Wrestling with Azazel--Jung and Modern Art, A Critical Appraisal

Sylvester Wojtkowski, PhD

A version of this paper was originally presented at the Art and Psyche in the City 2012 conference sponsored by ARAS. 

During the years, a constant stream of artists have been coming to ARAS to do research or simply to be inspired.  This is one of the many expressions of how Jung and his theories of archetypal imagery have attracted artists and continue to do so.  The enthusiastic reception of The Red Book by artists shows another example of Jung's influence.  As this article points out, it may seem perplexing to look at Jung’s own struggle with modern art where his concern about artists is that they are becoming disconnected from spiritual roots and inflated in their cultural consciousness.  Jung is upset that modern artists portray chaos, ugliness and fragmentation rather than images that would bring wholeness.  This seminal article suggests that Jung does not recognize that the unintelligibility itself in modern art points to the symbol as the best expression of something that is not yet known or understood.  Instead, modern art is seen by Jung as an aimless, fragmented undertaking and he emphatically, even dogmatically distinguished the efforts of modern artists from depth analysis. However, artists’ continuing fascination with Jung may show them in the end to be fellow wrestlers with inner daimons attempting on their own, without prior models, to truly enter the unconscious to bring back symbols of transformation.

-Ami Ronnberg


In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt—a wind to freeze;
Sad patience—joyous energies;
Humility—yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity—reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel—Art.

Herman Melville


I am only prejudiced against all forms of modern art.  It is mostly morbid and evil.”  (C.G. Jung Letters volume 1, Letter to Esther Harding 7/8/47, p. 469.)

            Ever since I read this statement I was perplexed by Jung’s vehemence.  Writing two years after the catastrophe of WWII, with the understanding of evil as an autonomous substance (and not just a privatio boni), Jung piles morbidity and evil on modern art.  Why such an intense reaction? This paper is my attempt at imagining an answer. 

            The above quote is by no means isolated.  Jung found morbidity in James Joyce’s Ulysses, stating that “even a layman would have no difficulty in tracing analogies between [it] and the schizophrenic mentality.” (CW15, p. 116)  He considered art of Pablo Picasso as belonging to the type of schizophrenic art.  (CW15, p. 137)

Read Wrestling with Azazel--Jung and Modern Art, A Critical Appraisal in its entirety.