THE DYNAMICS OF ART *

Herbert Read

Any discussion of the psychology of art must begin with an affirmation that is not always acceptable to the psychologist; or, if acceptable, is often conveniently forgotten. This is the fact that the work of art exists as such, not in virtue of any "meaning" it expresses, but only in virtue of a particular organization of its constituent material elements. We say that this organization is formal, but we are soon aware that any metrical analysis of form, any morphology of art, does not yield up art's secret. Form refers back to measures of area, volume, time intervals, tones; the appeal of these measures, which is called aesthetic because it operates through perception and sensation, is accepted pragmatically, as an evident fact. There have been various attempts to explain this appeal, beginning with the early Greek philosophers, and they have generally been attempts to relate the measurements of art to the measurements of nature, and to see in the proportions of the crystal, of vegetation, of man himself, the prototypes of the proportions discovered in the work of art. I say discovered in the work of art because though the Greek architects and sculptors, like Le Corbusier and others today, began to make conscious use of natural proportions, the significant fact is that these proportions appear without conscious intervention in all works of art. That, perhaps, is no more than a hypothesis which has yet to be proved, and certainly a few traditional concepts of natural proportion, such as the Golden Section, do not suffice to explain all the phenomena of art. Form, that is to say, is not necessarily so obvious that it can be expressed in a single formula such as the Golden Section; and we must beware of limiting our notions of form to the canons of a particular tradition or culture. Most of you will remember a book that was published in Berlin in the 1920's -- Professor Karl Blossfeldt's Urformen der Kunst.1 It was a book that at the time was a revelation of the beauty inherent in plant forms, but Professor Blossfeldt had looked on nature with classical eyes, and found everywhere the motifs of Greek or

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*
[From Eranos-Jahrbuch 1952 ( Zurich: Rhein-Verlag, 1953). Reprinted by permission of the author and the Bollingen Foundation, Inc. The essay is also published by Horizon Press, in The Forms of Things Unknown, by Herbert Read ( New York: 1960). The illustrations originally accompanying this essay are here deleted.]

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