January 19, 2022

A Critical Review of ‘Wittgenstein’s Dream’ at the Freud museum – Part 1 – Context


It is telling and rather predictable that there is more actual criticism in the online comments following the mainstream reviews of ‘Wittgenstein’s Dream’ then there is in the actual reviews which for the most part stick to milk blooded enthusiasm or dry description of Turk and Putnam’s show at the Freud museum (Putnam is the curator) 

Before discussing the predictably smug gesture of a show offered here by Turk we might like to consider why this is? Surely the function of criticism is to serve as more than merely a highbrow advert for art shows whose product is considered too good to be associated with radio and television interruptions and rather to take some interest in the public taste, at best then the reviews represent an apathy of the critics towards the audience and the cultivation of taste and at worst a hobbling of the critics by a culture at large suspicious and affronted by strong words and vivid imagery preferring instead the ‘everything’s great’ approach of holiday brochures.

This is probably for one of three reasons. The first is that Turk is a commercial success, a bankable name and as such commands an automatic respect as a member of the much written about YBAs, he is a living breathing member of the London art world, so why would you subject this influential figure to the kind of criticism that might see you out of favour with any number of his supporters or contacts? Especially when writing a perfunctory review of a small art show in a museum, why not just give it the standard short back and sides treatment and crack out another standard piece of clutter for the magazines, newspapers and online outlets. This bankable quality is surely also how Putnam and Turk managed to pass their ideas by the academics, professionals and trustees who sit on the selection panel of the Freud museum, hoping his name will bring in the punters and missing that they have been mugged into allowing a trite man to make a slight at their namesake much like a conservative MP or a charity minded celeb being interviewed by Ali G and coming off like a doddering old-timer played for laughs by the would be prankster.

The second reason is more depressing since we all must take some responsibility for it, it concerns values that have become dominant in our culture at large I would say hegemonic but for the fear that anyone reading would switch off at any hint of serious academic language (I’m joking but only a little) I’m referring here to the quality which guaranteed the success of all the YBA’s and that quality which they embody save a few from the Chapmans to Hirst and certainly Turk that of self-referential irony. In what sense does this quality work for Turk? 

Firstly it’s very difficult to criticise since there is a kind of veil drawn over the content by the ‘in jokes’ and lack of engagement on the part of the artist which in a sense thrives on any attempt to attack it. For example Turk’s work is about authenticity and inauthenticity and the myth of the artist so stating he is an inauthentic, vapid, pithy yuppie in the diluted mode of Warhol or Jeff Koons complete with obligatory hipster charity concerns would be pointless since Turk would simply smirk throw his arms around a chum and say ‘well isn’t this interesting that my work has raised these questions’ and you are lost, here I would remind all such pranksters of the famous quote from the sci-fi writer and essayist Vonnegut, from his 1961 novel ‘Mother Night’

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be,” 

He added a little jeopardy by going on to say ‘when you’re dead you’re dead’. For the most part the critics of this kind of work and of Turk appear conservative often because they are, and this is poison for them they are immediately dismissed as antiquated or worse philistine so they back off so as not to seem too uncool.

We may just be lucky enough to throw off this yoke and reconsider our habitual sympathies, after all the YBA’s and Turk are no longer underdogs or chancers they are established figures of the canon constantly showing work and making a tidy profit from it. Turk is also an influencer of the next generation in his role as a professor at Bath university, fascinating that a man interested in inauthenticity would except an ‘honorary doctorate’ perhaps he holds the post of professor ironically! 

In the opening of this piece I suggested that vivid imagery may be unpalatable for the reading audience but let’s suspend this timid concern and attempt what Orwell might have called a useful visualisation. There is a large African slug which when attacked does not fight back but rather secretes copious amounts of thick slime, this defence mechanism catches the slug’s assailants, usually ants, first unsettling their intentions then drowning them entirely in its juices. The sight of the pulsating slug pumping like an exposed heart and the ants struggling against the milky coloured slime is a good simile of what I’m struggling to make clear. The slug is the YBA ironist, the slime is the irony and the up-scuttled ants, well they are us, an extra layer of melancholy comes over me as I discover the ants have found a way to overcome the slug where as we as yet have not found a way to overcome our thrall to irony and ironic distance.

The third reason is the issue of taste itself, the very notion that taste should be cultivated might strike us as entirely conservative or worse totally delusional in our supposedly post-ideological times, to quote Ananda Pellerin writing of the show in Time Out and speaking of Freud – we might, like Ananda find Freud ‘bourgeois’, be ready to dismiss taste as an antiquated tribal quality. Ananda even has space in her tiny piece to show disdain for the ‘obligatory therapy couch’ as if Freud himself was thinking of branding and merchandise when he threw a rug over a chair to help the mentally ill people sit comfortably! Interesting that the journalist is more concerned in taking pot shots at Freud’s interior design then saying anything interesting or substantial about the show in question.   

However afraid we are of the potential elitist or hierarchical risks of embracing taste it is this process; cultivation, experience, repetition, analysis and comparison which allows us to create value and construct an identity which is not circumscribed by fashion. Evoking Nietzsche, another faux pas for the pandering writer might be useful here,

 “One must shed the bad taste of wanting to agree with many. “Good” is no longer good when one’s neighbour mouths it. And how should there be a “common good”! The term contradicts itself: whatever can be common always has little value. In the end it must be as it is and always has been: great things remain for the great, abysses for the profound, nuances and shudders for the refined, and, in brief, all that is rare for the rare.” Nietzsche, ‘Beyond Good and Evil’

Nietzsche is concerned here with taking responsibility for self-cultivation in the wake of grand narratives like religion or national identity and doing his bit for the community by supporting this idea for his readers, he perhaps puts it more succinctly in the ‘Twilight of the Idols’

“My formula for happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal.”

He is worried that without a heavy and parental style set of values pressing down on us that we might struggle to live meaningful lives. In this sense Turk is working against Nietzsche and Freud in championing the smirking persona of the low ironist who can’t put anything above their vain pretence. In short without taste which all critics should be concerned with we stop attaching meaningful emotions or indeed intellectual observations to art and culture after all why would we it would make us absurd or naïve. 

What is at stake is the kind of ‘psychic transformation’ that Andre Breton and the surrealists were interested in, for their faults they did get this much right, they believed in creating opportunities for the transformation or becoming or dare we say cultivation of their audience. Freud was the thinker that they used to raise the stakes in their practice, not as its reported in the Guardian by Jonathon Jones writing of the show, in the mode of ‘worship’ – in fact Breton went out of his way to accuse Freud in a clumsy (and mistaken) argument over omitted citations and Freud criticised the surrealists intended use of the unconscious so the relationship was hardly one of worship. The surrealists took psychoanalysis seriously, exploring the ideas with mixed results in their practices. Against this open transformative gesture Turk plays his own ace in the hole in the form of the philosopher Wittgenstein, student of Bertrand Russell and teacher at Cambridge.

Now the scene is set we can subject ‘Wittgenstein’s Dream’ to the criticism due a show where so much is at stake.    

Read part 2 here

by Michael Eden

Image © the artist

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