The Claustrophobic Artist

Escape From Studio Voltaire

The Claustrophobic Artist

Jennifer Bird

(Extracted from ‘The Claustrophobic Artist’, in Reassuring Fragments, Jennifer Bird,
Red Rag Books, New York, 1980. Reproduced with permission of the author.)

He was an intense, strident young man. He said that he had a very particular problem he wanted me to ‘solve’ for him but that he didn’t need or want me to analyse his dreams or ask him about his mother. I asked him, in a slightly confrontational manner because this seemed to be what he was demanding, whether he had a particular dream he didn’t want me to analyse. He said, as if it were something to be proud of, that he never remembered his dreams. I said that it sounded as though there were certain things about himself that he could not bear to know or, maybe, that he wanted to remain his secret. He said there are things you shouldn’t know about yourself, things that are liable to ruin you if you do know them.

Although he seemed intrigued with this conversation, he nevertheless got on with what he had come to tell me. He told me that he was an artist and that he was suffering from what he called aesthetic claustrophobia. This brought up visions of a person being claustrophobic in a particularly beautiful fashion or circumstance, or even of being oppressed by aesthetic objects. However, what he meant, or thought he meant, was that he was a painter who had become unable to paint in his studio. It was the thought of painting that made him feel claustrophobic. He could be in his studio and not paint. But faced with the urgency of painting, the studio became somewhere he had to get out of.

He had come up with an ingenious solution (which is precisely the wrong word) to this dilemma. He had started to paint on the roof of his studio. This, however, brought its own set of pressing worries. He was an abstract painter and strongly felt he needed to paint in isolation, “caught up in his own world.” Painting on the roof allowed the possibility of the outside world intruding upon his painting. His explicit worry was that the outside world would somehow “work its way into the paintings” despite his best efforts to keep it out.

What was immediately striking was that his symptom, the claustrophobia of his studio, had driven him out of the place where he felt safe and into a place where he could feel anxious. The work of his symptom, in this case, seemed to be to keep some form of anxiety alive or to keep his fear close at hand. In a reversal of what we might think to be the normal desire for safety, here it was safety itself that needed to be avoided. And this need to avoid safety seemed somehow to be tied up with the act of painting, as though painting could only come out of agitation and worry.

There seemed to be two things which he was using his “claustrophobic” condition to do. First of all, he was using painting as a convenient place to put his worries about the world. And secondly, he was using the proximity of the world as a way of worrying about his painting. It was as though painting and the world could each be a kind of refuge from the difficulties of the other.

So this man was in a dilemma. On the one hand, his symptom showed the degree to which he was unhappy with what he thought he wanted, to be working away in isolation in his studio. On the other hand, his coming to see me showed how unhappy he was with the change the symptom had forced upon him. He had sought out a psycho-analyst rather than a painting tutor, so it was obvious that he thought that his problems could only be worked out by looking at his mind rather than at his paintings. But he was deliberately reticent about ‘giving away’ too much about himself – the exact opposite of the normal desire of the analysand, who thinks he or she wants his or her symptoms interpreted and resolved.

His symptom had forced him to change. This is what symptoms do, or what they do when they work. The symptom is a message someone sends to themselves, the insistence of which either becomes unbearable and therefore a catalyst for change or it is nurtured as a means of avoidance. Loving the messenger and ignoring the message. All this has to do with fear and desire (which are aspects of the same thing and not so easy to tell apart). 

Over time it became clear to both of us that he had made a kind of psychic investment in, and practical commitment to, abstract painting. And he was worried that his choice had been misguided, that he had “married the wrong woman.” I suggested that maybe painting on the roof was a way of contemplating having an affair – after all, from the roof you could see what else was out there. It was a way of not actually being unfaithful – he was still painting abstract paintings – but of putting himself in a position where some liaison might just happen, without him having to take responsibility for it – without him having to choose. However, the roof was somewhere where this was unlikely to happen. It was a pretty safe and removed place from which he could view the world around him without much chance that it would, in fact, impinge on his painting. It was a safe place to worry – somewhere he could toy with his desires. He had not chosen to try to paint on the street. If his worry and fear that the outside world might influence his painting was because this is what he wanted – or, at least, a possibility that he was willing to entertain – then painting on the roof was a way of having the possibility without the likelihood of it coming to anything.

His resistance in our sessions came down to his fear of losing his love of painting. He feared that the outside world might be more interesting than painting and then “where would he be?” He felt he was confronted with choices, not only as to what kind of painter to be but between painting and something else, represented by the view from his roof. He had the habit of thinking about his choices in terms of a kind of moral economy, of what he thought he ought to be doing. I urged him to think of his choices in terms of the risks he could be taking, of the importance of taking risks for finding out what his desires might be. 

Our relationship ended as abruptly as it had begun. He telephoned to cancel an appointment and to explain that he no longer needed my assistance. He had, he claimed, come up with an aesthetic solution to his aesthetic claustrophobia. What he had done was come up with a way of painting that was obviously a more satisfying way of keeping his fear close to him than painting on the roof. From now on, he said triumphantly, he was going to paint other people’s paintings. He was going to copy, as accurately as he could, in both technique and appearance, the abstract paintings of a well known contemporary painter. This way, he said, he could still be a painter of abstract paintings but not in a way that relied upon keeping the world out. However, this letting the world in was now on his own terms. I was left wondering (it is of course one of the pleasures of the analysand, whether imagined or real, that you can leave the analyst wondering) what had changed elsewhere in his life or what might now change elsewhere. And whether this new, avowedly happy, solution was a success or a failure.