Aesthetic arrest


Dear Artist,

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.


“Intersection” 1962
oil painting by
Franz Kline (1910-1962)

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.


“New York” 1953
oil painting by Franz Kline

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.


“Le Gros” 1961
oil painting by Franz Kline

Best regards,


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.


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“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)



  1. Maybe Campbell wouldn’t have been such a hardass if he had ever picked up a brush, put some paint on it, and before fear put him in a coma, brushed it on a canvas…

    • brenda butka on

      This is why I have trouble calling myself an “artist”–because of the tradition of the “exalted mystic”. I do not have the ego-driven talent for BS to call myself an “exalted mystic”, but rather am a simple soul who does indeed have frequent episodes of aesthetic arrest (I do like that concept)–morning light on an orange peel, bamboo swishing in the wind, a piece of glass flashing a mini-rainbow on the floor. That’s all . I shouldn’t have to be an “exalted mystic” to do art.

      • No Brenda- you don’t. But being an artist (via the processes inherently a part of creating things) it’s actually pretty easy to find a doorway- or portal- to a transcendent experience while creating. People tend to refer to it as being in the Zone. In the Zone your creativity just flows outward from your center and you lose track of time as it’s become irrelevant and you aren’t hung up on any daily crap and what comes out of you often has a pure quality of beauty. That is the process of becoming an artist- it’s a *practice*. The Mystic is one who enters into the Zone- pretty much at will- because that *awakened* State of Creation/Consciousness has become normal. (You’re using the word *exalted* but some of us artists are making the exalted ordinary and everyday.) But many artists enter the Zone fairly easily. It’s just the who/what/where/why&how of creating. It isn’t a religion though- except your own personal one.

      • i like that, thanks. There is always the polar opposite of what we describe as aesthetic arrest ….even cleaning up dog vomit can be enlightening if i want it to….go ahead, call yourself an exalted mystic today….lets see what happens…lol

  2. Interesting article. I too love it when others stand in awe of my art, but that isn’t consistent among my viewers. One piece is loved by one judge, yet another judge passes it easily. This made me think that the key to a really good work of art comes from within and not just the skill we’ve learned from holding the brush, the right paper, the right paint, etc., which goes in line with Campbell never having picked up a brush.

  3. John Francis on

    Thought-provoking, to say the least. Music and Theatre Production, at times, work in similar ways. Put a common object on a well-lighted bare stage, and the proscenium provides an enormous ‘framing device’ which suddenly makes the ‘common object’ mostly *uncommon*. When I’m in a recording studio, I tend to ‘Mix visually’ and I much prefer to work on my feet. If I can actually ‘picture’ the placement of the Instruments on the sound-stage, the dimensions and the depth of the ‘acoustic framing device’ can be altered at will, using common studio ‘tools’. Aquinas would love recorded Music.

  4. Joseph Campbell had family money. Sorry. “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 period in his life took place during the depression- where- because he had family money he was able to acquire a space to live in without the demands of the time affecting him at all. So- blah blah blah.
    Some of us are BOTH Artist- and Mystic.

  5. I was thinking of the Stendhal syndrome…–) My hope is that my work will trigger a fainting episode … still working toward that.

  6. Vasundhara Koppolu on

    Yes, there is a sense of wonder and awe in many paintings. When we look at some paintings, for a moment or two our mind transcends thought as if to merge into the truth behind the painting. There is a sense of wonder and awe in nature such as a sunset or a beautiful butterfly that gives us a similar experience. But there are other creations in nature that will appeal to us as being attractive or not so attractive depending upon whats being watched and who is watching.There is a lesson to learn and experience to be gained in everything. May be the important thing is not to get stuck with this or that and enjoy the various forms of creations and our creativity. If we do not appreciate something we move on to the next. May be the day will come when we understand and appreciate everything. Meanwhile, let’s be patient and peaceful.

  7. Joseph Campbell showed us how myths are reflections of both personal and universal human experience. What we call great art is the same. It comes from the personal but taps into what Jung called the collective unconscious. We can’t do this on purpose – as Kline said, “you paint the way you have to” and if it’s slop it’s slop – but when it happens, there’s your “aesthetic arrest” – even if you’re the only one arrested! – at first. It’s a metaphorical embodiment of our pleasures, pains and fears. As artists we are each one of those thousand faces Joe wrote about.

  8. Joseph Campbell is okay. Northrop Frye expresses similar ideas but absent most of Campbell’s mysticism.
    Campbell is, however correct in claiming that the purely personal is not Art. Only the amateur makes this claim.

    Serious artists work historically: They look to the past to gain an understanding and definition of Art; and they study the techniques of historical figures to gain the skills of their craft.

    The job of the artist is not to make a painting that represents an external object, but rather, the very opposite, to make an external object that represents a painting; a subtle, but important distinction.

    • Very good explanation of a painting representation. Thanks for making this statement.

      “The job of the artist is not to make a painting that represents an external object, but rather, the very opposite, to make an external object that represents a painting; a subtle, but important distinction.d insight explanation. “

  9. You make images for yourself; images that turn you on, that amaze “YOU”. Cut the hooey! Campbell should do his thing and leave mine to me. I have no need for his philosophical theories and meanderings as a Pied Piper wannabe.

  10. When the artist follows design principles of composition, light, form and color, they will know the piece is right. I have done pieces that I questioned and have done pieces that nailed it. I would say most innocent viewers who are contemplating the purchase of art, are considering the color, location to which it will be placed and emotion ( if it speaks to them) Additionally the artist must embrace other important principles of design. The artist George Caleb Bingham understood these elements perfectly.
    Variety- use of several elements of design to hold the viewer’s attention and to guide the viewer’s eye through and around the work of art.

    What do I think of Campbell? He found his voice and an audience to listen to it. Then he became a thing and the thing took on a life of it’s own. Happens all the time in the music and movie industry.

  11. Andrea Giusto on

    There is a mistake in the article. It’s not Convenientia but Consonantia.
    And I’m sorry about denigrating comments about Campbell. Maybe it’s not for everybody.
    Also there is information missing in the article. It’s not his own definition we’re reading but JOYCE’s in the “Portrait of the artist as a young man”. Anyway not a good enough reason to insult somebody who left an impressive body of work to help us understand where we come from.

  12. Chris Everest on

    I quite like the mysticism subtext in Campbell’s writings as regards The Artist – he was not genuinely or completely of an academic mind and neither was he a committed Creative. He searched for both and turned his critical gaze on both but he obviously felt like an observer of life rather than a participant. I suspect for all his theories of everything he lacked that spark of originality to create The New. Every artist has an off day but the New and the Next is usually enough to get us out of bed. The true polymaths that succeed at everything they touch are very very rare ….and of course they have their own particular problems. I like making marks on paper. It makes me feel better.

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