In the old days, the words “art” and “science” did not mean the same thing they mean today, at least in academia. Today, unfortunately, they have almost come to mean opposites. You can’t be doing both at once. Or, at least, that’s what people who haven’t thought about it much may think.
Art can be used to engage people in science, and science can provide a subject for art, and in various ways, the twain shall meet.
But in Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures, Erik Kandel does something both more extreme and more specific than simply joining the two endeavors. Kandel has a long career in the neurosciences, and a long standing interest in art, and he’s combined these two lived experiences to make a very interesting book.
Reductionism is the distillation of something complex into something simpler while still maintaining central or key meaning. Grab the nearest art book and find two pictures of the same thing, one with nearly photographic detail and the other using just a few colors and shapes. Like this:
See the difference? Two bulls, not the same picture.
I won’t show you a picture of science being reductionist because science is reductionist most of the time.
You can reduce art, and you can reduce science. And, you can artfully reduce science and scientifically reduce art. And, the New York School of abstract art and other abstract traditions (people like Turner, Monet, Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Louis, Turrell, and Flavin, Kandinsky, Schoenberg, and Mondrian) scientifically reduced art, which forms a good part of the focus of Kandel’s book. A major contribution of this work is a deep and unique understanding of the origin of what we generally call modern art.
Kandel examines cognition and perception through a radically reduced bottom up approach in a similar way that early 20th century artists did, and examines art in the same way. His book is full of understanding of the evolution of thinking about cognition and of art.
The book includes excellent illustrations, is carefully documented, and comprises a scholarly work accessible by any interested party.
Here’s the TOC:
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