Review of Eric Kandel’s Reductionism in Art and Brain Science – Bridging the Two Cultures
“We are closer to attaining cheerful serenity by simplifying thoughts and figures. Simplifying the idea to achieve an expression of joy. That is our only deed.” – Henri Mattise
I’m of the opinion you should never trust a Nobel Prize winner, or at least you should pay them no more attention than your crazy uncle on any subject outside their expertise, so when Columbia Publishing sent me a copy of Eric Kandel’s new book: Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, I was skeptical. Kandel won a Nobel studying sea snails; I’m sure he’s a smart guy, but do I really care what he has to say about Mattise’s The Snail? Turns out I do, and that this book isn’t a flight of fancy for Kandel. It contains ideas he’s been working on since 2002 and taps his expertise in neuroscience, his skills as a textbook writer in explaining neuroscience succinctly, and his clearly deep and authentic love for modern art.
Kandel begins his book discussing an idea from the molecular physicist turned novelist C. P. Snow: there is a fundamental divide between the cultures of the sciences and humanities, and we must strive to bridge this chasm. The scientific side is concerned with the physical nature of the universe, while the humanistic side considers the human experience. Kandel argues that neuroscience is an outcropping edging ever closer towards the exploration of human experience and may be the best place to build a bridge that connects science to the humanities. This book represents his humanistic attempt to draft plans for such bridge, that in the future he hopes may connect science and the humanities.
Kandel observes that in the mid-20th century biologists and artists both explored reductionism in their fields to try to discover fundamental truths. Biologists used reductionism to make large and complex systems tractable and experimentally manipulable. Kandel’s own work provides an example: although interested in human memory, he chose to study sea snails which have only 20,000 neurons compared to the 100 billion in the human brain, and this allowed him to make important discoveries that led to his nobel prize. Meanwhile, abstract expressionists experimented with reducing art to the bare minimum components that could still evoke emotional responses, which challenged viewers to think in new ways.
Beyond this coincidental parallelism, Kandel argues that as neuroscience has developed and our understanding of the visual system increases, we are gaining insights into how our brain processes this abstract art. These findings may help explain abstract art’s power, as it appears abstraction bypasses much of normal visual processing and elicits unique neural responses that cannot be achieved through photo-realistic or figurative art.
Throughout his career, painting prodigy J.M.W. Turner’s style became more abstract. Left, The Shipwreck, 1805. Right, Snowstorm: Steamboat Off a Harbour’s Mouth, 1842. It’s unclear to what extent these changes reflect a true change in Turner’s aesthetic versus changes in his vision; regardless his more abstract later paintings illicit strong emotions and inspired future artists.
Reductionism in Art and Brain Science is about two-thirds art history, and one-third the neuroscience of how we processes art visually and emotionally. As someone who enjoys art but never took an art history class (and for example always mixes up Monet and Manet), I enjoyed and learned a lot from Kandel’s history of early abstract art and art criticism. Kandel focuses on the New York School of Abstract Expressionist painters which includes gestural painters (Kooning and Pollock) and color-field painters (Rothko, Morriss Louis, and Branett Rouman). However, he also includes sections on the artists who started the transition from figuration to abstraction and influenced Abstract Expressionists (Turner, Monet, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Schoenberg) as well as artists who were influenced by them and synthesized abstraction with figurative art (Katz, Warhol, Close, and Sandback). Kandel summarizes each artists stylistic progression, with illustrations. Many of the artists I knew only from their most famous style, so I was fascinated to see their other work.
As for the neuroscience, there are a lot basics are similar to an introductory textbook (for example LTP in sea snails and basic vision pathways), but it also includes more specific material relating to vision and art that is quite compelling. Kandel uses a range of art to illustrate his point, and he even weighs in on the infamous question of whether “the dress” is blue and brown or white and gold. (His take: it depends on how we interpret the background of the picture. If we see from the background that the picture is over-exposed we process the dress as blue and brown, but if we don’t look at the background we can process the dress as white and gold. And importantly, after we first interpret the dress, this interpretation feeds back on our visual processing and influences how we subsequently perceive the picture.)
“The Dress” (Obviously blue and black by the way :p) Pay attention to the background and note that as the dress becomes white, the background becomes washed out.
I usually enjoy abstract art, but I’ve always thought of it as a purely aesthetic experience—a kind of visual hedonism devoid of underlying meaning. Kandel notes that abstract art provides a stimuli to our visual system that violates almost all of the rules that the visual system evolved to look for and process. As a result our bottom-up system of processing that looks for lines, figures, perspective, etc. struggles and leaves the brain with an ambiguous representation, which gives the more conceptual parts of our brain leeway to interpret the art in a variety of ways. Kandel quotes Carl Einstein, who said abstraction ended “… the laziness or fatigue of vision. Seeing had again become an active process.”
Willem de Kooning, Excavation, 1950. I used to look at this picture completely as a a geometric pattern, a work of design and composition. However, Kandel has shown me I can think of it more as a canvas on which to let my imagination run wild. The same way wood grain provides a fertile ground to hunt for faces or images, abstract art like Kooning’s Excavation can provides a unique, open-ended stimulus, which the mind can search for connections.
Despite enjoying the book, I have some critiques. Occasionally, Kandel makes bold, unsupported statements about science as if they are self-evident. One example that didn’t ring true to me: “Since all faces have the same number of features—one nose, two eyes, and one mouth—the sensory and motor aspects of emotional signals communicated by the face must be universal, independent of culture.” What? (Shortly after originally publishing this review, Science Magazine released this post, confirming my intuition that the universality of facial structures does not imply anything about emotions: Facial expressions—including fear—may not be as universal as we thought)
In regards to art, some of his arguments about the novelty of abstract art, are a bit disingenuous to me. For example, Kandel focuses entirely on western gallery art, ignoring the fact that non-figurative abstract artwork has existed in many cultures such as Navajo art. Similarly, he looks only at artwork from white men, and the only aspect of diversity he highlights is whether artists were Jewish, saying nothing of the religious or cultural backgrounds of other artists. The book also features a problem common to many reproductions of art (including in this post because I’m lazy): the dimensions of most pieces are not included, so it’s difficult to get a sense of the scale of each piece of artwork; the scale of some of these otherwise simple abstract works is one of the factors that can makes viewing them in person feel profound.
Left, Navajo Transition Rug, 1880-1885. Right, Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-1943.
Finally, I wish Kandel had touched on a final similarity between brain science and abstract expressionism: they were both substantially funded by the government. While he touches on the fact that some artists, notably Jackson Pollock, were involved in programs like the Federal Arts Program early in their careers, he ignores the interesting history that the CIA funneled money into foundations that supported and promoted abstract expressionism, promoting the artistic movement as a propaganda tool and countermovement against the communist social realism movement that had risen in the Soviet Union.
In conclusion, if you have an interest in art history, modern art, or visual neuroscience, I think Kandel has a unique perspective and you’ll find this book interesting. And assuming you are not an expert in all three, you’ll definitely come away with a lot of new information. At only 190 pages, and full of photographs of artists, paintings, and neuroscience diagrams, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science is a quick—and enjoyable—read.
Kandel is also the author of the memoir and popular science book about the research that lead to his Nobel: In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (2007), which I discussed in my recent post on neuroscience books which changed my life. I just learned there is a documentary about him as well with the same title.
He is also the author of another recent book about neuroscience and art: The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present (2012), which I haven’t yet read, but added to my reading list.
I love reading about neuroscience and social science, and I’d love to review more books, so if you’d like me to review a book please comment below or send me an email.
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