Dr. Eric Kandel, MD, visits the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Works of art do not merely cause experience, [Kandel] argues; they also figure into art’s ongoing effort, like that of science, to understand ourselves. In Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, Kandel proposes that what is needed to bridge . . . the “two cultures” of science, on the one hand, and art and humanities, on the other, is genuine collaboration. This is a proposal that deserves full support. Alva Noë, “Scientist’s Guide to Modern Art,” SCIENCE, September 16, 2016

I love that life offers so much opportunity for learning, and this Tuesday Evenings lecture is case in point. A lecture program free and open to the public was able to bring in a Nobel Prize–winning neuroscientist, with a deep understanding and palpable passion for art’s relationship with the science of the brain, to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth to speak. Dr. Eric Kandel is a generous and brilliant man who took no time off after winning the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2000. Instead, in addition to continual academic and scientific achievements, he has written two books bridging art and science. In his most recent, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, as explained by Columbia Press, Kandel “shows how a 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.” Before that was his book The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, From Vienna 1900 to the Present in 2012, which was the subject of Kandel’s Tuesday Evenings presentation.

In addition to the insight I gained into Viennese artists Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele, I was introduced to some profound discoveries by fellow Modernists within the fields of medicine and psychology who, like these artists, dramatically advanced their disciplines with the innovation that “truth lies beneath the surface.” For example, Freud’s application of this principle opened up psychology, while the paintings of artists such as Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele, in which representation of an internal reality is as powerful and significant as the replication of the external, reveal the tie between art and brain science. I was also struck by Kandel’s enlightened explanation of what the art historian Ernst Gombrich has termed the “beholder’s share.” For me, it was a bit of a revelation that when engaged by good art we, the viewers, experience our own act of creativity as we interpret and find meaning in what we are seeing/hearing/feeling and thereby stimulate specific regions of the brain. It explains why we are drawn back to works we have seen before and seek out new art. We are looking for that stimulation, an opportunity to create.

So much to learn here. This lecture gave me homework, and I love that.

Video podcast of this presentation

Terri Thornton