Review of Kandel’s Age of Insight. Part II

Kandel credits Freud with developing the conceptual framework for cognitive psychology a half century before Ulric Neisser, yet equally important is the contribution of the Vienna School of Art History which placed a particular emphasis on the role of the beholder. Under Freud’s tutelage, art historian Ernst Kris did indeed combine the disciplines of psychoanalysis and art history, only to eventually make the shift from Freud’s approach of psychoanalytic analysis of the artist to empirical investigation of the perceptual processes of both the artist and the beholder. In doing so Kris was advancing a concept first initiated by Alois Reigl. Reigl was the first art historian who systematically applied scientific thinking to art criticism gaining international renown for establishing art history as a scientific discipline grounded in psychology and sociology. Subsequently, Ernst Gombrich would continue to build on Reigl’s concept of the beholder’s participatory role in completing the work of art and coining the term “Beholder’s Share” because of the viewer’s expanded and essential role. Gombrich’s insight into the meaning of the image was that it depended on each viewer’s association of knowledge of the world of art and her ability to recall that knowledge and bring it to bear on a particular image. 

Using the “Beholder’s Share,” defined by Gombrich in mid-twentieth century as the essential role of the viewer in completing the work of art, Kandel then proceeds to set out in the next 300 pages the progress and breakthroughs in neuroscience that provide the biological basis of this role of the beholder along with the accompanying brain processes related to visual perception. With the newest advances in technology, brain scans can show exactly what part or, in most cases, what coordinated areas of different parts of the brain are activated when viewing a painting and how this meaning-making organ of ours—the brain—is embodied by processing signals in a bottom-up/top-down fashion.

The issue of left brain/right brain differences may still be up in the air, and perhaps they do no more than control the opposite sides of the body, although Kandel mentions evidence that the right hemisphere is more involved in creativity. Nevertheless, it is irrelevant to the bottom-up/top-down processing issue for these processes take part in either or both hemispheres as needed.

Kandel’s book provides information from brain mapping that pinpoints certain areas of the brain dedicated to “reading” emotional cues from features of a person’s face, or the way in which the hands and the position of the arms reflect a person’s inner emotional state, which the Viennese Modernists mirror in their painting subjects. Kandel also includes findings gleaned from perceptual disorders that contribute to our understanding of the brain process as well: for example, the way in which the contemporary artist Chuck Close compensates for his condition known as prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces. Close does this by first using photographs to convert three-dimensional faces into two dimensions for a flat surface and then proceeds to paint monumental faces on canvas. Interestingly, Close has also learned to do this conversion in his mind. Another fascinating aspect of his process is that, in a talk a few years back, Close spoke about the way he “reads” faces not as portraits, but as landscapes.

Coming from the museum field that has become increasingly visitor-centered in the past two decades, I especially enjoyed reading Kandel’s book as a viewer’s account of an experience with works of art along with the accompanying science of the mostly unconscious processes involved in observing the emotional state of another person—painted or real—in order to better assess our own inner emotional state and bring it to conscious awareness. Though he is the first to admit that he has not succeeded in bridging  the chasm between science and art, he has at least demonstrated that their different paths converge through discovery. Kandel can rest easy for he has accomplished a Herculean task of demonstrating extensive knowledge emblazoned with a great passion for art. 

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