Review: Anton Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art


Listen, do you want to know a secret? To discover the hidden order of art, you need only develop your syncretistic vision and the process of unconscious scanning. Thus you may complement and penetrate beneath "the gestalt-bound discipline of conscious perception." It is this formal, conceptialized level of "supperficial reality" that keeps the order in art hidden beneath (only apparent) chaos. It also obscures "the role which the unconscious plays in controlling the vast substructure of art."

Titles containing the secret this or the mystic that are great hookers. The Painter's Secret Geometry. The Mystic Rose. The Hidden Order of Art. The Magic Flute. Sure, who doesn't want to be in on the secret. The next step is "Confessions." Then censored, banned, and absolutely forbidden. So, what a crafty title for a psychoanalyst like Anton Ehrenzweig to put on a book containing more jargon-chopping theories of psychology than speculations about art. But there is both, there is both. And Ehrenzweig's book, as Larry Lipton observed when he passed on a copy to me, just may be a very, very important work.

A good clue to this is in the intellectual company Ehrenzweig's ideas may find themselves placed by historians of culture. Far from being hidden, obscure or unpopular, his ideas find ample current paral­lels in other fields--that is, his approaches and many of his insights have sometimes general, sometimes quite precise analogs in the work of the most active, relevant and effective mentalities today. Ehrenzweig however, mentions Macbeath, but not McLuhan. A manuscript for The Hidden Order of Art was completed and approved for printing just before the author's death in December 1966. Still, it is remarkable that he did not grasp at some of the fruitful coincidences in style and theme between his book and Understanding Media, The Gutenberg Galaxy, The Medium is the Massage, or The Mechanical Bride (which had been around since 1951). Not that Ehrenzweig has to be a McLuhan "fan" or vice versa; in fact, that he doesn't mention McLuhan may in itself testify to the spread and importance of those large ideas they hold in common. Another interesting point is that both Ehrenzweig and McLuhan, together with other key contemporary writers, have begun to devote strong attention to the arts. Utilizing the material of art history in the dramatic and imaginative ways that professional art historians have neglected almost without exception, they have begun to understand some of the immense richness of ideas and examples the world of art provides.

Ehrenzweig seems to be curiously out of touch with his several kindred spirits. He mentions Sir James Frazer and, of course, Sigmund Freud, but not Buckminster Fuller. But there are close correspondences between Fuller's lively methods and the concepts of syncretistic vision or unconscious scanning. For example, the title of one Fuller book, Nine Chains to the Moon, "was chosen to encourage and stimulate the broadest attitude toward thought." Consider the following, which might have appeared just as well in the preface to The Hidden Order of Art: "If, in imagination, all of the people of the world were to stand upon one another's shoulders, they would make nine complete chains between the earth and the moon. If it is not so far to the moon, then it is not so far to the limits--whatever, whenever or wherever they may be. Limits are what we have feared. So much has been done to make us conscious of our infinite smallness, that the time has come to dare to include the complete universe in our rationalizing." Fuller also has heavy words of praise for the "generalists," as opposed to the narrow nincompated pedagogues produced by almost every program for graduate studies at almost every university in the country. And both Fuller and Ehrenzweig have that same solid faith in children manifested by most enlightened, beautiful adults. In his own preface, Ehrenzweig observes that "Child­ren can listen breathlessly to a tale of which they understand only a little. In the words of William James, they take 'flying leaps' over lone stretches that elude their understanding...." What enables them to do this, he suggests, is their syncretistic capacity to comprehend a total structure rather than analysing single elements."Child art too goes for the total structure without bothering about analytic details." Of course, it is the fine art of the last hundred years only that has profited from such an awareness, following the recognition of great validity in the art of children by the creative visions of men like Paul Gauguin and Paul Klee.

Among those artists whose work Ehrenzweig has chosen to provide illustrations for his thesis (there are 30 black and white photographic reproductions, plus eleven line drawings or diagrams) is a watercolor by Klee. There are also works by Durer, Rembrandt, Picasso, Pollock and others including Eduardo Paolozzi, Henry Moore and several younger artists whom Ehrenzweig knew in England. The wide range of his choices reflects faithfully the syncretistic attitude of his general approach. A thorough familiarity with McLuhan might have permitted him to extend these examples into the important areas of popular arts and advertizing beyond the map of the London Underground railway, which he does show. This may be seen as a particularly unfortunate failing of the book if one feels as I do that the illustrative material winds up as the least convincing part of a book in which it should be the strongest.

At the same time, that shouldn't bother the reader who is intelli­gent enough to use The Hidden Order of Art as a kind of handbook for which he must supply his own extended illustrations anyway. Ehrenzweig himself is quite aware of the way his approach might appear chaotic to an orderly mind. "This book is certainly not for the man who can digest his information only within a well-defined range of technical terms. ...I realize that the apparently chaotic and scattered structure  of my writing fits the subject matter of this book, which deals with the deceptive chaos in art's vast substructure. There is a 'hidden order' in this chaos which only a properly attuned reader or art lover can grasp. All artistic structure is essentially 'polyphonic'; it evolves not in a single line of thought, but i several superimposed strands at once." And this is the very same sort of problem created for men with neat little minds by McLuhan. It is also the type of thought or vision that has analogous expression in Sergei Eisenstein's theory of montage or in Ezra Pound's poetics. A distant and local reflection of this confrontation between syncretic and analytic styles can even be seen in the way some pre-programmed mentalities of UCLA undergraduates react against a lecture course that doesn't follow a strict syllabus or a mechanistic sequence of chronological development. Fortunately there are more and more people who begin to see patterns emerging out of the apparent chaos of our existence--even people who begin to discover and to create relevance in the vast mosaic of articulated, but jumbled and pigeon-holed tesserae that is our system of so-called higher education.

As with most of what one has received from lecture courses, most religious tracts, most parental advice, and even most of one's own experience--so it is with The Hidden Order of Art: the stream rushes past, except for that little bit of it we drink. One of the curious and fascinating things about this book, however, is that it is not only concerned with its ostensible subject matter--it is also a self-commentary on the process of assimilating information or deriving inspiration from the book. Small concern, then, that the second half of the text should concern itself with "The Theme of the Dying God," and "Theoretical Conclusions" which may be of far more interest to psychology buffs than to those involved with the arts. Even in the first half it is often handy to have a coarse intellectual seive. But Ehren­zweig knows all this too; and he takes his stand quite beautifully: "Creativity requires a diffuse, scattered kind of attention that contradicts our normal logical habits of thinking. Is it too high a claim to say that the polyphonic argument of my book must be read with this creative type of attention? I do not think that a reader who wants to proceed on a single track will understand the complexity of art and creativity in general anyway."

Anton Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art: A Study In the Psvchology of Artistic Imagination (University of California Press, 1967, 8.95).  306pp.

This review appeared in the December 8, 1967 edition of the Los Angeles Free Press