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Freudian Slippers

Photo courtesy Sigmund Freud Museum

Five years ago, when the Library of Congress announced plans for its historical exhibition “Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture” (with curatorial input from various official Freud archives and libraries), a group of academics circulated a petition protesting the show’s presumed inadequate reflection of “the full spectrum of informed opinion about the status of Freud’s contribution to intellectual history.” In the wake of this mild but impractical caveat (and the surprising amount of controversy it stirred up, complete with counterpetitions, public denunciations and gleeful media coverage), the show was postponed “due to budgetary limitations” for several years until its opening in Washington in late 1998. From the version that recently opened at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, it’s hard to see what all the brouhaha was about. Culled from over 80,000 items in the library’s Freud holdings, the exhibit gives an innocuously straightforward account of Freud’s ideas and life story. Broken down into three sections (“Formative Years,” “The Individual: Theory and Therapy” and “From the Individual to Society”), the dozen or so glass cases are crammed with dimly lit manuscript pages, first editions and artifacts, augmented by hypertext-inspired panels that comment on, or even openly contradict, one another. In an attempt to allay criticism, blatantly skeptical text bites have been tacked above and in counterpoint to the main displays, and occasionally appear amidst the forest of signs clustering around each historical relic, making for something like an argument between Pop-Up Videos.

Frankly, though, concerns over the degree of compliance with long-contended Freudian doctrine are entirely beside the point. Freud was the prototypical celebrity intellectual for the 20th century, and this exhibit situates him in the mass-media continuum. Punctuated by tightly edited collages of psychoanalysis-referencing TV and movie bits, the quasi-narrative exposition of his life and work is a strange hybrid of 19th- and late-20th-century museological strategies — an infotaining, holographic arrangement of colonial curios, yellowing documents and photographs in glass vitrines. Freud’s mode of expression was primarily literary, and the exhibit, while text-laden and brimming with handwritten manuscript pages and epistles, is definitely post-McLuhan in its structure, scale and pace: For all the fuss over its supposed pro-Freud bias, the show proposes no argument, makes no attempts at persuasion and is only nominally linear, as befits a museum show aimed at the contemporary fragmented attention span.

For most of us, unless we’re moldering in prison for conspiring to ritually sacrifice preschoolers in Chuck Norris’ secret satanic caves (cf. the McMartin day-care trial), the “untestability of falsification of evidence of repression” is not a major issue. Conjure the archetypal “psychiatrist” — he’s an older man in a three-piece suit with round glasses, a beard, an Austrian accent and a cigar. You lie on his couch, and he tells you what your dreams mean. They’re about sex. Most people think of Freud as a sort of early-20th-century cartoon character who brought sex out of the bedroom and into the parlor where it belongs, paving the way for sexual liberators like Hugh Hefner, Dr. Ruth and Howard Stern. But while familiar with the basic lingo and scenarios of infantile incestuous cravings and penis envy, most of us laymen are probably unaware of Freud’s deeply ambivalent attitude toward sexuality, not to mention his conviction that everything that is generally held to be positive about society and culture is, in fact, symptomatic of a deep and probably incurable flaw in humanity’s nature. Like Professor Einstein and his Atom Bomb, the image of Dr. Freud obviously fulfills a deep longing in our contemporary social mythology, but bears little if any relation to the actual man or his research. Nevertheless, it may be safely argued that our whole way of understanding things is permeated with Freud’s ideas. Look at the language of this article: “Fulfilling a deep longing in our contemporary social mythology” probably would have meant even less 100 years ago.

While the exhibit’s tracking of Freud’s heritage in the world of psychiatric theory and practice sort of peters out after Jung and Adler, it is hinted at in the humorous wall of assorted cartoons, magazine covers and products that was originally designed as the show’s entranceway. This lightbox display, now re-situated next to Freud’s reconstructed office and the minitheater screening his home movies, samples the use of Freud’s visage and concepts as cultural iconic components from over a period of almost 80 years, including covers from several Time magazines (“Is Freud Dead?”), as well as the 1950s EC comic book Psychoanalysis, assorted New Yorker cartoonists’ gibes, and the contemporary Sigmund Freud Musical Fridge Magnet, produced by the Unemployed Philosopher’s Guild, which plays “Try To Remember” when you “flip the switch in Freud’s brain.” A version of this souvenir is available in the museum gift shop, along with a Freud-trivia card deck, plush pairs of “Freudian slippers” and the exhibition catalog.

Less a catalog than a book of essays edited by curator Michael Roth, Freud: Conflict and Culture seems one likely — and an unexpected positive — outcome of the controversial delays. If so, it presents a powerful argument for censorship — at least as a provisional tool to ensure full-term conceptual gestation. In part an attempt to mollify the exhibit’s detractors, the book provides a wide spectrum of views on Freud’s legacy, including outright dismissal. Nevertheless, it is a vehicle for adding much-needed depth to the exhibition. The complexity of both Freud’s own work and the debate over its enduring significance is obviously incommunicable in the museum-display medium, but, through essays by Oliver Sachs, Harold P. Blum, Art Spiegelman, E. Ann Kaplan and others, it is explored in a thorough and entertaining manner.

Ultimately, this is a little show to be getting so much attention. The Skirball, the Museum of Radio and Television, and the Getty (where Roth until recently held the post of associate director at the Research Institute) have pushed the reverb another couple of notches by organizing a panoply of tangential programming, including a shuttle to the Getty, film screenings, music and dance performances, lectures, comedy by Julia Sweeney and David Steinberg; even a Family Art Workshop with artist Judy Blake, called “Painting Through the Primal Scene” . . . just kidding. It was actually called “Inkblots and Dreams,” and, though I couldn’t be there to be certain, it was no doubt a tad conservative in its attempt to recover repressed traumatic-childhood sexual material.

We are free to take from Freud whatever serves our needs, and if we want to wrestle with the larger implications of his philosophy and practice, to weigh his arguments and evidence and decide if they stack up, we are free to do that. In the same way the great religions absorbed and accommodated the spiritual traditions of indigenous converts, Freud the pop icon survives by being flexible enough to become utterly disconnected from its source — the physical man and the record of his work. In spite of its ostensible function of conveying these very materials, the exhibit itself is rooted in the stuttering postmodern vernacular of celebrity culture. I don’t mean this in a pejorative sense, but the show could as easily have been about Charlie Chaplin or Sherlock Holmes. The balanced, linear, serious exhibition catalog is where the controversy that generated the high attendance figures belongs, and is explored in ways that move, seduce and challenge us in subtle and lingering ways — ways that maintain a continuity with the print-structured world-view from which Freud emerged. See the show, then read the book.

SIGMUND FREUD: CONFLICT AND CULTURE | At the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. | through July 25 FREUD: CONFLICT AND CULTURE | Edited by Michael Roth l Alfred A. Knopf l 273 pages | $26 hardcover