The Age of Insight: How the Cross-Pollination of Art and Science in Early 20th-Century Vienna Shaped Modern Culture
What Freud has to do with Klimt and the neuroscience of a Beethoven symphony.
By Maria Popova
Something unusual defined Vienna between 1890 and 1918, something that shaped more of Western culture than we dare suspect — artists, writers, thinkers and scientists across biology, medicine, and psychoanalysis came into regular contact and, in the process of these interactions, steered the course of modern art and science. In The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present (public library), Nobel laureate Eric Kandel traces the spark of this ongoing dialogue between art and science through three key elements: the exchange of insights between seminal modern artists and the members of the Vienna School of Medicine; the Vienna School of Art History’s exploration of the interaction between art and the cognitive psychology of art in the 1930s; and modern science’s relatively nascent preoccupation with an emotional neuroaesthetic, bridging cognitive psychology and biology to examine our perceptual, emotional, and emphatic responses to works of art.
Kandel argues — much like physicist Lawrence Krauss recently suggested — that science and art share the same fundamental questions, but go about answering them in different ways. While brain science is concerned with the mental life that arises from the activity of the brain, including how perception and memory work, and what defines consciousness, art offers insight into the more experiential qualities of mind, like the subjective measures of what certain experiences feel like. Kandel observes:
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 they are rarely brought together.
(Cue in Jonah Lehrer’s articulate case for “a fourth culture of knowledge” that brings together the sciences and the humanities for a necessary dialogue that enriches both.)
But among Kandel’s greatest feats is the eloquent, rigorous debunking of the popular myth that bringing the lens of science to art would somehow detract from our enjoyment of the latter. (In the process, he slips in a fine addition to this recent omnibus of definitions of science.)
Science seeks to understand complex processes by reducing them to their essential actions and studying the interplay of those actions — and this reductionist approach extends to art as well. Indeed, my focus on one school of art, consisting of only three major representatives, is an example of this. Some people are concerned that a reductionist analysis will diminish our fascination with art, that it will trivialize art and deprive it of its special force, thereby reducing the beholder’s share to an ordinary brain function. I argue to the contrary, that by encouraging a dialogue between science and art and by encouraging a focus on one mental process at a time, reductionism can expand our vision and give us new insights into the nature and creation of art. These new insights will enable us to perceive unexpected aspects of art that derive from the relationship between biological and psychological phenomena.
He goes on to argue that, rather than reducing the complexity and richness of the art experience, the scientific understanding of the brain and its responses might help us better understand the very impulses and aims of creativity and would “contribute to a broader cultural framework for art history, aesthetics, and cognitive psychology.”
To keep this dialogue between the arts and sciences coherent and maximally meaningful, Kandel focuses his lens on one particular form of art. Portraiture lands itself to scientific exploration uniquely, thanks to a long legacy of studies of human facial emotional expression, shaped by Darwin’s photographic experiments, and a sufficient scientific understanding of how we respond to the facial expressions and body language of others, perceptually, emotionally, and empathically.
Kandel further focuses the discussion on three specific modernist artists — Gustav Klimt, Oscar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele — who “emphasized that the function of the modern artist was not to convey beauty, but to convey new truths.”
Klimt, for instance, read Darwin and became fascinated by the structures of the cell, which permeated his work. In his iconic portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the small iconographic images on Adele’s dress aren’t mere decoration — they symbolize male and female cells, with rectangles representing sperm and ovals eggs. Kandel writes:
These biologically inspired fertility symbols are designed to match the sitter’s seductive face to her full-blown reproductive capabilities.
(In heartening evidence for the cultural potency of such cross-pollination of disciplines, Adele’s portrait fetched Klimt $135 million — the most ever paid for an individual painting by that point in history, and in stark contrast with Klimt’s otherwise unremarkable career prior.)
Meanwhile, a chain of influential scientists on the Vienna scene, stretching from Second Vienna School of Medicine founder Carl von Rokitansky to Freud, built a new dynamic framework of the human psyche, which radically changed the understanding of the human mind. Through conversations with artists that took place in museums, opera houses, theaters, and coffee houses — the same Enlightenment epicenters Steven Johnson points to as crucial for innovation in Where Good Ideas Come From — these ideas entered the scope of artistic concern and were soon translated onto canvases.
Kandel brings it all together for the modern reader by outlining our current understanding of the science of perception, memory, emotion, empathy, and creativity — in short, what makes us human — and how it shapes our experience of art, making The Age of Insight not just fascinating but necessary.
Published April 11, 2012