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What purpose does the symbolic work of art fulfill in the psychic life of the person or for that matter, for a society? What is the psychic significance of art?

Rock painting from Tassili N'Ajjer,
Sahara 2000 BC.
Illustration taken from
Atlas of Past Times, John Haywood
© 2002 Border Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan

One of the defining features of Jungian psychoanalytic work is the significance given to symbolic image as vehicles of psychic development. Jung’s concept of the transcendent function provides a theoretical explanation for this emphasis linking insight and understanding with the use of imagination and the emergence of higher levels of symbolic functioning.

In psychoanalysis, this manifests as an attentive openness to the image-making process taking place in and between the analyst and patient. This openness to images becomes particularly helpful as a trigger to the inner dialogue with oneself. Why does a particular painting or sculpture draw you into dialogue? Somehow according to Jung’s view, it speaks to a sense of discovery and intuition, a deep presentiment that strives to find expression. Jung describes the intuitive process as, “ a whirlwind that seizes everything within its reach and by carrying it aloft assumes a visible form…Through our feelings we experience the known, but our intuition points to things that are unknown and hidden—that by there very nature are a secret.”

Jung believes that symbolical artwork serves the same purpose for a society that an individual experience serves for a person in treatment. The socially significant symbol “speaks with the voice of thousands and ten thousands, fore shadowing change in the conscious outlook of its time …Every period has its bias, its particular prejudice and its psychic ailments. It has its own limitations”… its own blind spots and compensatory adjustments.

According to Jung, “Great poetry draws its strength from the life of mankind, and we completely miss its meaning if we try to derive it from personal factors. Whenever the collective unconscious becomes a living experience and is brought to bear upon the conscious outlook of an age, this event is a creative act that is of importance to everyone living in that age. Just as well a work of visionary art may be produced which contains what may truthfully be called a message to the generations...”

This is why art –making in all its endless expressions carries a social importance as well as an individual one. It educates the spirit of an age, creating forms which in conscious life and through direct ways of knowing we often can not get to, things that are outside awareness and therefore lacking form in our conscious world. Art represents a process of mental regulation in the life of an individual, a nation or an epoch whether it be a recent sand painting or a Neolithic cave painting; a journal entry collage or a Guernica.


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