Carlie Hoffer

Date of Award


Document Type

Thesis - Open Access

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Art Business

First Advisor

Eric Wolf

Second Advisor

Morgan Falconer


The insights brought to society about the unconscious mind can be solely credited to Sigmund Freud’s groundbreaking works that were published in the early 1900’s. Specifically, the concept of the unconscious mind being a driver for human behavior was a unique theory that Freud introduced to a society that had never considered this possibility before this. The realization and acknowledgement of the unconscious mind as relevant to analyzing human behavior including art inspired other scholars and individuals in the field of psychology to explore a more nuanced understanding of human motivations. His novel ideas about human behavior emerged at a time when the world was beginning to reject hyper-rationalism and embrace the exploration of representing more emotionally charged experiences that a human can have. Coinciding with Freud’s publishing was a movement and emergence of Expressionism within the world of fine art.” Expressionism was an emerging genre of art which represented the more subjective and emotional experiences of human life, and at the same time departing from the hyperrational and literal representations traditionally known to be the defining elements of fine art at that time. At around the same time, Hans Prinzhorn’ wrote “Artistry of the Mentally Ill.” This paper published and observed the aesthetics and talents of artworks made by patients who inhabited mental institutions at the turn of the century. It was the first time that the creative works of a group of individuals removed from society were approached as fine art. Prinzhorn was a psychologist who took an interest in the artwork of the mentally ill. e. Both Prinzhorn and Freud were endlessly curious about the intersection between the unconscious, artistic production, and broader societal implications. Prinzhorn contributed significantly to understanding certain commonalities between art, unconscious mental processes at work in mental illness and in the artistic process, and the birth of subjectivity. The groundbreaking work of early psychoanalysts and the emerging awareness surrounding the unconscious mind’s relevance in art led to the contextualizing and understanding of major fine art movements such as the Surrealist movement and anti-rationalism or Dadaism. Surrealism came as almost a direct response to the findings of Freud and Prinzhorn in the early 1900’s. The founder of the core group within the 5 movement was Andre Breton, a French creative writer and theorist who led the Surrealist Movement beginning with the publishing of the Surrealist Manifesto. The goals of the practices leveraged by surrealists were to express the true functioning of thought without the constraints of aesthetics which society preferred. The primary means of accessing the function of thought was by tapping into the conscious mind and representation of dreams which Freud acknowledged as purely subconscious symbolic representations. Following Surrealism came the development of Dadaism which served as a reaction to not only the groundbreaking publishing in psychology at the time, but also in response to the first world war and rapid industrialization. Dadaism embraced nonrational representations of life and the human experience, rejecting reason as a means of coping with the world around them. Many of the artists which participated in either the Surrealist or Dadaist movements share considerable overlap in the aesthetic choices representations in their work. This paper will delve into the evolution of the unconscious mind’s relevance within major artistic movements and processes throughout the 1900’s and still persisting in contemporary art today. Touching on the evolution that proceeded from Surrealism to Anti Rationalist and Dadaist movements in the fine art world, we will observe how the unconscious mind has influenced much of the fine art we still consume today. Using the contemporary writings of Elkhonon Goldberg’s book, “Creativity” we will understand and explore that while the unconscious mind is an incredibly important piece within the creative process, modern science has enabled us to expose that what is maybe most crucial to creativity is the interaction which exists between the unconscious and conscious functions of the brain during creativity. The common thread through psychoanalytic explorations of unconscious motivation and a modern neuroscience take on the creative process is that combinations of known and unknown mental processes that are rooted in emotions constitute the bulk of how art is conceptualized, made, and enjoyed. The unconscious mind’s role in the artistic process serves as a crucial element in understanding the origins of some of the most famous and well known fine art movements today. Starting with the Expressionist movement coinciding with Freud’s publications, to the Hanz Prinzhorn’s publication of “Artistry of the Mentally Ill” in 1921, a psychological thread can be drawn between these works and the 6 surfacing themes within the Surrealist Movement, Anti Rationalism, the Dadaists, and much of contemporary artwork today. To compare the modern findings on the unconscious mind’s relevance in creativity we will observe Elkhonon Goldberg’s, “Creativity.” Goldberg’s work is important to this paper because it reveals that based on modern science, we know that there is actually a dialogue between the conscious and unconscious functioning of the mind at play to generate the creative process. The findings within the book, “Creativity” by Goldberg, are a modern representation of the ideas and themes that figures such as Freud and Prinzhorn were trying to grapple with in the early 1900’s.