The Power of the Center
Thusfar, in the second chapter of Rudolf Arnheim’s book, he’s identified alternative models of sense-making for objects in a visual field; grided or centric. No doubt he’s setting up some miraculously elegant proof of the necessity and complicity of these two schemes of composition in all aesthetic endeavors, not exclusively in visual/graphic arts. The thing is that the abstract terms with which these ideas are expressed makes them feel as bloodless as math without numbers, a strenuous exercise in airy vagueness; and he’s evidently going to take his own sweet time in getting around to the notion that the model/image of a concentric system of organization is an excellent representation of the way attention works through eyes.
He opens with the familiar neonatal metaphor of a me-centered universe that radiates outward from the nucleus of attention in which a child’s perceptual mechanism locates awareness of itself. But self-awareness in a vacuum (of significant events external to that center) is not a description of a reality about which people can speak; it’s the curse of godlike consciousness in an absolute void. (“Existence is beyond the power of words, to define:”) Arnheim introduces other people to the child’s awareness as Other-centers of awareness of which the child eventually becomes cognizant as independent entities; triggering the birth of compassion and empathy. What he hasn’t yet said is that the grid system of an objective reality is necessary for the concentric center of subjective awareness to relocate a nipple, a toy, a light…that the grid and the eddy are complementary organizational representations that make the evolving consciosness feel at home in the world of familiar events in the consensual scheme that most of the rest of us claim as our own.
It’s not that these two schemes are alternative maps of the perceptual world, mutually exclusive disciplines, but that they complement one another to provide an interlocking schematic basis for consciousness to operate and function in the physical world. And the deadly thing about Arnheim is that I’ve no assurance he’s ever going to say what I’m hoping to find confirmed somewhere in the next 200 pages. That very uncertainty makes it necessary to read slowly and cautiously. Luckily, I read very slowly, anyway, but the impulse to drive relentlessly through this book is hampered by the diminishment of my curiosity, as the piles of abstractions grow higher.
Rowell’s The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography aroused my renewed curiosity in reading more Arnheim, but the profoundly dry Arnheim experience is driving me back toward Rowell, with Film as Art positioned like a malevolent defensive back waiting to smack me down when I’ve, at long last, completed The Power of the Center and before I can move toward The Inner Game again…even before the goal of better photographs comes in sight. The gridiron analogy felt appropriate there for a moment.