Visions of the Creative Process: What Rudolf Arnheim Taught Me
By Charlotte L. Doyle, psychology faculty member
Slightly revised from a paper delivered at the conference “Exploring the Legends/ Guideposts to the Future: Rudolf Arnheim,” presented by the University Council for Art Education at New York University on April 11, 1992.
Today we celebrate a man who has been an inspiration, a mentor, and a wise friend to many people. And he certainly was all these things for me. Rudolf Arnheim's encouragement and support helped me to get one of my first articles written and published (Doyle, 1973), and, over the years, though he was never officially my teacher, he taught me and counseled me with great wisdom. But today, I want to talk to you about something else: the impact of Rudolf Arnheim on my thinking about the creative process.
I just missed Rudolph Arnheim as a colleague in the psychology department at Sarah Lawrence. I arrived on campus the year he left. So I first got to know him through his books. It was 1967, when I took on the teaching of a new course, the Psychology of the Creative Process. I began to teach that course out of the sense that psychology was limiting its vision. Most of its theories were based on case studies of mental disturbance, or laboratory research either on animal learning or college sophomores completing simple, rather meaningless tasks. I wondered: How would various approaches to psychology look if they were tested, not against purified behavior in the laboratory or as guides to understanding and alleviating emotional disturbance but as explanations to the most complex and awesome human achievements? My students and I began with the first psychological thinkers who applied their approaches to the creative process in art: Freud (1952; 1958) and Jung (1933). We learned about how each, in a different way, emphasized the role of primitive, irrational, unconscious processes. We read the work of people who, building on Freud's concept of primary process, saw the key to creativity in the ability to come up with divergent unusual associations and who had devised so-called "creativity tests" (Guilford, 1959; Wallach and Kogan, 1965). We read critques of the classic psychoanalytic approaches, critiques which suggested that children come into the world with a desire to understand it and act effectively in it. Schachtel (1959), for example, suggested that the creativity consisted of active, unfettered perception in which creative people discover new ways to see and then find ways to communicate their vision concretely to others. And we looked at the Gestalt psychologists who directly took thinking and problem solving as their problem. Max Wertheimer (1959)—one of Arnheim's mentors—described a process he called productive thinking. It begins with an initial grasp of a problem which is unclear or contradictory or ambiguous or incomplete. Problem solving involved a reorganization of the elements of the problem into a new, more satisfying Gestalt.
With every theorist I tried to find an example from the arts to show how the theory illuminated the understanding of a work—we had read Freud's analysis of Leonardo da Vinci (Freud, 1964) and Joseph Campbell's application of Jung to a variety of heroic tales (Campbell, 1949). I had heard that Rudolph Arnheim had applied Gestalt psychology to art, and in our catalogue, I found that he had a book of essays on art and one entire book on a single painting, Picasso's “Guernica” (Arnheim, 1962, 1966). Without thinking much about it, I made some essays from Toward a Psychology of Art and his book on “Guernica” an assignment for both my students and for me.
In everyone's life, there are a few writings that light up the darkness, that transform the ways things look. Reading those Arnheim writings was transforming for me. I discovered that, in the first chapter of the “Guernica” book, Arnheim (1962) took the reader through an intellectual journey similar to the one my students and I had been taking. He looked at various psychological approaches to the creative process and commented on them. He gave credit to Freud's analysis of dreams as pointing to a visual language that does not follow the laws of ordinary logic. But on Freud's and Jung's ideas that art is, at its core, a way of giving shape to primordial impulses and archetypes, Arnheim wrote: "To maintain, however, that these elementary stirrings and notions are the true content of art...fails to do justice to the refinement of the human mind and its products. The cult of the ‘unconscious’ in creativity is in danger of confusing the elementary with the profound...there is no reason to believe that the areas of the mind farthest from consciousness harbor the deepest wisdom. Wisdom can result only from the concerted efforts of all the layers and capacities of the mind."( pp. 6-7) And Arnheim rejected the idea that creativity simply consists of coming up with unusual associations. He went back to his roots in Gestalt psychology and said, "There can be no art without some image…a temporary or definitive notion of what needs to be achieved provides the tension between what is and what should be... The mere shuffling and reconnecting of items of experience leads...to nothing more than a clever game unless it is steered by an underlying vision of what is to be attained." (pp. 8-9)
Nor was Arnheim satisfied with visions that said first artists make discoveries and, in a second phase, then express what they already know in their art. Arnheim 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.’" (p. 10)
These ideas inspired us, but they would not have had such force had Arnheim not also explained to us how the making of art was that special kind of thinking he called visual thinking, an idea he elaborated more fully two years later in his book, Visual Thinking (1969). There is no such thing as a meaningless form, Arnheim taught us. A square is never just a square. Even the most abstract shape expresses relations that reflect fundamental patterns and forces. And such visual relations underlie our very understanding of concepts.
We tried this out in class. "Draw the concept of protection," I said to my students. (Drawing something realistic was against the rules.) Most of us drew a compact form, such as a large dot, completely or almost completely surrounded by a curving arc. "Draw imprisonment," I said a few concepts later, and each of us again drew a compact form, either surrounded by a square or held in by vertical lines. "My 'imprisonment' reminds me of my 'protection'," one student called out.
There is a section in Chapter 4 of Visual Thinking (Arnheim, 1969) entitled "Pairing affects the Partners.” In it, we learn that putting two paintings next to one another affects what we see in them, throwing similar and contrasting properties into the spotlight. As we looked at our "protection" and our "imprisonment" drawings, we saw that both concepts implied a barrier between an element and the larger environment.
Arnheim also teaches that the meaning of a given element in one configuration will have a different meaning in the context of a different configuration. In drawing "protection," one student had drawn a square surrounding a compact form, but he added an element that did not appear in any of the "imprisonment" drawings - arrows aimed at the little form surrounded by the square. What might have been a confining square in another context became protection in the face of attack. It began to make sense, that, in life, what might feel like imprisonment to the person being confined might be construed as protection by the confining person, if the confining person has a different assessment of how much danger resides in the environment. Even in our little classroom experiment, the very act of giving concepts visual form led to clarification and discovery.
Now Arnheim's book on “Guernica” led us through Picasso's visual thinking from the initial sketch through all the working drawings to the final mural. We saw very concretely how changes in form, often the same element in a new configuration, created new meanings. In an early compositional study, a large bull jumps across the center of the sketch surveying the desolation of a doubled over horse and a prone warrior below. The bull is alone, above the fray. Later, Picasso gives the central place to a wounded, agonized but defiantly rearing horse. The bull has been moved to the side, an observer. The characters in the mural are no longer prone, but tend to the vertical, actively appealing to the bull. And the bull himself is no longer alone, but part of a configuration with a horror-stricken mother and her dead baby. "Formal considerations," Arnheim (1962) wrote, "lead to solutions that are always more than formal. When an object had to be moved, the formal change entailed a change in meaning." (p. 133)
All this was very exciting. Arnheim provided a different vision, one which recognized strengths in other positions but also gave us something new. Furthermore, he looked at the creative process in art directly. We could see creation at work as the mural developed before our eyes. If you want to understand the creative process in art, find ways to observe it in all its messy complexity directly, he seemed to tell us. And we were moved by Arnheim's profound aesthetic insight. At the same time as he was giving us a new vision of the creative process, he was also teaching us how to see as we looked at paintings.
I was early in my professional career when I discovered Arnheim. My own professional work had not yet taken shape. And as my work developed, Arnheim had a profound effect. That may sound strange because my work, varied as it has been, has not had much to do with visual arts. But it has always been connected to the creative process in some way—chiefly the creative process in writing. And though Arnheim always emphasized the importance of the visual medium, I have found that the lessons he taught have illuminated my understanding of the process of writing, whether as a teacher helping students to write, a writer in psychology, a writer of children's books, or a psychologist trying to understand the creative process in writing. The basic lessons - there is meaning in form; the meaning of any particular element depends on the pattern of elements in which it is found; pairings affect the partners; the creative process is a search for form which is at the same time a search for the discovery of meaning—those basic lessons can be applied to any medium.
A small example of the meaning in form. Words differ from visual forms in that much of the word meaning is arbitrary. But, as poets and Arnheim know, words are patterns in sound and the perceptual sound patterns can be important aspects of meaning. One day, a three-year-old boy was eating spaghetti. It was all over his face, his high chair, and the floor. The boy had a transcendent look on his face, as if sitting there eating spaghetti was as good as life could ever get. Afterwards, when he had eaten his fill and could not eat another bite, he kept saying the word over and over again - "spaghetti, spaghetti, spaghetti"—and it seemed as though the saying of the word was almost as delicious as the food it named. Without thinking about it reflectively, I transformed that parallel pleasure in the sound of the word and its meaning into the words of a picture book, Freddie's Spaghetti, in which Freddie and his mother talk about his dinner."What's for dinner, Mommy," said Freddie. Freddie's Mommy said, "Spaghetti."
But Freddie has to wait, and so does the reader. The word "spaghetti" does not appear at all in the middle section of the book. The reader has to wait as Freddie does, till the end, when:"Freddie ate spaghetti And Freddie ate spaghetti And Freddie ate spaghetti and Freddie ate spaghetti and Freddie ate spaghetti. Till it [both the word and Freddie's spaghetti] was all gone." (Doyle, 1991)
Another communality between the creative process in writing and the visual arts: Arnheim tells us that artists do not fully know what they mean to say when they begin a particular work. The creative process is a process of exploration, of trying out various configurations and elaborating various parts. In a study of first-hand accounts of the creative process (Doyle, 1976), I found that many writers describe their explorations in the fictional medium in similar ways. Novelist Henry James (1955) wrote about the time he was sitting at dinner when he heard a story about two wonderful people, a mother and a son, at daggers with one another over the dead father's property. James writes: “I became instantly aware of the prick of inoculation...I took in fine on the spot to the rich bare little fact of the two little figures embroiled perhaps all so sordidly...Had I been asked why they were...‘interesting,’ I fear I could have said nothing more to the point...than ‘Well, you'll see.’ By which of course I should have meant, ‘Well, I shall see.’" And if you want to know what Henry James came to see, you have to read a wonderful short novel, The Spoils of Poynton.
In his study of “Guernica”, Arnheim showed us how the search for the right form is at the same time and necessarily also a search for meaning. As part of a study of novelists as psychological theorists, I explored, à la Arnheim, where Tolstoy began and what we know about various drafts of writing Anna Karenina. In the beginning, Tolstoy imagined a single plot in which an evil, unattractive, very sensual woman ruined the lives of both her sensitive and vulnerable husband (whose history paralleled Tolstoy's own) and the lover she seduced. But at one point, Tolstoy made a change. The sensitive, vulnerable husband was taken out of the adultery story and made the hero of a parallel plot. That change in form allowed Tolstoy to explore new possibilities. Once a wonderful caring husband was no longer a part of understanding Anna's adultery, Anna's character was free to develop in new directions. By the time the novel was finished, Anna was beautiful, the victim of a deadly marriage, a skillful seduction, and a suffocating, hypocritical society. Anna Karenina took on a whole new meaning. (Doyle, 1985)
Arnheim teaches us that pairings affect the partners; when we look at disparate things together, similarities we might not have noticed earlier come to the fore. In putting the process of making “Guernica” next to the process of making Anna Karenina, I cannot help noticing something about the elements whose move to a new configuration were decisive for the discoveries of new meaning. In both cases, the element that was moved—the bull in “Guernica” and the sensitive husband in Anna—was the element most obviously and directly related to the artists' own situation. And in both cases, the most direct surrogate for self was moved out of the center of the original configuration and given significant role in another one. Discovering something new about the world required being less self-centered about it, yet seeing self in an important new relation to it at the same time. I don't mean to suggest that this particular reorganization is the only or even the most typical reorganization needed for discovery in the making of a complex work. But the fact that we find it in two different media in two different eras and cultures with two very different creative people is intriguing—a beginning for further thinking.
I discovered Rudolf Arnheim as a psychologist when I began to teach a course on the creative process, a course developed out of dissatisfaction with where psychology found its material for generalizing about human nature. What would happen if we looked at what made possible some of our most complex and wonderful achievements? What aspects of being human would it bring to the fore? For Rudolf Arnheim, to be human is not to be inexorably chained to the past. To be human is to be able to use our capacities for thinking to go beyond what we have been or done or thought before (and Arnheim enlarged our understanding of just what thinking entails.) To be human is to be restless in the face of ambiguity and confusion. To be human is to sense possibilities, glimmerings of meaning that spur us to keep exploring—deepening our understanding of various elements, trying out new configurations, till somehow something that makes sense emerges. Arnheim's gift to us has been to show us how artists have done this and, with each new book (Arnheim, 1986, 1988, 1992) he continued to teach us about these processes in ever fresh and illuminating ways. We can see some of the same forces at work in the creative process in writing. These particular embodiments in particular media point to more general human tendencies. Sometimes, as we grapple with confusion, deepen our grasp of various elements and aspects, try out new configurations in search of patterns that make sense, the medium is life itself.
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Arnheim, R. (1966). Toward a Psychology of Art. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Arnheim, R. (1969) Visual Thinking. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Arnheim, R. (1986). New Essays in the Psychology of Art. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Arnheim, R. (1988). The Power of the Center. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Arnheim, R. (1992). To the Rescue of Art. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
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