Pioneer of Process
Legendary psychology faculty member rudolf arnheim, who taught at slc from 1943 to 1968, died on june 9 at the age of 102. revered by his colleagues and students, arnheim founded the academic field of the psychology of art.
by Charlotte Doyle, Psychology Faculty Member
Rudolf Arnheim was on the search committee that interviewed me for a position at SLC, but he had left for Harvard before I came to teach. I vaguely knew that he did pioneering work in the psychology of art, but did not delve into it until I put together a course on theories of the creative process. We considered his work close to the end of the semester. Then I could see that he had totally transformed the field with a fresh and generative vision, one that inspired artists and art educators as well as psychologists interested in the arts.
The first chapter in his book Picasso’s Guernica takes readers through an intellectual journey similar to the one my students and I had been taking. He looked at and commented on various psychological approaches to the creative process. Arnheim gave credit to Freud’s dream analysis as pointing to a visual language that bypasses words and ordinary logic, but he rejected the Freudian and Jungian idea that the core meaning of art lies in its giving shape to primordial impulses. “The cult of the ‘unconscious’ in creativity,” he wrote, is in “danger of confusing the elementary with the profound... Wisdom can result only from the concerted efforts of all the layers and capacities of the mind.”
Arnheim introduced the idea that art-making involved a special kind of thinking he called “visual thinking.” There is no such thing as a meaningless form, he taught. A square is never just a square. Even the most abstract configuration expresses emotionally charged relations that reflect fundamental patterns and forces. And such relations underlie the very meaning of concepts.
We tried this out in class. “Draw protection,” I said to my students. Most of us drew a compact form, such as a large dot or a person, completely or almost completely surrounded by a curving arc. “Draw imprisonment,” I said later, and each of us again drew a compact form, either surrounded by a square or confined by vertical lines. “My ‘imprisonment’ reminds me of my ‘protection’,” one student called out.
Arnheim’s Visual Thinking points out that putting two images side by side affects what we see in them, throwing similar and contrasting properties into the spotlight. As we looked at our “protections” and “imprisonments,” we saw that both concepts implied a barrier between an element and the larger environment.
Arnheim also taught that an element in one configuration will have a different meaning than it would as part of a different configuration. For “protection,” one student had drawn a square surrounding a compact form, but she added an element that did not appear in any of the “imprisonment” drawings: arrows aimed at the little figure but held back by the square. What might have been a confining square instead became protection in the face of attack.
Arnheim disagreed with the popular view that artists first get inspirations, then share them by making art. He wrote, “Picasso did not deposit in Guernica what he thought about the world, rather did he endeavor to understand the world through the making of Guernica.” Going through Picasso’s sketches, Arnheim detailed how Picasso discovered what he had to say through experiments in visual meaning—various sketches and modifications that were all part of the flow of visual thinking.
Even our little classroom exercise showed that the act of playing with visual form to capture meaning leads to clarification and discovery.
Over the years, I came to know Rudolf Arnheim as a friend. Not long before his death, I visited him in his nursing home. Now over 100, he was almost totally deaf. I knelt beside his bed and spoke my loudest. He still could not hear, but he reached for my hand. His hand held mine for several minutes. We could not communicate in words. The meaning was in the form.
Charlotte Doyle has taught psychology at SLC since 1966. She also writes picture books for children, the most recent of which is The Bouncing, Dancing, Galloping ABC.
Web extra: Charlotte Doyle takes a thorough look at Arnheim’s theories in an academic paper, “Visions of the Creative Process: What Rudolf Arnheim Taught Me,” at www.slc.edu/magazine/arnheim.