alienation from humanity. As my habitual self-centeredness dissolves and becomes its instrument, operating out of a center that is not my own. It bends my personal will to fulfill—not mine but its own—unknown goals and objectives. This is what characterizes most the effects of the creative spirit on our precious self: the sense of being “transported” or “displaced” (ékstasis) by the transcendent experience of creative being itself.

Carl Jung—who famously distinguished between the personal and collective unconscious as the difference between the subjective and objective psyche—also develops this general insight which highlights the profoundly impersonal nature of art and its peculiar mode of experience:

“What is essential in a work of art is that it should rise far above the realm of personal life and speak from the spirit and heart of the poet as man to the spirit and heart of mankind. The personal aspect is a limitation— and even a sin—in the realm of art.”

(CW15: 101¶156)

Going further, Jung comments, wherever art becomes a purely personal affair, there the opinion of a clinical psychologist becomes increasingly needed:

“When a form of art is primarily personal it deserves to be treated as if it were a neurosis. There may be some validity in the idea held by the Freudian school that artists without exception are narcissistic—by which is meant that they are undeveloped persons with infantile and auto-erotic traits. The statement is only valid, however, for the artist as a person, and has nothing to do with the man as an artist. In his capacity of artist he is neither auto-erotic, nor hetero-erotic, nor erotic in any sense. He is objective and impersonal—even inhuman—for as an artist he is his work, and not a human being.”

(CW15: 101¶156)

The Objective Sense of Self in Creative Being Itself

Although Jung tends to undermine the true function of Eros beyond the pleasure principle, he means to emphasize the objective attitude that characterizes the artist who is “caught” by the impetus of the creative process. The subjectivity of the individual alone cannot account for the true source of creativity

the reason being that the ‘subject’—the striving individual bent on furthering his egoistic purposes—can be thought of only as an enemy to art, never as its source. But to the extent that the subject is an artist he is already delivered from individual will and has become a medium through which the True Subject celebrates His redemption in illusion. 

(Nietzsche 41)

Rather than a burst of personal willfulness, an objective sense of self seems to take over. That is why I often speak in terms of creative being itself—not your or myself alone. In the grip of this objective core of the psyche, I no longer speak for myself alone but for the soul of the collective, what Nietzsche called above the True Subject of Art and its—no necessarily my own—redemption through a world of archetypal illusion.

The narrow, privatized sense of self thus disappears as my ego gives way to the archetypal power of creative being itself which follows its own end and objective despite my own personal problems, often undermining my own personal creed or belief system by means of the unconscious.

To cite one last example, James Joyce also expresses the same insight into the objectivity of the creative process.Perhaps most famous is the way he ends A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by evoking an image of the collective psyche which is mysteriously “caught” in the crucible of the self:

A Young James Joyce

“O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”


In Joyce’s imagery above, the “soul” is viewed as an instrument for heating and hammering out the primal incandescent matter of art, which is, in Joyce’s view, “the uncreated conscience of [the human] race.” What does he mean by that? That art is not merely the vehicle for an individual’s moral conscience, a matter of subjective valuation, but that its subject-matter is the collective conscience or ethical measure of humanity at large? Rather than containing a specific set of moral precepts or values, art stands for the mytho-historic form of consciousness which has not yet come, which is yet to be created. Perhaps we might call this function the “prophetic” quality that characterizes authentic works of art.

Finally, the celebrated “therapeutic” effect of art can easily fall along this line. For it is precisely in its deliverance from the “me” form of consciousness, in this divestment of self, that the famous “healing” effect of art comes. Although the type of “healing” we can expect from art is not necessarily of a physical nature, it is nevertheless able to deliver us from the metaphysical chains which we carry in the form of ideological fantasies, both conscious and unconscious belief systems. That is why the function of art is not to provide a new ideological blanket with which to dress up the existential wound of being human. On the contrary, art may be described as a celebration of this very wound, a cutting vision of what lies beneath the surface. Art can therefore make us feel most alive and perhaps a little less human, opening our individual soul to the life of the infinite…


Norland Téllez

Norland Téllez, is an Artist and Teacher with over two decades of experience in the animation industry. Grounding himself in classical painting and drawing, he remains committed to the art of the moving image and the archetypal power of Story.

What is Art?


Works Cited

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Everyman’s Library, 1991.

Jung, Carl Gustav. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. 18 Vols. New York: Princeton UP, 1953.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and the Geneology of Morals. Trans. Francis Golfing. Anchor Books ed. New York: Double Day, 1956.

2 thoughts on “What is Art?”

  1. someone said, if literature has a theory (or meaning), why doesn’t art have a theory (or meaning)?
    how can either fate or ‘situationism’ be connected to abdication? (and the clearing of ego)
    is Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle connected to or representative of the ‘collective unconscious’? Is ‘radical difference’ the fundaments and root of origins?
    is de profundis as depths of sorrow, despair, intrinsic to conceptual analysis?
    is opinion a deeply subjective and honest response to this question?
    can the most important critical moments of the aesthetic be recognition?

    • Absolutely, I think that a hallmark of modern art is the ‘conflation’ of theory and praxis. I don’t see any predetermined fate aside from a full awareness of our historicity in the present moment, whether in our existential consciousness, or the consciousness of art, which in the last analysis become one and the same thing. The consequences for a ‘theory of art’ become profound the minute we allow art to transform our very notion of ‘theory’ from, let us say, an abstract or abstracted discourse to the kind of discourse of ‘concrete universalities’ as the transformation of ‘transcendental horizons’ in the movement of human historicity.


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