The Positive of Negative Art

Philosophy of Herbert Marcuse

Herbert Marcuse, a philosopher that fled from Berlin to the United States to avoid the Nazis during World War II, developed a philosophy for art that encompasses using negative imagery as a tool to revolutionize human minds from the unnecessary repressions which help the ruling sectors of society maintain their dominance.

The ideas of Marcuse stem from Sigmund Freud's theories of repression and sublimation within the ego. Freud believed that the human unconscious mind contains dreams, wishes, desires, impulses, loves, and hatreds that do not fit the physical world. Some of these desires, specifically sexual and aggressive impulses, are also channeled into more socially and morally acceptable channels.

Marcuse elaborates on the ideas of Freud by making a distinction between necessary and surplus repression.Necessary repression could, for example, be to suppress the urge to harm another human through rape or murder. It would be detrimental to human society if these urges were carried out, and so it is necessary that they be repressed.

Surplus repression could be the suppression of homoerotic feelings and thoughts. Society views homosexuality as being socially and morally unacceptable, and therefore it may be repressed within the individual because of this view. However, the suppression of homoeroticism isn't healthy for the individual or society, and creates a block to human happiness. Marcuse believes that the purpose of surplus repression is to maintain the dominance of the ruling sectors of society. This form of repression is not necessary, and it is in the best interest of human happiness for it to be eliminated.

The role of art is to generate enough emotional energy in people to conquer surplus repressions which are inflicted by society. Marcuse believes the energy is best tapped through irrational and infantile desires for a release from repression. A negative style of expression is used to bring forth the repressed desire, as well as the will to stop the repression and satiate the desire within the individual.


Robert Mapplethorpe, for example,with his image of two naked men holding each other, promises the irrational desire for total public openness of homoerotic feelings. It is irrational in that it promises total 'naked' acceptance in public view of those feeling, which is unlikely to come about. However, through viewing the art, those that have suppressed homoerotic feelings will be forced to let them surface, along with their desire for openness. Through expelling these surplus repressions from individuals in society it will become possible to have some of the freedom promised in Mapplethorpe's art. Also, individuals who act repulsed by the more extreme openness expressed in the art will, in turn, think very little about emerging homosexualexpressions in society, which are more subtle than Mapplethorpe's image.

Art can therefore revolutionize humanity by liberating individuals from surplus repressions within the mind that are detrimental to human happiness.

Robin Coe is a journalist and author. She wrote the fantasy novel "Fly on the Wall" and graphic novel "Illustrated Book of Wrath".

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