Visual Thinking--the Highest Sense
Limitations of Visual Dynamic
is the psychology of art related to photography? When I mention the
psychology of art, many people may think it is a type of
experimental psychology that studies human perception of color and
composition, which would seem to have a natural connection to
photography. Interestingly enough, the arguably most well-known
psychologist of art, Rudolf Arnheim, is not an experimental
psychologist. With the exception of his dissertation and one or two
other writings, he has never published an experimental study (Verstegen,
1996). Instead, throughout his career he has "philosophized" a
psychology of art. Arnheim, a German immigrant to America, studied
psychology at the University of Berlin during the 1920s. At that
time psychology was considered a branch of philosophy (Behrens,
During Arnheim's career, he wrote 15 books and numerous papers on
the psychology of art. He conducted research and taught in major
American universities such as Columbia and Harvard. In addition, he
served twice as the President of the American Society for
Aesthetics, and served three terms as the President of the "Division
on Psychology and the Arts" of the American Psychological
Association. The fact that Arnheim is such a prominent figure in the
study of art makes his criticism of photography especially
problematic. I hope that this article can give photographers
sufficient knowledge to critique Arnheim's viewpoint.
objective of this article is to introduce and criticize Arnheim's
"philosophical/psychological" view of photography. To comprehend his
view of photography, a general overview of his psychology of art is
essential also. "Dynamic" expression is the theme of Arnheim's
theory. In his theory, the more visual tensions an artist presents,
the more dynamic expression the work carries. Arnheim believes that
photography is not as dynamic as painting because photography is too
environment-driven to grasp the essence of a subject or express the
authentic personality of a model. In the following, I will outline
the fundamental concepts of Arnheim's theory and give a brief
critique to some of his views.
pursuit of logic and rationality prevails in Western culture.
Arnheim (1974) asserted that Western culture is "unsuited to the
creation of art and encourages the wrong kind of thinking about it.
We have neglected the gift of comprehending things through our
senses. Concept is divorced from percept, and thoughts move among
abstractions." (p.1) He insists that visual thinking cannot be
conveyed by verbal language. For instance, the entire experience
created by a Rembrandt painting could not and should not reduced to
description and explanation (pp.1-2).
Arnheim (1979) agrees with philosopher Wittgenstein that words are
like the skin of a deep water, [so] we must penetrate beneath the
skin. And Arnheim even goes further to claim that humans' highest
sense is the sense of vision (p.146). Moreover, Arnheim (1986) is
opposed to the notion that intuition is just artists' effortless
inspiration while intellect is a kind of serious logical thinking.
Actually, he says, intellect is a linear or sequential analysis,
while intuition is a synthesis of the entire structure.
Intuition enables us to perceive and interpret the relations between
various elements of a subject (pp.13-30). *
Fortunately, Arnheim does not go to the extreme to exclude
conceptual thinking from artistic activities. In Arnheim's view
(1969), intuition or visual thinking is by no means a sufficient
condition for artistic creation. Genuine artwork requires
organization, which involves many, and perhaps all, of the cognitive
operations of theoretical thinking (p.263). Perceptually, a mature
work reflects a highly differentiated sense of form, capable of
organizing various components of the image in a comprehensive
compositional order. The intelligence of the artist is apparent not
only in the structure of the formal pattern, but equally in the
depth of meaning conveyed by this pattern (p. 269).
brief, the work of art is an interplay of vision and thought.
The individuality of particular existence and the generality of
types are united in one image. Percept and concept are revealed as
two aspects of one and the same experience (p.273).
Arnheim (1988, Nov.- Dec.) asserts that the world of sensory
experience is not made up of things, but of dynamic force. The key
to expression in visual art is the rendering of dynamic forces in
fixed images. Expression is the manifestation of life, and life is
what art is all about (p.585).
example, different lengths and positions in line-drawing faces would
give different impressions to observers--a face that has long lines
in close proximity would seem aged, sad, and mean (see Figure 1a); a
face that has shorter, farther apart lines would seem youthful and
serene (see Figure 1b). These are the result of perceived
contradictions and expansions.
Arnheim (1974) states that these visual forces are physically and
psychologically real, not merely figures of speech. Psychologically,
the interplay of forces in a picture exists in the experience of any
person who looks at it. Since these forces have a point of attack, a
direction, and an intensity, they meet the conditions established by
physicists for physical forces (p.16).
Figure 1. A mean face and a serene face
Arnheim adopted the assumption that human mind operates on the
infrastructure of a homeostatic equilibrium, and any stimulation
from the outside or inside of an organism will upset the balance of
that basic state and lead directly to a countermove (1988, Nov-Dec.,
p.588). For an organism, pleasure results from reductions of
tension or a balance of drive. Visual pleasure works in
the same way. **
Arnheim (1974) also uses the analogy of physics to explain the
vitality of visual forces in art. In physics the principle of
entropy, also known as the second law of Thermodynamics, asserts
that in any isolated system, each successive state represents an
irreversible decrease of active energy. The universe tends toward a
state of equilibrium in which all existing asymmetries of
distribution are eliminated (p.36). Art is but one manifestation of
this universal tendency towards the state of simplest structure in
physical systems (Arnheim, 1971, p.255).
Arnheim built his theory of visual dynamic basing upon mainly
painting, sculpture and music. He regards photography as less
dynamic than these arts. The characteristics of photography in
Arnheim's theory could be described as the following:
First, the nature of painting does not derive from its subject
matter, but from the media in which it is created: the sheet of
paper, the canvas, the stone, and the tools and materials. On the
contrary, photography springs from the environment. Arnheim
describes the difference with this phrase: "Painting and sculpture
come from the inside out; photography comes from outside in" (Arnheim,
1986, p.115-116). We might say that painting and sculpture are
"media-driven," but photography is "environment-driven."
a photographer, I believe that photography is not necessarily
"outside in." Equipped with three Nikon cameras, eight lenses, fifty
filters and some other accessories, I always take the media as the
first consideration when I decide what I will do with the subject.
Basically, all forms of art are the materialization of ideas.
In other words, all arts fall along a media-environment continuum.
Because Arnheim believes that photography is from the outside in, it
is said to be less expressive in the sense of containing the visual
tensions of the subject. Arnheim (1979) asserts that photography, in
spite of its authenticity, is not the best tool to enhance visual
thinking; rarely will it do the job without the help of other means
such as schematic drawings, graphs, etc. Visual education, in
Arnheim's view, must be a statement of what is happening. A sequence
is shown by visible continuity. Cause and effect are shown by an
observable proximity in time or space or both. According to Arnheim,
photographs cannot show such things as well as other media (p.148).
Aesthetical visual forms contain directed tensions, or visual
dynamic. They represent a happening rather than a being. Thus, a
good picture of football players shows intense action, while a poor
one makes the figures look awkwardly arrested in midair (Arnheim,
1979, p.75). In Arnheim's view, it is more likely for a painter to
create visual tensions, but for photographers, the reality of a
physical subject comprises the total course of its existence in
time. To render it in the timeless medium of painting, the artist
may translate a synthesis of the time sequence into an appropriate
immobile image. For that same image, the photographer is limited to
selecting a momentary phase of the sequence. Thus, according to
Arnheim, a photograph might not carry the most dynamic elements of
that event ( 1986, p.117).
Arnheim's opinion might be correct in regard to early photography,
but today quite a few cameras are capable of track focusing and
continuous shooting. Catching the crucial moment of an event is no
longer difficult. Moreover, even a traditional camera is able to
record the motion of an image with a long exposure. Once a
photographer mounted a Nikon N6006 on his bicycle while cycling at
night. His picture reveals a sense of time sequence, and the visual
tensions are clearly displayed through the sharp and blurred
According to Arnheim (1979), environment-driven photography carries
a property of "natural accident." Impressionists, who were inspired
by photographs, departed from classic orderliness and stillness in
their painting styles and experimented with the composition of
natural accident to portray indifference, isolation and unawareness.
Nonetheless, the so-called accident was the intent of the artists
and under their control.
However, Arnheim does not consider natural accident in photography
as successfully controlled as it is in Impressionist paintings.
Photography introduces accident into every one of its products. A
photo is never more than partially comprehensive to the human eye.
Therefore, as a medium of art, photography will always suffer from
the inherent compromise, Arnheim argues (p.170).
Because photography is said to be environment-driven, Arnheim (1986)
considers it an art of particularity rather than an expression of
universality. He asserts that painters are inclined to start from a
highly abstract level and would reach individuality only by special
elaboration. Photography, on the other hand, would have a hard time
presenting an abstraction. Instead of stating abstractness
positively, it can only arrive at it negatively, by eliminating some
of the primary data (p.116).
photography, the detailed rendering of an individual human body is
common. A normally focused shot of a human body displays all the
imperfections of the model, unless the photographer searches for the
rare specimen of perfection such as a glamorous young woman or a
well-built athlete. These images are ideals, like their counterparts
in painting and sculpture, but given the difference in medium, their
connotation is not the same. Arnheim says:
photographic documents are not the creations of an idealizing
imagination that responds to the imperfections of reality with a
dream of beauty. Instead, they are the trophies of a hunter who
looks for the unusual in the world of what actually exists and
discovered something exceptionally good. (1986, p.121)
Furthermore, since photographs are reproductions of what really
happened in a particular time and space, they are not
self-explanatory. Their meaning depends on the total context of
which they are a part. When photography wishes to convey a message,
it must try to place the image into the proper context. Usually this
will require the help of the written or spoken word (Arnheim, 1986,
John Berger also states that photography is an art of "ambiguity."
Without the aid of captions, the audience always interprets photos
in a way that is completely different from what they really are or
what they originally mean. I totally agree with Arnheim that
photography is an art of particularity rather than universality.
Again taking the human figure as an example, the nude photos of Man
Ray and Alfred Stiegitz are quite different. The nudes in Man Ray's
album are expressed in the European style while the latter ones are
American. Perhaps Ray and Stiegitz did not deliberately embody their
arts in certain cultural styles, but the women in their pictures
definitely carry those particular traits.
Arnheim (1979) considers photography an improper medium to express a
person's personality. He has said:
presence of a portrait photographer's camera tends to paralyze a
person's expression, so that he becomes self-conscious, inhibited,
and strikes an unnatural pose. Candid shots are momentary phases
isolated in time and space from the action and setting of which they
are a part. Sometimes they are highly expressive and representative
of the whole from which they are taken. Frequently, they are not.
Furthermore, the angle from which a shot is made, the effect of
lighting on shape, the rendering of brightness and color values, as
well as modifications through retouching, are factors that make it
impossible to accept a random photograph as a valid likeness. (p.55)
This argument puzzles me. On one hand, Arnheim criticizes
photography for lacking visual dynamic and carrying disorganized
natural accident because it is from "outside in" and the
manipulation of media is not sufficient. On the other hand, he says
that photography cannot truly express a person's essence because it
has too much artist intervention and manipulation. It seems to be
contradictory. Actually, artificial procedures in photography such
as switching angles and retouching might contribute to a valid
likeness. Furthermore, psychologists generally agree that one's
personality is situational rather than stable. It is doubtful that
we can find one "right" representation of anyone's personality. On
one occasion perhaps a snapshot of a natural accident shows an
expressive gesture of a person vividly, but at another time a
picture taken in a studio setup may manifest his/her essence
clearly. Sometimes a painter can reveal the very nature of a person
in a particular situation, but a photographer might handle this job
better under another circumstances.
When such a
prominent psychologist of art as Arnheim is so critical of
photography, it is no wonder that even now photography is not highly
regarded as a type of fine art. Nonetheless, we should not fully
accept his theory without careful examination. His theory of visual
dynamic is based on the assumptions of homeostatic equilibrium and
entropy, which are believed to be universal principles in the human
world and the universe. However, I wonder whether visual forces as a
major criterion in art is universal or cultural. I agree with
Arnheim that photography is an art of particularity, but this
doesn't mean that photography must be from "outside in." In
Arnheim's theory, if photography has too much natural accident, it
will hardly carry visual dynamic. But if it has too much
photographer intervention and manipulation of the subject, it will
paralyze the expression of the subject's essence. Perhaps it is the
photographer's mission to strive for a balance between these
Although Arnheim's theory is so insightful as to point out the
inadequacy of verbal cognition, the dichotomy of visual thinking and
verbal thinking still oversimplifies the breadth of human cognition.
According to Howard Gardner, human intelligence can be classified
into seven dimensions, namely artistic, linguistic, kinesthetic,
mathematic, musical, interpersonal and intrapersonal (Gardner,
1991). I believe that this is a more comprehensive approach to look
at human cognition.
addition, it is debatable whether visual thinking is the highest
form of cognition. Albert Bandura (1986) insists that mental image
and verbal memory are interrelated but most of our information is
stored in verbal form (p.58). Jean Piaget asserts that the
development of human cognition progresses from the dependence on
sensory input to the dependence on concepts (cited in Hergenhann,
1988, pp.271-288). Some psychologists distinguish field dependent
from field independent thinkers. Field dependence refers to
cognition based upon a clearly-defined visual object, while field
independence is defined as perception without distraction or
confusion by the environment. Interestingly enough, field
independence is considered the higher cognitive skill of the two
(cited in Hettinger, 1988). In short, it is doubtful that the
inference that visual sense is the highest form of cognition would
be supported by most psychologists.
The model of homeostatic equilibrium was also accepted by Sigmund
Freud and Edward Hull. Today this model is no longer popular in
psychology because psychologists found that theories of Freud and
Hull are hardly applicable to the real world. It is no guarantee
that we can maximize our pleasure even if we make the greatest
effort to reduce tensions. John Atkinson (1965) classifies
personality traits into two categories, namely tendency to succeed
and tendency to avoid failure (p.73). For the former, tensions might
be a source of pleasure!
Regarding visual arts, Oriental paintings, in value contrast, color
hues and composition, are often less tensed than their Western
counterparts. I doubt that visual tensions as the major criterion in
art is universal.
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_____. (1971). Entropy and art: An essay on disorder and order.
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_____. (1974). Art and visual perception: A psychology of the
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_____. (1979) Toward a psychology of art. Los Angeles, CA:
University of California Press.
_____. (1986). New essays on the psychology of art. Los
Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
_____. (1988 Nov.-Dec.). Visual dynamics. American Scientist, 6,
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