IN AN ENTRY in his journal, Gestalt psychologist Rudolf Arnheim remembers a certain convention one year of the American Society of Aesthetics: “Much confusion arose,” he recalls, “when the Society for Anesthetics met at the same time in the same hotel” (Arnheim 1989).

The terms esthetic and anesthetic (or, as also commonly spelled, “aesthetic” and “anaesthetic”) are historically closely related. In the original Greek, they were counterparts of the same root concept, aisthetikos, which referred not just to works of art but to all sensory input. Any experience could be regarded as esthetic if provocative, striking, and stirringly felt, whereas anesthetic experiences were benumbing or stupefying. Esthetic quality was not a question of prettiness nor pleasantness, but of vividness and cogency.

Since the 18th century, the meanings of these terms have changed. Today, despite their common origins, “esthetic” is rarely if ever defined as the antonym of “anesthetic.” Perhaps most contemporary philosophers, along with virtually everyone else (as witnessed by dictionary definitions), regard esthetics as the study of beauty, and, especially, the study of beauty in art. So, understandably, it seems like a madcap, surrealist event for estheticians and anestheticians to convene at the same hotel at the same time.
Beauty, one hears ad nauseum, is in “the eye of the beholder.” Esthetic standards are subjective; there is no reliable critical gauge, and formal issues have drifted in the vapor of what is derided as “taste.” (Among artists, it is now customary to use the word “esthetic” as a synonym for any subjective “point of view,” so that any person’s likes and dislikes constitute his or her “esthetic.”) As a result, discussions of art and esthetics are seen as innocuous, “academic” digressions, in part because things that are beautiful, while pleasurable to witness, are most likely of little significance in the prosaic, pragmatic utility of the “real world.” Even among artists, esthetics is discredited because many (perhaps most) no longer assume that an artist’s responsibility is to make beautiful objects. As the Czech-born American painter Barnett Newman once said, “Esthetics is for me as ornithology must be for the birds” (quoted in Crofton 1989, 46).
The word “anesthetic,” on the other hand, has evolved in a subtle, less radical way. It still means the partial or total loss of sensation, the opposite of perceptibility. But it almost always refers to chemically-induced anesthesia, administered before or during surgery. Only rarely does it mean a non-chemical loss of sensation, as when, for example, a person experiences a meditative trance, brought on by sustained exposure to extreme similarity (or humdrum), such as monotonous chanting, resulting in hypoarousal; or an ecstatic trance, brought on by sustained exposure to extreme diversity (or hodgepodge), such as spasmodic song and dance, resulting in hyperarousal. The Ancient Greeks, like presumably most cultures throughout history (including our own), were aware of and made willful use of trance-induced anesthesia, as in the Hippocratic use of dance as a cure for bacchanalian madness.

Meditative and ecstatic trances are anesthetic mental states. When we engage in them (whether Balinese dancers, Masai warriors, Indian Yogis, Buddhist priests, Haitian voodoo worshippers, Pentecostal Christians, or more subdued practitioners of secular stress-avoidance techniques like Transcendental Meditation) we undergo a relative lack of 
connection with sensory stimuli, a partial anesthesia, a state of oblivion (more or less) in which they may not fully sense the kind, location, and timing of the ephemeral, sensuous phantoms that constitute ones life on earth.

There are countless eyewitness examples of this. Among the most vivid is the prison diary of Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian-born novelist, who was captured by the fascists while working as a journalist in Spain in 1937. Accused of spying, Koestler was placed in solitary confinement, awaiting execution. From his cell, he could hear other prisoners in neighboring cells as they were taken out and shot. Not surprisingly, he developed fits of fear, related to what we now commonly call anxiety attacks.

In Dialogue with Death, Koestler documents what he describes as the “anesthetizing” strategies by which he was able to manage his anxiety: In one, he chose a certain line from literature and “repeated the same verse thirty or forty times, for almost an hour, until a mild state of trance came on and the attack passed” (Koestler 1966, 116). This, as he was well aware, was the proven tactic of the Catholic rosary, “of the prayer mill, of the African tom-tom, of the age-old magic of sounds” (Koestler, ibid). It was meditative trance, brought about by monotony or boredom.

In a second method, he selected an intricate concept (“such as Freud’s theories about death and the nostalgia for death”) and then free associated until, “after a few minutes, a state of feverish exaltation was evoked, a kind of running amok in the realm of reasoning, which usually ended in a day dream” (Koestler, ibid). It was an ecstatic trance, induced by unbridled meandering thought.

Thinking about esthetics in relation to anesthetics, it may be of value to picture them on a linear continuum, like that of a color spectrum. At opposing poles are the two varieties of anesthesia, high similarity (humdrum, monotony, meditative trance, and hypoarousal) and high difference (hodgepodge, mayhem, ecstatic trance, and hyperarousal), while the fluctuating central zone is esthetic experience.• This concurs with the age-old, familiar belief that esthetic arrangements (in visual art, music, literature, dance, theatre, and so on) have in common the elusive form attribute of unity-in-variety (also sometimes cited as “repetition with variation,” “strict wildness,” or “harmonious disarray”), which is explained to some extent by the perceptual organizing principles (e.g., similarity, proximity, and continuity) that Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer described in 1923 (Wertheimer 1939), and which Fritz Heider later called unit forming factors (Heider 1983).

It is also consistent with the writings of American philosopher and educator John Dewey, who contended, in Art and Experience, that “the non-esthetic [or anesthetic] lies within two limits. At one pole is the loose succession [or mayhem] that does not begin at any particular place and that ends—in the sense of ceasing—at no particular place. At the other pole is arrest, constriction [or monotony], proceeding from parts having only a mechanical connection with one another” (Dewey 1958).
British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once wrote that the defining trait of an esthetic pattern (whether utilitarian or nonutilitarian, visual or nonvisual, artistic or nonartistic) is “the fusion of sameness and novelty; so that the whole never loses the essential unity of the pattern, while the parts exhibit the contrast arising from the novelty of their detail.” More recently, art historian E.H. Gombrich said that “the most basic fact” of esthetic experience is “that delight lies somewhere between boredom and confusion” (Gombrich 1979, 9); while Gestaltist Rudolf Arnheim wrote that “Complexity without order produces confusion,” and that “order without complexity produces boredom” (Arnheim 1964, 1)

Among visual artists, concern for esthetic arrangements is called “design” or “form” or “layout.” Evidence of this is especially found in the work of those visual artists who call themselves “designers,” including graphic designers, typographers, publication designers, illustrators, industrial designers, interior designers, architects, and so on…
To come up with esthetic arrangements, such as the examples reproduced here, a designer has to rely on Wertheimer’s grouping principles, if largely intuitively. As Arnheim has written, “The relative degree of similarity in a given perceptual pattern makes for a corresponding degree of connection or fusion” (Arnheim 1961, 201). 

In the past three decades, with the dominance of Postmodernism, the ground rules of art have dramatically changed. While the historic contribution of the Gestalt psychologists is still acknowledged by designers, there are artists who find it constricting. Gestaltung is the German word for design, and the subtitle for the Bauhaus in Dessau (the most influential art school of the twentieth century) was Hochschule für Gestaltung (or College of Design). That artists have long been aware of the link between design and Max Wertheimer’s grouping principles is confirmed by the author’s acknowledgments in György Kepes’ Language of Vision. First published in 1944 and used widely as a textbook in American courses in art and design, it opens with Kepes’ admission of his indebtedness to the Gestalt psychologists (Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, and Kurt Koffka), whose ideas and visual examples, he notes, are used “in the first part of the book to explain the laws of visual organization” (Kepes 1944, 4).

A more recent explicit reminder of this is a typeface named Gestalt, designed by Jonathan Hoefler, an American type designer, in the early 1990s (at left). This font, which is described in its promotion as “a typographic interpretation of a principle from Gestalt psychology,” pays homage to the notion that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” or, in Hoefler’s words, “that no idea is comprehensible out of context” (Hoefler c2000, 44). It does this by making the type characters (letters, numbers, marks, et al.) so abstract, so ambiguous, that few are recognizable out of context. Some of the letters can only be clearly identified when combined with other type characters to make higher-level words, phrases, and sentences.
This typeface is also a tribute to similarity and proximity grouping, to continuity through edge alignment (familiar to designers as “grid lines”), and to implicitness or closure. Many of its letterforms are abstract geometric bars, circles, and triangles, and may serve as a tacit reminder of Wertheimer’s early experiments with “apparent movement” (in which he used simple lines, arranged in sequence on a strip of paper, to observe the illusion of movement within a motion picture toy called a “zoetrope”), or the diagrams he used in his 1923 paper, which his students thereafter referred to as his Punktarbeit or “dot paper” because virtually all its examples were abstract patterns made of dots (see Behrens 1998 and 2002).

From the onset of Gestalt psychology, recalls Arnheim, its practitioners “looked to art for the most convincing examples of sensitively organized wholes” (Arnheim 1961, 197). People like Christian von Ehrenfels, Wertheimer, and Köhler had interests in music and visual art, less in literature. It is with the help of their writings, Arnheim continues, that we are now able to realize that a well-designed work of art—an esthetic arrangement—is “a Gestalt of the highest degree” (Arnheim, ibid). 

•  •  •      

• The phrase “fluctuating central zone” is used purposely to imply that there is no fixed point where esthetic patterns firmly stand, precisely in the center between the two anesthetic extremes. Indeed, the most inventive art tends to drift precariously toward the edges. As music theorist Leonard Meyer has noted, “…some of the greatest music is great precisely because the composer has not feared to let his music tremble on the brink of chaos, thus inspiring the listener’s awe, apprehension, and anxiety and, at the same time, exciting his emotions and his intellect” (Meyer 1956, 161). In contrast, the work of other composers, such as Philip Glass, may favor the high similarity end.

•• Soon after completing this essay, I was saddened
 to learn of the passing of two important writers, both of whom are quoted here, and who greatly influenced my notions about art, esthetics, and Gestalt theory. They were art historian E.H. Gombrich (1909-2001), who died on November 5, and painter and designer Gyorgy Kepes (1906-2001), who died on December 29.

The words “esthetic” and “anesthetic” evolved from the same Greek root word, aisthetikos, but in current English usage, they are no longer seen as related. To understand esthetic experience, this essay suggests it may again be useful to regard the two terms as antonyms. Using examples of visual art and design, it is shown that the perceptual organizing principles or unit forming factors (similarity, proximity, continuity, and closure), proposed in 1923 by the Gestalt psychologists, are still in widespread use today among artists and designers, in the design of esthetic arrangments for books, magazines, typefaces, posters, and so on. 

ARNHEIM, R. (1961). “Gestalt Psychology and Artistic Form” in L.L. Whyte,       ed., Aspects of Form. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
ARNHEIM, R. (1964). Entropy and Art. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.
ARNHEIM, R. (1989). Parables of Sun Light. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.
BEHRENS, R. (1998). “Art, Design and Gestalt Theory” in Leonardo 31(4), pp. 299-303. Available online.
BEHRENS, R. (2002). False Colors: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage. Dysart, Iowa: Bobolink Books.
CROFTON, I. (1989). A Dictionary of Art Quotations. New York: Schirmer Books.
CSIKSZENTMIHALYI, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.
DEWEY, J. (1958). Art as Experience. New York: Capricorn
GOMBRICH, E.H. (1979). The Sense of Order. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
HEIDER, F. (1983). The Life of a Psychologist: An Autobiography. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
HOEFLER, J. (c2000). Catalogue of Typefaces. No. 4. New York: Hoefler Type Foundry. 
KEPES, G. (1944). Language of Vision. Chicago: Paul Theobald.
KOESTLER, A. (1966). Dialogue With Death. T. and P. Blewitt, trans. New York: Danube Edition, MacMillan.
MEYER, L. (1956). Emotion and Meaning in Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
SIKES, G. (1986). “Poster Painting” in How 1(6), pp. 30-37.
WERTHEIMER, M. (1939). “Laws of Organization in Perceptual Forms” in W.D. Ellis, ed., A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology. New York: Harcourt Brace.

•   •   •
How Form Functions
On Esthetics and Gestalt Theory
by Roy R. Behrens
an essay initially published (in different form) in Gestalt Theory: Journal of the GTA, Vol 24 No 4 (2002), pp. 317-325. Copyright © by Roy R. Behrens.
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for Costumes as Performance and Activism at the University of Northern Iowa (Fall 2011).
© Roy R. Behrens. All rights reserved. Above
Just three of many experiments by graphic design students at the University of Northern Iowa, in which they have set up perceptual grouping errors or “visual bloopers” to demonstrate the effectiveness of Gestalt organizing principles. © Katie Baedke © Katie Baedke © Kendra Meyer Above
Two examples of the literary uses of repetition and variation (similarity and dissimilarity), which provide interesting parallels to the use of unit-forming factors in the visual arts. The first poem is a traditional nursery rhyme, of course, while the second, “Delight in Disorder” by Robert Herrick (1648), is a delightful comment about esthetics in relation to poetry, fashion and sexual intrigue.
Promotional poster by New York typographer Jonathan Hoefler,  announcing his design of a new typeface called Gestalt (2000). The digital font can be purchased at <>.http://www.typography.comshapeimage_9_link_0
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Attention to Detail (2011). Digital montage © Roy R. Behrens. All rights reserved. shipping
All three of these books are available online at the publisher’s website (with quick international shipping) or at under “new and used.”
Above Legend has it that Max Wertheimer began to investigate the perceptual organizing principles in 1910, while he was traveling by train on vacation. He became interested in the apparent movement he observed in the flashing lights at a railroad crossing (top right). A comparable effect is seen in the sequence of lights on a theatre marquee (bottom). Through his experiments, Wertheimer confirmed that different Gestalts (or “whole effects”) result from different configurations of the same components, or by minute adjustments in timing. In the top left, for example, the speed of the flashing lights is set at one-tenth of a second, in which case they appear to be two stationary lights, simply blinking on and off. In the top right, using the same components but slowing the speed to one-half second, the same lights appear to be one light moving back and forth. When Wertheimer got off the train at Frankfort, he bought a motion picture toy, a zoetrope (above left sidebar), with which to experiment. Right 
Visual artists, of all kinds, commonly use attribute rhymes, spatial proximity and edge alignment to assure coherence in a composition or layout. The audience completes the work, in the act of perceiving it, by the process referred to as closure.The left image is a poster by Art Deco-era designer A.M. Cassandre, while the right is a diagram of the underlying layout scheme that holds it together. similarity grouping proximity grouping edge alignment closure Above
Mobility (2011). Digital montage © Roy R. Behrens. All rights reserved. Click here for an annotated list of books and other writings on camouflage in the past 100+ years.
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