Are art and science separated by an unbridgeable divide? Can they find common ground? In this new book, neuroscientist Eric R. Kandel, whose remarkable scientific career and deep interest in art give him a unique perspective, demonstrates how science can inform the way we experience a work of art and seek to understand its meaning. Kandel illustrates how reductionism—the distillation of larger scientific or aesthetic concepts into smaller, more tractable components—has been used by scientists and artists alike to pursue their respective truths. He draws on his Nobel Prize-winning work revealing the neurobiological underpinnings of learning and memory in sea slugs to shed light on the complex workings of the mental processes of higher animals.
In Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, Kandel shows how this radically reductionist approach, applied to the most complex puzzle of our time—the brain—has been employed by modern artists who distill their subjective world into color, form, and light. Kandel demonstrates through bottom-up sensory and top-down cognitive functions how science can explore the complexities of human perception and help us to perceive, appreciate, and understand great works of art. At the heart of the book is an elegant elucidation of the contribution of reductionism to the evolution of modern art and its role in a monumental shift in artistic perspective. Reductionism steered the transition from figurative art to the first explorations of abstract art reflected in the works of Turner, Monet, Kandinsky, Schoenberg, and Mondrian. Kandel explains how, in the postwar era, Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Louis, Turrell, and Flavin used a reductionist approach to arrive at their abstract expressionism and how Katz, Warhol, Close, and Sandback built upon the advances of the New York School to reimagine figurative and minimal art. Featuring captivating drawings of the brain alongside full-color reproductions of modern art masterpieces, this book draws out the common concerns of science and art and how they illuminate each other.
Eric R. Kandel seamlessly moves between the intricacies of science and art, weaving their histories into a common narrative that illuminates both fields and shows they have more in common than is often assumed. It is a fun and informative read that anyone with a curious mind can enjoy and learn from.
Joseph LeDoux, author of Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety
Kandel's book, with one foot in the humanities and one foot in the sciences, stands comfortably in both. Writing in deceptively simple prose, not unlike the art he writes about, Kandel lucidly states the biological case for how abstract art challenges us to look so that we can see.
Jim Coddington, chief conservator, Museum of Modern Art
Words like 'genius' or 'renaissance man' are rarely used in these egalitarian times, but such descriptions wouldn't be entirely inappropriate for Kandel, who is renowned for his work on memory. He has now written a remarkable book full of poetic insights without compromising scientific rigor.
V. S. Ramachandran, author of The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human
Aiming to lessen the gap between the cultures of art and science, Kandel forwards new ways of considering abstract art through the model of reductionism: less is more when it comes to stimulating the brain's creative abilities and our aesthetic responses.
Emily Braun, Distinguished Professor of Art History, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY
Eric Kandel's new book, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science is a beautiful integration of visual art and neuroscience. The book engages C.P. Snow's theme of two cultures- the humanities and the sciences- and provides an artful window into the science of the mind through his fourteen nicely written chapters that include elegant figures in visual art and neuroscience. While the book de-mythologizes the idea of reductionism, it also importantly provides a sense for knowing an object and the objects to be known. This is a must read for both neuroscientists and anyone interested in the visual arts and humanities.
Jay Schulkin, Georgetown University
[A] fascinating survey of mind science and modern art.... Kandel presents concepts to ponder that may open new avenues of art making and neuroscientific endeavor.
[An] intriguing treatise.
Part I: Two Cultures Meet in the New York School
1. The Emergence of an Abstract School of Art in New York
Part II: A Reductionist Approach to Brain Science
2. The Beginning of a Scientific Approach to the Perception of Art
3. The Biology of the Beholder's Share: Visual Perception and Bottom-Up Processing in Art
4. The Biology of Learning and Memory: Top-Down Processing in Art
Part III: A Reductionist Approach to Art
5. Reductionism in the Emergence of Abstract Art
6. Mondrian and the Radical Reduction of the Figurative Image
7. The New York School of Painters
8. How the Brain Processes and Perceives Abstract Images
9. From Figuration to Color Abstraction
10. Color and the Brain
11. A Focus on Light
12. A Reductionist Influence on Figuration
Part IV: The Emerging Dialogue Between Abstract Art and Science
13. Why Is Reductionism Successful in Art?
14. A Return to the Two Cultures
About the Author:
Eric R. Kandel is University Professor and Kavli Professor in the Departments of Neuroscience, Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, and Psychiatry at Columbia University. He is director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science and codirector of the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute at Columbia. In 2000, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. His recent books include The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present (2012) and In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (2007), as well as Principles of Neural Science (2012), of which he is lead coauthor.