AS IF WALKING INTO A DREAM, I entered the Barneys flagship store of yore on Seventeenth Street, which after a brief incarnation as Loehmann’s (the retail version of bardo?) is now reborn as the Rubin Museum of Art, where Prada trinkets have been displaced by Himalayan deities, Chanel by chakra charts, and pricey wrinkle cream by ancient Tibetan mandalas and cosmologies. All suffused in a gentle amber glow, the vaguely Asiatic stylings of a live violinist added to the Zen Palate ambience. In a corner, for no explicable reason, a black-clad modern dancer struck various yogalike poses, like an extra from a beatnik fantasy.
Despite the Barneys-to-Buddhist makeover, the message projected on the wall was Carl Jung’s, though it still sounded like Donna Karan: “Everything begins with yourself,” we were advised, “from the Red Book.” Recently published to much fanfare (after decades entombed in a Swiss bank vault) Jung’s private dream journal was produced from 1914 to 1930 and is now the centerpiece of an exhibition at the Rubin. Traversing the former fragrance section of Barneys, I descended to the auditorium on the lower level: “The ‘subconscious’ level?” quipped a pal.
An ongoing series of Red Book Dialogues pairs Jungian analysts with prominent psyches. (From Andre Gregory to Charlie Kaufman, Jonathan Demme to Cornel West. Perusing the program, a nearby culture-vulture quizzed her companion: “Do you know who Karen Finley is? She’s a performance artist!”) In a mini analysis session onstage, the “analysands” are invited to “actively engage” one of Jung’s elaborate visionary doodles. Wednesday’s program featured graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, deftly probed by Jungian analyst in training Patricia Llosa.
“For Jung,” Llosa primed the pump, the “images had their own autonomous energy—it’s important to engage with the images.” She urged Sagmeister to “feel your way into them, what they evoke for you—listen to the image.” It was tough going, as the album-cover designer had difficulty getting past Jung’s old-timey style: too “ornamental,” he said, “to have a personal association.” The discoverer of the “collective unconscious,” synchronicity, and archetypes was basically an outsider artist—not that there’s anything wrong with that—and the cool contemporary guy had a hard time getting past the Dr.’s anachronistic medieval-illuminated-manuscript mode to “actively engage” the “visions.”
Affable, but impervious to “spiritual” promptings, after half an hour on the spot Sagmeister eventually blurted out that Jung was “an amateur . . . from the craft perspective very weak, not a good gouache painter.” And even: “At that time, calligraphy was much further along. . . . For someone who was revolutionary in other ways . . . . If we had gotten this thing as a design project—there’s no way in hell a medieval illuminated manuscript on parchment would pass for revolutionary thinking.”
During the Q&A, a maven from the audience erupted into a passionate speech defending the master’s medieval-ly Judy Chicago via William Blake and Philip Taaffe–like stylings from Sagmeister’s diss: “So many kabbalistic cosmologies were recodified during the medieval period. I’m reminded of that medieval imagery that Jung is drawing from, tapping into a well-defined tradition that we don’t have the eyes to see,” lamented the bald Jungian in a tweedy jacket and turtleneck. “I see the internal world of Jung’s fantasy! He was creating a cosmology trying to retell the greatest story of the world using this particular kind of graphic imagery as an atmospheric effect. [And] we’re all part of that story.”
The designer and the healers were talking at cross-purposes: Sagmeister couldn’t get past the surface of Jung’s stylistic anachronisms while the Jungians were eager to delve into his iconography. Instead of much psychic probing, what went on was an interesting impasse in itself, an apples-and-oranges dialogue between style and content. No matter how “aesthetic” the Jungians considered themselves, the deadlock reminded me of Nietzsche’s line about mystics: “They’re not even superficial.”
The program director finally jumped in near the end of the discussion, eager to guide our recalcitrant subject, who totally ignored the giant ray of light he was asked to address, toward the Spiritual: “Do you believe in magic?”
“I’m not a big believer in magic,” replied Sagmeister. Nevertheless, eternal questions were raised: how to distinguish between craft, self-exploration, Art, or whatever . . .
“What is art?” asked Sagmeister. “If Picasso shits on a canvas or I shit on a canvas they might look similar, but the interpretation and certainly the value”—titters from the audience—“would be very different.”
I had the fantasy I was surrounded by Jungian analysts from the Upper West Side, each with their own personal collection of Asiatic tchotchkes. Mostly middle-aged, empathetic-looking, and crunchy, before the talk they’d perused the Sacred Art and Jungian relics with alacrity. At the frequent lulls onstage, which were as charged and multivalent as those in an analytic session, they chuckled so readily I wondered whether they were drunk or just happy to be among fellow Archetype Seekers. The lady next to me knitted when she wasn’t scribbling away in a big binder notebook. I also spied Spy-magazine cofounder Kurt Andersen and actor Gabriel Byrne.
Wrapping up the discussion, the engaging program director put in his two cents: The Red Book was “only a tool, a means for self-exploration not meant to be art. Like the Tibetan mandala, a vehicle for self-understanding. The facsimile is a fabulous object, is selling very well, and members can get a discount at the shop!” He then presented each of the Dialoguers with a diaphanous white shawl, like a Tibetan tallis, embroidered with “auspicious symbols to protect the wearer.”