Where art meets analysis

A new display of work by Louise Bourgeois provokes at the Freud Museum.

In some ways, the bringing together of Sigmund Freud and Louise Bourgeois is an unusual one. Freud had little interest in art and Bourgeois felt that Freud “did nothing for the artists”. However, as the curator of The Return of Repressed, Phillip Larrat-Smith, notes, “more than any other artist of the 20th century, Louise Bourgeois produced a body of work that consistently and profoundly engaged with psychoanalytic theory and practice”. Thus, in the context of Freud’s house, tucked away in a quiet Hampstead street, her work takes on a new significance.

The sheer magnitude of Bourgeois’ output - the endless doodles and lists, the range of processes she employed from stitch to sculpture - suggests an inescapable compulsion to purge herself of troubling thoughts and anxieties. In I am Afraid (2009) she lists her fears: "I am afraid of silence, I am afraid of the dark, I am afraid to fall down, I am afraid of insomnia, I am afraid of emptiness." Indeed, despite criticising psychoanalysis, Bourgeois undertook treatment for more than ten years. First, with Leonard Crammer in 1951, the year her father died, and later with Dr Henry Lowenfield, a disciple of Freud’s.

Bourgeois’ work presents a direct link between creative process and catharsis. Certainly, many of her pieces can be seen as physical embodiments of psychological states - maternal identifications can be seen in her womb-like cages, her many-breasted figures, the towering arachnid that looms over Freud’s back lawn. Then there are her dismembered bodies: Knife Figure (2003) sees a cloth body, devoid of head and missing a leg lying beneath a rusting kitchen knife, whose ominous shadow splits the doll-like mannequin down the centre. These themes are often revisited. “To be an artist involves suffering,” Bourgeois observed, “That’s why [they] repeat themselves- because they have no access to a cure.”

In a collection of previously unpublished writings, unearthed during the preparations for her 2007 retrospective at Tate Modern, Bourgeois constantly analyses her dreams, emotions and anxieties, in particular her conflicted feelings about being simultaneously a creative artist, a mother and a wife: “I do not deserve to be so happy” reads a playing card.

Freud’s study, a long, dark room which doubles as a library and front room, is crammed with dark furniture, heavy furnishing, Persian rugs, an array of books and a vast and expansive collection of Chinese, Greek and Roman artefacts. Bourgeois describes the room as “a pitiful place”. In her 1989 essay "Freud’s Toys", she dismisses Freud’s immense collection as a “pastime”: “the artefact is a manufactured object, a work of art is a language”. Suspended provocatively above his couch is her 1968 Janus Fleuri, whose drooping double-heads display unmistakable phallic symbolism. Like an enormous, insistent fly, the sculpture appears as a challenge from Bourgeois: “I simply want to know what Freud and his treatment can do, have tried to do, are expected to do,  might do, might fail to do, or were unable to do for the artists here and now”. The piece was one of her favourites.

On the landing, we see a softer side to Bourgeois’ work. The Dangerous Obsession's crouched fabric figure cradles a red glass sphere, her maternal stance and blue and white head scarf reminiscent of the Virgin Mary. There is a fragility to this piece, a vulnerability in the fragile glass orb,yet its ominous title and the aggressive red of the glass is suggestive of something darker. Here, perhaps, lies the crux of her work: the unrelenting search for self-knowledge consistently throws up conflicts. In this wide-ranging collection aggression sits alongside compassion, tenderness verges on danger, strength strives to overcome vulnerability. In a steel cage a double-sided flannel torso, on one side a pregnant female, the other a flacid male, hangs from a hook like a carcass in an abbatoir. Bourgeois described this suspension as a "state of ambivalence and doubt".

Overall,The Return of the Repressed is a thought-provoking exploration into Bourgeois’ production process inviting the viewer to delve deeper below the surface of her often disturbing sculptures.

The Return of the Repressed will be on display at the Freud Museum until 27 May.

Louise Bourgeois THE DANGEROUS OBSESSION, 2003 Fabric, glass, stainless steel and wood 143.5 x 61 x 50.8 cm. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth and Cheim & Read Photo: Christopher Burke, (c) Louise Bourgeois Trust
Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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