WOID XVIII-16&18. Review: Smart Art

WOID: a journal of visual art.

Sunday, December 2, 2007 12:45 pm

Wilhelm Reich: Sex! Pol! Energy!
Jüdisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
Through March 3, 2008

In 1933 the French intellectual Julien Benda wrote:

Europe will be scientific rather than literary, intellectual rather than artistic, philosophical rather than picturesque. ... Europe will be serious, or it will not come into being.

Benda, an agnostic Jew, meant to counter the romantic cult of unreason then rising in Germany with the traditional Enlightenment appeal to reason. Too little, too late, but then again such oppositions have a way of returning on the breath of Europe like an ill-concealed swig of brandy, nowhere more so than in Vienna, a city of immense cultural, ethnic and linguistic complexity where even whipped cream carries unfathomable political weight. Especially whipped cream; there’s a Strauss opera on the topic of whipped cream that had to be pulled from the stage for its anti-Semitic overtones.

Vienna nowadays, a major metropolis in a tiny country, has started to feel again like the former lynchpin of the Habsburg Empire: today as in the nineteenth century, a complex set of cultures performs its sullen balancing act against the flashy cardboard sets of Old European politesse: Polish, Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Slovenian, Croat, German-speaking Austrian, African, Turkish, Eastern European Jewish, Austrian Jewish, African; plenty of Americans, too.

Europe will be serious, or it will not come into being. As a French general might have once responded, “The situation is desperate, but not really serious.” It’s the kind of snark you’d imagine coming from Sigmund Freud or Karl Krauss, back in the days when the days were numbered and you turned up at the coffee-shop each afternoon for a game of cards and the evening paper. It’s the kind of line that seems to apply, not only to Viennese cultural life today, but to the museum and gallery scene in general, and not alone in Vienna, or even Europe.

Today’s Fin-de-Art art is the same fin-de-siècle art of a hundred years ago: exhausted Symbolism. Here in New York, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you can go look at a shark in a formaldehyde tank; the shark “references” something or other, the Sublime, I’m told, but then the Sublime itself is a quaint concept that already belongs in a fin-de-siècle museum. I’m told that certain exhibits in Vienna’s Museum of Natural History are now considered Unesco sites, not exhibits in themselves but exhibits of how a museum of natural history looked a hundred years ago, a museum of museums of sorts. And it’s tempting to say the shark in formaldehyde references the sharks in formaldehyde you find in most museums of natural history, but at the Metropolitan Museum of Art the shark is in a room with a couple of old oil paintings of sharks, so it’s more accurate to say the shark in formaldehyde references those old-fashioned museums in which you’re supposed to look at a mangy shark in formaldehyde and get the idea of the Sublime out of it – art museums which, in the nineteenth century, referenced the museum of natural history and the Sublimities of God’s Creation. What swims around comes around.

And here’s another recently-seen artwork at the Met, a hyper-accurate cibachrome image of visitors to the museum, and it “references” the fact that people visit museums, which makes you wonder why the artist even bothered since if people didn’t visit museums there wouldn’t be anyone to notice the reference to begin with. The Master of the Shark in Formaldehyde and the Master of the Museum Visitors are actually out to NOT reference anything if they can help it, because the referenced inevitably gives some ground for a judgment of value. The game instead is to reference referencing, as if the art-function was robotic, repeating the same mechanical process again and over again in any type of situation. As in nineteenth-century Symbolism the process is one of talking about the symbol, not what’s actually being said, just as in Old Europe your choice to speak or write or behave in such-and-such a manner may be more important for what it says about you than what it says about what it says about. Kafka never tells us from what department the monkey got his doctorate.

It would be nice for once to have a show that talks about what it sets out to talk about instead of just a picture that tells you what it’s going to tell you instead of actually telling you – but wait! That’s what a curator's supposed to do: tell you all the stuff the exhibitee is trying to hide. The mise-en-abîme that Derrida writes about – the inevitability of framing - survives the death of the frame because the new frame is the gallery itself or the museum, which explains why the real activity of art today is the act of curating: the signifier of the signified, the referencer of the referenced. The real artist is the one who struggles to decide what the shark’s all about – you thought it was the guy with the harpoon, maybe?

If no one had invented Wilhelm Reich he would have had to invent himself; which is what he did, actually. The son of a wealthy Jewish farmer in the Hapsburg province of Bukovina, Reich in his teens accidentally let out that his mother was boffing his tutor; his mother killed herself. This is the kind of thing that sends you straight to Doctor Freud, which is pretty much what it did for Reich, after he’d survived the First World War and lost the family farm in the bargain. By 1922 Reich was Freud’s point man at the Ambulatorium, the free psychoanalytic clinic in Vienna. He went on to define a number of the fundamental concepts of analysis.

Reich unfortunately lacked that skill that every shrink or Viennese needs in order to survive, a gift for political countertransference. Countertransference is the ability to suck it up: to take in whatever charged insults, rages, or manipulations the other throws your way, whether that other is your patient on the couch or the coachman on the Ringstrasse, and then to process it, and then dismiss your subject and go off and relax with a cigar and the evening paper. In 1927 Reich found out that neither traditional political maneuvers nor Freudian theory could adequately help him to process the rising tide of repression when he witnessed a massacre of working-class demonstrators in Vienna. His response - his defense, as Freud might have said - was to join the Communist Party. By then he’d started taking his message of sexual liberation to working-class districts. Liberation of sexuality shifted towards a liberation by sexuality, which in turn shifted to liberation by sexually liberated proletarians: to free yourself sexually was to free yourself of bourgeois repression. By 1930 Reich had moved to Berlin where he founded the German Association for Proletarian Sexual Politics – SEXPOL to you.

With all of the black boots and leather stomping through the streets in Germany you’d think psychoanalysts and communists would both welcome a counter-movement and analysis; in 1933 Reich published Mass Psychology of Fascism, one of the great analyses of totalitarianism. By 1934 he’d been simultaneously booted out of the German Communist Party and the International Psychoanalytic Association.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007 5:35 pm

The second flaw in Reich's own mental makeup was his inability to think in symbolic terms: to see the mental objects manipulated by the psyche as symptomatic of material forces, not as material forces in themselves. Reich was like an artist who's got to stick a real shark in a tank to get across the concept of sharks in tanks in museums, or a gentleman who takes a joke or verbal swipe at face value. Rather than straying from Communist orthodoxy he shared the diamatician's belief that "The dialectic is not only a form of thought; it is also a fact given in matter independently from thought, i.e., the motion of matter is dialectical in an objective way."

In 1934 Reich fled to Scandinavia, and in 1939 to America, where he eventually settled on a mountaintop in Maine. By then he believed he'd isolated the basic particles of life - joining psychic and physical energy. Followed a series of increasingly drastic scientific experiments with increasingly broad claims. The acronyms and the code-names piled up: MODJU designated the "red fascists" who'd persecuted him; DOR stood for Destructive Orgone Rays; Cloudbusters were machines for liberating atmospheric energy; the Orgone Accumulator was a specially lined box that could cure you by keeping out the DOR and letting in the good, a claim that eventually caught the Federal Drug Administration's tight-assed eye.

Reich mishandled this as only he knew how. He refused to appear before a judge, was cited,condemned, and ended up in Lewisburg Penitentiary, where he died. And,finally: his books were burned, which makes of him the only individual to have had his books burned by both the Nazis and the Feds.

To celebrate - if that's the word - the fiftieth anniversary of Reich's death, the Jewish Museum in Vienna has organized a small, intense exhibition, and it's a model for what an art exhibition should be; if you want a model for an art exhibition as it is there's another show in a nearby gallery, curated by a "real" artist, that references Reich by having a picture of Reich on the wall with two white flowers underneath. It must mean something, I'm sure...

The difference is, that the non-artist's show is fun, and it's impossible. It's fun,because Reich left a lifelong trail of weird objects and experiments,of which a few are on display. There is, for instance, a "Mouse Accumulator" - not, as you may think, a storage bin for cat food, but a box in which Reich placed mice before bombarding them with energy. Then there's a model of a Cloudbuster, and a photograph of the Cloudbuster on a pickup truck in Arizona - Reich was apparently looking for UFOs. There's a rare photograph of Reich on the beach, in his bathing togs - for a guy who touted sex he looks suspiciously like someone cruising the Castro - "packing a wallop," as they say. There are tapes of interviews with Reich, or with people who underwent Reichian "Orgone" therapy - his therapeutic techniques are still widely practiced. Then there's an aquarium full of sexy translucent jellyfish doing what comes naturally: Reich thought the pulsating movement of jellyfish was a basis for other kinds of contractions and discharges. Good thing Reich had no particular thoughts about sharks, because this show accomplishes the true function of displays, which is to return us to the museum of wonders, from Shark's come-on to Schatzkammer, from the contemplation of one's own belly-button to an ever-expanding apprehension of the world of things and the world of symbols.

And it's an impossible show, because although like a shark it bites off more than it can chew, unlike a shark-like artwork it excludes nothing, in a kind of monstrous compromise between psychoanalysts, cultural historians,social activists, historians of science, scientists and kooks.

The labels and displays and the facsimiles of letters and papers throw up unanswerable questions. There's a copy of Bertolt Brecht's copy of Reich's article on "The Dialectic of the Psyche," with a cryptic, probing comment by Brecht; there's a report on the discussions in various German Communist cell meetings, prior to expelling Reich: Hitler would take power within weeks, and these righteous proletarians are worried that Reich has an anti-Marxist attitude to the sacredness of the family. Then there are the friendly exchanges between Freud and Reich, and later on a vicious note from New York Psychoanalytic, gloating over Reich's persecution. I could go on and on, or rather the visitor goes on and on because, unlike your usual art show, there's no clear boundary between the referenced and the referencing.

Artists, scientists, shrinks and Euro-thinkers (the boundaries are occasionally blurred among them) know that all thought involves a certain suspension of disbelief: the patient was or was not sexually abused as a child, but we listen as if she was; experiment x appears to cause effect y, at least until we understand it better; we're going to pretend we all share a common culture - or is it Kultur? We disbelieve and yet believe in Reich: interesting, promising, but not really real. As William Butler Yeats said of his fellow poet A. E, the problem arises, not when you believe in the Faerie, but when you start to believe the people you pass on the street are Faerie Folk. The problem arises when you think a mangy shark in formaldehyde really does raise up the Sublime - which you kind of have to believe, because there's really nothing else.

Reich didn't know how to pretend; this show is all pretend. You keep wondering what is commentary and what is raw material, until you realize there is no raw material, and never has been. As Roland Barthes put it, "the very definition of the work changes, it becomes an anthropological fact, since no history can exhaust its content." The curator, Birgit Johler, has an advanced degree in Ethnology; as an ethnologist she has a calling and a duty to stand above the wild rantings of the natives whose skulls she deftly measures. Her next project will involve right-wing, fascist and Nazi curating of Austrian Folk Art between the wars. And you thought sharks were scary...

- PW