76 Books Entropy and Art: An Essay on Disorder and Order. Rudolf Arnheim. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1971. 64 pp., illus. $4.50. Reviewed by: Michael Hoare* Entropy is the abstract concept used by physicists and engineers to measure the tendency of all energy in the universe to degrade into ever less accessible, less differentiated forms. The Second Law of Thermodynamics, asserting that the entropy of the universe is increased by all natural processes, grew out of early nineteenth century studies of heatengines and later took on the more sinister emphasis of the 'heat death', as Clausius was to describe the arrival at the ultimate, immutable universe of maximum entropy. Somewhat later came the idea of entropy as a measure of microscopic disorder in a system and, later still, the connecti~n. with.info~~a tion theory, codes, pattern recogmtIOn, hngUIStlcs and other topics on the arts-science borderline. From here on it has held a well-nigh irresistible fascination for a certain strain of critics, to whom it offers at once a compelling formation of the pessimistic Zeitgeist, a counterbalance to over-doctrinaire notions of 'structure', a voice of some authority in the 'Two Cultures' debate and, one has to add, almost unlimited possibilities for honest misinterpretation . . . Rudolf Arnheim's most recent book, WhICh wIll inevitably be read as a postscript to his ea~lier, massive volumes on art-psychology and vIsual perception [1, 2], belongs to a distinct and slig?tly remote tradition-the long and sadly-unreqUited love affair between Gestalt pyschology and physics, which began in Germany nearly fifty years ago and has been continued for the last thirty or so in America. The essay is in two parts, the first a tentative synthesis of thermodynamic, aesthetic and Gestalt-theoretic notions, the second a shorter, but more readable, account of the place ofthese inyostDarwinian history of ideas. Both parts are sUitably unpretentious and fragmentarily brilliant in the interplay of elements from the author's vast reading and experience ofexperimental psychology. Unfortunately , both are largely invalidated, almost at a stroke, by a single monumental misconception set in a whole variety oflesser misunderstandings of the way the concept of entropy is defined and used in science. Arnheim's central mistake, to which he commits himself quite embarrassingly on page 21, is to believe that the microscopic theory of entropy is based essentially upon the statistics of independent units or sub-systems, registering their state with the observer but without significant influence upon each other. Such an interpretation, clearly complete anathema to a Gestalt psychologist, would imply a total inability of statistical-thermodynamic theory to interpret 'structure' or any form of balanced inter-relationship within the whole. He becomes very indignant about this. Unfortunately, it is *20 Bradbourne St., London SW6 3TE, England. simply not true that the statistical basis ?f entropy can only be given meaning fo~ non-mteractl.ve systems; if it were so, much that IS of almost dally concern to physicists-the stability of crystals, the structure ofliquids, magnetism and so on-could be given no useful interpretation. (The best that can be said is that some of the less thoughtful authors of physics textbooks have also been known to lea~ themselves logically astray by too much emphasIs on non-interacting systems. There is an illuminating article by P. G. Wright  on this, which is highly relevant to Arnheim's arguments.) Throughout the book, the author seeks to compound this central error on a num.be~ of levels.. In the Gestalt-theoretic manner, he mSIsts on seemg 'forces' and 'field-processes' at every turn, wilfully equating the real, physical forces that may pull systems of bodies into compactness and symmetry with his own purely notional forces of entro~y increase and the metaphoric forces of aesthetIc tension. He continually and exasperatingly confuses mechanical and thermodynamic equilibrium, and out of this confusion makes a paradox of the opposition of energy and entropy where there is really a dynamic antithesis. A curious feature of Arnheim's art-thermodynamics is his studied avoidance of the concept of temperature, which at first sight seems to ow~ m?re to a fear of its banal overtones than to...
This essay is an attempt to reconcile the disturbing contradiction between the striving for order in nature and in man and the principle of entropy implicit in the second law of thermodynamics - between the tendency toward greater organization and the general trend of the material universe toward death and disorder.
Rudolf Arnheim (1904-2007) was Professor Emeritus of the Psychology of Art at Harvard University and Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Sarah Lawrence College. He was author of many books, including Art and Visual Perception, Film as Art, Power of the Center, and Visual Thinking.
“Arnheim was the best kind of romantic. His wisdom, his patient explanations and lyrical enthusiasm are those of a teacher.”--New York Times “The psychology of art is never as easy as a-b-c, but this book avoids the general obtuseness of such treatises. It will give your mind a good honing.”--Art Direction