THE SENSE OF ORDER is the most recent in a series of works in which Sir Ernst Gombrich has analysed "some of the fundamental functions of the visual arts in their psychological implications." While his classic Art and Illusion dealt with painting and sculpture, this latest effort by the former director of the Warburg Institute takes on a more unruly aspect of the visual arts, the decorative and ornamental.
Much of the material found here, particularly Gombrich's analysis of the dynamics of sight, will be familiar to readers of his earlier books. He begins with the thesis that the human mind is not a tabula rasa , but comes equipped with a framework, a "filing system" that enables man to organize and understand time and space. Establishing at once the link between the eye and brain, Gombrich goes on to discuss the role the mind plays in choosing what the eye will see. We see selectively, he argues, and what we choose to see is determined by context, by instinct and by experience. There is, for example, a presumption of continuity, a "confidence in the stability of the world (without which) we could not survive." Gombrich cites the example of the tennis player:
"Anybody watching a game of tennis will have to admit that the players must be able to do by instinct and by training what astronomers do by calculation. They must extrapolate from their observations of the ball where it will be at a future moment, and must know by experience whether they can reach that point with their racket."
It is this inherent sense of order that guides the designer and which, in turn, the designer draws upon to manipulate his audience.
Probably the most fascinating parts of Gombrich's theory of vision are the examples of specific techniques he offers to illustrate how sight is controlled by pattern and composition. Repetition, the bands of identical shapes that surround a basket or pot or weave through a fabric, has an important place in the repertoire of the craftsman. As Gombrich notes, however, it is the break with repetition, with what the viewer expects to see, that makes an object worthy of attention. Too much reliance on this device and the design is simply monotonous, easy to ignore. Too few repetitions of the pattern and the structure falls apart, making the viewer perplexed and disinterested. Gombrich states it succinctly: "Delight lies between boredom and confusion."
It is in his analysis of the techniques employed for ordering -- repetition, symmetry, textural changes -- that Gombrich makes a distinction between his own theories and Gestalt psychology. The Gestalt approach stresses man's ability to organize and make sense of disparate forms, the will to order being the dominating principle. For Gombrich, however, it is the attraction of the eye to discontinuity that is more significant. We see, he contends, by focusing on a particular area, the eye skipping quickly over familiar elements and examining instead the breaks or suprised in the pattern, and then absorbing these differences into our vision to form a new continuity. For Gombrich, sight is "breakspotting" followed by "framing, filling, linking."
Most of this can be found in Gombrich's previous work, though here illustrations of these principles are drawn from the decorative arts rather than painting or sculpture. The new material found in this study relates to questions of taste and the history and function of particular ornamental shapes. In each chapter, Gombrich takes the issue under discussion back to antiquity and traces changing attitudes and ideas into this century. Cicero's dissertation on rhetoric, for example, becomes the starting point for a presentation of the various outlooks on ornament through the centuries. As Cicero espoused simplicity in speech, so many of the characteristics he saw in flamboyant language -- irrationality, unnaturalness, femininity -- have been attributed at various times to decorative flourishes. It was not the Bauhaus but Cicero, Gombrich argues, who established the aesthetic merits of simplicity."
Gombrich's reach is extraordinarily wide. His discourse conjures up a time when the term "educated man" implied a dazzling range of reference that is all but lost today. Gombrich cuts across disciplines with ease, drawing on psychology, linguistics, philosphy, musical theory, to make his points. He quotes -- and debates -- Plato, Aquinas, Newton, Hogarth, Jung and Levi-Strauss. Gombrich is also a master of learned (and occasionally illuminating) esoterica. He tells us, for example, that there are so many possible shapes for snowflakes that "the whole universe . . .could be packed with crystals of this kind without a single duplication."
Ultimately, however, these intellectural pyrotechnics prove unsatisfying. The failure of this book to equal the achievement of Art and illusion may be due in part to the way it originated, The Sense of Order began as the Wrightsman Lectures at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. Its lack of conceptual integration and the confusing arrangment of its illustrations may be the result of the episodic nature of its original form. There are too many breaks in this book, and, like the ornate designs that Gombrich analyzes, the discontinuities inhibit the formation of a satisfying whole.
More profound than questions of organization or presentation is Gombrich's failure to encompass the work of contemporary designers and craftsmen in his theses. Obviously aware of this shortcoming after the critical attack on Art and Illusion because of its disavowal of abstraction, Gombrich has tried to make amends here. References to modern work are sprinkled through the text, as when he discusses the role of repetition in Andy Warhol's portrait of Marilyn Monre -- though how this qualifies as decorative art is never explained. Finally, however, such forays into this century prove futile. Gombrich's whole concept of art is grounded in tradition and rationality. Expectation leads to surprise, and this in turn leads to fulfillment. It is an ethos that is wholly unsympathetic to a large body of 20th-century work, and by the end of this text Gombrich has given up the fight and acknowledged it. His closing words are somewhat wistful, but they reveal his deepest belief: "Maybe we would be more likely to achieve a new language of form if we were less obsessed with novelty and with change. If we overload the system we lose the support of our sense of order."