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Arnheim, Gestalt and Art: A Psychological Theory

by Ian Verstegen
Springer, Heidelberg, Germany, 2005
188pp., illus. 18 b/w. Paper, $ 49.95
ISBN: 3-211-28864-3.

Reviewed by Amy Ione
The Diatrope Institute


In his foreword to New Essays on the Psychology of Art (1986), Rudolf Arnheim writes: "My papers tend to look like mavericks in the company in which they first appear and reveal their raison d’être only when they are allowed to come home and complement one another." Reading this statement several years ago I thought how apt it was. His name invariably comes up in discussions of art and perception. Yet, I believe, he remains an enigma, a powerful thinker who seems to defy classification. Part of the puzzle in locating his niche, perhaps, is that his original and perceptive approach is not easily placed within typical categories. Another component, no doubt, is that until recently there have been no book-length studies of his work.

Ian Verstegen’s recently published Arnheim, Gestalt and Art: A Psychological Theory remedies this lacuna. Verstegen, who clearly admires Rudolf Arnheim, carefully explains this thinker’s core ideas and his influences. The book’s main theme is that Arnheim’s analysis of art serves a fundamental need in studies of the psychology of art. Verstegen’s expansive critique demonstrates how. Overall, the book offers a piercing critical examination of inter-related themes in Arnheim’s work and examines where his major ideas intersect with the writings of major figures that have written on similar topics. Structurally the book is divided into three parts: foundational principles, such principles applied to the various arts, and the developmental aspect of art. It also communicates that Arnheim distinguished three levels in the perception of affects. First, he identifies a crucial cognitive state of the identification of objects. This could correspond to the affect as it is experienced. Then, there is the expressive and motivational component. These are identical and could correspond to the perceptual expression that is available to other perceivers. Thirdly, there is the emotional expression, the level of tension that is perceived by the person. Within this framework, Verstegen proposes that Arnheim’s use of the Gestalt approach offers a worthwhile option, providing a unified approach to perception. Areas considered include the various sense modalities and media, how dynamic processes unfold in time, and how these processes imbued Arnheim’s views of creativity and development.

Buttressing his argument are the far-reaching summaries that contrast Arnheim’s thought with that of others. These range from Arnheim’s rejection of the naïve epistemological idea of unconscious drives working blindly, the Freudian legacy to his disappointments with Gibson’s failure to adequately incorporate art into his visual theories. Verstegen also compares the cognitive nativism (associated with JJ Gibson) with the cognitive inferentialism (associated with Helmholtz). In short, Arnheim recognized the Gibsonian view left little space for imagination and has a difficult time discussing anything other than representational art, a point often made by others as well. The Inferentialists, on the other hand, depend so much on "inference" that the vast terrain covered by their theories fails to adequately grapple with the problems of perceptual organization in a way that meaningfully integrates the dynamics aspect of the art experience and the creation of art. Also mentioned are topics such as the recent revival of Gestalt psychology (in the work of people like Steven Lehar), how Arnheim intersects with researchers commonly associated with vision and cognitive science (e.g., Zeki, Solso, Shepard, Kosslyn, etc.), where he dissents from Gombrich and Wollheim, how Gestalt psychology compares with information processing, and how his views align with those of Werner, Piaget, and various art educators.

Development is an important aspect of Arnheim’s work, so I was pleased to see that the sections of the book devoted to Arnheim’s developmental studies are solid and substantive. They convey that many of his ideas (e.g., dynamics of visual action or pantomimic form) have their roots in Arnheim’s classic Film as Art (1932), first published when he was only 28 years old, which occupies a unique place in terms of formal theories of visual perception. Sections on Arnheim’s view of creativity are similarly compelling. These include some discussion of how Arnheim used a study of Picasso’s Guernica to comment on fully-functioning creativity in an individual in terms of concrete projects. General reference is also made to individual artistic development in terms of childhood, adulthood, and old age. These sections convey Arnheim’s view that creativity includes a dialectic between individual growth and maturation.

Throughout it is clear that Arnheim sees art as a major way of knowing the world. He neither elevates the internal world nor neglects the external environment. Equally impressive is Verstegen’s analysis of two competing aspects of Arnheim’s thinking on the intelligence of the senses. As he writes:

"There are two competing aspects of Arnheim’s thinking on ‘the intelligence of the senses’ . . . There is, on the one hand, the ability of the senses to contain universal or abstract information. And there is, on the other hand, the manipulation of images for productive thinking. We might relate the two by saying that individual percepts already contain abstract content, just as a work of art can be called the abstracted solution to an artistic problem. It is, however, the manipulation of symbols within the work of art that represents the problem-solving aspect of creation and the means to the solution of the final work. " (p. 22)

That Arnheim, Gestalt and Art is as much a general appraisal of Gestalt psychology as a critique of Arnheim is particularly evident in the chapter on music. Verstegen claims Arnheim’s deep and passionate interest in music influenced his thinking overall although he did not publish extensively in this area. The author thus offers constructed musical theories to place Arnheim’s work in the context of Gestalt psychology by drawing upon Victor Zuckerkandl’s perceptual approach. Although I found the musical theories fascinating and acknowledge Arnheim’s early involvement with some of the scholars who looked at connections between music and Gestalt psychology indicates his deep feeling for all aspects of music, Verstegen’s analyses seemed too much of stretch in a survey of Arnheim’s theoretical work. My sense that we lessen this thinker’s contributions when we extend them too far was confirmed with the chapter on poetry and poetic. This section totally failed to gel. In addition, there is surprisingly little discussion of the brain, although various cognitive scientists and topics such as neurosis are mentioned. While it was not a major part of Arnheim’s work, given that his ideas largely matured before research of the brain advanced at the end of the twentieth century, I would have liked Verstegen to include more specific reference to the where Arnheim fits today. I also wished he had included an index and hope one will be added if the book is re-printed.

Upon finishing the book, I was once again reminded of how impressed I am each time I encounter Arnheim’s work, particularly his insights into visual thinking and visual perception. I believe that this is his greatest contribution, particularly his sensitivity to each person’s "visual history" and his acknowledgement that we are also influenced by our cultural histories. I wish the book had placed his ideas in this area in terms of art historical analyses since Arnheim’s scope extends well beyond Gestalt Theory per se. I would propose that it is his reach that significantly elevates his writings and, by extension, explains some of the puzzle of Arnheim. On the other hand, I was glad that Verstegen effectively introduced Arnheim’s elevation of unity, balance, and centeredness and firmly placed these aspects of his work in relation to dynamics and development.

Finally, and unexpectedly, as I write the review, I find myself thinking about Arnheim’s contributions in light of his own story. Born in 1904, Arnheim has now lived over one hundred years. He is one of the many Jewish thinkers who left Nazi Germany just as Hitler was implementing his program. Thus it is hard not to reflect on the wide sweep of this thinker’s experience and how his life compares with others who were forced to leave their homeland at that time. (e.g. E.H. Gombrich, Walter Benjamin, and major thinkers of the entire Gestalt School). Running the ideas of each figure through my mind and thinking about how dramatically our global community has changed over the last 100 years left me thinking how fascinating it would be to talk to Arnheim directly about his life, how his ideas formed over time, and all of the ideas covered in Arnheim, Gestalt and Art: A Psychological Theory. This is unlikely to happen, so I am glad to have the opportunity to indirectly have this conversation through Verstegen’s excellent book. I am equally delighted that Rudolf Arnheim has lived to see this well-done study of his work published. It is a grand addition to the psychology of art literature. In summary, this book makes it clear that Rudolf Arnheim is an important thinker.


Arnheim, Rudolf. 1986. New Essays on the Psychology of Art, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, p. ix.




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