Art And Neurobiology In "The Age Of Insight"

Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Alexander C. Kafka reviews an interesting-looking new book on aesthetics by neuroscientist Eric Kandel: The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present. Kafka quotes Kandel’s analysis of Gustav Klimt’s Judith and the Head of Holofernes:


At a base level, the aesthetics of the image’s luminous gold surface, the soft rendering of the body, and the overall harmonious combination of colors could activate the pleasure circuits, triggering the release of dopamine. If Judith’s smooth skin and exposed breast trigger the release of endorphins, oxytocin, and vasopressin, one might feel sexual excitement. The latent violence of Holofernes’s decapitated head, as well as Judith’s own sadistic gaze and upturned lip, could cause the release of norepinephrine, resulting in increased heart rate and blood pressure and triggering the fight-or-flight response. In contrast, the soft brushwork and repetitive, almost meditative, patterning may stimulate the release of serotonin. As the beholder takes in the image and its multifaceted emotional content, the release of acetylcholine to the hippocampus contributes to the storing of the image in the viewer’s memory. What ultimately makes an image like Klimt’s ‘Judith’ so irresistible and dynamic is its complexity, the way it activates a number of distinct and often conflicting emotional signals in the brain and combines them to produce a staggeringly complex and fascinating swirl of emotions.

While I’m generally partial to mechanistic and evolutionary-psych analysis, and imagine that our circuits are indeed lighting up per Kandel's description, when it comes to slicing and dicing how and why art moves us, I prefer Camille Paglia’s style of Freud-infused pop-culture riffing and inconography.

Writing about the power of the same painting in her Sexual Personae, Paglia's take seems more compelling, without delving into the grey matter:

The Jewish heroine of Florentine art is now a cynical demimondine with a cold, worldly Joan Crawford face. Smiling, she runs her fingers through dead Holofernes’ hair, parodying romantic tenderness. Her white expanse of breast and belly and taunting directness of gaze come from Von Stuck’s Eve.

Dopamine levels don't seem quite as interesting. But, as the reviewer explains, there's much more to the book than which neurons fire where. Kandel’s focus on just three Viennese artists, Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele, allows him “to compare the painters’ rendering of emotion, the unconscious, and the libido with contemporaneous psychological insights from Freud about latent aggression, pleasure and death instincts, and other primal drives.”

Art history and theory with a focus on Klimt, with both neurobiological and tell-me-about-your-mother insights? If Kandel throws in even a few Pagliaesque Chthonic taboos or Mommie Dearest references, we may have a winner.

h/t Arts & Letters Daily

[Image from Wikimedia Commons]