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Science combines with art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

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Neuroscientists ordinarily do not command large audiences when they speak. But when neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel accepted an invitation to lecture from the Friends of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts on Thursday morning (January 9, 2014), dozens of Minnesota art lovers jettisoned their post-holiday activities for the chance to hear this Columbia University professor and Nobel Prize winner explain the covert relationship between science and art.

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What the standing-room-only crowds in the lecture and overflow rooms heard was a graduate-level survey of the histories of Western art and the biological sciences over the past 200 years. Dividing his narrative into three phases, Kandel opened with Carl von Rokitansky’s transformation of medicine from a speculative branch of natural philosophy to an applied science of diagnosis and cure. From there, Rokitansky’s pupil, Sigmund Freud, and several artists associated with the University of Vienna, Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele, recognized art as a means for recognizing the unconscious motivations that underlie people’s personal behaviors.

In the second phase, Kandel identified Viennese art historians Alois Riegl, Ernst Kris, and Ernst Gombrich as changing people’s perception of art and mind from a representational to a participatory activity. Gombrich’s concept of the “beholder’s share” declares that each viewer shares through the lens of his or her individual experience the artist’s experience in creating an art work. As a result, “great art is ambiguous” and tricks the hardwiring of people’s brains in beautiful, unconscious ways.

Kandel’s third phase combines biology and art whereby the artist’s skill, particularly in portraiture, arouses the viewer’s empathy with the subject. Because most people respond to subtle facial expressions, bioscientists can map the simulated activity shared between artist and viewer in the brain to formulate a basic theory of mind. An explanation for why people love impressionistic portraiture but dislike Cubistic representations, for example, results from the former movement’s ability to stimulate the brain’s pleasure centers while the latter movement’s multi-perceptual treatment “screws up [their] mental processing.”

In a brief question and answer session, Kandel cautioned against overselling “what science can bring to art.” Science identifies which parts of the brain light up while viewing a picture or other love object, but it also reveals that people appear to respond even “more powerfully to rejection than the real thing.” Since “our understanding of the brain is [still] very modest,” Kandel feels the true significance of neuroscientific research of art fosters the empathy that builds a “bridge between science and the humanities.”

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