Spring 2001

The Intelligence of Vision: An Interview with Rudolf Arnheim

The development of perceptual terms

Uta Grundmann and Rudolf Arnheim

Rudolf Arnheim, who began in the 1920s to apply Gestalt psychology to art, was born in 1904 in Berlin. He studied psychology, philosophy, art history, and music history at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, where he received a doctorate in 1928. Beginning in the mid-20s he wrote articles and reviews on film, art and literature, finally becoming an editor at Die Weltbühne. In 1939 Arnheim emigrated via Rome and London to the United States. Though little-known in Germany, Arnheim has had a strong influence on art history and art psychology in America, where he taught at Sarah Lawrence College, the New School for Social Research, Harvard University, and the University of Michigan. His books, includ­ing Film as Art (1932), Art and Visual Perception (1954/1974), Visual Thinking (1969), Entropy and Art (1971), The Dynamics of Architectural Form (1977), and The Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts (1988), as well as a great number of his essays, have been translated into many languages. Rudolf Arnheim currently lives in Ann Arbor, where he spoke with Uta Grundmann.[1]

Uta Grundmann: Mr. Arnheim, you were born in Berlin. In texts about Berlin written during the years in which you lived there, a great deal is mentioned about Berlin’s vitality and radiance. Heinrich Mann described it as the “future of Germany“ and the “hearth of civilization.” What do you remember about Berlin?

Rudolf Arnheim: Berlin was definitely an exciting city in the 20s. A kind of creative chaos dominated, a very productive diversity. I was born directly on Alexanderplatz, in the middle of Berlin. It was where the Berolina stood; this was a large statue like the Statue of Liberty, a symbol of the city of Berlin. But after a short time my parents moved to Kaiserdamm in Charlottenburg, near Lietzensee. We lived there through the years leading up to the Nazi period, until the beginning of the 30s. My father had a small piano factory; of course he wanted me to take it over. But I just distracted the employees from their work because I wanted to know how such a piano was built. My father didn’t like that. And then there was the university.

You studied psychology and art history at Friedrich Wilhelm University. Wasn’t this combination unusual at the time?

If you wanted to study psychology in the 20s, you had two main subjects, philosophy and psychology, because psychology was not yet considered a single subject. To that I added art history and music history as minor subjects. I was very interested in both art and psychology, but I was actually first prompted by my teachers, the Gestalt psychologists Max Wertheimer and Wolfgang Köhler, to really take a good look at these subjects. Berlin University was the birthplace of Gestalt psychology, which dealt primarily with sensory psychology and the perception of form, as well as with art. I received my doctorate in 1928 with a work on expression in faces and handwriting, a theory of visual expression. And that established my art psychology.

The concept of Gestalt is extremely important for your work on art and perception. Can you tell me something about the most important principles of Gestalt psychology?

Gestalt psychology was basically a reaction to the traditional sciences. A scientific experiment was based primarily on breaking down its object into single parts and defining them. The sum of the definitions then corresponded to the object. By contrast, the Gestalt psychologists, referring among other things to the arts, emphasized that there are common connections in human nature, in nature generally, in which the whole is made up of an interrelationship of its parts and no sum of the parts equals the whole. Every science has to work with the whole structure. Gestalt theory also says that the factual world is not simply understood through perception as a random collection of sensory data, but rather as a structured whole. Perception itself is structured, is ordered. This also concerns art. The work of art was a prime example of a Gestalt for my psychology teachers.

Sigmund Freud was one of the first psychologists who applied his theory to art. You have said yourself that “art is an attempt to understand the meaning of our existence,” and that it is important to pay attention to the elementary things that are at the root of the artistic process. This connects you with Freud’s intention. However, you harbor a fundamental skepticism toward the application of psychoanalysis in æsthetic investigations. Why?

That’s what I want to tell you. I was already buying the first editions of Freud as a schoolboy. Psychoanalysis interested me tremendously as a theory, and Freud was a wonderful writer. For example, his book on jokes is very interesting; it uncovers a lot about the bases of productive thought. But Freud’s insistence on sexuality as the motivation for art was never clear to me. I actually related more to Adler, and in certain respects to Jung, although I have had my major objections to Jung. Apart from that, I had no great interest in individual things. I was more interested in general principles.

In 1928 you joined the editorship of Die Weltbühne, published at the time by Carl von Ossietzky and Kurt Tucholsky, as a film critic and editor of the cultural section. How did you arrive at Die Weltbühne?

I began writing film criticism in the mid-20s for the Stachelschwein, which was published by Hans Reimann. At the same time, I nervously sent my first works to the famous [Siegfried] Jacobsohn, who was still chief editor at Die Weltbühne at the time. He accepted them. Jacobsohn died in 1928, the same year I received my doctorate, and Ossietzky became chief editor. He carried the entire responsibility, since Tucholsky lived almost exclusively outside of the country. Ossietzky had to answer to everything that Tucholsky caused through his radicalism. He even went to prison for it. So I became a steady employee of the cultural section of Die Weltbühne, and Ossietzky worked on the political section. This went on until 1933; until the Nazis came.

Berlin was known in the 20s as the center of political journalism; this reputation was based in large part on the existence of the Die Weltbühne, which, more than other newspapers, functioned as a sort of “wanted list“ of the Weimar Republic. To what extent were you affected by the political events surrounding Die Weltbühne? After the burning of the Reichstag in 1933, the employees of the newspaper would no longer be safe.

I must confess that I never had much to do with politics myself. Sure, Die Weltbühne was a very important political newspaper. At the same time, we weren’t aligned with any party, rather with human rights in general, with the efforts toward freedom and justice, with truth. I had published a short essay in the fall of 1932 in the Berliner Tagesblatt, a satire of Hitler. Hans Reimann, who had some kind of relationship with the Nazis, called me one day and said: “It’s better if you disappear from here.”

I did that; at first I simply didn’t let myself be seen. I lived at the time in Spandau. And in August 1933 I went to Rome.

To Italy?

Everything wasn’t as bad there as in Germany. And you know, our conception of the danger that came from the Nazis was quite naïve. We had one government after the other and thought it would be over within half a year.

After that you emigrated to America through London.

I no longer know exactly when that was, probably 1937 or 1938, since Hitler visited Mussolini in Rome and Mussolini declared his support of the race laws. Now, I came from a Jewish family and I had to leave Italy. The writer and art critic Herbert Read, who with his wife had translated my book on radio into English, vouched for me so that I could go to England. There I worked as a translator at the BBC for two or three years and waited for my entry visa for America. In 1940 I finally arrived in New York.

Your first film criticism appeared in 1925. Already at that time you defended photography and film against the accusation that they are nothing more than mechanical reproductions of nature. In your book Film as Art from 1932 you worked out the expressive means of film in terms of the difference between the images that form our view of the physical world and the images on the movie screen, and you interpreted them as a source of artistic expression. How would you define the artistic basis of film?

My interest in film originated with an interest in the expressive capabilities of the visual. For this film offered a wealth of new examples. I was occupied with the question of how one could represent the world through a moving image, which is, however, limited by the screen. This very limitation allowed me to conclude that film can never be a simple reproduction of reality. On the contrary, filmic images have the ability to shape reality and produce meaning. Film interprets the visible world through authentic phenomena from this world and thus takes hold of experience. Film is not a direct representation in contrast to the indirectness of art; rather, it is a form of artistic expression.

Your interest in the formal conditions and expressive possibilities of film was above all applied to the visual aspects of the black-and-white silent film. Why?

For me the silent film possessed great artistic purity of expression. Therefore, I assumed that sound and dialogue are not suitable for promoting the image formation on the film screen; rather, they significantly limit the expression of the image. However, as I recently wrote in an essay, this neglects the basic principle of Gestalt psychology, in which all elements belong together in a whole.

By now it is commonplace to say that film is the visual medium of the twentieth century. There is also little disagreement that film can be art. But the old prejudice that film is a mechanical reproduction of reality, and is thus not art, is still alive. It seems to me that your book on film could be a model for an art history of film. But art history is still hardly willing to take a good look at film. Why do you think this is the case?

Because film has become a victim of the entertainment industry, which considers telling stories more important than form or expression. In the early years, when the great films were being made, the film industry still had very little influence, even after the UFA [film studios in Germany] had been founded. The filmmakers had much more artistic freedom, and one could see this. Only the best works are just good enough for art history. In this respect, film is not an art-historical problem today, but rather a topic for the social sciences.

There have been times when the question, “What is an image?”, has produced explosive situations. It hasn’t been answered yet, and it is still pursued in countless articles and books, seminars, and symposia. As late as the Enlightenment, images, as well as language, were understood as transparent media that represent reality and give access to reason. In the modern age, images turned into riddles, into phenomena which require explanation, since they separate reason from reality. Many works today assume that images must be understood as a kind of language, as signs behind which is hidden an arbitrary mechanism of representation and ideological mystification. What do you consider to be the essence of pictures? How do we master images?

The essence of an image is its ability to convey meaning through sensory experience. Signs and language are established conceptual modifiers; they are the outer shells of actual meaning. We have to realize that perception organizes the forms that it receives as optical projections in the eye. Without form an image cannot carry a visual message into consciousness. Thus it is the organized forms that deliver the visual concept that makes an image legible, not conventionally established signs.

Arnheim in Palm Beach, Florida. Photo José Sánchez-H.

In all of your works on visuality and art, certain concepts are especially important: structure and tension, order and disorder. Can one say that images are the basic principle of “the order of things,” as Michel Foucault would call it, that holds the world together with “figures of knowledge?”

Yes, that is definitely important. You see, this is the fundamental difference between me and Siegfried Kracauer. For Kracauer the world was raw material; from this concept he, in his Theory of Film, derived the definition of the photographic and filmic image as contributing to the “rescue of outer reality” and introducing physical nature in its original state. But images do not imitate reality, they hint at it. They have the ability to make the essential part visible, and are thereby a fundamental principle for understanding the world. Vision and perception are not processes that passively register or reproduce what happens in reality. Vision and perception are active, creative understanding. You have to imagine the following: When we observe something, then we reach for it; we move through space, touch things, feel their surfaces and contours. And our perception structures and orders the information given by things into determinable forms. We understand because this structuring and ordering is a part of our relationship with reality. Without order we couldn’t understand at all. Thus in my opinion the world is not raw material; it is already ordered merely by being observed.

To this day we do not see photographic images as inventions, but rather as authentic copies of physical reality. Our mode of seeing and the way in which we deal with these images are influenced by the fact that these images are mechanically produced by a camera. How do we know how to treat images that look as if they were mechanically reproduced, yet which were mathematically manipulated on the computer or were somehow constructed? Will our relationship to reality change through the ever more rapid development of technology and the concomitant shift in conditions of perception?

I hardly think that the form of recording, whether through photography, film, or even through the computer, has a major influence on the visual qualities of images. The formal qualities of images exist independently of the means by which they were produced. The main problem connected with digital images is that of authenticity. The newspaper, the media in general, are full of images that one can obviously no longer believe. All information must be mistrusted, including, of course, film and photography as information resources. And that is less an æsthetic than a social problem.

In your book, Art and Visual Perception, you apply Gestalt theory to art. Is there a general visual composition principle in art? Which elements constitute artistic expression?

Art, just like perception in general, is dependent on the structure of forms and color. Consequently Art and Visual Perception deals with the relationship between perception and art. We had already said that vision orders reality, and it does so in its primary, projecting structural features. A good image can only be one that informs us about the observed “thing.” This means that it must leave out unnecessary details, concentrate on meaningful characteristics and convey them unambiguously to consciousness. Furthermore, it is completely essential for perception, and also for art, that that which is seen possesses dynamic character. One has to understand perception and artistic expression as a dynamic relationship. Everything that appears in a work is effective due to forces that are manifested in form and color. The dynamic between the forces, between the elements, conveys the expression.

You refer in this context to the meaning of an artistic view of reality, which makes it possible to recognize the world. What do you think is the essence and function of art?

I consider art to be a means of perception, a means of cognition. Perception makes it possible to structure reality and thus to attain knowledge. Art reveals to us the essence of things, the essence of our existence; that is its function.

Again and again you have been preoccupied with the problem of central perspective and realism. It could well be that there are many other representational possibilities for depicting what we “really” see. The conviction that perspectival images are at least in certain respects identical with natural human sight and objective external space is intact. Since the invention of photography and film this conviction has been further strengthened. Clearly the mechanical apparatus vouches for the naturalness and authenticity of its images. This suggests the conclusion that our senses prescribe certain privileged representational forms.

I wouldn’t say that. Perspective, and especially Renaissance perspective, is only one way of interpreting the world. It is the result of the search for an objectively accurate description of physical nature. But also, every other mode of visual representation is a legitimate attempt to do justice to reality. Every other mode of visual representation can bring about the natural character of represented objects and convey an image of reality. The claim to authenticity of naturalistic, central-perspectival representation paradoxically originates with the fact that it appears to be the most realistic because it evokes the illusion of life itself. That only proves, however, its proximity to optical projection. The specific and highly complicated style of visual representation is not at all detected. Here I differentiate myself from what Gombrich thought about this matter.

Gombrich thinks that there is no vision without assumptions, no innocent eye. In relation to the “truth” of our perceptions, or images, we are always faced with the problem that there is no unmediated “visual world” against which we can compare our perceptions. If vision is as much a product of experience and cultural determination as the making of images, then what we com-pare pictorial representation with is not reality; rather, it is a world already clothed in our representational systems. What essential connection is there between pictorial representation and the represented object if the mode of representation is not based on established conventions? Is there an objectivity of perception?

You know, Gombrich was trained by the cynics. And I have always been an optimist. I have always believed in the great possibilities of people to grasp the truth. For me everything creative depends on objective truth. And perceptions are objective facts, although no one has ever been in possession of objective truth and probably never will be.

I want to explain this to you. Everyone must at least have similar perceptions when they look at the same thing, because otherwise no communication could take place. Images must also be compatible with one another so that a person receives one and the same thing at different times. That different observers of one and the same thing see different things has to do with the fact that perception is indeed not mechanical reception of sensory data; rather, it is the creation of structured images that naturally depend on the personal experience of the observer. The observation of the world demands an interaction between the objective characteristics supplied by the observed thing and the nature of the observing subject. In addition, I don’t argue against the idea that there is a historicity of perception and that cultural determinations play a role in vision. In particular, the problem of realism clarified that the naturalistic style of representation is a cultural appearance. A look at history shows that the dominant standard of pictorial representation in different times and in different cultural circles is not the same and that certain forms and patterns repeat themselves. This is especially valid for style. That is what I wanted to demonstrate with my investigations: for every age there is an affinity for forms. This doesn’t mean, however, that a certain kind of representation is based exclusively on established conventions or the external conditions of a tradition.

I think it has become clear that your interest has basically always been directed toward the theory of knowledge; in other words, the investigation of cognitive processes in the relationship of consciousness to the real, existent world. In your book, Visual Thinking, you support the thesis that thought can only be productive if it disregards the boundaries between visual perception and the intellect. As a rule, however, when you are talking about thought you mean vision and perception, that is, the ability to visualize things. But knowledge is also connected with the nature of language: The representation of the world is made vivid and complete by means of language. Through its ability to name things, it can recreate the world of which it forms a part. Thus knowledge does not appear to be possible without linguistic concepts. How do you define knowledge? Is knowledge possible without language?

My essential assertion in the book you mentioned is that language is not the formal prototype of knowledge; rather, that sensory knowledge, upon which all our experience is based, creates the possibilities of language. Our only access to reality is sensory experience, that is, sight or hearing or touch. And sensory experience is always more than mere seeing or touching. It also includes mental images and knowledge based on experience. All of that makes up our view of the world. In my opinion, “visual thinking” means that visual perception consists above all in the development of forms, of “perceptual terms,” and thereby fulfills the conditions of the intellectual formation of concepts; it has the ability, by means of these forms, to give a valid interpretation of experience. Lan guage, on the other hand, is in itself without form; one cannot think in words, since words cannot contain an object. Language is instructed by sensory perception. It codifies the given knowledge through sensory experience. This doesn’t mean that language isn’t tremendously significant for thought, for all of human development. Human existence is unimaginable without language. I am only stressing that language is an instrument of that which we have gained through perception, in that it confirms and preserves the concepts it forms.

In your art theory you constantly have architecture in mind; you wrote a book about the dynamics of architecture. If I understand you correctly, you also consider architecture to be a way of visualizing the world. What appeals to you about architecture?

I got involved with architecture mainly because with it I could get away from naturalism. In architecture I actually had to deal with mere form. And otherwise that is the case only with music. My affinity for architecture is also due to the fact that architecture is an abstract medium, which means that it doesn’t work with individual characteristics, but rather with general principles. And I already said that the primary perceptual feature of vision, and not only of vision, is the dynamic among the elements. This is quite obvious in architecture. Beyond that, I found it very essential that architecture treats mere form as an artistic means, and at the same time it has practical meaning. I had already been occupied for a long time with the relationship between function and æsthetics, and for me they are directly connected. The function of architecture is an indispensable part of its visible condition, and æsthetics is a part of the function. They cannot be separated.

You have certainly heard about the fight over the conception of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. You must at least be familiar with the plans as well as the photos of Daniel Libeskind’s building. What are your thoughts on the meaning of this building and its status as a museum?

I think the meaning of a building lies in its visible composition; you were completely right when you mentioned that before. By way of the architectural form the meaning has to be understood by the eye. But in general one can only judge architecture on site. And I have merely seen photographs of Libeskind’s building. This zigzag form seems to me to be very substantial; it represents a historical succession and at the same time maintains its individuality. This was very clear to me. I am also quite moved by the empty space in the center of the architecture. There was a community there that was enormously influential during the Weimar Republic, a community from which hardly anything is left. The museum is thus addressed to someone who is no longer there.

Translated by Gregory Williams

  1. A version of this interview was published as “Rudolf Arnheim: Die Intelligenz des Sehens” in Neue Bildende Kunst (August-September, 1998), pp. 56-62.

Rudolf Arnheim is currently retired and living in Michigan. In addition to being the first and only professor of the psychology of art at Harvard, Arnheim has taught at the University of Michigan, Sarah Lawrence College, and the New School for Social Research.

Uta Grundmann has worked as a freelance journalist, art critic, and graphic designer since 1992. She was formerly an editor at the German art magazine Neue bildende kunst: Zeitschrift für Kunst und Kritik.

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