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Rudolf Arnheim Remembered
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Rudolf Arnheim Remembered

Arnold Berleant

One can truly say that the ASA’s ties to its origins as a smaller and simpler society ended with the death of Rudolf Arnheim on June 9, 2007 at the age of 102. He participated regularly in ASA meetings from its early years until the late 1970s and published frequently in the JAAC, beginning with Vol. II. Rudi was elected President of the ASA two times, the only person, I believe, who has enjoyed that distinction.

Arnheim had long been a legend in twentieth-century aesthetics. A psychologist of art in the gestalt tradition, he was the author of numerous articles and of nineteen books, two of which have become classics, Film as Art (1932) and Art and Visual Perception (1954), the last of these having a strong influence on several generations of art and art history students. Many other books followed these in a steady sequence, the last as recently as 2004, displaying the fecundity of his mind and the freshness of his thinking. Their titles reflect the breadth of his constantly expanding interests, which included, besides film and the visual arts, radio, architecture, and art education.

Born in Berlin, where his father owned a piano factory, Arnheim studied at the University of Berlin with the central figures in Gestalt psychology, including Max Wertheimer and Wolfgang Köhler, where he earned his doctorate in philosophy, which at that time encompassed psychology. He worked as a cultural journalist, conducting interviews on German radio until the Nazi party gained power in 1933 and made Die Weltbühne, the journal for which Arnheim regularly wrote about music, architecture, and film, a major target. This caused Arnheim, a Jew, to leave Berlin for Rome, where he learned Italian and continued to work as a cultural journalist for five years, a time he would sometimes recall. Mussolini’s racist legislation against Jews led Arnheim to go briefly to London and then to New York, where he lived for many years, teaching at Sarah Lawrence College and The New School. In 1969 he went to Harvard as Professor of the Psychology of Art, but after five years moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he became associated with the University of Michigan.

This biographical account conveys little of the man, himself. Rudi was a gentle, gracious, soft-spoken person, whose modest manner belied his scholarly stature. He was readily accessible, and conversation with him was thoughtful yet easy. Always alert, he listened as much as he spoke and was ever open to new ideas. Arnheim had a sly, ironic sense of humor, as when he recalled the confusion that arose at one of the annual meetings of the ASA when the Society for Anesthetics met at the same time and in the same hotel. He carried on an extensive correspondence and was not only a colleague but a friend to many. I think it was John Fisher who once commented that Rudi wrote in English better than most scholars for whom it was their native language.

In his journal for April 26, 1972 (recorded in Parables of Sunlight) Arnheim wrote, “As one gets older, it happens that in the morning one fails to remember the airplane trip to be taken in a few hours or the lecture scheduled for the afternoon. Memory does return in time, but the suspicion remains that in the end dying will consist in simply forgetting to live.” What Rudi may have forgotten, those who knew him will not.

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