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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind & Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present by Eric Kandel

Detail of Judith by Gustav Klimt

The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind & Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present
by Eric Kandel
Random House, published 2012

  The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind & Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present reads something like a 600 page New Yorker article written by a Nobel Prize Winner in neuroscience.  The main project of The Age of Insight is to create linkages between the way artists and scientists thought about the unconscious in Vienna around the turn of the century with more recent developments in brain science.  Kandel is not the first author to postulate that the mix of Freud, Klimt, Schiele and others represents a critical point in the transition into "Modernity." 

  In particular, the "art" chapters of this book very much track the ideas developed by historian Peter Gay in his books about Freud and Vienna. For a variety of reasons relating to the type of people and type of society in Vienna in the late 19th and early 20th century, there was fertile cross-pollination between art and science in a way that would become impossible with the increased professionalization of both areas later in the 20th century.  Kandel does bring in material on the scientific side that extends beyond the Freud heavy analysis of Peter Gay.

  His chapter on the Vienna School of Medicine and the role of Carl von Rokitansky in establishing a scientific basis for medicine after he was appointed the head in 1844 provides a much needed opening chapter for the scientific/artistic revolution to follow.  Kandel is up to speed on network theory and the recently popular idea that innovation comes from the interaction of small groups of specific individuals with common interests.  In late 19th and early 20th century Vienna, a transitory period where anti-Semitism was unfashionable and many restrictions were lifted on Jewish activity resulted in an influx of wealthy, sophisticated Jews into the Austrian professional and social hierarchy.

  Given the lengthy, multi-part title of the book, I was a little surprised that the word "Vision" or "Visual" didn't make it into the mix, since The Age of Insight is equally about sight and vision as it is about the unconscious.  After laying out a straight forward description of the expressionist art of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka, Kandel plunges into a hundred years of neuroscience.  This is the area where Kandel spent his career, and the field where he became a Nobel Prize winner...and it shows.

   When it comes to the science concepts, Kandel shows an obvious command of the material.  His writing isn't dumbed down, but he does a great job of avoiding jargon.  Kandel's major concern is to make the case that thinkers like Freud and artists like Klimt and Schiele correctly anticipated deep truths about brain functioning that weren't proven true until the 1990s, when advanced neuroscience made it possible to fully image different parts of the brain and correlate it to particular activities.

  His insights are too numerous to catalog, but for anyone with an interest in 20th century art, aesthetics, science and the overlap between those subjects, The Age of Insight is a must read.

 

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