Some of you might be familiar with the name Rudolf Arnheim, especially if you were educated in the arts or in film in the 1950s-1970s, like I was. Arnheim passed away last Saturday at the age of 102 in his home in Ann Arbor, MI. He was emeritus professor of the psychology of art at Harvard University, where he taught from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s.
He wrote several influential books, including "Art and Visual Perception", "Film as Art" and "Visual Thinking". It was his Magnus Opus, "Art and Visual Perception", that changed a great deal about how I was to deal with the world. Odd that, considering that I used it in my film class at Boston University rather than his book "Film as Art".
It almost got me flunked out of college, but not because it was too challenging, but rather because it was too intriguing. I wanted to write a major paper on the "Psychology of Motion in Film", using much of the book's tenets. First I asked for and got an extension, but only with the promise that I would turn in the paper the first week that school opened that following semester. I spent the entire summer researching and thinking about this paper and Arnheim's thick, pale blue-covered book. Suffice to say, I didn't finish it on time. In fact I stayed at home working on the paper in what could only be called a heightened and altered state of mind for nearly a month into that semester without going into class. My professors were alarmed and the teacher who I owed the paper to was waging a battle to get me kicked out of the university--to all of which I was totally oblivious.
When I finally brought in the paper--the only thing worthwhile that I did during my college years in my opinion--my professor simply stared at me and told me that she didn't care what I had written, she was going to give me a failing grade. I asked her to read it anyway, because I did really respect her opinion. She was, after all, one of my favorite teachers.
Three days later I received a summons to her office. She asked me what I was doing taking classes at the university. I thought she meant that I wasn't up to the task, but then she went on. "You should be teaching here. I am going to give you the only "A" in the class for this work." And then she asked me to intern with her and go on for my masters with her as my sponsor--something that I regret that I wasn't able to do (lack of funds and personal problems got in the way).
But from that point on, Rudolf Arnheim's book and thoughts have always been a part of the way I see the world and interpret it. Being the scientist that he was, he might not appreciate it, but I wish him well wherever he might be. And thank him for teaching me to see a bit clearer, even if he did almost get me kicked out of the university.