The Age of Insight

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The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present
by Eric Kandel Random House, 2012. 656 pages; Reviewed by Jackie Fabrick

Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel’s voluminous The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present is a fascinating, albeit dense, examination of the interrelations between art and science. Kandel strategically and chronologically presents the argument for the resurgence of a dialogue between art and science, detailing the results of such collaborations through an in-depth exploration of Vienna at the turn of the last century.

The Age of Insight is a joining together of Kandel’s passion, the art of Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele, also known as the Viennese Modernists, and his own life’s work in neuropsychiatry. Kandel was born in Vienna in 1929 and moved to Brooklyn, NY in 1939. He received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000 for his research on memory storage in neurons. It was while preparing for a talk in 2001 that Kandel linked the Viennese Modernists to the Vienna School of Medicine and psychoanalysis. The premise of The Age of Insight was born on that day.

Kandel outlines his vision to facilitate an ongoing dialogue between art and science in The Age of Insight. Kandel argues for convergence of diverse studies in the quest for continued evolution of our understanding of the science of the mind (the result of the merging of cognitive psychology and neuroscience) and of the creative fields as well. Kandel proposes that “such dialogues could help us explore the mechanisms in the brain that make perception and creativity possible, whether in art, the sciences, the humanities, or everyday life. In a larger sense, this dialogue could help make science part of our common cultural experience” (xiv).  He uses Vienna in the early 1900s to illustrate how rich and collaborative such a dialogue can be, leading to new insights not only in science, but in art as well.

The argument for a resurrection of the dialogues of fin-de-siècle Vienna is not one that is half-baked. Indeed, Kandel’s treatise is 656 pages of researched, vetted, eloquently stated examples of how diverse disciplines have inspired the breaking of new grounds in other disciplines. Kandel builds layer upon layer, creating a deep, rich mosaic, linking artists, philosophers, psychologists, psychoanalysts, neuroscientists, and writers together to demonstrate how each, in their seemingly separate field of work, has influenced the other.

Each chapter builds upon the evidence he provided in the previous chapter. The completion of one chapter leaves the reader with a teaser of what is to come in the next. Parts of the book are incredibly technical, and to a reader who may be unfamiliar with the fundamentals of brain science, it may at times feel like they have been mistakenly placed in a master class. But, even when deep into the explanation of the inner workings of the brain, Kandel drops little gems, such as when describing the process of vision, he summarizes how the brain interprets what we see as “not a camera but a Homeric storyteller” (351), reaching out to those readers that may have more of an artistic inclination than that of a neuroscientist.

As detailed in the title, Kandel’s reach is vast, spanning more than a century and a staggering amount of information and knowledge is dispensed throughout the text. He does not, in fact, start in Vienna 1900, but reaches back into the mid-1800’s to look at what affect the Vienna School of Medicine, specifically Carl von Rokitansky’s (the head of the Vienna School of Medicine) insistence on looking below the surface to find answers had on the work of Sigmund Freud and the Viennese Modernists: Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele.

Vienna in 1900 is the crux of The Age of Insight and serves as an example of the circumstances that may facilitate open dialogues. Kandel cites the relatively small size of Vienna at that time, the social context of the University, coffeehouses, and salons that allowed for cross-discipline discussions and sharing of information, and a common interest in the unconscious mind. This is not a social history. Kandel offers few specific examples of salon meetings, primarily that of Klimt’s introduction to the scientist Emil Zuckerkandl, who invited Klimt to “watch him dissect cadavers” (32) and provided Klimt with knowledge of the workings of the human form. Rather, Kandel focuses on the impact of shared knowledge. By focusing in on the Viennese Modernists, Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele, Kandel establishes a reference point and creates a sense of familiarity in the works of these three artists for his reader.

The first chapters are an engrossing history of the three artists, complete with beautiful images of their works, which Kandel explores and references throughout the book. Their style and influences, including that of biology, medicine and psychoanalysis on Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele are comprehensively explored. The evolution, relationship and influence, from Klimt to Kokoschka, from Kokoschka to Schiele is examined, as the invention and popularity of photography allowed artists to break away from realistic paintings of portraits and landscapes, we see how this gave artists the freedom to turn inward, delving into the inner self and the unconscious mind. In succession, each of these three artists went deeper to explore the inner workings of the mind.

The artists were not the only ones exploring the inner workings of the mind in Vienna at that time. Interwoven throughout the overview of the lives and works of Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele, is the influence of Sigmund Freud and his groundbreaking understanding of the unconscious mind. Freud’s contributions to how we understand the mind is comprehensively examined, and Kandel, who is trained in psychoanalysis, references Freud’s lasting impact on the world of psychology and the science of the brain as well. Kandel parallels the work of Freud and the work of the Viennese Modernists and examines how scientist and artist both explored the unconscious and the inner workings of the mind.

Kandle includes a chapter on the writer Arthur Schnitzler. While interesting, the chapter is not fundamental to the book and easily forgotten as Schnitzler is not woven into the fabric of the book as eloquently or considerately as others. Perhaps Kandel meant to include the breadth of influence that the focus on the unconscious mind and explorations of new ways of expression had on artists in Vienna around the turn of the century, as Schnitzler illustrated this on the literary side, but, in such a lengthy and well-executed book, it seems misplaced.

Kandel does produce a clear picture of the two-way influence between art and science by using the Viennese Modernists as example and anchor throughout the book. With this foundation in place, Kandel moves the reader forward in time to the 1930s and describes how cognitive psychology was folded into art history with the development of a cognitive psychology of art, or “an interdisciplinary psychology of perception and emotion – with the idea that it might ultimately pave the way for a biological approach to perception, emotion and empathy” (62). This ultimately came into fruition as the collaboration between brain biology and cognitive psychology has led to a greater understanding of how we view and respond to art. Kandel explains that science provides evidence of how we respond to art, but that art “provides insight into the more fleeting, experiential qualities of mind, what a certain experience feels like. A brain scan may reveal the neural signs of depression, but a Beethoven symphony reveals what that depression feels like. Both perspectives are necessary if we are to fully grasp the nature of mind, yet are rarely brought together” (xvi). And Kandel provides an in-depth exploration of the phenomenal advancements into the science of the mind that has been made in the last two decades to allow us to not only see what depression feels like, but how a Beethoven symphony may in fact make us feel depressed, or how an Egon Schiele portrait may elicit feelings of anxiety.

It is the final portion of the book in which Kandel transitions from his personal passion to his life work that the read can become daunting. The allure of absolutely phenomenal discoveries about how the mind works and how it impacts our understanding of art will keep the dedicated reader motivated to continue on as Kandel helpfully navigates the inner workings of the brain. The reader is rewarded for their efforts with a new and deeper understanding of how we perceive, feel emotion, process information, and yes, view and respond to art.

One of the most fascinating explorations and revelations is the science regarding the viewer’s involvement in looking at a piece of art, also known as the beholder’s share. The beholder has long been a known quantity in art appreciation. Artists as far back as Leonardo da Vinci have acknowledged the critical role of the viewer. In 1930s Vienna, art historians elaborated upon the concept of the beholder’s share and developed new theory on the role of the beholder. In the last two decades, with advancements in neuroscience, we now have an even clearer picture of how one views and responds to art. Continuing with the Viennese Modernists, Kandel notes how they aimed to change the relationship with the beholder: as the artists explored their own unconscious, they asked the viewer to experience empathy toward the subject and perhaps even look inward as well. Klimt and the Viennese Modernists sought to alter the relationship with the viewer by helping the “viewers look at art and at themselves in a new, more emotionally introspective way that would acknowledge the psyche of the sitter and thus illuminate the unconscious anxieties and instinctual drives present in everyone” (108).

It is in the realm of linking the beholder’s share to science of the mind where Kandel really shines. Kandel details the historical steps that led to current revelations in the science of the mind to greater understanding of how we perceive art. He takes the reader on a guided tour of the brain, stopping to explain how each part of the brain, from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex, even the role of each and every neurotransmitter is involved in our viewing of art. He describes what we know about the biology of vision, memory, and emotions and how all of these play a role in art appreciation. Through this in-depth exploration of the inner workings of the brain, he again richly illustrates the text and continually references the works of the Viennese Modernists. It may be helpful to keep a packet of post-it flags handy to mark specific pages as the reader will want to return to the seminal works of Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele as Kandel describes how the brain works to perceive different aspects of a work of art. If reading on an e-reader, be sure to have a high quality, color device so that you can see the images in the highest resolution possible and use the e-reader to enlarge the pictures to really hone in on the aspect of the art that Kandel is referencing.

In his thorough exploration of the science of the mind, Kandel explores how artists, including Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele, and even artist before them had a deeper understanding of how we see and experience art before science had the evidence to prove it. For example, subjects of portraits by Kokoschka and Schiele, whether self-portraits or portraits of others, frequently were painted gazing out so that the viewer is made to look directly at the subject. Kandel explains that this forces the brain to respond very differently than if one were looking at a portrait in which the eyes of the subject are focused elsewhere. Kandel uses examples such as this to bring the world of the science of the mind closer to the world of art; illustrating how artists often inherently know what science is just now discovering.

There were incredible advances in our understanding of the human mind in Vienna 1900. Artists were obviously impacted by this, as is evident in the exploration of the inner workings of the subjects depicted in the portraits. Kokoschka embraced emotional uses of color in his paintings and portraits, rather than the conventional, realistic use of color, thereby increasing the emotional impact felt by the viewer. And Kandel posits that “many insights into the brain processes are likely to benefit contemporary artists by revealing the critical features of emotional response” (507). With the unprecedented advancements in science of the mind in the past two decades, how would contemporary artists be influenced if there was a setting for an open dialogue between today’s neurologists, psychologists, and other scientists working directly with the brain and human behavior? What would change in how artists create and how the viewer perceives a work of art?

Kandel states that “art is an inherently pleasurable and instructive attempt by the artist and the beholder to communicate and share with each other the creative process that characterizes every human brain – a process that leads to an Aha! moment, the sudden recognition that we have seen into another person’s mind, and that allows us to see the truth underlying both the beauty and the ugliness depicted by the artist” (393). Perhaps we will have many more “Aha! moments” if we have writers like Kandel taking the time to explore how their passions and their jobs are really connected.

Readers should not be intimidated by the scope of Kandel’s book. He writes eloquently, and even with humor. Yes, the inner workings of the brain can be quite technical, but the core of this book and the insights revealed are certainly worth a read for any that are curious and prepared to spend some time getting to know how the mind works. Perhaps a dialogue will form between artists, scientists, psychologists, and neurologists who have read The Age of Insight. Perhaps we will see a resurgence of open communication and a sharing of ideas as we learn more about the science of the mind. As long as there are minds like Kandel’s to share the knowledge, perhaps there is room for dialogues to form.

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