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CABINET // The Intelligence of Vision: An Interview with Rud...










The Intelligence of Vision: An Interview with Rudolf


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 Weltbhne. 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
Professor Arnheim's obituary,
June 14, 2007.

(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
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?
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

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actually first prompted by my teachers, the Gestalt psychologists Max

Wertheimer and Wolfgang Khler, 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 defin-itions 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 sthetic 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
In 1928 you joined the editorship of Die Weltbhne, 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
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 Weltbhne at the time. He accepted them. Jacobsohn died in 1928,

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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 Weltbhne, 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
Weltbhne, 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 Weltbhne?
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
Weltbhne 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 nave. 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?

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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 blackand-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

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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.
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 sthetic than a social problem.

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Arnheim in Palm Beach, Florida. Photo: Jos Snchez-H.

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

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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.

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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

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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 sthetics, and for me they are directly
connected. The function of architecture is an indispensable part of its
visible condition, and sthetics is a part of the function. They cannot be
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
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,

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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 fu r Kunst und Kritik.

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2001 Cabinet Magazine

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