No products in the cart
Speaking in Primordial Images–Part II
Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members. Honesty, as well as professional courtesy, require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.
“Speaking in Primordial Images” Part II:
Jung on Art and Artists
“… Art is a kind of innate drive that seizes a human being and makes him its instrument.”
“… an artist …is ‘collective man,’ a vehicle and molder of the unconscious psychic life of mankind….”
“Whoever speaks in primordial images speaks with a thousand voices; he enthralls and overpowers, while at the same time he lifts the idea he is seeking to express out of the occasional and the transitory into the realm of the ever-enduring. He transmutes our personal destiny into the destiny of mankind, and evokes in us all those beneficent forces that ever and anon have enabled humanity to find a refuge from every peril and to outlive the longest night.”
“Therein lies the social significance of art: it is constantly at work educating the spirit of the age, conjuring up the forms in which the age is most lacking.”
In Part I of this essay, we examined Jung’s ideas on creativity, the creative process and the features of creativity. In this we turn our attention to Jung’s ideas about art, artists and the role and impact of art.
Jung’s Definitions of Art
As noted in the opening quote above, Jung recognized that all human beings have innate drives, and creating art is one of them (“art” here referring to any form of creativity, not just the “high art” of the great artists). In this, as in so many other areas, Jung took exception to Freud’s idea: Freud saw creative activities like art as forms of sublimation of the sex drive. But Jung was explicit that “a work of art is not a disease…” nor is it “… a symptom but a genuine creation.” “… a creative achievement [that] can only be understood on its own merits.”
Perhaps as a result of his personal experience (all those many hours he spent in his study over a decade using art–drawing and painting in his Red Book–to analyze himself), Jung discovered the healing power in art–a discovery he used in his clinical practice with neurotics. He encouraged his patients to draw, paint, sketch and make mandalas, as ways to dialogue with the psyche, knowing that the psyche “speaks in primordial images.”
Features of Art
“Primordial images” is the term for “archetypes” which Jung used in his early works, and archetypes are a key feature of all art. These images reside within each of us, in the deep layer of our inner life which Jung called the collective unconscious. By contacting and working with these powerful universal symbols, art, to Jung, came to be more than the simple product of an individual human being: It was “something supra-personal,” something that transcends the individual, to speak to and address the needs of the collective. Just as the process of creating art could heal the person, so art that “speaks in primordial images” could be “… a process of self-regulation in the life of nations and epochs.”
How does art help to regulate the life of nations and epochs? Jung addressed this feature of art in his essay “On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry.” When collective life becomes one-sided, primordial images “rise to the surface in dreams and in the visions of artists and seers to restore the psychic balance.” So Jung felt that the visionary artist
“…speaks in primordial images … with a thousand voices; he enthralls and overpowers, while at the same time he lifts the idea he is seeking to express out of the occasional and the transitory into the realm of the ever-enduring. He transmutes our personal destiny into the destiny of mankind, and evokes in us all those beneficent forces that ever and anon have enabled humanity to find a refuge from every peril and to outlive the longest night.”
This evocative process begins with
“The unsatisfied yearning of the artist [which] reaches back to the primordial image in the unconscious which is best fitted to compensate the inadequacy and one-sidedness of the present. The artist seizes on this image, and in raising it from deepest unconsciousness he brings it into relation with conscious values, thereby transforming it until it can be accepted by the minds of his contemporaries according to their powers.”
But not just our minds are touched: Archetypes carry emotional power, and Jung reminds us that when we encounter an archetype the experience
“… is always characterized by a peculiar emotional intensity; it is as though … forces whose existence we never suspected were unloosed…. when an archetypal situation occurs we suddenly feel an extraordinary sense of release, as though transported, or caught up by an overwhelming power.”
This power is not under the ego’s control, nor can it be “figured out” with the logical, rational mind. Jung was clear that intuition is a key feature of art, and the artist’s libido “is not only creative and procreative, but possesses an intuitive faculty, a strange power to ‘smell the right place,’ almost as if it were a live creature with an independent life of its own…”.
Archetypes and intuition are two of the most important features of art, related to several other features, e.g. the unconscious element and the super-personal component. Art at any level (modest or great) arises from the unconscious (whence the archetypes and intutions arise), and Jung regarded the unconscious as the source of novelty and creativity. Any creative impulse has its source in the unconscious, but great art arises from the collective (rather than the personal) unconscious of the artist. Jung recognized great power in this unconscious aspect of art: “… the dark creative power of the unconscious … reveals itself to those who follow its dictates and is indeed capable of working miracles.”
Why this capability? Because of art’s super-personal nature: “a true work of art… has escaped from the limitations of the personal and has soared beyond the personal concerns of its creator.” It transcends the individual artist and, as a result, is able to speak “from the mind and heart of the artist to the mind and heart of mankind.”
Especially is this so, Jung felt, in times of “spiritual stagnation or psychic sterility.”–times like our present, when the widespread “suffering of the soul” calls forth “creativeness in the realm of the spirit.” This results in art that is beyond the control of the artist’s ego: It is “irrational,” “capricious and willful” in character, with a “feminine quality… arising from the realm of the Mothers…” and produces an “enormity of … experience [which] gives it its value and its shattering impact.”
Archetypal, intuitive, arising from the unconscious, having a super-personal nature, capricious, willful, beyond the ego’s control–these are features of art, according to Jung. How did he regard artists?
Jung’s definition of the artist
As I noted in Part I, Jung felt every person had creative potential, and everyone has “contradictory qualities.” But the artist, in particular, “is a duality or a synthesis of contradictory qualities.” That is, he is both “a human being with a personal life, while … he is [also] an impersonal creative process…” So one way Jung defined the artist is as “an impersonal creative process.”
As such, Jung felt the artist was “a man upon whom a heavier burden is laid than upon ordinary mortals…” because the person who is an artist is “subordinate to his work,” in being “an instrument of his work.”
As one who responds to the promptings of the collective unconscious, the artist often becomes a prophet, “… the unwitting mouthpiece of the psychic secrets of his time,…” “unwitting,” in the sense that the individual often is barely, or not at all acting consciously as a prophetic figure.
Jung’s artist is not a person to be envied:
“The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purposes through him. As a human being he may have moods and a will and personal aims, but as an artist he is ‘man’ in a higher sense—he is ‘collective man,’ a vehicle and moulder of the unconscious psychic life of mankind. That is his office, and it is sometimes so heavy a burden that he is fated to sacrifice happiness and everything that makes life worth living for the ordinary human being. …”
The artist, in other words, is a conduit, subordinate to his work, “a nutrient medium” for the creative force that uses him, a force that employs “his capacities according to its own laws and shaping itself to the fulfillment of its own creative purpose.” In another passage Jung describes the artist “like a tree in the earth from which it [the creative urge] draws it nourishment.”
Traits of Artists
It is possible for the creative urge to be nourished by the artist because he/she manifests a “permeability of the partition separating the conscious and the unconscious…”. This is one trait of the “great artist and others distinguished by creative gifts…” but, Jung noted, this tends to come along with less desirable traits, e.g. “they tend not to be reliable or have much continuity and so are not suited to professions requiring these traits.”
Artists, Jung felt, can be apathetic, “due to the instinctual side of the personality prevailing over the ethical, mature and adapted side.” Artists also “tend to lack adaptation,” which Jung saw as an advantage, because “it enables him to follow his own yearnings far from the beaten path, and to discover what it is that would meet the unconscious needs of his age.”
Jung quoted K.G. Carus, who described other traits of the artist: living a “life of freedom” with “clarity of his thought,” but also “everywhere hemmed round and prevailed upon by the Unconscious,” which Carus considered “the mysterious god within him;…”. The artist has “ideas flow to him,” but he doesn’t know where these ideas come from. He “is driven to work and to create,” but he doesn’t know why or what the purpose is. And he “is mastered by an impulse for constant growth and development,” but he doesn’t know where it might take him.
So the artist is a person “full of conflicts for two forces are at war within him: on the one hand the justified longing of the ordinary man for happiness, satisfaction and security; and on the other a ruthless passion for creation which may go so far as to override every personal desire.”
Just as Prometheus suffered greatly for stealing fire from Zeus, so, Jung felt, the artist pays
“dearly for the divine gift of creative fire. It is as though each of us was born with a limited store of energy. In the artist, the strongest force in his make-up, that is, his creativeness, will seize and all but monopolize this energy, leaving so little over that nothing of value can come of it. The creative impulse can drain him of his humanity to such a degree that the personal ego can exist only on a primitive or inferior level and is driven to develop all sorts of defects—ruthlessness, selfishness…and other infantile traits.”
Given this reality, it is no wonder that Jung concluded that “the fight against the paralyzing grip of the unconscious calls forth man’s creative powers. That is the source of all creativity, but it needs heroic courage to do battle with these forces …”. The survival trait of the artist is courage.
The Role of the Artist
Jung regarded the artist as “a vehicle and moulder of the unconscious psychic life of mankind,” a figure who translates an archetypal image “into the language of the present,…”. In doing so, the artist “makes it possible for us to find our way back to the deepest springs of life.”
Artists get in touch with archetypal images in the “deepest unconscious” and are able to bring these “into relation with conscious values,” thus transforming these images in such ways that they can be accepted by the minds of their contemporaries. In many cases, these images are thrown up by the psyche in order to help “compensate the inadequacy and one-sidedness of the present.” In this way the artist is a healer for the collective, helping to restore balance in the collective consciousness.
Besides translating archetypal images and helping to heal imbalances, artists play an educational role, “constantly at work educating the spirit of the age,” by “conjuring up the forms in which the age is most lacking.” This too is a compensatory activity, and, like all these roles, this is something the artist does without conscious intent: Ask any artist if he/she is a molder of mankind, a healer of the collective, an educator of the spirit, and the reaction likely would be perplexity, surprise, and denial.
The Impact of Art
Rare is the artist who is aware of the manifold roles he/she plays in the life of the collective. Equally rare is the general awareness of the impact art can have on both the personal and collective levels. But Jung was aware.
On the personal level, as we noted in Part I, Jung felt each of us has a innate creative impulse, an urge that must be recognized and satisfied, “… ad maiorem Dei gloriam“–for the greater glory of God, i.e. to honor the Self, and for the health of our soul, mind and body. This does not mean we should strive to paint like Picasso or compose like Chopin. Jung noted how the creative urge is not identical with artistic talent, nor does the urge manifest the same way in different people.
In this regard, in 2007 I had one of the rare “voice-over” dreams I get that foretold the future. It said “The currency of the future will be leveraged creativity.” Given that all the currencies of the world are fiduciary (i.e. backed by nothing but the faith and credit people have in the governments issuing the paper bills), there is no inherent value to any form of money in the world today (the “bitcoin” being an example of a currency even more ephemeral than our dollar and Euro notes). When the global economy crashes, we will need to heed Jung’s message that we all are creative. We all have the capability for making new things, coming up with novel solutions to problems, offering our talents to meet the needs of others, be these practical (e.g. mending clothes, fixing cars or plumbing) or aesthetic (painting pictures, playing musical instruments, playacting, cooking a beautiful meal).
On the collective level, art meets the needs of its time. We all can consider ourselves artists–artists of our own lives, some of us with more natural talent in terms of portraiture or landscape rendering, others with talents in more practical, but no less creative directions. Some of us, more affected by the collective unconscious than others, can lend “expression to the unspoken desire of [our] times and show the way, by word or deed, to its fulfillment–…”. But don’t sell yourself short, if you can’t produce “great art.” While, as Jung said, the “redeeming symbol” will emerge when we need it most, and professional artists are likely to notice and resonate to this symbol first, we all can watch for it, and respond to it in ways that support our collective shift from the old, dying aeon to the revivifying new era.
Bair, Deirdre (2003), Jung: A Biography. New York: Little, Brown & Co.
Bulfinch (1959), Bulfinch’s Mythology. New York: Dell Publishing.
Duggan, Wayne (2018), “Evidence of a Bursting Bitcoin Bubble Is Piling Up,” U.S. News & World Report (February 8, 2018).
Jacobi, Jolande (1968), The Psychology of C.G. Jung. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Jung, C.G. (1956) “Symbols of Transformation,” Collected Works, 5, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1971), “Psychological Types,” Collected Works, 6. Princeton: Princeton University Press
________ (1960), ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1966), “The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature,” CW 15. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1954), “The Practice of Psychotherapy,” CW 16, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1975), Letters, ed. Gerhard Adler & Aniela Jaffé. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
 Collected Works 15 ¶157. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.
 Ibid. ¶129.
 Ibid. ¶130.
 For the major ways Jung disagreed with Freud, see the essay “Jung on Freud,” archived on this Web site.
 CW 15 ¶107.
 Cw 8 ¶702.
 Bair (2003), 241-245 & 291-293.
 CW 16 ¶401.
 CW 15 ¶129.
 CW 5 ¶45 & CW 6 ¶624. Jung notes that he took the term “primordial image” from Jacob Burckhardt.
 Jacobi (1968), 33.
 CW 15 ¶107.
 Ibid. ¶161.
 Ibid. ¶131.
 Ibid. ¶s 97-132.
 Ibid. ¶160.
 Ibid. ¶129.
 Ibid. ¶130.
 Ibid. ¶128.
 Ibid. ¶159.
 Ibid. ¶182.
 Ibid. ¶125.
 Ibid. ¶182.
 Ibid. ¶107.
 Ibid. ¶156.
 CW 11 ¶497.
 CW 15 ¶135.
 Ibid. ¶115.
 Ibid. ¶159.
 Ibid. ¶141.
 Ibid. ¶157.
 Ibid. ¶158.
 Ibid. ¶161.
 Ibid. ¶184.
 Ibid. ¶157.
 Ibid. ¶108.
 Ibid. ¶115.
 CW 8 ¶135.
 CW 15 ¶123.
 Ibid. ¶131.
 K.G. Carus was a German physiologist, physician and painter. He was born in 1789 and died in 1869. A man of many talents, he was a friend of Goethe, a physician to the King of Saxony, and wrote on art theory. Find out more at: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Gustav_Carus.
 CW 15 ¶157, quoting Carus.
 Ibid. ¶158.
 Bulfinch (1959), 21-27. Prometheus’ punishment was to have his liver eaten out by eagles every night, only to have it grow back by day.
 CW 15 ¶158.
 CW 5 ¶523.
 CW 15 ¶157.
 Ibid. ¶130.
 Ibid. ¶130.
 “Letter to H.J. Barrett,” August 1956; Letters, II, 321.
 Duggan (2018).
 CW 15 ¶153.
 CW 6 ¶401.
 I.e. the age of Pisces, now over 2,000 years old.