Friday, March 6, 2020

Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye by Rudolf Arnheim

The fundamental science of making and viewing art
If you ever went to art school, chances are you may have been assigned Rudolf Arnheim’s Art and Visual Perception as a textbook. It is well worth a read for any visual artist or frequenter of museums and galleries. Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye was originally published in 1954. A second edition, billed as “The New Version,” appeared in 1974, and that is the edition I am reviewing. I don’t think the book has been significantly updated since.

Rudolf Arnheim (1904-2007) was a German-born perceptual psychologist who taught as a professor at American universities for four decades. Arnheim was trained in the school of gestalt psychology, and his research involved applying gestalt theories to the study of art. Art and Visual Perception is essentially a synthesis of scientific research on how the human eye and brain perceive line, shape, form, space, light, color, and movement. Arnheim asserts that the human eye is not merely a camera that captures an exact, static image of reality. Rather, the eye and brain work together in an active process to construct images and concepts from visual stimuli, often in ways that depart from objective reality. The simplest and most obvious examples of this are optical illusions that, for example, make one line look longer than another when in fact both are the same length. Of course, Arnheim delves far more deeply into such phenomena, illustrating how every element of a work of art is subject to such visual-cognitive processes. By examining the research of many psychologists, Arnheim attempts to elucidate the laws that govern how we see things.

Though the content may be scientific in nature, the book is written with the artist in mind. As an authoritative scholarly monograph on its subject, Art and Visual Perception is not an easy read, and Arnheim’s prose can be dry at times, but the text never gets bogged down in jargon and no PhD in psychology is required to understand its arguments. Arnheim has structured the chapters such that the book begins with the simplest visual phenomena and proceeds to the more complex. For example, he starts with simple two-dimensional shapes before moving on to three-dimensional forms. Much of the text deals with two-dimensional media like painting, drawing, and photography, but Arnheim also covers other visual art forms such as sculpture, architecture, theatre, and dance. One fascinating chapter entitled Growth explains the step-by-step development of human visual faculties from birth through childhood. The chapter on Space has some really interesting things to say about how alternative methods of depicting space, such as those used by Egyptian, Japanese, or Native American artists, possess advantages over the system of perspective that dominated Western art for centuries. The chapter on Color is probably the book’s weakest, as it is a subject that requires more coverage than Arnheim devotes to it here.

Each datum on perceptual psychology that Arnheim presents in this study amounts to a strategy that artists can employ in the creation of their art. This book will also help nonartists develop a deeper appreciation for art. Arnheim’s valuable explanations on the visual mechanics of art enhance the reader’s understanding of how to interpret what artists from ancient to modern times were trying to say and accomplish with their artworks. In today’s art world, unfortunately, the conceptual is given emphasis over the perceptual, and Arnheim really doesn’t address postmodern art, which is perhaps best left to philosophers and critics. If you value visual art, however, as a maker or a viewer, Art and Visual Perception is an important book and a rewarding read.

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