Art News Intelligence Analysis
Surrealism and the Unconscious Mind
Unconscious desire, self-destruction and despair -
the dark impulses that we suppress during our waking hours
have long been an inspiration for artists and writers
Saturday November 19, 2005
Long before Freud, dreams were lauded as sources of knowledge, providing information about the dreamer's present situation and future prospects. Dreams never quite belonged to their dreamers, since the hidden meaning was not immediately accessible. One needed the help of an interpreter or prior training in the art of deciphering. Only then would the dream yield its secret message.
With Freud, the status of dreams changed. They were still seen as sources of knowledge, but this time they were more about one's past than future, and the messages delivered were hardly welcome. They were sexual and murderous, bringing to light aspects of ourselves that we would hardly want to know about. They showed humans not as autonomous agents but as divided, split between what they wished for at a conscious level and the echoes of their unconscious desire.
Where most of the psychology of the past century did its best to ignore this divided subject, writers and artists have been the main groupings outside the world of psychoanalysis to acknowledge the facts of the unconscious. Today's market-led societies have less and less space for the idea that a part of human activity does not serve instrumental aims such as the acquisition of wealth, power or happiness. They don't want to know about unconscious desire, infantile sexuality, hatred, self-destruction and despair.
This is exactly the area that writers and artists colonise. They explore not the rational goals of human activity but what blocks these pursuits, the impediments that give human life its richness and its agony. By taking these dark threads and magnifying them, they are faithful to the mysterious world of desires and defences Freud mapped out in The Interpretation of Dreams
Unconscious desire needs something to help it pass through the barriers of repression. So it hitches a ride with a conscious wish, the kind of preoccupation, worry or fantasy we might think about in our waking state. This mechanism of hitching, which Freud called the dreamwork, is exactly what is at stake in many projects of art and literature. In his study "Persecution and the Art of Writing", Leo Strauss catalogued the ways writers used details to express themselves in regimes where free speech was prohibited. The message would be concealed between the lines. The same processes may function in visual art, as we see in the work of the Russian artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, who are currently showing at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Working in Moscow for many years under a regime where artistic expression was severely limited by state control, they compared their works with the dreams described by Freud. On the surface it seemed that an obvious point was being made, but an attention to the detail showed a subversive message.
This brings us to the real interface between Freudian dream theory and literary and artistic production. What counts is less what is said than how it is said. It has nothing to do with content: it is not about sex or the Oedipus complex or murderous wishes. If these are universals of human life, what matters is how they are articulated. And, as Freud showed, the key lies in censorship.
The surrealists provide the best example. Here was a group of writers and artists who, for the most part, were keen readers of Freud and who had paid careful attention to his theory of dreams. They knew about the sexual drives, about Oedipal desires, about the castration complex. Although figures like André Breton changed their views about Freud at different moments of their careers, art historians tell us how surrealism and psychoanalysis went hand in glove.
Yet how exactly did Freud's dream theory inspire the surrealists? The unconscious desires Freud brought to light are, in fact, no more present than in any other art movement. But what we do find are the mechanisms of the dreamwork, the ways desire slips through the nets of censorship. When a desire cannot be represented consciously, Freud showed, it will take on the form of some absurdity. Two objects that could never be juxtaposed in reality become so in the dream: an artichoke and a human head, a fish and a bicycle. They are condensed into one, as a way of disguising desire.
This is just what the surrealists took from Freud. When Max Ernst made his Oedipus pictures, he didn't show a boy with his mummy, but hybrids of animal and human figures in unreal scales and situations. These juxtapositions could not happen in real life, just as in Dalí's work we continually see things next to each other that couldn't be so empirically: bodily fragments next to landscapes and rocks, strange creatures part-human part-animal, machines with flesh, living bodies and objects improbably enlarged and reduced in scale. These impossible creations are the results of the dreamwork described by Freud: where desire cannot be represented directly, it takes the form of a distortion of reality, a strange convergence of the elements of our everyday life in bizarre and impossible configurations. The title of the big Tate show on surrealism a few years back, Desire Unbound, was thus misleading: desire for the surrealists was absolutely bound, and it was the mechanisms of binding and distortion that so inspired them.
Through this technique, the surrealists did for art what Freud did for dreams, slips of the tongue and symptoms. Rather than seeing them as contingent and meaningless aspects of existence, worthy of little attention, he turned them into enigmas to be deciphered. With surrealism, a painting or sculpture or collage became less an object to be looked at than a question. The works of art made their viewers ask: what does this mean? Just like a dream, they called out to be interpreted. Art became less an access to meaning than a barrier to it, one which none the less held out the promise of interpretation.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005
· Darian Leader is chairing the Serpentine Gallery Conference: Dreams, Literature and Art on Wednesday. Tickets: 08700 600 100. Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: The House of Dreams is at the Serpentine Gallery, London, SW7, until January 8.
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