Harry Sullivan coined the term parataxic distortion to describe the fantasy projections we foist on unknown individuals who cross our path. Fantastical projections used to be the bread and butter of psychoanalysis, with famous tests like the Rorschach inkblot test used to prime the patient's confabulating pump. Though less well known in popular culture, the TAT was the second most used projective test, even though there was little to support it's reliability. Interestingly, a latter version of the TAT used images from Edward Steichen's Family of Man exhibit at MoMA, and was shown to offer more reliability as a diagnostic tool, though it never replaced the earlier TAT in popularity.Approximate look (remembered) of card 19 of the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)
One if the reasons for the TAT's popularity is that it used existing art, which often functions like the person across from us on a blind date: a barely read surface that we use to project our thoughts and feelings. Christina Morgan, one of the TAT's creators attend the Art Students League in New York after completing training as a nurse. Her talents as an artist were called into action, partly to select the images used, and in some cases, to re-render them for the test. When she arrived in New York in 1918, MoMA's first solo show for an artist--the work of Charles Burchfield--was on display. The Night Wind (above) can now be seen in Heatwaves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield at the Hammer Museum through January 3, 2010. Go and project.Charles Burchfield's (and now MoMA's) The Night Wind 1918
The instructions (as I remember them) asks the subject to look at the image and explain what is going on. She is then asked to explain the events that led up to the things happening in the picture, and what took place later. In Wesley G. Morgan's (no relation to Christina) history of some of the TAT's images, he writes,The Weaver House in Salem, Ohio, next door to Burchfield's childhood home, and now restored as part of the Burchfield museum complex.
Jim Burchfield, a grand nephew of the artist, and Greg Courtney, a Salem realtor, are shown holding a black and white reproduction of "The Night Wind."
On September 22, 1916, Burchfield made a note that seems to presage the painting. In it he mentions a high wind out of the southwest, clouds with black irregular openings that seem like strange creatures above a house with an evil yellow window amid black clawing trees (Townsend, 1993). In that same year, suffering from severe depression, fear and hallucinations, Burchfield made some sketches in his notebook, "Conventions for Abstract Thought," in which he developed various symbols from abstract shapes to represent various moods or pathological states including "fear," "insanity," "brooding," "morbidness," and "imbecility." The spiral symbol of fear can be recognized as the gale sweeping across the sky, and the empty-eyed mask of night over the house is recognized as the symbol for imbecility; morbidness (evil) can be found in the shape of the windows of the house(Baur, 1956; Baigell, 1976; Townsend, 1993; Weekly, 1993). These "conventions," "...make it clear that Burchfield was first and foremost a psychological artist--an expressionist and subjectivist, as it were." (Kuspit, 1997, p. 127). Kuspit (1997) maintains that fear is the most fundamental emotion in Burchfield's art. In fact a few months after painting "The Night Wind" Burchfield was drafted into the military service for the First World War.So fear, insanity, brooding, morbidness, and imbecility might not be your reading of the middle jpeg, your therapist's reading of your reading of a black and white reproduction, an art historian's reading of the art, but it is Burchfield's intention, which should count for something.
Earlier this year I sent some TAT images to Dennis Cooper to be used as inspiration for his blog's periodic Self-Portrait Day. The readers, writers, artists, musicians, and lurkers of his posts responded to the images with their own creative output--which is another legitimate way of responding to a work of art or it's reproduction. The fruits of their talents can be seen here, here, and here. There is some amazing creative work there, in particular the description of an image of a plowed field being being described as the view looking out from the back of someone's mouth. What I find interesting is that their creative output would be pathologized in the context of the actual test. But then, psychology has a long history of pathologizing creative output, from Van Gogh to images of cats.