Next Article
Front Page
Email Author

About Face

Perhaps its not about what a piece of art can tell us about the artist's type, but what personality theory can tell us about what art is.

© Patricia Dinkelaker and John Fudjack - February, 2000

skip to

Generally speaking, one can take three approaches to the subject of 'art and personality', it seems to us. The first approach involves the question, 'What does a piece of art say about the personality type of the artist?'. The second poses the question, 'Do particular schools of art (or approaches to art) reflect functional preferences associated with personality type?' The third asks, 'Can personality theory tell us something about what the function of art is, or could be, in society?'

Although there is undoubtedly a certain amount of overlap in these approaches, we deal with them more or less separately in the following three parts of this paper. Since we have already given quite a bit of attention at this site to the first approach, 1 and have also dealt to a certain degree with theoretical concerns related to the the second, in this paper we will not spend as much time on these matters as on the third.

On the topic of art and personality type we are indebted to four writers whose names are not usually associated with personality theory -the art critic Herbert Read, the poet W.B. Yeats, the philosopher Henri Bergson, and the cultural anthropologist Gregory Bateson.

Herbert Read

We feel particularly grateful to Herbert Read, who - nearly sixty years ago -made a significant contribution to all three approaches to the topic of art and personality type. Although we were familiar with the work of this renowned art critic, historian, and aesthetician 2 in the field of social criticism throughout the first half of the twentieth century, we were not aware - until very recently - that he had also been a pioneer in the use of Jungian typology as a means for understanding art. The results of his efforts in this area appeared in his 1942 book, Education Through Art3 a piece that is as fascinating, insightful, and provocative as any material on applied typology that we have seen published in recent years. Read's ground-breaking work is all the more impressive when it is remembered that the MBTI did not yet exist in 1942. That was the year, in fact, in which Isabel Myers, the creator of that instrument, first heard about the Humm-Wadsworth Scale, "a new 'people-sorting instrument' [that had been designed] to fit workers to jobs." 4

Read's work on art and personality is broad in scope and rich in detail; 5 and in its depth of analysis strikes us as unsurpassed. It also offers an interesting early example of how someone knowledgable about art would approach applying Jungian typology to the typing of individual artists. And it presents a method for more deeply exploring the relationship between various schools of art. But the real value of Read's work for us today lies in the fact that he had the wisdom to turn the question about what a piece of art can tell us about its maker's personality type inside out - and ask what personality theory can tell us about art.

So eagerly did Read embrace the spirit behind Jung's typology that he dared to imagine that the theory might be able to provide the aesthetician with a new perspective on a very basic question in aesthetics - 'What is art?'. Read's answer, that art is a naturally occuring method for INTEGRATING the four Jungian functions - is as profound as it is bold and simple. It offers an elegant new way of conceiving of art which brings into relief the role that it plays both in the personal growth of the individual and in the development of the culture.

As far as we know, Read was the first to have ventured to make this radical about-face in thinking about art and personality type. And because so very few people who have come after him have been capable of making a similar shift, the issues that he raised in 1942 remain essentially the same ones that can be asked today. His work thus seems to us as vital now as it was then. So often we hear people ask 'What type is THIS particular artist (or teacher, or manager)?' Or, if they risk taking the discussion one step beyond that point, inquire, 'How would the INFP (or ENTJ or ISFJ) approach art (or 'management' or 'teaching')?' These are good and reasonable questions. But they do not yet begin to broach the wider cultural issues that are raised when one poses questions like 'What can personality theory tell us about the nature of the activity that is art (or 'management', or 'teaching', or 'science')?

W.B. Yeats

We are also indebted to W.B. Yeats, and fascinated by his story. After having finished our work on the Mandala, we happened across an account of a rather strange project in which this poet had become involved, early in the 20th century. In October of 1917, four days after his marriage, Yeats's wife unexpectedly began an experiment with automatic writing that was to last for the next seven years. Together they participated in this activity on a daily basis, filling 50 notebooks with the enigmatic fragments of sentences that were 'communicated' to them by what they believed to be an entire group of spirits, both beneficial and malevolent - the couple's shared 'dramatis personae', as Yeats would later call them. The work culminated in 1924, in the publication of a book that rambles along in a sometimes pedantic, often obscure fashion that can at times absolutely defy comprehension. Yeats called it, simply, A Vision6

In this work the author articulates a system that can easily be labeled a 'personality typology' if it weren't for the fact that such a description would mislead by suggesting a much more mundane product than the poet succeeded in producing. His was a grand mystical vision that unabashedly blended fiction with philosophy, and offered up a geometry that was grounded in theosophy and laced with the florid phrases of 19th century poetry. He sought to construct, albeit in a highly intuitive fashion, a metaphysics and profound symbology that would not only be useful in 'categorizing humanity', in the words of the book jacket, but one that also sought to penetrate the mysteries of the human mind and explain history itself. In many respects - and this is one of the things that makes the Yeats vision so remarkable - his system has significant formal parallels to Jung's. 7

Yeats is of special interest to us because his vision manifested in the form of a mandala - a very specific circular figure along the outer rim of which the poet mapped 28 personality types, or 'incarnations', as he referred to them. As the reader who is familiar with our previous work will know, this is not unlike the way in which two other systems locate types on the outer rim of a mandala - an early Buddhist system and the Enneagram.

In attempting to explain the significance of HIS mandala, which he called the 'Great Wheel', Yeats appealed to another geometric symbol that was not a part of the manifest mandala itself, but seemed to him to somehow represent the latent mechanism by which it worked. This second symbol was comprised of two interpenetrating vortices, which resembles the 'torus' that we recently used to characterize the mandala principle. Yeats, in this way, seems to us to have displayed such a high degree of insight into the innermost 'structure' of the mandala that we could not help but recognize in his vision a precursor to our own work on the 'liminocentric' organization of such figures. He also represents yet a further example (in this case a Western example, from the early 'modernist' school of art) of the way in which personality theory seems drawn toward such structures for the purpose of explaining its subject. 8

Integration and Integrity

In this paper it is our ultimate goal to suggest that the 'integration' of the four mental functions - which is most naturally achieved via the process we call art, according to Read - requires a kind of 'synthesis' that is much more than a mere collection, conglomerate, or even balancing of the mental functions that act as its parts. This will be true not only according to Jung and contemporary Jungians, but according also to the artists themselves (Picasso and others, as we will see in the companion piece to this article, About Face Again) and their spokespersons (such as Read). It is a truth that requires us to think along the structural lines proposed by Yeats, in terms of a more subtle and complex form of relationship between 'part' and 'whole' - an effort to which Bergson, and much later Bateson, made significant contributions. This relationship is one in which the part can embrace and enfold the whole within it without being engulfed by it - in a way that can only be described as reflecting 'integrity'. 9

Continue to Part 1

Footnotes and References

1. See Artists and Type - Observations on How Our Readers Went About Typing Artists

Artists and Type - More on Guessing
back to text

2. Sir Herbert Read (1893-1968). 'At the time of his death in 1968, he was perhaps the most widely known living critic of the arts in the Western world, and if anything had enjoyed a wider influence in the United States than had [Roger] Fry. More than Fry, Read inclined toward anarchism, and like him possessed a conviction that aesthetic experience constitutes an awareness of a kind of ultimate reality.' In spite of his social radicalism, Read was knighted in 1953. [Donald D. Egbert, Social Radicalism and the Arts - Western Europe: A Cultural History from the French Revolution to 1968, 1970, (New York, Alfred Knopf) pages 558-559.] For a brief summary of Read's philosophy of art, see a web site called Herbert Read's Philosophy of Art.
back to text

3. Herbert Read, Education Through Art, 1942, London, Faber and Faber.
back to text

4. Isabel Briggs Myers with Peter B. Myers, Gifts Differing, 1980c, (Palo Alto, California: Davies-Black Publishing), page 208. The MBTI first appeared in 1943, as 'Form A'.
back to text

5. Not only does Read's work provide us with -

  1. A thorough survey of the work done by early pioneers in the field of art and personality type;
  2. A study that he personally conducted regarding how type is manifest in children's art, with numerous plates showing individual pieces, and a fascinating discussion of the methodology that he used for doing this;
  3. A look at the manner in which styles of art are associated with functional preference, using numerous examples provided by well-known artists;

- he also raises a number of theoretical issues of continuining importance, and provides astute, detailed critical analyses where necessary.
back to text

6. W.B. Yeats, A Vision, 1924c, (New York: Collier Books).
back to text

7. Did Yeats borrow from Jung? In 1925, when Yeats's A Vision was published, it would be years before Jung would write about the mandala. And the English version of Jung's own book on personality, Psychological Types, had itself only recently been released; in it there was no mention of mandalas, let alone the idea that personality types could be mapped onto such a figure.

Some have indeed argued that it was Yeats who influenced Jung, and not the other way around. At least one of Jung's most significant theories - the notion of a collective unconscious - was foreshadowed by statements that Yeats had made much earlier, according to Colin Wilson:

Yeats [took] the next logical step in the argument - a step taken some years later by Jung himself: that there is a racial memory, which works in terms of symbols. This racial memory can be reached by 'hushing the unquiet mind,' by reaching a certain depth of inner stillness where it becomes accessible to the limited individual memory. Yeats goes even further, and suggests that 'magical cures' used by primitive peoples may produce their effect by somehow touching these subliminal depths... (Colin Wilson, The Occult, page 107.)

Interestingly, Yeats WAS influenced by the Kabbalists. MacGregor Mather, head of the theosophical group which Yeats joined in the late 19th century, introduced him to the Kabbalah and its symbols (The Occult, page 48). 'It was Mather,' Yeats said, 'who convinced me that images well up before the mind's eye from a deeper source than conscious or subconscious memory'. Mather's wife was the daughter of philospher Henri Bergson, Wilson reveals, and herself a 'seer'. Bergson's notion of 'interdependent orders of existence', which are 'inverted' with respect to each other, is a forerunner of Yeats's 'interpenetrating gyres', and is dealt with elsewhere in this paper. (Colin Wilson, The Occult: a History, 1971, (New York: Barnes and Noble), page 104).

If there is truth to the claim that Yeats anticipated some of the points in Jung's work, we have here yet another example of the way in which the 'modern' artist seems often to have beaten Jung to his own conclusions. [For more on this see footnote #10 in Part I.]
back to text

8. To a certain extent 'abstract' modern art grew out of 'the use of mechanical, medical, or [occult] magical diagrams as a source for painting'. [See About Face Again: The 'Butt-head' in Modern Art for more about this, and also Escher's Liminocentric Eye.]
back to text

9. Henri Bergson - a philosopher who was popular in the late 19th and early twentieth century, especially with artists - frequently argued against conceiving of matter as broken into exclusive 'parts' that display an 'absolute externality' with respect to each other. 'We have seen ... how difficult it is to reconcile [the externality hypothesis] with the idea of a reciprocal influence of all the parts of matter on one another ..,' he wrote. [Bergson, 1911c, (New York: Dover Publication) Creative Evolution, page 244) Bergson preferred, in contrast, to conceive of the relationship between part and whole in a more 'organic' fashion, modeled after biology. In this matter he appealed to Leibnitz, whose view he characterized as the belief that 'the real Whole has no parts, but is repeated to infinity, each time integrally (though diversely) within itself, and that all these repetitions are complementary to each other'.

In just the same way, the visible relief of an object is equivalent to the whole set of stereoscopic views taken of it from all points, so that, instead of seeing in the relief a juxtaposition of solid parts, we might quite as well look upon it as made of the reciprocal complementarity of these whole views, each given in block, each indivisible, each different from all the others and yet representative of the same thing. The Whole, that is to say God, is this very relief for Leibniz, and the monads are these complementary plane views; for that reason he defines God as 'the substance that has no point of view', or, again, as 'the universal harmony,' that is to say, the reciprocal complementarity of monads.(Bergson, page 351)

Bergson's thoughts on this subject provide an interesting perspective from which we might look at what the 'integration' of the four Jungian 'mental functions' entails. Is it possible that such an 'integration' will require a higher order synthesis in which the four functions are experienced 'integrally though diversely' as 'partial' perspectives that are 'complementary to each other'? [For more on this, see About Face - Part 3]

And is what Bergson calls the 'whole set of stereoscopic views taken from all points' - the Gods-eye point of view, as it were - what Picasso and others set out to achieve in seeking to simultaneously represent incommensurable 'perspectives'  - simultaneous front and back views, and so forth? [For more on this, see About Face Again.]
back to text

Beginning of This Paper

Back to Front Page