Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures by Eric R. Kandel (review)
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Reviewed by
Amy Ione, director
REDUCTIONISM IN ART AND BRAIN SCIENCE: BRIDGING THE TWO CULTURES by Eric R. Kandel. Columbia University Press, New York, NY, U.S.A., 2016. 240 pp. Trade. ISBN: 978-0231179621.

Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures by Eric Kandel, like his study The Age of Insight [1], builds on earlier efforts to couple science and art, particularly those of Alois Riegl (1858–1905), Ernst Kris (1900–1957) and Ernst Gombrich (1909–2001). These three men, he tells us, endeavored to establish art history as a scientific discipline by grounding it in psychological principles. Riegl emphasized the "beholder's" involvement, stating that art includes the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer. Kris studied ambiguity in visual perception, concluding that every powerful image is inherently ambiguous because it arises from experiences and conflicts in the artist's life. Gombrich extended Kris's ideas to include the inverse optics problem: how our brain takes the incomplete information about the outside world that it receives from our eyes and makes it complete. This is a problem that arises because the brain reconstructs the images we see. It should be noted that Gombrich's positioning in his well-known Art and Illusion [2] is, like Kandel's, more concerned with beholders than artists or the community.

Kandel defines art as unconscious and subjective and endeavors to present a reductive and objective rendering of it. Thus, he poses questions like: "Can any aspect of art, which is a creative and subjective experience, be studied objectively?" (p. 17) Within this confine, he assumes that

although the reductionist approaches of scientists and artists are not identical in their aims— scientists use reductionism to solve a complex problem, and artists use it to elicit a new perceptual and emotional response in the beholder—they are analogous

(p. 6).

The artworks narrative is largely focused on the viewer's brain operations in relation to sensation and perception, although memory and learning are discussed as well. His presentation centers on artists who employ simple design elements such as form, line, color and light in their compositions. His claim is that these kinds of works allow the beholder to reductively understand how the brain responds to art because "rather than depicting an object or image in all its richness, they often deconstructed it, focusing on one or, at most, a few components and finding richness by exploring those components in a new way" (p. 9). (He does step out of this box in his presentation of Chuck Close, as I will explain shortly.) As the author correctly notes, many artists (e.g. Kandinsky) have explained their art using reductionistic statements.

Clearly, Kandel read extensively in developing this volume, and sections outlining historical psychological studies and contemporary neuro-scientific research offer informative background as he interprets selected artworks; but the cohort is quite limited. The argument is largely focused on the Abstract Expressionists of the New York School and the color-field painters (Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Morris Louis and others) who worked in America in the mid-20th century and includes a few artists who worked after them (e.g. Alex Katz, Andy Warhol, Dan Flavin, James Turrell, Chuck Close and others). Leonardo readers will quickly discover vast lacunas in terms of his assumptions about what art is and the range of media artists employ. Similarly, the author seems unaware of the kinds of collaborative projects that often drive art and science in tandem.

While the bulk of Kandel's art analyses relies on the writings of contemporaneous mid–20th-century art critics and historians, an intriguing feature is that Clement Greenberg's theoretical formulations most closely [End Page 338] align with Kandel's view, although it should be noted that Greenberg emphasized form, gestural painting and deeper truths, and Kandel relies more on Riegl/Kris/Gombrich with his "beholder" and ambiguity emphasis. If Greenberg seems like a strange advocate for a science of art, one need only recall that this art critic presented the artist's studio as functioning like a scientific laboratory: "It's as though they undertook to do this as in a laboratory, spelling out...