Art and the Exposure of Fear

Rosemary Evans asks whether arts and popular culture can tell us what lies within our collective subconscious

Image: Wikipedia, Julia Margaret Cameron

Freud’s theories of psychological repression are among his most famous, and while there is some debate about the validity of his more controversial ideas about castration complexes and oedipal desires, most people can agree he was onto something when he argued that we repress the things that are bothering us, squashing them into our subconscious so we can delay properly confronting them. Freud was also right when he argued that despite being expelled from the conscious mind, those fears and anxieties don’t go away completely – they bubble away in the subconscious and manifest themselves in subtle but telling ways. What is interesting is that this phenomenon may not just applicable to individuals, but to society as a whole.

An exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London this spring brings together the work of four influential photographers of the Victorian era: Julia Margaret Cameron, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Rejlander and Clementina Hawarden. Taking in this selection of magnificent portraits – examples of art photography in its adolescence – what was striking to me was not the distinctive artistic style of each of the photographers, but the fact that, overwhelmingly, all four of them focused on the same subject. In between the odd portrait of Charles Darwin or Alfred Tennyson looking fabulously beardy and imposing, almost every photograph featured the same thing: children. Carroll obsesses over the frame of a small boy sitting in a chair, while Cameron produces photo after photo of young girls dressed in white staring abstractedly into the camera.

Given that this era saw the dawn of photography as a major medium of Victorian ‘popular culture’, the centrality of children as a focus is significant not only in that they are clearly a serious preoccupation of the artists, but a serious preoccupation for society too.

Initially, the idea of children as a Victorian obsession seems confusing – weren’t the Victorians famous for forcing children to risk their limbs sweeping chimneys and chop off their fingers using industrial machines? It seems strange that a society with such obvious disregard for children’s safety or quality of life should make them the focus of popular art. This is where Freud comes in, because once we’ve dived into the subconscious of the Victorians, it all makes sense: Cameron and Carroll take photos of children because, as symbols of purity and innocence, children are the antithesis of what was most disturbing to Victorian society – its corruption and ruin in the wake of mass industrialisation. Essentially, children were an escape.

As the idyllic, pastoral England of the eighteenth century was rapidly swept away by the urbanised, mass-industrialised world of the nineteenth century, anxiety about its ruinous effect on society dominated popular thought. Such changes, and the smoke and dirt and urban filth they brought with them, were seen not only as a threat to England’s natural beauty, but as prompting a moral decline that would cause irrevocable damage to the fabric of society. The structure of new industrial cities facilitated higher rates of crime, prostitution and poverty, creating an impression of urban settings as centres of depravity and immorality. As William Blake despairs in his 1804 poem Jerusalem, what hope was there of constructing religious paradise among the ‘dark satanic mills’ of industrial society? For the public who received these photographs for the first time, the world was a place of danger and increasing corruption. The Victorians wanted to look at images of purity because the world in which they lived was becoming so upsettingly impure.

If we see arts and popular culture as a form of Freudian escapism from contemporary anxieties – as a reflection of our collective subconscious – we can apply this theory to modern society to see what our anxieties might be.

So take a seat, grab a tissue (unearthing repressed anxiety is, as Freud tells us, inevitably upsetting): it’s time to psychoanalyse the society of 2018.

Before we even attempt to identify exactly what’s buried in our subconscious, and what it is we’re trying to escape from, the predominance of fantasy in arts and popular culture might tell us we’re pretty big fans of escapism. The incredible success of the Harry Potter franchise among both children and adults, and the way it occupies a huge section of popular culture is a prime example of this, as is the unrivalled popularity of Marvel films. The fiction and film that we love most is that which situates us in fantasy worlds deliberately different from our own. Reading about wizards and watching films about superheroes certainly suggests a reluctance to engage with the real world; perhaps it suggests an impulsive need to escape from it.

The predominance of fantasy in popular culture and the suspension of scientific fact that this genre necessitates might also hint at our subconscious frustration with a world in which we have all the answers. The digital, post-Enlightenment age gives us constant, unchallenged access to virtually every crumb of information we could possibly need. The internet, and the swathes of research evidence and news reports it can instantly serve up to you, has the answer to pretty much any question you could possibly want to ask. We know why the sky is blue, and why time travel is impossible, and why magic (probably) isn’t real. In the modern world, (as much as the conspiracy theorists might try to find space for it) there isn’t really any room for fantasy. However, perhaps our penchant for the fantasy genre (not to mention conspiracy theories) suggests that however useful all that information is to us, we savour a bit of incredibility. We want access to worlds where the facts that demystify the universe do not apply, and we want to believe that wizards or superheroes (or UFOs) might be buried somewhere in this painfully rational world. Perhaps this doesn’t count as a collective societal anxiety, but Freud might call it a subconscious frustration.

What could arguably lead us to a more poignant example of our collective anxiety is the centrality of nature in popular culture. Perhaps everyone’s obsession with Blue Planet stemmed not only from the universal adoration of David Attenborough, but from our desire to escape from the unnatural, polluted, socially complicated world of people and find solace in footage of pretty fish that belong to the untouched, simpler, natural world. While modern disapproval of the planet’s ‘corruption’ is more environmental than religious in its origins, we aren’t unlike the Victorians in our anxieties about the damage that human progress is doing to the world. Fears about the environment and the seemingly ceaseless conflict characteristic of human society are everywhere. The only way we can escape them without turning to fantasy is to turn to the natural world. Maybe Blue Planet as a solace of escapism betrayed us when David Attenborough started confrontationally telling us about the devastating impact of plastic on the planet’s aquatic habitats. Maybe that’s why the impact of that episode on environmental campaigning was so great – the mind is most likely to have its anxieties brought to the surface when, safe and content watching its footage of pretty fish, it thinks it’s safe to stop repressing them and it is caught off-guard.

Perhaps it’s going too far to say that our obsession with Bake Off (and cookery programmes in general), comes from our unease with the idea of food. Although given we find ourselves in a culture of food fads and constant news reports detailing how most of what we eat leads to heart disease or obesity or cancer, is it any wonder we distract ourselves from the pressing fear of filling our bodies with carcinogenic, nutrition-less (but really tasty) garbage by watching Paul Hollywood eat lots and lots of cake while we munch on spinach leaves?

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