Eric R Kandel, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures

Eric R Kandel, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures (New York: Columbia University Press 2016) 226 pp. $29.95 Hb. ISBN 978-0-231-179962-1.

Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, as the name suggests, is a comprehensive synthesis of two schools of thought previously considered at best tenuously linked, at worst mutually exclusive. Kandel covers, in great breadth alongside enticingly detailed depth, the key components of the history of reductionism in art (eg minimalism) and brain science, outlining existing areas of crossover as well as the potential for deeper understanding in both schools of thought if key components are viewed in conjunction. The result is an intriguing, thought provoking book which will appeal to those with pre-existing knowledge but also to those who may be unfamiliar but curious.

Throughout the history of brain science, as with many other schools of scientific thought, perceptions have been limited to the concrete and the testable and the focus has been firmly on providing detail and drawing definitive conclusions about one of the most complex and intangible phenomena – human cognition. In contrast, art has evolved through various states from the preference for ‘lifelike’ and thus realistic work to the reductionist school which reduces art to its most basic, intrinsic elements. Whilst these two trajectories may appear to conflict, one seeking to achieve accuracy and the other seeking abstraction, Kandel furnishes an account which demonstrates that the search for understanding has followed similar paths in both disciplines. For him, It is in any case essentially inconsistent to assume that there are no similarities between an artist’s search for meaning and a scientist’s, as neither venture can exist in a vacuum.

What Kandel has achieved here is to illuminate the similarities between both fields and to identify commonalities. The structure of his work allows for ease of understanding about the progression of both schools and provides an historical overview which is both useful and insightful. Part One sets the scene and discusses the motivating factors behind the development of the abstract school of art in New York. This section allows the reader to fully grasp the desire for change within artistic circles, following on from the horrors of the Second World War and the struggle to conceptualise a world of meaning in the wake of such destruction. This heady mix of creativity, history and the gathering of intellectuals in New York set the stage for some of the greatest and most popular artworks to date and catapulted the American art scene into global popularity and recognition.

Part Two provides a useful summary of the reductionist approach to brain science. This section is key to understanding Kandel’s belief that art and brain science are analogous as without knowledge of the brain we cannot hope to understand how we perceive art, nor could we grasp the ‘beholder’s share’, a concept which relates to the viewer’s role in creating art. Many of these concepts, particularly around the nature of optics and the processes of meaning making from what we see in the world around us may be unfamiliar, however Kandel handles them with ease and grace, which allows the reader to develop an informed and engaged view and to relate this to their own experiences with art.

Moving from the foundations of a scientific approach to art, Kandel seamlessly weaves together the biology of memory and the visual system to demonstrate the individual significance of memory and learning on our perception of art. This section is particularly fascinating, from lucid descriptions of the process of bottom up and top down processing to the importance of psychology in understanding our interaction with reductionist artwork, and cements the potential significance of this discipline in bridging the divide between art and science. Kandel also provides an in-depth overview of the impact of colour, light and configuration in art and the importance of such techniques in relation to viewer perception, emotion and imagination.

It is surely no coincidence that Kandel has chosen some of the most well-known and acclaimed works of art as examples here, from Monet to Pollock and Rothko. This grounds the work in a sense of the familiar and ensures readers are not alienated, even if their knowledge of both art and brain science may be limited. This is the strength of Kandel’s work; he shows an ability to translate complex processes and theories into an accessible and informative discussion which is thoughtful rather than condescending. His enthusiasm is clear throughout and it is never possible to lose sight of his sense of wonder at the ability of humans, to absorb and experience the exquisite pleasures of art. It is therefore easy for the reader to be swept along on a journey which captures the emerging dialogue between reductionist art and brain science and ensures one is left thinking about one’s own perception of the world, art and the impact of individuality on such perception.

Kandel’s approach is refreshingly simple, his choice of language is clear and his tone is intriguing, engaging and accessible. Reductionism in Art and Brain Science is not a weighty tome inaccessible to those who are not ‘expert’ in the fields of either brain science or art but provides an overview of both fields, alongside a fascinating historical context and examples of key artworks. The use of arresting images throughout, from reproductions of Turner and Katz amongst many others, to visual representations of neural pathways and the process of visual perception provides useful reference points for the reader and allows for interpretation alongside detailed text. This results in a bold and astute narrative which encourages us to approach the world with an inquisitive gaze, to look at art in a way which acknowledges the beautiful intricacies of our minds in exquisite motion and challenges us to consider the benefits of bridging cultures in a way which allows us to appreciate not only art but our own humanity with a deeper sense of joy. Whilst his writing may be accessible, he has not lost sight of scientific rigour, making this an informative book which never sacrifices precision for popularity.

Megan Kenny, University of Huddersfield