Though only used quite recently in art^ history – probably since the later 1970s – desire is one of a series of psychoanalytic terms that has been adopted and adapted in order to account for some important aspects of the production and interpretation of artworks. In rarer cases, however, writers have attempted to understand artworks as only and wholly the result or representation of what is called the ‘desiring subject’ (the artist), and this desire is claimed to be exclusively sexual in character. Sigmund Freud’s famous earlytwentieth-century case-study essays on Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, for example, assert that the extraordinary productivity and obsessiveness of these two artists was a relatively simple matter, ﬁnally, of their repression of homosexual desires – which, Freud argued, they ‘sublimated’ (redirected) into artistic creativity. The term art historical seems quite misleading as a characterisation of these accounts – in which human productive activity and culture are depicted as the representation/sublimation of an essentially asocial, universal, and unchanging sexual nature which is claimed to direct, shape, and ﬁll up the artistic endeavour. While sometimes acknowledging other possible contexts, interests, and motivations, these psychoanalytic explanations of art tend to render all else peripheral to the main – actually itself obsessive – focus: the means and products of this ‘externalisation’ of primeval unconscious human^ bodily drives. In many other studies, however, desire as an explanatory category
has been given different, lesser (and more plausible) meanings. In its ordinary usage, for instance, its meaning is close to conscious intent and therefore raises all the issues and questions surrounding the idea of intention – and in this sense it belongs to an orthodox cluster of terms and problems long examined in art history, philosophical aesthetics, and the psychology of art. How are the ideas and meanings the artist desires or wishes to communicate actually ‘put into’ the artwork? Think, for instance, of a photographic^ portrait by Cindy Sherman where erotic content seems more implied than shown (e.g.: Number 13 (1978)), or a painting by Edgar Degas where feeling and desire appear sinister and threatening (e.g.: The Interior (1869-70)). How can it be shown, if at all, that these meanings are
actually there? How does the role of the critic as intermediary between artwork and the wider public work to establish, or possibly, subvert these desired meanings? How do the various desires of the public – including those of critics – affect the kind of readings or interpretations that are made of all artworks? Desire, in both its specialised psychoanalytic uses and in these
familiar senses related to intention, is signiﬁcant because it poses some serious challenges to the habitual rationalism that governs most art historical research: the belief, or assumption, for example, that conscious design or planning by the artist (depicted as a self-knowing and self-possessed agent) is the key to understanding the meaning, purpose, and value of their products. In this way, then, desire usefully stands metaphorically for a whole series of factors – to do with the body and sexuality, but also with social organisation through, for instance, language and institutions – that come to shape, as well as sometimes undermine, self-directed planned actions undertaken by individuals. Psychoanalysis, that is, presents one important instance of the ‘structure-agency’ explanatory dilemma that always attends upon art historical accounts of artistic production and its wide range of conditions and circumstances.