A&O READING – EXCERPT from Reductionism in Art and Brain Science (Introduction)



Excerpt from Reductionism in Art and Brain Science (Introduction)

ART involves creativity in the recipient or observer as much as in the artist 


Reductionism, taken from the Latin word reducere, “to lead back,” does not necessarily imply analysis on a more limited scale. Scientific reductionism often seeks to explain a complex phenomenon by examining one of its components on a more elementary, mechanistic level. Understanding discrete levels of meaning then paves the way for exploration of broader questions—how these levels are organized and integrated to orchestrate a higher function.

Thus scientific reductionism can be applied to the perception of a single line, a complex scene, or a work of art that evokes powerful feelings. It might be able to explain how a few expert brushstrokes can create a portrait of an individual that is far more compelling than a person in the flesh, or why a particular combination of colors can evoke a sense of serenity, anxiety, or exaltation.

Artists often use reductionism to serve a different purpose. By reducing figuration, artists enable us to perceive an essential component of a work in isolation, be it form, line, color, or light. The isolated component stimulates aspects of our imagination in ways that a complex image might not. We perceive unexpected relationships in the work, as well as, perhaps, new connections between art and our perception of the world and new connections between the work of art and our life experiences as recalled in memory.

A reductionist approach even has the capacity to bring forth in the beholder a spiritual response to the art. My central premise is 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.

For example, …early in his career J.M.W. Turner painted a struggle at sea between a ship heading for a distant harbor and the natural elements: the storm clouds and rain bearing down on the ship. Years later, Turner recast this struggle, reducing the ship and the storm to their most elemental forms. His approach allowed the viewer’s creativity to fill in details, thereby conveying even more powerfully the contest between the rolling ship and the forces of nature. Thus, while Turner explores the boundaries of our visual perception, he does so to engage us more fully with his art, not to explain the mechanisms underlying visual perception.

Reductionism is not the only fruitful approach to biology, or even to brain science. Important, often critical insights are gained by combining approaches, as is evident in the advances made in brain science through computational and theoretical analysis. Indeed, a major step forward in the study of the brain was the scientific synthesis that occurred in the 1970s, when psychology, the science of mind, merged with neuroscience, the science of the brain. The result of this unification was a new, biological science of mind that enables scientists to address a range of questions about ourselves: How do we perceive, learn, and remember? What is the nature of emotion, empathy, and consciousness? This new science of mind promises not only a deeper understanding of what makes us who we are but also to make possible meaningful dialogues between brain science and other areas of knowledge, such as art. Science attempts to move us toward greater objectivity, a more accurate description of the nature of things. By examining the perception of art as an interpretation of sensory experience, scientific analysis can, in principle, describe how the brain perceives and responds to a work of art, and give us insights into how this experience transcends our everyday perception of the world around us. The new, biological science of mind aspires to a deeper understanding of ourselves by creating a bridge from brain science to art, as well as to other areas of knowledge. If successful, this endeavor will help us understand better how we respond to, and perhaps even create, works of art. Some scholars are concerned that focusing on reductionist approaches used by artists will diminish our fascination with art and trivialize our perception of its deeper truths. I argue to the contrary: appreciating the reductionist methods used by artists in no way diminishes the richness or complexity of our response to art. In fact, the artists I consider in this book have used just such an approach to explore and illuminate the foundations of artistic creation. As Henri Matisse observed: “We are closer to attaining cheerful serenity by simplifying thoughts and figures. Simplifying the idea to achieve an expression of joy. That is our only deed.”

(From Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures. By Eric Kandel (2016) published by Columbia University Press.)

Now look at Kandel’s Chapter 13