The psychology of art: mid-twentieth century ideas of visual perception

In my last supervisory meeting one of my supervisors mentioned the Gestalt in relation to twentieth century art and art education, so I’ve been trying to read up on the concept. I’ve also been looking at a couple of really interesting books by Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye (1956) and Towards a Psychology of Art (1966), a Gestalt psychologist who applied modern psychological theory specifically to the analysis of art and visual perception. Arnheim was writing at a time in the mid-twentieth century when psychologists were increasingly using art to try and understand the human mind, and when art teachers were consulting professionals such as psychologists to inform their teaching of art and understanding of children’s artwork (as I have seen through articles in the Society for Education in Art’s journal Athene).

I’ve been really interested by definitions of the Gestalt, which emphasise ‘wholeness’ and ‘integrated’ personalities; Gestalt theory suggests that a subject’s wholeness can be threatened by an ‘atomised’ society in which subjects and activities, including art, are compartmentalised, specialised and seen in isolation, and in which the goals of society are too abstract and unobtainable. A key idea within Gestalt theory is that the whole determines the parts, and that the view of what is being focused on depends on the interaction between a background’ against which the point of interest, the ‘figure’, stands out. Gestalt therapy works on the basis of restoring the subject’s ‘wholeness’ and ‘integrity’, with the individual experiencing growth by coming into contact and assimilating with the environment. As Goodman, Hefferline and Perls explain in Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality, published in New York at the start of the 1950s, the Gestalt approach to life is one which is original, undistorted and natural. Individuals are encouraged to have a heightened awareness of where they are and realise that they and their environment are not independent entities, but that together they constitute a total system. Individuals must not take their environment as a given, something over which they have no control, but realise their capacity to influence it, whether in private or in public spheres such as town planning. It is important, therefore, for the modern citizen to be self-aware.

This seems to tie in with ideas of the ‘active’ or ‘aesthetic’ citizen promoted during the post-war period who, it was thought, through exposure to ‘good’ examples of art and design, would become sensitised to and therefore care for their environment. It also relates to writing on citizenship and art education in the post-war period, notably by Herbert Read, who argued in Education Through Art that art education is a process of educating the individual as a whole person and enabling them to ‘assimilate’ to society by making a contribution as a citizen at the same time as maintaining their own uniqueness as an individual. Read argued that the purpose of art education is to enable an individual to develop a creative outlook on life, and this has parallels in Gestalt theories on visual perception, which link vision to a creative grasp of reality and define vision as a creative activity of the human mind. Herbert Read has been coming up so much in my reading – he seems to have had a finger in every artistic pie in the mid-twentieth century – that I wasn’t really surprised to discover that he actually translated one of Arnheim’s books from English into German.

In his writing on art Rudolf Arnheim explained that pictures and sculptures work by communicating dramatic tensions which convey universal patterns. Art functions by discovering order, law and necessity in seemingly irrational experiences, thereby helping observe, uncover and predict the nature of things. Visual perception works, and art can be understood, then, by grasping these significant structural patterns and not reducing them to uniformity but by making them comparable to other things. Arnheim suggested that a person’s responses to artworks and expressions are shaped partly by what they have learned through education and by being subjected to external standards, partly by insight and observation, and partly by stereotypes influenced by the viewer’s peers and social group. One of Arnheim’s most interesting observations, made in Towards a Psychology of Art in 1966, is that the experience of modern art had become mediated by an array of experts and lay people pontificating on what art was and what it wasn’t, and what was done, when it was done and why, in a series of books, articles, talks, lectures and guides which left art in danger of being ‘drowned by talk’. Modern art, along with much of the art of the past, had become remote and incomprehensible to people, argued Arnheim, because it had been split off from ‘practical life’ and become the preserve of experts. All the thought and discussion surrounding art meant people could no longer discover meaning from simply relying on their senses and instinctive judgements. Museums, said Arnheim, consisted of remote objects seen at an aesthetic distance, meaning that people could visit museums yet not really see the art. Partly, suggested Arnehim, this could be remedied by experiencing the creation of art.

Arnheim was keen to debunk myths that the artist is mythical or irrelevant and link the artist with everyday life, saying that the artistic outlook is about a person finding and shaping information from what’s around them. Therefore, he argued, it is not just gifted experts who can take a creative approach to life but every person. Art, said Arnheim, is in all objects and activities, and it is what makes the world visible (Arnheim argued, furthermore, that the realistic tendency in Western art had produced a gradual decrease in visibility of the world). Art, he explained, both expresses an attitude toward life and is a tool for dealing with life. Art cannot be seen in isolation and must be viewed as an attempt to understand the meaning of existence through shapes and colours and movement. Art, therefore, cannot be seen as light entertainment to be enjoyed after work but is something to be immersed in fully with all the viewer’s mental powers.

Also of particular interest to me are Arnheim’s discussions of abstract art versus realist art; he argued that abstract art is just as valid a means of conveying expression, and can enhance the artist and viewer’s understanding of the world, just as much as realistic art, sometimes even more so. Abstract art is just one way of looking at the world. Arnheim argued that the purpose of the artist is not just to record faithfully what is around them, and that images of reality that are not ‘realistic’ can be just as effective as detailed transcriptions of reality. As in other types of great art, Arnheim pointed out, abstract art is not easy to analyse and good form does not show.

Arnheim also made some interesting observations on modern art and its reception, saying that modern art is far from naïve but derives naturally from spontaneous observation and the characteristics of the media; experimenting with techniques, he suggested, can help people find their way in the world. Furthermore, Arnheim suggested that modern style goes back to the beginnings of art, to a time before it was thought that works of art should be observed solely from one constant viewpoint. However, Arnheim acknowledged that twentieth century art was not easy for many in society to accept, often representing unpleasant sights and appearing violent, full of conflict, ugly, and disillusioning: new ways of expression represented familiar figures of men, landscapes and cities in frightening and mutilated ways, something that was hard for ‘the average man on the street’ to relate to. Arnheim used this to caution against the idea that art should be easy or pretty, saying that the tradition of artists offering amusement, entertainment and decoration should be challenged. In art education, Arnheim cautioned against a trend towards allowing the child to express shapeless emotion’, and a tendency for artists and art students to practice composition for composition’s sake without having something to say.

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2 Comments on “The psychology of art: mid-twentieth century ideas of visual perception”

  1. […] different disciplines, struck me as interesting in relation to what I have been reading about Gestalt theories of perception, which emphasise the viewer being encouraged to rediscover how to trust their own innate […]

  2. […] as “the revenge of the intellect upon art”, which has parallels in the writing of Gestalt psychologists such as Rudolph Arnheim on visual perception, who argued that the increased mediation of art by critics and others with prominent, forcible, […]


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