Overview: Reductionism in Art and Brain Science

The subtitle of Eric Kandel’s Reductionism in Art and Brain Science is “Bridging the Two Cultures”. Which cultures? Why bridge them?

Kandel’s two cultures are science and humanities: the physical nature of the universe, and the nature of human experience. His claim is that neither culture understands the other’s methodologies or goals. I can accept this claim, though I have no deep experience with either culture.

The real reason Kandel chose to write a book about art and brain science is that he knows a lot about brain science, a lot about art, and likes to talk about them. The intellectual justification is that the modern versions of art and brain science are reductionist in nature. This commonality suggests that the gap between cultures is narrower than it may first appear.

“Reductionist” is a scary and pretentious word, but all it means is breaking things down into parts. Scientific reductionism seeks to explain a complex phenomenon by examining one of its components on “a more elementary, mechanistic level”. This examination often involves experiments on the edge of our understanding, zeroing in on a single component by controlling for others. Kandel explains that modern art uses methodologies similar to those used by scientists: probing the limits of what can be explained or predicted with existing models of reality. This is so because abstract art (unlike representational art) does not seek to show the world in a familiar, three-dimensional way. It explores relationships between shapes, spaces, colors. This is reductionist:

[de Kooning, Excavation, 1950]

De Kooning applies certain artificial restrictions in this work, permitting other dimensions to run free. It is a kind of experiment.

Another reason for the joint study of art and brain science is that their forms of reductionism are related in a fascinating way: the brain subsystems that we use to form our perceptions of reality are highly activated when appreciating certain kinds of abstract art. Kandel pays special attention to the investigative, experimental work of the New York School. When we understand more about how our brain perceives, Kandel says, we can better appreciate what is captivating and unique about abstract art. This kind of investigation need not be a joy kill, as physicist Richard Feynman explains here.

This leads to Kandel’s examination of the nature of perception. Perception is more than what comes in from the outside. Perception based on visual input alone is incomplete and ambiguous: we must apply additional context in order to make sense of a flawed, jittery two dimensional projection of objects in a three-dimensional world. Our eyes are not enough. It’s long been known that the inverse optics problem can only be solved with additional top-down information (see this Quanta article for more). Top-down information helps me figure out that’s not the Statue of Liberty, it’s just a plastic ornament on the dash. Chalk drawings sometimes fool us nonetheless:


Just as perception is incomplete without top-down information, so is art. Art is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer (sayeth Riegl). Gombrich calls this the “beholder’s share“: the viewer’s interpretation of what is seen in personal terms. The beholder’s share is what supplies meaning to the picture. It reflects our consciousness and humanity.

As Kandel explains and is widely known, our brain has both top-down and bottom-up processing systems. Bottom-up systems build up higher level conclusions from small pieces of data: three edges joined make a triangle. In the case of visual processing, top-down and bottom-up systems work together to process images, allowing us to interpret the information they contain. Here is a picture:


One of Kandel’s key points is that abstract art relies more heavily on top-down processes than figurative art. Stripping away easily pattern-matched representational images puts more weight on our top-down systems, leaning on our beholder’s share: our imaginations, emotions, and creativity.

That’s quite a bit to digest, yet I’ve summarized only parts of the first four chapters, chapters that provide the motivation for Kandel to dive into topics that clearly provide Kandel joy and intellectual stimulation:

First, the societal and technological change that catalyzed the evolution of Western painting. Oversimplifying: Western painting evolved to depict an increasingly realistic representation of the world (sometimes with help, as chronicled by Hockney and in Tim’s Vermeer) until the advent of photography. Photography can represent reality more accurately than painting, “thus a dialogue emerged through the two art forms”. Painting needed to go elsewhere. A search for an alternative niche began, one of which was greater abstraction. This leads to a discussion of the abstraction of the figurative image by Turner, Mondrian, and others.

Next, investigations of color abstraction,

[Morris Louis, Alpha Pi 1960-1961]

meeting.jpg[James Turrell, Meeting]

a return to figuration, reimagined:

NPG_Katz_Wintour_cred.jpg[James Katz, Anna Wintour]

and finally the conclusion: that a deeper understanding of brain science will inform and enhance art. It’s fascinating stuff, filled with well-chosen examples.

Kandel provides an entertaining and thoughtful read. In so doing, Kandel takes another step down a path reaching back to the ancient worlds on all continents and through the golden ages of many of the world’s great cultures.


Author: natebrix

Follow me on twitter at @natebrix.

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