Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Arnheim on Expression

I finally managed to bash my way through the last page of Arnheim's Art and Visual Perception. It's not difficult to read or understand, but it is pretty dense, so it took me a lot of time. Many many small bites.

Anyways, as I mentioned earlier he talks a lot about the idea of the percept, that which is perceived, rather than merely seen. This is some sort of gestalt but essentially visual experience of what is seen. It transcends the mere geometry projected onto the retinas, and includes our understanding of the objects as possessing three dimensions (sometimes), ideas about motion, and tension, and so on. The point here is that the rabbit hole goes very deep.

The entire conceit is that, roughly, the material assembled by our visual apparatus, that low-level, distinctly sub-verbal, non-cognitive, chunk of our brain, that material goes much further than we imagine it does. We see two distorted hexagons, one smaller than the other. We perceive two dice, one farther away than the other, one seems in some ineffable way to be striving toward the other.

Arnheim wraps up with a short chapter on Expression, which is essentially the conclusion of his argument and, I think, the statement of his overall thesis. I will attempt to state it myself, with some of what appear to be the implications. To really determine where Arnheim leaves off and I begin, I suspect you'd best read the book, but I will try to alert you to the rough shape of the boundaries as we go. Everything about culture is me, extrapolating from what I understand of Arnheim.

Consider two different cultures. In one (mine) we grieve in postures of low-energy, of ennui. Our bodies are limp and listless, our head hung, our arms dropped. In another, perhaps, they grieve with arms and face lifted to the sky, appealing thereto, in a posture we might consider one of prayerful exaltation.

Consider now a tree, or a painting of one, or a photo. A tree with limbs upthrust and spread, reminiscent of that second posture.

In my culture we might read the tree as symbolizing exaltation, in the other as grief.

The standard explanation here, and evidently the one given by Ruskin, is that we know the postures of people. The tree reminds us of those people, consciously or nearly so, and so we make a cognitive analogy: the tree appears as a man grieving, and so we recognize the tree as symbolizing that.

Arnheim argues, persuasively, that both the tree and the human posture evoke the same expressive/emotional response at a visual level, as percept. Regardless of culture, we see either one, and we react, we feel, in roughly the same way. This feeling is evoked at a pre-verbal, pre-cognitive level. It is baked in to our visual system.

Arnheim's argument is — I think — that it is only when it comes to assigning a name to this percept that we seek analogy with the expressed emotion. Assigning exaltation or grief comes after the expression, not before it. At least to some degree.

Well who cares? The result is the same either way, right? We name it exaltation and they name it grief either way.

In the first place it's academically interesting, and if you know me at all, you know I love that shit. But in the second place it speaks to the universality of visual art.

If the tree begins by evoking essentially the same emotional reaction across all of humanity, well, that's powerful, right? It means that we can, to a degree, reach out to all or at least to many, with some hope of getting through.

Now, we do need still to take care. If we intend to tell "Gilgamesh" with photographs of trees, we might still be sunk. We may need not only the raw, universal, responses to our photos, we may need also the culturally-specific naming of those reactions.

For us, we may need our drooping willow tree to specifically mean grief, the grief of Gilgamesh upon the death of Enkidu. If it doesn't read specifically as mourning, the meaning may collapse, and even Arnheim cannot save us here.

If on the other hand all we require of our drooping willing tree is that pre-verbal, rather more vague, expressive quality, that sense maybe of ennui, of dis-energy, perhaps we can make something more universal. "Gilgamesh" isn't going to work, but something else might. In the land of arms-up grief, they will still read something of the same listlessness in the drooping tree, because the percept in universal in ways the cultural naming of it is not.

The implication of Arnheim's thesis is that a lot more stuff might be down to nurture than to nature, more than we might guess. What the stuff is, though, is pre-verbal, non-cognitive. Something about energy, tension, motion. Maybe yearning, reaching, falling, failing. But nothing so specific as "grief" or "prayer" or "love." Visual art does, after all, seem to enjoy a strangely universal appeal.

Further, if Arheim is right, these things are embedded in strong graphics. Not the muddled grey mess of the MFA student, but the sturdy line, the distinct shape, the clear diagonal obviously leaning heavily on the strong vertical. It's runes and cave drawings, not vague washes of middle tones.

I don't know if Arnheim is right, but his argument is pretty burly. There seems to be some pretty definite work about a world of perception far richer that we might guess offhand, that lies below the verbal, below the conscious, and (perhaps) inextricably entangled with our humanity, even our biology, rather than in the nuance and minutiae of our cultures.


  1. How different is this to the Platonic idea of forms?

    1. I think it is fair to say that it resembles it?

      There is no cave, however, and while we do recognize specific things (tables and so on) there's a whole process Arnheim talks about, whereby we reduce visual impressions to percepts, which isn't really about recognizing this thing or that thing, but more generally about making sense of what we're seeing.

      Just as a for instance, we tend to "perceive" rooms as more or less regular boxes with roughly 90 degree angles all around, even though foreshortening and perspective are creating a retinal impression that has no 90 degree angles whatever in it.

      This is why the "Ames Room" illusion works, Arnheim claims. Our visual cortex is providing a solution for "what am I actually looking at" that is incorrect, based on the mechanisms that drive "perception" as a produce of, but not the same as "seeing"

  2. See also Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious by Carl Jung.