Book Review of William Kentridge: Process as Metaphor and Other Doubtful Enterprises

In my 2007 Leonardo review of Rosalind Krauss’ book Perpetual Inventory I characterized her essay on William Kentridge as the most compelling in the book [1]. Krauss introduced him as a South African artist whose animated films pursue the problems of apartheid and spoke about how he creatively mixed film, drawing, and erasure with highly charged ideas. She also spoke about how his peripatetic approach, improvisational process (fortuna), and his use of erasure spoke of a creative practice that combines drawing and seeing with making and assessing. Krauss concluded that regardless of whether Kentridge’s drawings for projection come together in a series that examines apartheid, capitalist greed, eros, memory, or whatever, his process is not based primarily on the theme of the series. Rather, in her view, and I share her view to some degree, the works result through the dictates of his creative process. William Kentridge: Process as Metaphor and Other Doubtful Enterprises by Leora Maltz-Leca sees his philosophical relationship to the work as more important than his creative practice per se. Therefore, one intriguing question on my mind as I wrote this review is why Maltz-Leca, and indeed Kentridge himself as relayed in this book through a number of interviews, did not change my mind.

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Book Review by Amy Ione: Consecrating Science: Wonder, Knowledge, and the Natural World

Reviewed by Amy Ione, March 2018

The title of Lisa Sideris’ book, Consecrating Science: Wonder, Knowledge, and the Natural World, made me wonder: Would this consecration expose me to something wondrous? While I don’t think the word wondrous quite fits my response, the book is a rewarding read. Sideris, a talented writer, introduces pointed questions to guide her study. I was particularly impressed with her nuanced evaluation of the new cosmologies that claim to bring science and spirituality together. In addition, the author’s erudite discussion stands out as a refreshing example of why the kind of critical thinking encouraged by the humanities has value.

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Book Review by Amy Ione: The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World

Reviewed by Amy Ione, January 2018

Although creating a mess is not qualitatively the same as creating an original mathematical equation, what the word ‘creating’ denotes in each case is nonetheless clear. I cannot answer why we easily comprehend the meaning in both instances, but I do know that creativity’s amorphous and multidimensional reality is tantalizing even if our use of the word spans a spectrum of activities. In terms of discovery and human psychology, a good touchstone is a graphic that the creativity researcher Robert Sternberg put together titled “Cognitive Characteristic of Creative Persons” [1]. In it he summarizes the views of 16 authors who contributed to an anthology he edited on this subject in 1988. One striking feature of the chart is that each author stressed multiple traits and yet no single trait was postulated by every one of the renowned contributors. Among them were Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Howard Gardner, Howard Gruber, and Dean Simonton. Equally striking 30 years later is that the distribution of the 20 relevant characteristics they identified seems dated now. Nine of the experts, the second highest number for any trait, argued for specialization (or creativity in a particular domain) in 1988. Given the emphasis on transdisciplinary work in the 21st century, I would guess that this factor would not rank as high today. By contrast, the top characteristic, stressed by 11 of the 16 authors, seems to still hold. This is the use of existing knowledge as a basis for new ideas. Even so, at under 70% it was nonetheless not universally chosen.
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Amy Ione Review of ChildArt Magazine: Arts and Mind – The Brain Science of Human Experience

Review of ChildArt Magazine: Arts and Mind – The Brain Science of Human Experience, Guest Editor, Susan Magsamen; Editor, Ashfaq Ishaq.

Posted at Leonardo Reviews

I sat down to read this ChildArt issue about art and the brain a few days after I learned of Marian Diamond’s (1926-2017) death [1]. Perhaps best known for her studies of Einstein’s brain, which noted that he had more support cells in the brain than average, she was also a distinguished educator and a pioneer in brain plasticity research. The two products of her legacy that influenced me directly came to mind as I absorbed the essays. First, I recalled how Diamond’s skill as an educator came through in an interactive videotaped lesson on the brain she did during her tenure as Director of the Lawrence Hall of Science (recorded in 1990). While explaining the brain’s functions and dissecting an actual brain she also sensitively responded to questions posed by a group of two elementary school students and two graduate students. The composite demonstrated how a talented instructor is able to stimulate learning [2]. In addition, and similarly, when I was a docent at the Hall, one of the most popular installations was an interactive installation about the brain, designed by Diamond, that engaged visitors of all ages and backgrounds.

ChildArt’s “Your Brain on Art” likewise captures the importance of engagement in education and human development, introducing projects that highlight children in schools as well as cross-cultural and community outreach. Divided into three sections, the issue also reminds us that children learn and experience life in more than one way. Continue reading “Amy Ione Review of ChildArt Magazine: Arts and Mind – The Brain Science of Human Experience”

Now Online: List of 100+ Animal Names Used as Verbs

Animal Verbs ImageA compendium of 100+ animal names (i.e., nouns) that are also used as verbs in the English language is posted here. The list includes verbal usages that relate directly and indirectly to the noun’s meaning, analogies and unrelated verbal definitions. There are many different animal classes and every animal in the world belongs to one of them.

This list is divided into the five most well known classes of vertebrates (animals with backbones) that are mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians. and is subdivided into common categories of vertebrate animals, together with a category of invertebrates.

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Book Review by Amy Ione: Future of the Brain: Essays by the World’s Leading Neuroscientists

Future of the Brain: Essays by the World’s Leading Neuroscientists
edited by Gary Marcus and Jeremy Freeman

Posted: Leonardo Reviews, May 2017

One of the Times Higher Education’s Best Books of 2015, Future of the Brain offers a compilation of original essays by leading brain researchers. Divided into seven sections, the range and disparities of the authors’ views underscore the dearth of an overarching theory researchers apply to studies in this area. Cross-references among chapters do, however, remind us that science itself succeeds through communication among scientists about what their data says. Also noteworthy is that, even given the spectrum of views, most of the authors share a “we can do this” attitude: They are confident we can and will eventually understand the brain. Suffice it to say, as Gary Marcus, one of the book’s two editors notes: “Neuroscience today is a collection of facts, rather than ideas; what is missing is connective tissue. We know (or think we know) roughly what neurons do, and that they communicate with one another, but not what they are communicating” (p. 205).

The first section, mapping the brain, presents connectome projects. This idea (with computation) is the primary research paradigm presented in the book. Essays by Mike Hawrylycz, Misha Ahrens, Christof Koch, Anthony Zador, and George Church set the stage for this book’s survey of current efforts to understand brain connectivity through mapping and imaging neural activities of mice, strategies for reverse engineering and so forth. Computation, the subject of the second section, includes essays by May-Britt and Edvard Moser, Krishna Shenoy, Olaf Sporns, and Jeremy Freeman. Together the two sections argue that the brain is an organ of computation and scientists need to figure out what the brain is computing. Continue reading “Book Review by Amy Ione: Future of the Brain: Essays by the World’s Leading Neuroscientists”

Book Review: Amy Ione reviews A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age

Review of  A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman

Reviewed by Amy Ione, posted in Leonardo Reviews, August 2017 

As a fan of biographies, I was excited to learn about A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age. Not only is it a timely biography, this well researched and easy to read book also captures the imagination. Because Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman take care to situate Shannon’s contributions in their cultural context the volume encourages the reader to explore their broader implications. Claude Shannon’s legacy is no doubt of particular interest to Leonardo readers due to the range of his work. If Shannon’s training and conception of Information Theory brings the current elevation of STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) to mind, many of his lesser known projects clearly align with projects associated with the STE(A)M (the inclusion of Art) community, although the authors never speak of STEAM per se. These include the playful spirit evident in his ongoing tinkering with electronic toys, his multi-faceted studies of juggling, and his unicycle experiments.

So, who was Claude Shannon? Born in 1916 in Michigan, by all accounts Shannon had an ordinary childhood. Noteworthy traits included a love of math and science, a dislike of facts, and mechanical inclinations. These proclivities led him to purse a dual degree in mathematics and engineering at the University of Michigan. After Michigan, Shannon was hired by the well-connected Vannevar Bush, then at MIT and later founder of the National Science Foundation (NSF), to help with his differential analyzer. This was a mechanical analog computer that depended on combinations of equivalent equations, using a wheel-and-disc mechanism for computation. A major problem was that the equations needed to be reconstructed for every problem, in effect annihilating the very efficiency the machine was intending to add to problem solving. The resounding question was how could it reassemble itself on the fly? Shannon, who was conversant with both symbolic logic and electrical circuitry, produced a landmark master’s thesis with an innovative solution. Titled “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits,” the young Shannon tied Boolean logic and circuitry together, conceptualizing a path where 1’s and 0’s could represent logical operators of Boole’s (AND, OR, NOT) system, with an on switch standing for “true” and an off switch for “false.”

After a brief stint at the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton, New Jersey) Shannon joined Bell Labs to work on World War II projects. Here he found an environment that fostered cutting-edge discovery and even met a visiting Alan Turing, another key figure of the Information Age. The sections discussing the shared interests of Shannon and Turing are among the book’s high points, particularly in light of the role of computers in contemporary life. Both probed machine intelligence, feedback and programming commands, and cryptology. The authors tell us that, according to Shannon, much was also left unsaid between them. He did discuss his notions about Information Theory with Turing, but they needed to avoid cryptography because of security concerns.

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Book Review: Amy Ione reviews The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocene by Oswald J. Schmitz

The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocene
by Oswald J. Schmitz
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2016
256 pp. Trade, $35
ISBN: 978-0691160566.

Reviewed by Amy Ione
Director, The Diatrope Institute

Posted on Leonardo Reviews March 1, 2017:

Although global-scale human influence on the environment has been recognized since the 1800s, the term Anthropocene, introduced about a decade or so ago, was only accepted formally as a new geological epoch or era in Earth history in August 2016. Then an official expert group said that humanity’s impact on the Earth is now so profound that a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – should be officially declared. Ironically, this geologic term, frequently associated with ecology in the public’s mind, is generally attributed to Paul J. Crutzen, a Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist. Crutzen, who is obviously neither a geologist nor ecologist, explains its beginnings as follows:

“The Anthropocene could be said to have started in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane. This date also happens to coincide with James Watt’s design of the steam engine in 1784.” [1]

Perhaps it is because Crutzen and Oswald J. Schmitz, the author of The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocene, come from different backgrounds that there is a noteworthy difference in how each embraces the term. Schmitz’s emphasis in The New Ecology is on optimism despite what many see as a global environmental crisis. Crutzen, by contrast, sees more reason for concern, claiming that the discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica served as defining evidence that human activity has moved us into a new epoch. Indeed one of the defining features of The New Ecology is Schmitz’s assertions that the idea that Earth’s biota is doomed is incorrect: “[t]he New Ecology reveals that species may rapidly evolve and adapt to their changing environmental conditions,” and, perhaps more importantly given the concerns of many today, “[t]his gives hope that the future may not be as dire as it is often portrayed” (p. 104). In other words, while some see a grim picture, Schmitz, a professor of ecology at Yale University, declares, “the realization that evolutionary and ecological processes operate contemporaneously offers some hope that species have the capacity to adapt and thereby sustain ecological functioning” (p. 102). In support of this view Schmitz further argues that new computational tools now allow us to account for feedbacks and nonlinearities. With the ability to understand the dynamics of complex ecological systems, he claims, we are able to use models to predict how feedbacks propagate throughout food webs in response to disturbances, such as harvesting. Researchers can also explore different scenario outcomes.

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Book Review: Amy Ione reviews Art Nouveau In Buenos Aires: A love story

Art Nouveau In Buenos Aires: A love story
Anat Meidan
Ediciones Polígrafa, 2017
242 pp. Trade, US$ 55; 45.00€
ISBN: 978-8434313613.

Reviewed by Amy Ione
Director, The Diatrope Institute

Posted on Leonardo Reviews on March 1, 2017:

After the recent election in the United States, I was drawn to the title of Anat Meidan’s exquisite book, Art Nouveau In Buenos Aires: A love story. How I longed for a love story to escape the raucous tone! Meidan’s book seemed like a particularly apt vehicle since Art Nouveau was the first art movement I fell in love with as a young artist. As it turned out, this volume was the perfect salve. The author both conveyed her love for this city and shared the joy she found in exploring it:

A museum curator with a special interest in the Art Nouveau movement, the book succeeds because Meidan’s love story combines a passion for the art with a scholarly perspective. We learn that the project was seeded when she purchased a postcard with images of local Art Nouveau buildings in the city. (An image of the card is among the book’s illustrations.) This postcard led her to become a “collector of buildings” as she turned the city into an open-air museum. The large format of the volume, it measures 10×12 inches, readily conveys the elegance of her “building collection.” Credit is also due to Gustavo Sosa Pinilla, a leading architectural photographer who accompanied her on the expeditions around the city. Indeed, the use of multiple photographs helps her present both the architecture and its details. Her presentation was also helped by the generosity of people she met. She tells us that in many cases her evident interest in a site led to personal tours of private spaces. Looking back, Meidan sums us the project as follows:

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Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures by Eric R. Kandel (Reviewed by Amy Ione)

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Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures
by Eric R. Kandel
Columbia University Press, NY, NY, 2016
240 pp. Trade: $29.95, ISBN-10: 0231179626;ISBN-13: 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’ 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 sounding statements.

Clearly, Kandel read extensively in developing this volume, and sections outlining historical psychological studies and contemporary neuroscientific 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-twentieth 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 exist 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-twentieth century art critics and historians, an intriguing feature is that Clement Greenberg’s theoretical formulations most closely align with Kandel’s view, although it should be noted 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 this art critic presented the artist’s studio as if it functioned like a scientific laboratory: “It’s as though they undertook to do this as in a laboratory, spelling out everything the way it’s supposed to be done in a laboratory (though nothing could have been further from their conscious minds” [3]. As noted, Kandel claims these artists used a reductive approach that reveals their subjective and unconscious. Yet, he also claims that, “By reducing images to form, line, color, or light, abstract art relies more heavily on top-down processing – and therefore our emotions, our imagination, and our creativity” (p. 58). If the goal of reductionism is to reduce things to the simpler, bottom-up elements, Kandel’s top-down explanation of how these artists accomplished their goals, to my mind, only serves to conflate things. This kind of interpretation also reinforces the mythologies and religious overtones that have often plagued art historical commentary. In other words, Kandel’s proposal, like Greenberg’s ideas, rest upon an “unconscious” element, even as the scientist adds a wealth of scientific detail about how the observer’s brain perceives elements like shapes and color to the mix, as the following summary from Reductionism shows:

“Each work is highly ambiguous, as great poetry is, and each focuses our attention on the work itself, without reference to people or objects in the external environment. As a result, we project our own impressions, memories, aspirations, and feelings onto the canvas. It is like a perfect psychoanalytical transference, where the patient imposes upon the therapist a replay of experiences with parents and other important individuals, or like the repetition of a word or a tone in Buddhist meditation.” (p. 178)

Given Kandel’s claim that abstract art offers entry into the imagination, unconscious, and subjective states, the question of how we evaluate his scientific proposal is front and center. In other words, can we test (or falsify) Kandel’s claim that this small sample offers entry into reductively thinking about art so as to see it more in terms of science? In his autobiography Kandel quotes John Eccles to emphasize the importance of Karl Popper’s ideas about falsification to the scientific process. I would think this idea would equally apply to scientific proposals that aim to establish a reductive approach to art. He writes:

“I learned from Popper what for me is the essence of scientific investigation – how to be speculative and imaginative in the creation of hypotheses, and then challenge them with the utmost rigor, both by utilizing all existing knowledge and by mounting the most searching experimental attacks. I learned from him even to rejoice in the refutation of a cherished hypothesis, because that, too, is a scientific achievement and because much has been learned by refutation.” [4]

Ironically, although Kandel does not mention it, the very cast of art characters he includes in this volume asked whether falsification pertains to abstract art within the context of their time, the mid-twentieth century Zeitgeist in which scientific thinking was ascendant. At that time Gombrich (a close friend of Karl Popper’s) and Greenberg brought opposing views to the table, conducting their dispute within the contours of the positivism and falsification debates [5]. Unlike falsification, which advocates for an ongoing questioning of all hypotheses, positivism holds that every rationally justifiable assertion can be scientifically verified or is capable of logical or mathematical proof. The difference between the two is a matter of emphasis, one that speaks to how falsification is positioned and the difference between falsification and verification. It is easier to grasp contextually.

Essentially two issues divided Greenberg and Gombrich. The first was the question: what should a science of art include? The second was whether a theory of art could fulfill Popper’s falsification criteria. To oversimplify, Gombrich claimed we cannot falsify abstract art because there is no external correlate through which we can evaluate its credibility. This is because the products deviate from the kinds of objects that comprise our communal experience. Clement Greenberg argued exactly the opposite. For him the validity of the abstract work came about precisely because the art objects were both material products and nonobjective. The lack of an external correlate for evaluation was thus presented as a positive rather than a negative feature since known elements would not distract the viewer from engaging with precisely what the artist presented. This is not a falsifiable position methodologically because it rests on the logical proposition that essentially claims the artist is revealing deeper or a priori truths. Together, these two position raise the question of how does one disprove an ambiguous, subjective, or a priori truth – and who decides?

Popper’s falsification theory assumes it takes only a single counterinstance to falsify a statement. So, if one sees a black swan, this falsifies a statement such as “All swans are white.” In terms of what art is or who decides what art is, social context and society are often the arbiter of an artist’s statements. As it turned out, and to grossly oversimplify, Greenberg’s actions raised concerns about his evaluations of art and how we evaluate what comes out of the artist’s laboratory (the studio). Essentially, this critic lost a great deal of credibility and raised questions about critical evaluations of what an artist does after it came out that he had mutilated artworks in his care to bring them closer to his aesthetic preferences [6]. This was also one reason that styles outside of the abstract genre once again became more acceptable to the art elites in the late twentieth century. Indeed, the toppling of Greenberg’s authority played a role in encouraging the pluralism of that era.

Greenberg’s loss of stature as a viable and believable aesthetic arbiter additionally underscores that Popper introduced the falsification process precisely because there is no way to “prove” how individual and cultural biases enter scientific analyses and/or the so-called truths people attribute to or align with “higher,” “deeper,” or “spiritual” intuitions. I would add that this is particularly true when the subject is art, which includes artists with various goals who express themselves in various ways. Reductive studies of learning, memory, sensation and perception, while valuable on their own terms, do not seem robust enough to explain art’s complexity. In other words, why are people – even people within the small art community cohort – of many minds even when it comes to evaluating the small sample of work Kandel presents?

This brings me to creativity. By casting art in terms of a “beholder’s” response to objects and how these objects somehow expose the nature of self, Kandel significantly and repeatedly conflates art objects with the many nuances of artistic creativity. In doing so he surprisingly seems to lose sight of the creative aspect of art, even as creativity is so eloquently elucidated in his autobiography, In Search of Memory. In Search Kandel writes about his early interest in psychoanalysis and how he shifted his focus to the biology of the brain, which eventually led him to biology of mind. A key event was a medical school exercise:

“I had greatly enjoyed the course on the anatomy of the brain that I had taken during my second year in medical school. Louis Hausman, who taught the course, had each of us build out of colored clays a large-scale model that was four times the size of the human brain. As my classmates later described it in our yearbook, ‘The clay model stirred the dormant germ of creativity, and even the least sensitive among us begat a multihued brain.'” [7]

According to Kandel, this model gave him his first three-dimensional view of how the spinal cord and the brain come together to make up the central nervous system. He found, “[i]t was hard to look at the brain, even a clay model of it, without wondering where Freud’s ego, id, and superego were located” [8]. After explaining his urge to locate these areas to a professor, Kandel was told that probing the brain one cell at a time was a better strategy. Over the course of his life Kandel’s research led him from cells to molecules and genes before neural science offered a means to experimentally return to the biology of mind questions that so intrigued him when he first discovered Freud’s work. As an Austrian-American neuropsychiatrist, Kandel’s (b. 1929) studies have made a tremendous mark on science. He won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons. His autobiography delineates a creative individual who brings a great deal of passion to his work.

Kandel’s description of how a hands-on anatomical project stirred the medical students to think creatively brings to mind the wax models of artist/anatomist Anna Morandi Manzolini (1716-1774). She worked in Bologna, a community where men and women, artists and scientists, engaged one another, much like they did in the Fin-de-si – ècle Vienna that Kandel described in The Age of Insight or as we do in the Leonardo community of today. Trained as a sculptor, Morandi went on to make renowned objects that were collected throughout Europe during her lifetime due to the artistry she brought to her studies of the body. For example, her exquisite self-portrait with a brain presents her dissecting the organ in period clothing and jewelry, even as it fails to show that her nimble fingers led to original discoveries. Her piece does show her hands in a revelatory posture as if to suggest she is explaining the brain she has just dissected, however [9]. This piece also reminds us that, even when brain studies were limited to the gross cortical anatomy, cross-disciplinary projects were a part of our cultural evolution. Indeed, Luigi Galvani, an early contributor to our understanding of the brain and the father of electrophysiology, held Morandi’s art in high regard. For him, her works did not bring to mind the putrid smells that accompanied dissections. Rather, as Galvani wrote, these elegant, beautiful models would please viewers so much that they would be drawn to undertake the study of anatomy.

Reductionism in Art and Brain Science does not capture this kind of interface or how sketching out an idea or making a model might help an artist begin to conceptualize compelling directions for a work as she develops it, much as the model of the brain Kandel built in medical school helped him ponder possibilities – bootstrapping, if you will. Nor does the book capture how one’s personal context and the community at large aid (or hinder) in fitting an artist’s presentation together.

Because disciplinary interweaving exists today, as it has throughout history, the popularity of the Two Cultures meme has always puzzled me [10]. It was particularly puzzling to find it in the title of Kandel’s Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures. Yet, after reading this volume, it made more sense because Kandel’s creative mind and personality, so evident in his autobiography, seemed somewhat remote in this recent book. Both books are engaging, clear, concise, easy to read, and well written. Yet, while his autobiography suggests a man who easily bridges art and science – he is an art collector and loves music – he comes across more as a science educator in Reductionism. This makes the book a valuable tool for those who want to learn more about brain operations, particularly visual perception, but it is unclear what role he thinks art and artists play in discussions combining art and science – other than providing products scientists can explain and interpret to a limited degree. After reading the volume I was unable to conceptualize why those of us on the art side of things would want to reduce art to a reductionistic methodology that largely treats art as objects that others “behold.” In other words, his approach largely excludes the nuances of artistic praxis, the variety of media artists use, the collaborative projects that often accompany creative insights as paradigms change, the range of artistic styles, how tastes change, and our differing experiential preferences when we engage with art. Of course, and perhaps needless to say, many on the art side of things also do not see art as a problem we need to solve or resolve.

While it is perhaps an impossible task to speak to the uniqueness of each individual, the strongest section of the book, on Chuck Close, does not rely on metaphorical or historical canards. Rather, Kandel looks at how Close came to do the kind of work he does. A dyslexic who suffers from the neurological condition of prosopagnosia (face blindness), this artist can identify a face as a face but he cannot look at someone’s face and recognize that person. Kandel discusses the role of the brain deficit in Close’s art and thus we see how traits specific to this artist’s person have translated into his creative projects over the years. He developed a style that centers on the elaboration of details in faces. Although unmentioned in the book, when Close decided to paint faces early in his career it was a radical departure from Abstract Expressionist tenets because it defied Greenberg’s pronouncement that portraiture was no longer a legitimate subject for painting.

I would have liked more examples like Close and more engagement with open-ended questions. While not integrated into the art analyses, Kandel does mention recent research that offers avenues for positioning art and the brain in novel ways. Scientific work related to brain modification during our lives is an intriguing area precisely because it lends itself to the range of art people produce and the plurality within the hard to categorize projects we call art. Similarly studies showing that the architecture of each individual’s brain is unique – because each of us has a different life experience – hold promise. Moreover, because artists produce throughout their lives biological changes within them are mirrored in their oeuvre’s evolution over the course of their lives. Although he mentions studies showing the brain’s potential for modification with age, for example, he did not pursue this line of thinking.

Finally, how an individual’s context influences her views is evident even within this review. I became interested in art and the brain during the Decade of the Brain, the 1990s. An artist myself, and a practitioner of the kind of abstract work Kandel celebrates in Reductionism in Art and Science, my turn to the brain came about because both art history and the same psychology of art Kandel references as his starting point for this study failed to address something I thought was important and was unable to state. In the 1990s many art historians were developing broader, contextual, and more pluralistic approaches. Those within the cross-disciplinary cognitive neuroscience purview, by contrast, were simply perplexed that an artist was interested in the brain. Indeed, I quickly learned that the easiest way to end a conversation with a cognitive neuroscientist then was to say that I was interested in art and the brain. Before turning away the person would usually say something to the effect that art is not a valid component of the biology of mind approach. If there was not total disdain, the scientist or philosopher might add that this is because art is about emotions and deeper truths. So, on some level, reading this book was like watching my entire life pass before my eyes. Kandel’s Reductionism is now one of many recent books demonstrating that art is finally on the map of cognitive neuroscience. I applaud this even as I find many of the volumes remind me of how difficult it is to work in this area. Suffice it to say that as an artist I, strangely, found the narrative Kandel presented in his autobiography more in line with my thinking about who artists are and what I, and artists I know, do – even as art was not the subject of that earlier book.

So, in summary, those who are want to learn more about brain operations, particularly visual perception, will find a great deal of excellent material in Reductionism in Art and Science. As for art per se, I think reader responses will vary based on who they are and what their own vision of art is. Needless to say, building bridges that aid communication is always a worthwhile endeavor. I applaud his effort to reach out.


[1] Kandel, Eric R. 2012. The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain: From Vienna 1900 To The Present. New York: Random House.

[2] Gombrich, E.H. 2000. Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[3] Greenberg, Clement. 1999. Homemade Esthetics: Observations on Art and Taste. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 36.

[4] Kandel, Eric R. 2006. In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, p. 97.

[5] A good source for this debate is Jones, Caroline A. 2005. Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[6] Krauss, Rosalind. 1983. “Changing the Work of David Smith.” Art Journal 43 (1):89-95. doi: 10.1080/00043249.1983.10792208.

[7] [4], p.44

[8] [4], p.55

[9] An image is available at

[10] Ione, Amy. 2016. Art and the Brain: Plasticity, Embodiment, and the Unclosed Circle. Amsterdam: Rodopi Brill.

Reviewed by Amy Ione (ione [at] diatrope [dot] com)
Director, The Diatrope Institute

Source: Leonardo Reviews: