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.


Joseph Campbell

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.

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.


Art as personal expression
by Richard Fidler

Joseph Campbell is applying a construct to art and it misses the essence of what art is. Art begins on the inside — the artist sees something that she can represent that others may not have seen. If it doesn’t begin with that simple fact, the work will have no power. The artist may wish to express something that dwells in the object he is painting or something, perhaps a feeling, that lives inside himself. Campbell, in looking for universals, disparages this personal view, but to me it is not only valid, but interesting. I see art as a personal expression, not as some great tapping into universals. If others can connect with my vision, then my art has succeeded. If not, then the viewer will need to turn to another artist’s perspective.


Slop or masterpiece?
by Theresa Bayer, Austin, TX, USA


“Crow Fall”
watercolor and india ink illustration
by Theresa Bayer

I had no idea Joseph Campbell had such a disapproving view of the personal in art, but it makes me think of a quote: “That which is most personal is universal.” I wish I knew who said that — didn’t find it in either your quotes or on Google. The way I see it, those who make art based on their own life experience, or on events that move them deeply, are certainly taking the personal and making it universal. As for calling a piece of artwork “slop”, that’s subjective, relative, and certainly personal — as one artist’s slop could be another artist’s masterpiece. Gombrich’s remarks on PreRaphelites in Meditations on a Hobby Horse come to mind.


Missed emotions
by Paul Schleitwiler, La Grange, GA, USA

St. Thomas Aquinas hit on three elements of art — selection, composition and context, but missed the heart — emotion. Campbell’s example reminded me of one I use with my students when discussing what to include in a still life. Suppose you had the choice of a chair in the latest style, most modern design and the chair in which your grandmother sat when she held you in her lap when you were a child. Which is more important, more significant and interesting to you?

The most technically perfect painting without emotional content will merit a look and, perhaps, a comment on its polish. An ‘outsider’ can kludge something that keeps the viewer coming back again and again, because it evokes emotions.

Campbell was influenced by Adler in giving importance to archetypes, which do connect with us, but had a bias against personal emotional experience. A painter, like an actor, draws on personal emotional experience to produce art. While Campbell understood that art could show the inarticulate soul of humanity, he too missed the heart of human experience and the essence of art.


Visual education
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, WI, USA

Joseph Campbell also said, “Look, look long, and the world will come in.” One place to get the best visual education, besides looking at the great works of art, is to daily observe the visual world. This everyday visual world contains the lessons we need to make better and more interesting paintings. And, to play off Picasso’s statement in a previous letter, if everybody would “look long” at the appearance of the everyday visual world, “political re-education would be unnecessary.”


Isolated thought
by Ortrud K. Tyler, Oak Island, PA, USA


“Story Robes”
acrylic and ink painting
by Ortrud K. Tyler

Joseph Campbell isolated himself from his surroundings and “figured things out for himself.” That is a very hard thing to do, but doesn’t it end up being mostly a synthesis that is tailor-made to one individual’s thinking, perception, etc.? I think most of us can take an idea, isolate ourselves and work it through till it comes out sounding perfect — to us. Does that then really make it relevant to others? The hardest part is to inject meaning.





Joseph Campbell vs. Jean Arp
by Todd Plough Napoli, NY, USA


“Blue Claw, Dead Man’s Fingers”
Nati Sea Shore
oil painting
by Todd Plough

Aesthetic arrest? Mr. Campbell is self-absorbed, thus he is convicted by his own personal assessment of thinking slop. In addition, one who does not make art has no right to write about it. Now Jean Arp — his appreciation of random composition — that is something to think about. He shows us that all things have an intrinsic beauty if we can get our head around them — indeed beauty is only within our hearts no matter if we appreciate the design of a gnat’s knee, dew-drenched orchid or the wonderful design of spilled Cheerios and milk on dark tile. In fact everything is perfect; it is only when we try to control the world that it controls us. Only the uncorked vessel can receive and dispense the spirits of life. Drink deeply.


Intuition and critical thought
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA


“Silver Light”
oil painting
by Mary Moquin

I have been working on helping people discover that “claritas” and trying to push them to find the “chairness” of their individual images. This is always very challenging and rewarding. Some initially cannot see beyond the mere depiction of the scene they want to represent. I think what is needed most to achieve this is “clarity” of vision. A true understanding or feeling of why we are painting the painting and how we can succinctly show that intent or experience. By constantly having students refine their thumbnail sketches it becomes clearer until finally all the pieces come together to form an arresting whole. This takes a balancing act of intuition and critical thought. I would recommend a book that opened my eyes several years ago: Composition by David Friend. It is more than just a composition book and new things are revealed to me each time I read it. It is out of print, but available used at Amazon.


Buddha’s concept of the non-self
by Petra Voegtle, Munich, Germany


“Angkor’s Relics”
silk painting
by Petra Voegtle

Buddha taught that nothing is permanent and all things are continuously changing. Each individual changes moment by moment. And as the body changes so do thoughts and feelings but we try to cling on to everything as if it were permanent rather than appreciating the moment. And this makes us suffer. But Buddha showed a way out of this — the concept of the non-self. The physical body, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness are impermanent as everything else. People have individuality but no unchanging essence.





Focus on similarities
by Marney Ward, Victoria, BC, Canada


“Apricot Azalea”
watercolor painting
by Marney Ward

Many years ago I wrote a 400 page PhD thesis on how William Blake used both poetry and design to develop his own complex myth of creation and spiritual evolution. I was impressed by Joseph Campbell’s knowledge of a great diversity of myths and his ability to glean the common threads from each one. His work supported Blake’s belief that all humanity has the same basic needs and passions and aspirations, and although many diverse cultures develop in uniquely different ways, their similarities are more important than their differences.

A wise man said that we should look at the similarities between the religions. When we discover what they all hold in common, we will discover the way to God. It’s so much easier to compare and contrast the superficial differences than to really delve into the essential similarities. When we make much of the differences, we are moving towards the intolerance that has spurred so many religious and cultural wars throughout history. Joseph Campbell has helped us recognize our essential humanity and the universal ways we perceive the world, regardless of where we live. Isn’t that what we as artists are trying to capture and express in our work?


Modern avoidance of myth
by John Fitzsimmons, Fayetteville, NY, USA


“Sea of Green”
oil painting, 36 x 80 inches
by John Fitzsimmons

Joseph Campbell is a mixed bag. Reading his books clarified a lot of things for me and showed me the keys to the hidden languages that I was somehow missing, and brought many things into focus. On the other hand, some of his observations seem ham-handed and the conclusions forced, especially with modern painters. Perhaps he was trying a bit too hard to superimpose his ideas on the Moderns, when much of the work of the Moderns was avoidance of depiction of myth, although they created many. Whether or not Moderns succeeded in avoiding depicting myths, religion, symbols, and other Cambellian elements can be discussed at length but I think it is a big factor in 20th century art. The Moderns were largely atheistic, which I think grew out of the communist movements that were of course atheistic, thus many of the leaders promoted this line of thinking. “God is dead, so make sure he is not in your paintings and make sure his replacement is not either!”


What all artists seek
by Carole Borges, Knoxville, TN, USA

Joseph Campbell has long been a favorite teacher of mine, prompting me once to write in a poem, “Once you understand everything is metaphor, you live a quickened life.” Wallace Stevens in his fantastic (out-of-print now) book Necessary Angel, also addresses the artist’s responsibility to find the mythical meaning in ordinary objects. He coined the term hierophony which means “being in the presence of something sacred.” Isn’t that what all artists seek? In William Carlos Williams poem about the red wheelbarrow, he admits “so much depends on the red wheelbarrow.” To be stunned by something that could easily be taken for granted, to understand its multiple uses, and to transmit this awe to the reader of a book, or to the viewer of a painting, seems to me to be one of the most basic essentials of art. That’s what I seek in art. I want to be stunned and shocked by the thing. Not in a vulgar way, but in a spiritual way. Myth and metaphor grease the wheels, but first you have to have desire. I think this is what differentiates the artists of this world from other people. They have a lust that can only be satisfied by an encounter with the sacred element inherent in everything that confronts them. They see it. They want to share it. This makes great art.


Taken into custody
by Bill Engell, PA, USA

Years ago my wife, Cherri, and I were aesthetically arrested at the Cleveland Museum that was hosting a traveling exhibit of the Courtauld Institute. We were prepared to view famous impressionist works, but were unprepared to see Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. We were not only arrested, we were shackled and held incommunicado. Had the press of the crowd been less great, we’d likely have not been paroled, but have served out our sentence. To say it was stunning doesn’t do justice to the complex emotional state we experienced. I don’t believe that art requires any sort of explicit purpose, or that it need contain identifiably mythopoeic aspects — but I do demand to be taken into custody! And I enjoy being a recidivist.


Arrested by the dance
by Mary Madsen, Henderson, NV, USA

Don’t you think some of Joseph’s Campbell’s thoughts about art stem from his long marriage to a dancer? You wrote about his views of rhythm movement, and that made me think of how he often spoke of his wife’s dance and how he was utterly removed from the world of the arts but was arrested by the dance when he saw it.

Reading your synopsis of Campbell’s views on art made me smile a bit. Although he used big words and fancy thinking, his attitude seemed to boil down to the dreaded: “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” He just had a little more exposure to the world, and what lies behind the world, that refined what he likes.


Pricing of commission work
by Cathy Kleeman


“High Noon”
hand dyed cottons
25 x 15.5 inches
by Cathy Kleeman

Recently I’ve received a commission from a public university and a purchase from a public agency. In both cases, they requested that I reduce my asking price because of a shortage of funds and that they’re asking all the artists to reduce theirs. That way they can buy more art from more people, share the wealth and all that. In both cases I agreed to the price reduction. It was considerably less than the percentage that a gallery would have taken, but then a gallery wasn’t involved in either transaction. Should I bargain with them and not accept their first offer? How tacky is it to be bargaining? If I refuse to reduce my price, will I lose the sale/commission? (I don’t sell enough work to be able to just blow off a sale.)

(RG note) Thanks Cathy. A sticky one. The main problem here is how much you might be wandering from your standard gallery prices — and how much this deal might affect your sales in the future. In situations like this I’ve seen artists form a temporary “union” and collectively tell the client something like “20% off — no more.” The problem with this is that some artists may not be represented by any galleries and thus have nothing to lose by going lower. Sometimes artists feel they want to go lower simply in order to get the work into what they think are prestigious institutions. Unfortunately, prestigious institutions often know this, and work the system. On an individual basis — and you may decide to collude with the other artists on this — I’d say something like: “I depend on my dealers to maintain the value of my work and to help build it every year. I really don’t feel I can wander too far from the established prices. Others have invested in me at my current prices, and hopefully they will continue. The best I can do is 20%. The reason for this discount is that in this case there is no dealer commission and you are a prestigious institution.”





Cuotl City

digital painting (photoshop)
by Dylan Cole, Playa Del Rey, CA, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.

That includes J. Bruce Wilcox of Denver, CO, USA who wrote, “So sorry, but screw Joseph Campbell’s definition of ‘proper art’ and ‘proper artists.’ I find that completely offensive. My art is utterly personal, while being abstract, and no one who is not also a creator of art is in a position to judge its worth.”

And also Mark Hope of Wasaga Beach, ON, Canada who wrote, “Mr. Campbell’s contention that the personal is dangerous seems pretty dangerous to me.”




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