Joseph Campbell was one of those thinkers who constantly asked himself, “What is the meaning of this?” In books, lectures and interviews, he made frequent skirmishes into the field of art. And like a lot of those who never took brush to hand, his thoughts were idealized and sometimes muddled. Campbell had attitudes about what was “proper” art and what was not. He thought the personal was dangerous in art. “When an artist’s images are purely personal this finally is slop and you know it when you see it,” he stated. He didn’t often say what “slop” was. He was particularly hard on portraiture — he thought portraits were hobbled by the need to be what they represented.
At the same time, many of Campbell’s insights are valuable. Campbell saw everything through a lens of myth, metaphor and the metaphysical. He saw “proper” artists as exalted mystics. “The way of the mystic and the way of the artist,” he said, “are very much alike — except that the mystic does not have a craft.” In admiration, he realized that through studio disciplines, artists deal with universals. He named a lot of these universals — from rhythmic patterns to a sense of wonder. He felt that proper art had to be an art that performs a function. When this function is added to the concept of kinesis (movement), then you have what he called “aesthetic arrest.” By this he meant that the innocent viewer is stopped dead in his tracks and has no choice but to stare in awe. I don’t know about you, but when this occasionally happens with my work, it sure feels good.
It is in his understanding of St. Thomas Aquinas that we see the Campbell mind at work. Aquinas thought that proper art had three modes: Integritas, Convenientia, and Claritas. Integritas means wholeness. Campbell demonstrated this in his lectures by putting a picture frame up to a chair and isolating it from its surroundings — making it a thing in itself. Convenientia is the way the chair is arranged within the frame — creatively, sensitively, thoughtfully cropped or monumentalized. Claritas is the “aha” quality that puts meaning into the chair — its significant “chairness.” Campbell called this “the tricky part,” and noted that only then “are you held in aesthetic arrest.” This is not just “viewfinder thinking,” but what he considers the top level of creativity. In his view it is a profound application of aesthetic arrangement and metaphorical thought that squeezes out the real meaning and value of the things of our experience.
PS: “The object becomes aesthetically significant when it becomes metaphysically significant.” (Joseph Campbell)
Esoterica: Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) taught at Sarah Lawrence College for 38 years. The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949), his best known work, influenced creative artists from the Abstract Expressionists to contemporary film-makers. Pathways to Bliss and The Mythic Image, two of his many books, are also of interest to artists. Campbell was an autodidact. His real education took place when he lived quietly in the woods in upstate New York, reading and taking notes for nine hours a day — developing his unique view of the nature of life.
This letter was originally published as “Aesthetic arrest” on April 11, 2006.
“You don’t paint the way someone, by observing his life, thinks you have to paint, you paint the way you have to, in order to give. That’s life itself…” (Franz Kline)