The Philosophy and Psychoanalysis of the Image
This conversation took place on December 10, 2016
On the occasion of Totem & Taboo, an exhibition of new paintings by Daniel Horowitz at Tillou Fine Art (running through January 21), philosopher Chiara Bottici and psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster discussed the role of the image in philosophy and psychoanalysis. The exhibition is accompanied by a series of salon-style interdisciplinary conversations and performances during monthly Saturday Salons, a platform for cross-disciplinary conversations and collaborations that includes lectures, performances, concerts, and panels organized by Ella Marder.
The group began with the questions: Is the image more real than reality, or the epitome of fiction? Is the image politically conservative or subversive? What is the difference between what is imaginary in an image and what is creative in imagination? The conversation tackled those questions, while focusing on the question of the image as it relates to art and other forms of culture.
Jamieson Webster: Thank you to Daniel Horowitz of course and thank you to Tillou Fine Art for this opportunity to be together in this beautiful space and with these artworks, which is a rare opportunity for academics like us, who are usually in terrible academic buildings all day long. This is a real treat. We have been teaching a class for the entire year at the New School. We’ve taught it now two semesters and it’s called “Gender and Domination.” The class was meant to address the question of women in society today and the idea of voluntary servitude. How do you end up volunteering for servitude, as opposed to being actually oppressed, because there’s some sort of complicity that we have in our own slavery — this election isn’t the ultimate example of that. In this class, what become incredibly important was the question of images. And it’s part of Chiara Bottici’s lifework and has a long history in psychoanalysis, which I want to talk about.
The way that I want to do it first though is through the title of this exhibition, which is Totem and Taboo, and I happen to know from Daniel Horowitz that one of the titles he was thinking about was Totem Sans Taboo, which might actually be the name of the book that will follow this exhibition. I thought that this was fantastic because one of the truths about psychoanalysis is that we all know what a taboo is. A taboo is something that we should not think about, that we are not allowed to touch, eat, worship, and what we are often not allowed to image. The taboo is something that’s meant to be kept foreign, meant to be kept aside. This is common knowledge, while we never talk about the totem. There’s something very beautiful in what Freud says about the origin of human civilization in relation to totemic culture.
What is the totem? Freud does this sort of strange anthropological research, many people have criticized him for it, but I don’t think it’s so much whether it’s right or whether it’s wrong or whether it’s accurate anthropology, but what he wants to do with it to speak about the human psyche. What he says about the totem is that it’s a binding agent. It’s at the origin of civilization and it’s the way that tribes originally created clans within themselves to determine who belonged to whom. It was, in a way, the original family structure, but what’s interesting to him is that it doesn’t look like our heteronormative nuclear family.
One of the things he says is that it happens through the mother, so it’s not the paternalistic family, it’s a matrilineal lineage that’s established through clans. The way that it’s established, interestingly enough, is that when the woman is pregnant, the moment that she feels the baby moving in her body, where she is at that moment or whatever comes into her mind, establishes the clan that she’s going to become a part of. If you’re near the water, you’ll become part of the turtle clan. If you’re in the woods, you become part of the bear clan. If you’re in the fields, you become part of the rabbit clan. That this was the logic that was used as if, at that moment, the mother got to determine for herself who the father was. It wasn’t the father of the baby, the one she had a sexual relationship with, but who she is at the moment that she understands that she’s a woman and a mother. What happens is that she’s brought into a clan, and from that moment on, all of the logic that organizes the family structure, what you can eat, what is sacred to you, organizes your new family life. This is the way that as a people, they distribute the resources within a community.
Of course, the people who are part of the turtle or the fish clan, they don’t eat the fish, but it makes the fish available to the bear and the rabbit clans. This is how they ensure a fair distribution of resources, and they bind people together in a logic that’s not necessarily one of ownership. It also has the logic of laying claim to something yourself at a critical moment of transition. The moment that you decide to signify something, this writing inside the body and then outside. It also ensures movement — you’re born into a clan of course, but you will change clans at another moment. There’s something here that I find incredibly intriguing, in terms of a kind of fluidity of structures. Everything becomes a disaster for Freud once something about this totemism leaves the arena as an organizing and binding structure transitioning away from this maternal logic towards something more patriarchal and phallic once taboo becomes the more primary mechanism. Maybe this is even part of our forgetting totemism at this point in history.
So what is the taboo? Freud says that what happens with taboo, that’s very different from totemism, is that the taboo is established on the logic of the sacrifice and law and order. He has this very crazy story that he developed as to how this transitioned. He says that what started to happen was that the men wanted to take ownership of the women, and the father didn’t like the women leaving him and joining other clans and being at their behest. The father wanted to keep all these women for himself and started trying to horde the women. This created tension, and Freud speculates that the sons of these mothers killed this primal father. But then, they felt very guilty for killing him, and they established a law against murdering fathers and resurrected him as the ruler or God. Murder becomes the taboo — thou shalt not murder — but as a way of glorifying the Father — honor thy father and thy mother, do not worship false gods — not of establishing clans around totemic figures.
He says this is the transition to what he’s going to call modernity (or the change from paganism to Judeo-Christianity). With Freud, of course, you have to think of the Oedipus complex as based in these impulses — against possessing our mother sexually and against killing our fathers. This sort of logic is not only the key to modern neurosis but also shows us the cycle of active aggression and radical fear, or the triad prohibition-transgression-guilt that are in a very, very tense balance, based in a ruthless competition. This is a competition for total possession, rather than a system that allows us to distribute resources amongst ourselves. So this is what was important to me in thinking of this show, and I just want to fast-forward now to the question of why the totem is important to psychoanalysis today and with respect to our relation to the image.
One of the ways in which Freud picks up on this again is in terms of thinking about it as a form of identification, in particular with something that you find in the outside world that can begin to form a self-representation. Now the way that this comes into psychoanalytic practice is that what we see with patients is that they form a transference. The transference to you is based on something that neither they know, nor you know as an analyst. They find something in your person. They find something in the way you look. They find something in the way you dress. They find something in your office. They find something in your aesthetic. They find something in your work, in your mannerism, and in your way of speaking that they fasten onto as the way in which they consolidate a relationship with you unconsciously. What happens in a treatment is that this comes to the surface, little by little. You start to understand why your patient “loves you.” Why your patient is interested in you, in what you are saying to them. And through this little kernel that they fasten onto, their history is brought to the surface. It brings to the surface their trauma that they need to repeat with you in order to work through it, and it also brings to the surface what’s going to allow the analysis to conclude. It’s going to be more and more manifest till it is dissolved and then the analysis can come to an end.
Freud calls this partial identification or hysterical identification. It’s these little details that you pick up on — and of course this is what artists are brilliant at. They pick up these little things that are invisible in the world and they make them visible. A person’s psychoanalysis is almost an artistic act to the extent that they cultivate precisely this, making something invisible visible, as what you orient yourself around in your world that you didn’t even know.
Chiara Bottici: There is a problem!
JW: Well, there is a problem. The problem is that there’s another form of identification, and this is the one that’s linked to taboo and not the totem. Freud says that it’s narcissistic identification, which I think picks up very nicely on the question of vanity that’s raised by the performance earlier this morning. What happens in narcissistic identification is it’s a way of shoving all of this history down, all of this trauma, all of this passionate, loving desirous relationship to the world, and trying to create an image. Trying to create a total image, trying to create a kind of narcissistic enclosure in order to fend all of that off and keep yourself together. You keep yourself together in a very lone, solitary, individualistic way. Freud says that in the treatment you constantly have this kind of battle between partial identification, the place where you desire, the place where your memory is contained, and this sort of total narcissistic identification. Both are imagistic: one is the kind of tiny detail of what you pick up on when you get excited, and the other one is the thing that you’re constantly trying to throw out there and portray about yourself.
I think that the follow-up book to Totem and Taboo is important here. Freud said that he was rewriting Totem and Taboo when he wrote Civilizations and Its Discontent, which I do think is his most important work, in 1930. It’s basically the story of this war between trait identification, totemic identification, partial identification, and the narcissistic image. It’s what he’s going to rename at that point in 1930, right, so we’re moving from 1913 to 1930, life and death. He’s going to rename it the battle between Eros and the death drive. And one of the things that he said in the conclusion of that essay is that he hopes Eros will win. He hopes that love and binding, the binding of communities, will win, but he cannot say for sure. You have to imagine at the point in which he writes it, in 1930, that all of the intimations of World War II were on his doorstep. He’s just come out of World War I and the second war is about to happen. It’s really not clear to him that Eros can win at all against the force of this death drive.
This is, for me, the place where this exhibition is important because it brings his terms back to the table and it also brings back these terms in a way that I think is fascinating. Chiara Bottici picked up on this question by asking, what is primitive? We have this incredible juxtaposition of “primitive works,” with Daniel Horowitz’s refashioning of them. But if you think about Freud’s logic, which one is the more primitive — the primitive totem or the modern taboo? It’s not the totemic! That’s where we need to find ourselves again, in relationship to some more interesting idea of communal life and binding images, and not necessarily in the things that modernity has brought into being.
CB: So here is the problem, because Freud wrote in the 1930s, the beginning of the twentieth century, in a situation in which we were not yet as image-saturated as we are now. The proliferation of images, with the consequent exhaustion of the creativity of imagination, is linked to a transformation in the capitalist mode of production. We can briefly describe it as a passage from the Fordist to the post-Fordist mode of production. In the Fordist mode of production, beautifully captured by Charlie Chaplin’s movie Modern Times, labor was repetitive and alienating: in order to maximize productivity, the gestures of the worker are split into segments (let us say, tightening a bolt) that are repeated over and over again. The critique of this world, epitomized by the ’68 slogan “all power to the imagination” centered around a critique of repetitiveness, alienation, and fragmentation. Capitalism’s reply to this critique was very smart: “You no longer want to do repetitive work? Should we give all the power to the imagination? Okay, let’s try it out.” This is how we moved, in the past 40 years to post-Fordism: instead of objects, we produce mainly services, instead of mute, repetitive labor, we are constantly called to use our imaginative capacities.
Now, you see how the two processes are linked to one another: if you aim to produce objects, you encounter a limit at some point, but if you are producing services, there is no limit to what you can imagine. You can have three, four, five washing machines, maybe even ten, but at some point they become useless. Services are infinite because they are meant to respond to desires, and not to needs; or even better, they respond to desires that are imagined as needs. So there is no limit. And that’s where the expanding logic of capitalism needs to enlist imagination and artistic creativity for its own sake. In a way, we all are artists with our Facebook account and just that.
So the problem is, how do we reactivate the creativity of imagination if the latter has been enlisted to the constraint of producing products that can be sold “just in time”? How to recover the power of images if the latter are now commodities that must be sold even before being produced? How to find an image that can keep us together in this phantasmagoria of images that are constantly in front of us and that solicit, enlist, but perhaps also exhaust our own imagination? Here is, I think, the importance of what Daniel Horowitz’s work has been doing up to now. If the 1960s could still conceive of imagination and artistic creativity as a force that would by itself be able to liberate us, now we are clearly denied such a possibility. What are we going to do in a time when everybody has to be innovative? Everybody has to be creative in our world. Nobody is ever allowed to be repetitive. So we can no longer simply say, “All power to the imagination,” because imagination already has all the power. Capitalism gave it to her. What is then left for us if creating new images has become the capitalist imperative par excellence? As I have argued in my Imaginal Politics, re-orientation of the image may well be the revolution of our time that is left for us. And I think that what Daniel Horowitz has been doing with his work is precisely to attempt such a revolution, to constantly invite us to reorient existing images.
You cannot get outside of the spectacular logic of capitalism, with its obsessive production of commodified images, but what you can do, and what Daniel Horowitz does, is to reorient them. I see Daniel’s work as a constant attempt to re-orient the images we live by, to instill them again with the force of drives, of something which has not yet been enlisted in capitalist production. If I have to put all of this into a slogan, I would say: against capitalist innovation, we need artistic reorientation.
Moving on to the specific topic of this exhibition, we cannot but notice that Totem and Taboo was written in the 1930s, at the peak of European colonialism. Colonialism went hand in hand with an ambivalent fascination for the colonized lands. People were fascinated by what they then labelled the “primitive.” They were fascinated by their totems. They were fascinated by their masks. They took their artifacts, turned them into objects of artistic value and scientific curiosity, and brought them to the metropolises. They brought them to London, Berlin, Vienna, Paris, and they exhibited them in public spaces, in museums, in art shows, in scientific cabinets, and even inside private houses.
There is a specifically exhibitionist logic to colonialism. The latter expressed itself through both fascination and repulsion. It is this ambivalent mixture that fosters the psychological logic of colonialism. You have to exhibit the primitive mask in order first to show it, but also thereby foreclose it: They are the primitive people. We are the civilized ones. There’s a function of reassurance in this type of logic and in the images that carry it through.
What has Daniel Horowitz been doing with this logic? Look for instance at the pictures on this wall (Her Majesty’s Pleasure). We have a little artifact, and then we have these two paintings that are actually a great example of what I mean by reorientation of the image. You have old engravings from the eighteenth century. The first one represents the Dutch Indian Company, the colonial enterprise par excellence. You have a group of men notably sitting around a table. People of power, sitting in a room, with walls adorned with paintings and maps of exotic lands, maps. The engraving itself clearly displays the exhibitionistic logic of colonialism I described before.
What Daniel Horowitz has done is to put a formless figure in the middle. It is a figure with uncertain boundaries; it could be an intestine; it could be excrement, literally a piece of shit. It’s something that binds together, but it’s also something that certainly subverts the linearity of the original image behind it. In that sense, it subverts the exhibitionistic logic of colonialism by enacting a detournement. This is, I think, the kind of reorientation of the image that can reactivate their power.
To connect this operation to the performance (The Lady with a Thousand Faces by Clarina Bezzola) we have alluded to, it is not by chance that both womanhood and primitives were theater of a spectacular exhibitionistic logic. If there’s something that, say, combined women and the primitives, it is precisely the fact that they are both associated with the idea of nature; they are considered to be closer to it than the “civilized” men. The woman is traditionally the one who is producing babies, taking care of the reproduction of life, and as such, she’s closer to nature than to culture (from which, as we know, she was largely excluded for centuries). The difference between primitives and women is that the former can remain naked, while women have to cover themselves up, constantly putting on the spectacle of cloths, colors, adornments, jewels, and so on and so forth.
What we have seen in this performance is the typical example of female exhibitionism. The latter emerges even more strikingly if you consider that since the eighteenth century European men have largely given up on exhibiting themselves in clothing and fashion: it is what has been called “the great masculine renunciation.” Before that time, men dressed with adornments, stockings, furs and wigs, and collars and as much as women did. All of a sudden, men started to abandon that abundance of colors and forms of adornment for a much more sober suit. Indeed, we are still witnessing its effects, if it is true that the US president is still wearing a suit not dissimilar from that of a college graduate who is going to his first job interview. Despite the fact that things have recently started to change a little bit, there is still much difference between women’s and men’s clothing. Men have given up their exhibitionistic desire to show themselves because they don’t have to do it: They are civilized, by definition. On the contrary, women have to cover their uncivilized nature, so they have to…
JW: …distract from this lack with all of this finery.
CB: Right, exactly. Distract from it. I think there is a thread that connects the performance, the way in which it subverts this exhibitionistic logic of the spectacle of womanhood, with the way in which Daniel Horowitz’s works in Totem and Taboo subvert the exhibitionistic logic of colonialism itself.
JW: Just to bring this question of subversion back to psychoanalysis, the one thing that I think we can associate with all types of psychoanalysis, there are so many different kinds, is the importance of dreams. This is where it started. When Freud wrote The Interpretation of Dreams, he had analyzed his own dreams and said that he had miraculously discovered that dreams have a meaning, which is just that they wish. This is the founding act of this discipline and therapy, based on the fact that dreams have a meaning. What are dreams? They’re images. In analysis when you do dream analysis, you take something that has this sort of compact imagistic form, even if it’s a longer dream with a narrative. Sometimes we’re really just bringing an image, or dreams bring you what essentially are a series of images, and you deconstruct them, right? Freud used this iceberg metaphor, but you have the dream narrative here, a small piece that shows at the top. When you find all the threads that go into it, that’s the bottom of the iceberg. You see how this huge mass of material gets condensed essentially into what’s an image. This is what he says is fascinating about the human mind — how it can take all of this, and when you’re sleeping, just throw an image out there that is able to contain all of that information, usually in a completely ingenious, sometimes very humorous, sometimes very terrifying fashion.
The work you do in treatment is that you try to take that image apart, show all of the different threads that went into making it, but in this sense, it is also a reorientation of the image like the one that Chiara Bottici described. It’s about a deconstruction, and thus a reorientation of it. It’s a sort of breaking up of the fixity of narcissism and of the death drive. This synthetic capacity to take life and just stick an image on top of it is both a blessing and a real problem. This is the double-edged sword that Freud was juggling, not only in Totem and Taboo, but also in Civilization and Its Discontents.
CB: There’s also the topic of the mirror, which came up in the performance, and I think it’s also nicely illustrated in Daniel Horowitz’s work. Something that I find striking in his work is the faceless character of a lot of the images. Now, psychoanalytically speaking, the fascination of the mirror is that it gives you back a unified image of yourself. You are a mess, a fragmented body; you may even be falling apart, but then you look at yourself in the mirror and you are given a unitary image. That is comforting. Maybe even too comforting, in fact. Take your Facebook profile picture: there is a coherent shape, there is your name attached to it, there is the reassuring effect that you are that one. Again, too reassuring, and perhaps also too much of a one. All the mess of fragmentation, all the unpredictability of drives has been erased from it. I think that Daniel Horowitz’s work, which is uncanny in its own specific way, brings some of that mess back.
(Clarina Bezzola jumps in): I just want to add one thing. The effect of the mirror in the performance is also that it is terrifying to look into this specific mirror carried by the one face, because you know you’re being watched. It’s very different from a regular mirror, where you’re just checking yourself out. Everybody’s terrified from this, and for me, it’s very difficult to do it because I feel how everybody feels so uncomfortable.
CB: This is what is subversive about the performance: on the one hand, Clarina Bezzola enacted the submissive lady, dressed in traditional woman’s cloths, with lots of adornments and laces, but on the other, she becomes the one who is potentially controlling you. The aria she was singing, Il mio nome e ‘fedelta,’ literally means “my name is faithfulness.” So the woman who is faithful, docile, and submissive, to be contemplated and looked at in her beauty, can become at the same time the one who looks back and even controls you. The tension is rendered even more strongly by the space between the face and the mirror. Without that, it would not be so subversive, because it hides the face of the woman, preventing you from looking at her, while at the same time insinuating the suspicion that she is actually looking at you. It’s the fact that the familiar image of femininity with all its adornment and nice dresses becomes this potentially terrifying controller that is scary. Again, this connects with Horowitz’s work since faceless bodies are also a recurrent theme there.
Daniel Horowitz: The dichotomy of the observer and the observed is represented in this particular artwork, Prosthetic God, as well as in the entire exhibition. Sometimes the tribal artworks are turned away from us and toward the wall, and sometimes the paintings on the wall are looking at us. For years, I’ve wondered why I have this interest in obscuring faces, and it’s not because I can’t paint a face. I believe it’s because it offers the opportunity for the viewer to identify with the person in the painting, whereas a specific person, a specific face, is the other. The whole notion of this exhibition is I’d like to sort of play with the reversal of the self and the other.
CB: I think the faceless image, the blurring of the usual image that is given to us of a normal body, invites you to identify but it is also prevents you from total identification because it’s blank so you can’t identify. You can’t identify with that face, which is so messed up. It’s a way to invite the onlooker to identify, but at the same time you also block the process of total identification.
DH: Yes and no. I feel like the viewer can at least identify with an earlier memory of themselves as a little girl or their own sort of subconscious.
JW: That’s not identification. That’s more tied to something in the body or on the level of the unconscious, which is what subverts the image. I think that’s also a quality in your work, one that tries to capture something about body and movement. I mean, there’s a lot of your work that has this feeling of something that’s moving, which, you know, is why I love the moment in Freud with the totem, when you feel the baby in your body. You feel your body doing something different than it had done the whole time before. That’s the moment in which you can create a new identity, a new family, a new orientation for yourself in the world. Just in terms of working with patients, it’s this that they have to find themselves again. You come and you’re anxious and you’re numb and you don’t remember anything and you don’t know why everything’s a mess. It’s not just about figuring all that stuff out intellectually, but it’s literally giving back to your body a kind of life that it’s missing by finding a way to dig back down through what’s crusted over.
CB: At the same time, connected with your remark, look at the feet of the little girl. It is not only the face, but here also the feet that subvert the linearity of the shape. Whether the face or the feet, you seem always to want to subvert the extremities of hegemonic images of body shape. In this case, it’s the feet, which are really slipping away, liquefied: this is, again, a reorientation of the image. This is just one of the ways in which this painting manages to give depth back to the image. And this is a crucial thing to do as a painter. The problem with the digital images of our time is that they’re flat — they have no touch, no depth — whereas Horowitz’s pictures have both depth and strata. In this case, he used old fabric and then painted on top of it the image of a nun. This alludes to the typical pastoral power of the colonizers, who believed they were bringing religion and civilization to the savages. The nun is taking care of the little girl, like colonizers took care, maybe even too much care, of the New World. Yet, look at the feet of the little girl: she could slip away at any time. She could literally liquefy herself and disappear. That’s what is subversive in the image.
DH: What’s subversive is that there’s a dichotomy in this painting. The nun is simultaneously the caretaker and the oppressor. That’s something that I related to as I was consuming images of colonialism in preparation for the exhibition. That sort of tension.
JW: Should we open it up to the audience? We’ve overwhelmed you with all of this.
Hannah Garner: Oh, I have not read your book, Life and Death of Psychoanalysis, but I heard about a review that mentioned that you said that psychoanalysis cannot be resolved or it cannot be made a finite, concrete thing. The trouble with psychoanalysis, the way it stirs up so many conflicting opinions is a good thing, because it remains a subversive thing. Also, I was wondering, what you said about the all-consuming power of capitalism, that it’s turned creativity and artistry into the imperative of being productive. I was wondering if, to kind of connect the two, keeping the subconscious away from capitalism is what we need to do?
JW: One of my favorite quotes is from a sociologist named Phillip Rief, who was really angry, maybe in a good way. He said that what he loved about psychoanalysis was that, when the logic of modernity and capitalism is that all time is money, then we all have this problem — while telling ourselves we have to work and earn all the time, psychoanalysis takes your money and turns it back into time. With that time, you do something completely useless. I mean, you just talk about God knows what. No, I’m serious. There’s something about the inefficiency of it. It takes forever. You have to go all the time. You’re spending money on what exactly? But it’s precisely this anti-capitalistic logic that needs to be preserved. And all the new therapies, with the idea of getting rid of the symptoms — do your worksheets, go home, do your homework, come back, let’s check your symptoms. This is not psychoanalysis, for precisely the reason that you’re talking about.
CB: Right, but there’s also the fact that psychoanalysis is one of the ways to operate a reactivation of the productive imagination, a reactivation of a space where drives and desires can just break free. The problem is that it’s not applicable to an entire society. It’s an individual enterprise, largely based on the transference created between the analyst and the analysand, so for me, the problem remains that you can’t put an entire society on the couch. It remains an open question as to how to apply it outside the individual setting. In this sense, there is something potentially anti-political in psychoanalysis. Let me explain. The most free people that I know are either people who are being psychoanalyzed or are psychoanalysts, including the lovely lady here. At the same time, they’re not necessarily the most political. There’s something that is very individualistic in the psychoanalytic therapy, so the problem is how to bring that capacity for deliberation of the image outside of the analytic setting. I think Jamieson Webster has been working on a myriad of projects that are aimed at doing this, but I also see artistic practices as another potential way to do the same thing: they also create a space where drives can break in in unexpected ways. Arts also benefit from a potentially wider access: artistic images travel much more easily outside of closed spaces, in a way that psychoanalytic speech can’t do simply because it’s so geared toward an individual path of liberation. And given how much effort it takes to reach such liberation, it is no wonder that one does not have much energy left for working toward the liberation of others.
DJ Spooky: I’d like to ask — maybe as a provocation — for Sigmund Freud, one of his legacies was the transformation of what his nephew, Edward Bernays, came up with: the term “public relations.” Amusingly enough, Edward Bernays based a lot of his analysis on how people respond to advertising and public discourse. He then became an advisor for many commercial campaigns and advertising. Especially with the way this last election was fought over anxiety and perceptions about Trump, you can put an entire society on the couches: it’s called Twitter. When you start thinking about this notion of public discourse and the commercialization of the subconscious, it’s become one of the best and most robust outlets for advertising.
Daniel, with your work there is some deep resonance with the painter Manual Ocampo’s work or some of the Italian Transavanguardia like Sandro Chia, Clemente and Enzo Cucchi of the 1980s and ’90s, but in an intriguing way, what I wanted to ask you was, where do you feel is the entrance for modern stuff? In the twenty-first century, you’re looking at photography, but you’re also looking at digital media, GIFs, logos, things like that. In your work, it’s much more of a kind of nostalgia or going back to a different era almost. It doesn’t feel twenty-first century, in a good way.
DH: A given culture is only as strong as its power to convince its least dedicated member that its fictions are its truths. I think that the photographic image has had a single-handed role in the shaping of consciousness in the late nineteenth and early twentieth until the twenty-first century, because images are the primary mode of communication for most people. The printed image, whether in an ad or the cover of The New York Times or a film poster or a painting, is a form of propaganda. Somebody is conveying to you their version of the truth or reality, when we all know that truth is something that’s subjective, right? I’m taking the legacy of all the images of the twentieth century; I’m using that as my database.
I’m looking through archives of subjects that I find relevant to this exhibition in particular, and I’m re-appropriating those images. Whether it’s deliberately intervening on top of a photograph in the Tribalphilia series, or I’m using photography as an inspiration and I’m montaging different images, photographic images, in the form of an oil painting. Nonetheless, what my intention is, like Jamieson Webster and Chiara Bottici were saying, to reconfigure the way in which images convey meaning, not as an objective sort of “this is the truth,” but more to pose a question with the artwork and then the answer is only in terms of the individual subjective interpretation of the painting. That’s sort of how I was thinking about this exhibition.
CB: Consider the difference between the images at the entrance, where you have a typical digital image, and those on display inside. What is typical of the digital image is the fact that it’s flat, it’s reproducible and malleable indefinitely. In our Photoshopping epoch, images are no longer even an object. They are processes, because you can intervene in the very constitution of the image all the time. The way I see Horowitz’s work is that it addresses this condition. It is simply the nostalgic call for a lost world; it is not just the painting of idyllic landscapes. What he’s doing is trying to give to the image back a sensory depth. The digital image can speak only to your visual register. It has no touch, no feeling of depth, no smell: it’s sensorially impoverished. What I see particularly important in Horowitz’s work is the stratification, systematically done through what I have elsewhere called an “aesthetic of recycling”: you take the old images, old fabric, old colors, and you use them against themselves. Precisely because we live in this age that is so obsessed with constant innovation, renovation is the only way to find some sensorial richness. Fabrics, like this fabric here, have a feeling by themselves. Oil renders the feeling of touch, but they also have their specific smell. The digital image has no smell and no touch.
I think that this aesthetic of recycling can really operate a good homeopathic therapy: if it is true that all those images that are constantly in front of our screens are making us sick, then curing ourselves with some images can be a kind of homeopathy. It is not only the nature of the digital image, but also the fact of their numbers: we have too many of them.
JW: You’re not even on Instagram.
CB: I’m not even on Instagram. But I am suffering like everyone else from the proliferation of images that sickens us. Nobody can call themselves out, not even those who are not on Instagram. Since we can’t call ourselves outside of the image we can only develop alternative ways to be in this world of images, and giving back to the image this sensorial richness is a good beginning. Maybe it’s not the whole solution, but it’s definitely a part of it.
DH: Good. Let’s open it up now. Anybody have a question?
Gideon Jacobs: Yeah, so my mother’s a psychologist, my father is a psychiatrist, my sister here is also a psychologist, and there are actually more in the family. We grew up in a house that had primitive art in it, and I think as a kid I did not realize what a cliché it was. I think I just thought my parents were kind of quirky. As an adult, I think I started to make more sense of it as primitive art, like elements of psychoanalysis, are his [Freud’s] consciousness valuing and fetishizing the unconscious and the civilized fetishizing and valuing the uncivilized. I guess I’m hoping you guys can unpack what that is and what that means. Is that envy? Is that the conscious envying what it is to be unconscious? I’ve always kind of made sense of it as sort of envy.
JW: I think it’s envy on the part of the new psychologist for Freud, that they’ll never be him. I think it’s sort of crazy that the psychoanalyst remakes his office, but he can’t afford the artifacts that he had and it’s illegal to get them now. With Freud, there was this trade of real artifacts. Now all you can do is get the African variety, and then psychoanalysts populate their offices with this in precisely this kitsch fashion. What are they doing? Again, this is the problem with the image. Why are they making their offices in the image of Freud’s, rather than reinventing something they regard as what a psychoanalyst’s office could be now?
CB: Because of the fetish.
JW: This is also what’s going to kill psychoanalysis. I mean, one of the things that Freud said about his desk with all of these figurines — and when you see his desk, it’s crazy; where did he write? There were 100 of them on his desk — he said that he talks to them. It’s not, “here I am with my primitive art collection, just like Freud.” Freud saw them as figures that animated his life, that he spoke to and spoke back to him. This is what I mean about the sensory quality of it. It wasn’t the fetish that says, “Hey, I’m a psychoanalyst.”
CB: The more general name for what you are describing is the discontents of civilization. Psychoanalysts are definitely not the only ones who have ethnic artifacts in their houses. I do too, and I am not a psychoanalyst. Maybe this is because I am also equally, so to speak, infected by the discontents of civilization, but I think we are all part of it. The fetishization of the ethnic product is a constant in all societies that have had a colonial past. The psychology of colonialism leads us to project onto the other both our disgust and fascination. That’s the desire for the primitive. I think it’s very interestingly represented here, in what I suppose is the most representative series of work in this exhibition: I mean the series called Tribalphia. You see two examples here and here. The original images were taken from a book by Werner Muensterberger, who was a psychoanalyst.
CB: Now this was a psychoanalyst who collected all these artifacts and published this book so there’s clearly a fascination for the fetish of the primitive. But there is also a fascination for the very idea of the image as something primordial. In this, I am really on the side of the Jungians, those who argue that there’s something primordial about images themselves. The unconscious is, in the first place, a stream of images. What Daniel Horowitz has been doing is to take these flat images, from a book mechanically reproduced in industrial scale, and just by adding colors, turned it upside down, thus recovering something of that original primordial character of the image. All these images are very fusional, so there’s the desire for an image that glues us together again. These bodies are glued with one another. But I also see an attempt to reverse the simply exhibitionistic logic of colonialism, and psychoanalysts were no exceptions to this colonial desire.
Esther Perel: I want to go back to something you said before, but it’s not clear which one will win. As I understand, in the totem, where you have the sense of belonging or in the artwork, you also have a sense of containment. Civilization and Its Discontents was about the impulse of sublimation, in order to contain the unruly impulses, because it would have a victory over death or hatred or oppression. It’s no longer the playfulness between voluntary submission, it’s very clear that you’re not…There’s no voluntary in it. My question to you about the flatness is, I am afraid that actually in this particular moment, the victory’s kind of clearer than you are alluding to. That flatness of Twitter, or any of the other things, is a platform for the primitive, unruly, impulses gone wild, with no container and a false sense of belonging.
JW: I think you’re absolutely right. I’m completely terrified of what’s going on in the world at the current moment. I think the one thing that I would add is that there’s something that Freud talks about that’s very important for me in Civilization and Its Discontents, which is that the battle between life and death is eternal. It’s a struggle that’s going to go on forever. He speculates that there might be a point that the death drive wins out and we decimate ourselves as human beings, and he says this is possible from what he understands now about the human mind. There is another possibility that is sublimation. Yes, we have to find ways to creatively produce and contain ourselves, through images by the way. If you look at sublimation, it’s more or less artistic productivity. The problem is, he says, it takes a lot of frustration tolerance. For anyone who makes anything, it’s not like you just produce something. You struggle and struggle and struggle at it and it’s not exactly pleasurable. If we need to accommodate the drives in a way that’s not simply sublimation, it’s a very tiny possibility, but Freud says, that the world itself can recognize that the ways in which we experience pleasure and unpleasure as human beings is very unique and that we need to create laws or ways of binding together that recognize these differences in humanity.
You have a kind of edict that says, “You better work really hard and you better take care of your family.” We all need to do that in very different ways; we all need to create families differently in a way that works for us. When we try to fit the mold, this is when we tear each other apart. Freud talks about the religious ideal that says, “You have to be a good person. You have to care about the person next to you, your neighbor.” It doesn’t function as a way to make people care about each other. It becomes this kind of voracious command that we then rebel against. Or we identify on the aggressive side of it. He really hoped that there could be ways that we could recognize the variability in what he called the “Pleasure Principle.” I haven’t really been able to think it through, but I wonder what other ways we can find both of recognizing this diversity of human life and having it find the form that can then bind us together, to create new containers. It’s the project that is absolutely urgent.
Ella Marder: Do you maybe want to talk about your Dear Ivanka?
CB: This is a good example of why I didn’t respond to your question. Twitter could never put a society on the couch. The idea of the couch is precisely the idea of a very specific experience, which is made by being in this body to body relationship with another speaking subject. It’s not simply words. Words can be totally empty, in terms of their affective charge. The point is not having a patient say, “Ok, I’m in love with my father, so I suffer from an unresolved Oedipus complex.” That would be a totally empty speech. The point is not simply to transmit a series of truths or even fictions through verbal media. It’s to go through a transformation that largely takes place because of the emotional dynamic triggered by the bodily experience. It’s a speaking body that you need in the analytic setting. Otherwise, the talking cure could be any word cure, but it’s not just a word: it’s a very embodied word.
JW: I got sucked into this “Dear Ivanka” movement, which I didn’t expect to have the impact that it had, but the idea is precisely what you were talking about Esther. It was to take some sort of flatness that I saw — one is Ivanka Trump. We have this idea that she’s really sweet and articulate and nice and a mother and she cares about women and she’s this moderate ear that’s potentially present in the Trump administration, and to kind of explode this, and to explode it also given the fact that she’s a brand. I mean, she has branded herself very very well, and nothing about her should be normalized. We’ve juxtaposed all these images, which are in the world — this woman’s entire life is captured in images — and we’re trying to kind of recycle them violently through this Instagram account, which in one week has 14,000 followers and we’ve had 50 articles written about it in various newspapers and magazine. It has damaged her brand, and it sort of blows my mind that we did this. It makes me feel bad…not really.
My problem with it is that it’s trying to get rid of the flatness or even to expose the sort of crazy family romance fantasy that we’re having as a nation. To sort of show the weird, incestuous relationship between Ivanka and Trump, which can show the narcissism at the core, but this doesn’t do something positive; it doesn’t bind a new community of people together. The only place I can see this maybe is that, in the trope of “Dear Ivanka,” you are, as a group of people, pleading with her and it’s been very important to people to pretend that they’re writing letters, like “Please Ivanka, protect my family. Please Ivanka, care about climate change. Please Ivanka …” I love that, as a way of bringing a kind of quasi religiosity as a binding element amongst people.
Clarina Bezzola: You were before talking about the woman going into the forest or to the water and wherever she feels the movement of the child, that’s where the child is going to be at home. What I find so fascinating in the feminine matriarchal society versus the patriarchy society is the whole idea of ownership. The male has brought that first “this is my woman, this is my child,” and then with colonialism, they go to these tribes where they don’t have a notion of ownership and they take these sacred objects that don’t belong to anyone and they take them and put them in their house; you’re taking ownership, you’re kind of demystifying it. What I think is actually happening is the consciousness pushing down the subconsciousness and taking ownership. It’s like saying to the woman, “You’re beautiful,” and by saying that, you take over power of her. The idea of ownership in our capitalist patriarchal society, I think, is our biggest problem, and every time we take a picture of something and you put it on your Instagram account, you’re taking ownership of it. Every time. I think that’s where we’re kind of sick.
DH: That’s what I love about these objects: they’re inherently paradoxical because they’re simultaneously possessions, but yet they represent this opportunity for the collector or owner of them to impose his own repressed anxieties and fantasies onto what they represent for him. Jamieson, you were sort of fetishizing Freud’s collection as being somehow archetypal and different because he was the first one, but from my understanding, and from talking with Alan Steele, who is a collector and whose objects are in this room, Freud’s collection was actually quite inferior. It wasn’t really that he was a connoisseur of any sort; it’s just that they mostly had a totemic value for him. Louise Bourgeois wrote an essay titled “Freud’s Toys” in which she sort of expressed her dismay about the fact that these objects simply served as a veil to protect him from his patients.
David Cohen: I’m intrigued about the fact that the objects we have here are extricated from not just a different place — that’s no problem. I’m not making any kind of political statement. It’s more about the fact that your work is so much about, it seems to me, the raw and the cooked. That the fact that the support is so active and it’s appropriated the images of vestigial and that interaction is what, pretty much, defines the work. Any juxtaposition with these artifacts is kind of fascinating, because these objects are in fact Western art objects, because they’ve been extricated from what’s essentially a performative culture. To the makers of these artifacts, in their present condition, they have no…they do not have their original meaning.
They would have been used in ceremonies, and they only have a life or a legitimacy in the hand of the makers, when they’re being used in the ceremonies, but to Western connoisseurship, they are containers of a kind of formal purity. In fact, we’re seeing objects that once might have been colored in a denuded state. I think that really speaks to what’s happening in your painting as well. I wonder if we have any insights into the repurposing, the retooling of these objects, and the aestheticizing of them, which is not a bad thing. It’s not a critique. I’m not joining that post-colonial horror, shock-horror, these belong to someone else. They don’t. They can fulfill their function once, and now they have a new function.
JW: One of the things about the totem is its ceremonial aspect. I mean, it is about what you eat. It’s about eating together. There is a whole long passage about how important it is to eat together, as opposed to just being your family — the Trumps, or whatever.
CB: We should remember that this is a very particular setting. We are in a house, in a place where the normal functions of life take place, and not in a museum, which is characterized by being a space for the showing of art for the sake of art. And we should also remember that the idea of art, the idea of something that fulfills just that purpose, is a typically modern phenomenon. Not just primitive art, but also Greek art, Byzantine art, and medieval art have other purposes, too. We call it art, as if its only purpose had been simply aesthetic contemplation, but it was not: all those objects were part of social life. The idea that we would have a museum to exhibit the pieces of the Greek temple would have been inconceivable for the Greeks. The temple was a temple. The totem was a totem. They were not just objects for the disinterested aesthetic contemplation of some bored bourgeois intellectual. I mean, there’s no judgment here. As a matter of fact, the idea of art for the sake of art is a very modern idea. This exhibition, taking place in a Brooklyn Brownstone, reverses such an idea and recovers the continuity between art and other spheres of life: eating, drinking, talking together. A communal space, where the normal functions of life are gathered together.
It’s very different than the typical museum space, where the predicate is the separation of the aesthetic experience from the rest of life. I don’t really know what we’re doing. It’s life, so in this sense, I think it’s very appropriate that we do not really know what this salon is about, except that it goes against the grain of the museumization of art, which is predicated upon the separation of art from the other processes of life.
DC: The flattening and the excess democracy of social media, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, etc. Democratizing images easily consumed in that white space of the screen is an extension of the museum.
JW: Right. And the individualistic consumption of it, because the idea is that you go and you have this solitary, quasi-religious experience in front of a painting.
DH: Okay, one last question.
Speaker: I think it’s important that we realize that Totem and Taboo was written in response to Jung’s work, which would address that conflict existing between Freud and Jung.
JW: We have this problem all the time.
CB: I’m the Jungian and she’s the Freudian, and I keep saying the image is primordial and she keeps saying language is primordial, so we are the living contradiction.
Speaker: The primary process is images.
Speaker: It’s perceptual.
JW: Wait a minute. If we look at what the totem does, we see that it takes the mother’s feeling in her body. Yes, an image of an animal, but Freud also says this image of the animal is the first form of writing. Writing is inherently linked to speech in an important way. Right? You have body, you have image, and you have language, and when Chiara Bottici says image, I think she means all of these things. When I say language, I mean all of these things. I think fundamentally we agree.
DANIEL HOROWITZ works in painting, drawing, collage, and installation. His art is characterized by a unique combination of realism and surrealist abstraction. Horowitz’s imagery alters the original nature of objects and scale, creating overall dreamlike atmospheres. His paintings employ an associative logic, whereby disparate subjects are thrown together into impossible landscapes that are nonetheless psychologically cohesive. Through dissonant figure pairings and Freudian fluency in our collective symbolic lexicon, Horowitz conjures up what cannot be visualized into something visible. Horowitz’s work has been the subject of international solo and group exhibitions — most recently he exhibited a series of works on paper at the Musée de la Chasse et de Nature in Paris and is currently working on a solo exhibition at Rutger Brandt Gallery in Amsterdam.