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

By page xvi of the Preface to Eric Kandel’s Age of Insight we already know the author’s in trouble. Kandel has just informed us that he’s going to look at artworks produced by Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka or a writer like Arthur Schnitzler in the early twentieth century for parallels with the insights in neurobiology that he himself has pioneered in our century, and for which he won a Nobel Prize. These artists, Kandel explains, understood that “the function of the modern artist was not to convey beauty, but to convey new truths.”

Stop right there. So there’s something called “Beauty” and then there’s something called “Truth,” and one or the other, or sometimes both together get “conveyed,” is that it?  Kandel has taken up the Kantian distinction between the phenomenal world (the world of pure aesthetic perception) and the nounenal world, the world of intellectual constructs that includes what we like to call Truth. Obviously—ominously—he’s unaware that this distinction was hotly debated and rethought across all levels of artistic and intellectual society in Vienna at the turn of the century and beyond: Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, art historians like Alois Riegl, even jurists like Hans Kelsen took up positions around these issues; and their Kantianism was strongly modified by Schopenhauer's reconfiguration of the distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal. This is a first concern: that Kandel does not have a sufficient background in Fin-de-Siècle culture and philosophy to pursue his own thesis; and sure enough, he comes up later on with a number of stunning bloopers, such as the claim that Gustav Klimt was the first to see women as both seductive and destructive. Sink your teeth into that one, Dracula.

The second, more troubling, concern, is that Kandel takes up this Kantian distinction as an a-priori, a biological fact if you will, so he’s bound to confuse Kant’s subjective, historically determined assumptions about what’s seen and how the seeing proceeds, with what he imagines to be eternal truths about the brain and Art. The Truth he detects in Klimt is merely the same subjective point of view from which he himself approaches the artists, that’s why their separate approaches seem to blend into one; except that Klimt's approach is far more complex than Kandel imagines; so, of course, are Schiele's and Freud's and Schnitzler's. Especially Freud who was aware, as Kandel is not, that his findings were always under the cloud of social and historic determination. Like all positivists, Kandel becomes what he beholds, that’s why he chooses to behold it in the first place: It’s a built-in ideological Heisenberg Principle without a hint of Uncertainty.

The third problem, the only one that’s worthy of serious scholarly alarm, is that Kandel’s apparent motive for stepping so far outside his realm of competence is to shore up his own scientific theories in the area he knows best, neurobiology. Kandel makes it hard to forget how forgettable the first Nobel Prize-winner in literature was, and why: his name was Sully Prudhomme, you’ve heard of him no doubt. Prudhomme’s poetry is eminently shallow, but this was not obvious at the time since the poetry “illustrated” any number of serious philosophical, ethical and political issues. Likewise, Kandel does not so much resolve serious questions about art and perception, as he illustrates them. Will Kandel go down in History as the Sully Prudhomme of Neurobiology? Will he stand to Science as Henry Kissinger stands to Peace? He seems to be a nice guy…

Let me deal with what I know, the art-historical aspects of The Age of Insight. It’s dreadful stuff. There are blatant factual misrepresentations; there is heavy lifting of art-historical jargon and art-talk. (Page 113 in the hardcover edition is a good example of how bad it gets.) There are wide borrowings from ill-digested and contradictory secondary sources; almost all of Kandel's citations are in English; and there is that consistent inattention to detail that one finds in an introductory textbook in Art History, where artists are included, not for what makes them unique, but for what makes them representative of some banal art-historical category. As in all positivism it's the theory that defines content.

But that’s penny-anthemion stuff. It's the sexual-cultural theorizing that's most disturbing. At one point Kandel brings in Dr. Ruth Westheimer to back up the bizarre assertion that Klimt’s numerous drawings of women masturbating show that Klimt” “understood” women, while Freud did not. Kandel recycles the old myth of the Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm according to which Freud denied women were capable of clitoral orgasm; that would be a clinical non-sequitur even if it were true of Freud, since there's little to suggest that the women getting off in Klimt’s drawings are headed for orgasm to begin with. Besides, the assumption that Freud was ignorant of female masturbation is sow-wash: Freud noted the shift from self-stimulation in pre-adolescent girls to a greater emphasis on vaginal penetration as they reached puberty; doubtless, his conclusions are open to feminist criticism since it’s unclear whether the shift he described is socially conditioned or biological [Roudinesco p. 994]; to complicate matters, Freud shared these same ideas with his friend and disciple Marie Bonaparte, who may not have known more about female orgasms than any other woman but at least knew that much. Kandel’s sympathies are for the biological, and they go to Klimt who, as I wrote elsewhere, mostly viewed women as biological functions with a body appended. In his effort to present Klimt as somehow “ahead” of Freud, Kandel claims (twice!) that Klimt was married to Emilie Flöge and “had numerous meaningful [!] romantic affairs;” that “Schnitzler, Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele… understood women better than Freud,” while “Freud remained remarkably ignorant about female sexuality.” Klimt usually shows women enjoying themselves during penetration and not during masturbation, which at best would place him on the same level as Sigmund and Marie.

Kandel's just envious because Freud didn't win a Nobel Prize.

Kandel gives substantial coverage to Schiele’s sexualized drawings as well, and forgets to underline the obvious distinction: that Schiele, like Freud, observes himself in the act of observing, while Klimt performs the “supreme fiction” of his own absence; Klimt’s drawings are vagina monologues where it’s the man who does the talking. For Kandel, clinical knowledge of women’s sexual behavior is equivalent to genuine insight into women’s psyches; that’s the kind of insight you expect from Holden Caulfield.

If Kandel had merely stated that Klimt, Freud, Riegl, Wittgenstein and all the other great thinkers of Vienna in the twentieth century shared a world-view in which various questions and problems about the authenticity of perception played a prominent part, that would have been unexceptional. Instead, Kandel sets up some kind of Hegelian Oedipal competition as to who first uncovered Truth, the G-Spot of History. And which truth is this, that’s central to his thesis? That “art is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer.”

Which is to say he doesn't answer at all the fundamental problem raised in Kant’s critique of perception: the impossibility of perceiving the truth in things as noumen: that is, as an abstract concept that predetermines the functions of the brain—say, like "Art," for instance. Like many before him and after, Kandel reinvents Kant’s critique as doxa: Truth on the inside, Beauty on the other. The positivist philosopher Karl Popper did the same in the nineteen-thirties by pretending to answer the questions raised by Wittgenstein: no wonder, then, that Kandel turns to Ernst Gombrich as his art-historical authority in the matter, since Gombrich’s theory of art is a mere restatement of Popper. A good deal of Kandel’s book falls back on Popper with the eye-rolling obliviousness of a süße Mädel: Popper's dismissal of Freud as "unscientific," his emphasis on Darwinism, and so forth. Contrary to Kandel’s repeated assertion, Gombrich has as little to do with the Viennese School of Art History as Popper with the Viennese Circle of Philosophers, except for the very general, ultimately meaningless omnium-gatherum of a concept that art is incomplete, etc.. The ur-Viennese version of this particular concept covers a wide range of possibilities, starting with the Marxist argument that since consciousness itself is historically determined all a-priori definitions of the object of perception are mere metaphysics, and at the other end the argument that, since the metaphysical status of Art is in itself unassailable, the only unanswered question that remains is the accuracy of the perceptual practices of the beholder. Almost all of the original members of the Vienna School gravitated towards the Marxist position, including those who were politically reactionary, or worse: out-and-out Nazis like Hans Sedlmayr, for instance, argued that perception was racially determined. Only Gombrich and his positivist pals moved towards the extreme essentialist position that Kandel adopts, and their essentialism has many names: Positivism, Free-Market Economics, Systems Theory or, in Kandel’s case, Cognitive Psychology. As for the one single concept that unites all members of the Vienna School of Art History, the idea that perceptions of art, and therefore the very definition of what should constitute the perception of art, are historically constructed, Kandel has little time for that: “Our ability to evaluate sensory information holistically and assign it meaning…. is largely inborn."  Unfortunately, our ability to discriminate as to the value and truthfulness of the sensory information is largely cultural, not to mention the ability most people have to distinguish between cultural representations of reality (like paintings or YouTube videos ) and raw sensual data. As Jacques Lacan stated, the founding myth of the Eurocentric myth of Truth in Painting is the story of the birds knocking their wee brains out on a painted panel of grapes. As far as Kandel can tell, there's really no difference between the birds and the human beholder.

The most interesting part of Kandel’s exposé emerges when he quotes some art historian who’s discovered that the decorative pattern in Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1907) is made up of symbols of spermatozoa and ova; but is that what Klimt thought of Adele? No, it's how Kandel imagines Klimt thought. On closer examination Klimt’s painting is also interspersed with peltae, decorative patterns that are common to Bronze Age Celtic Europe. If Klimt merely “represented” Adele’s biological drives, then he “represented” her ethnicity as well: Kandel seems to have confused Adele Bloch-Bauer with Molly Bloom.

The cultural historian Mark Anderson compares Kafka's characters to

portraits by Gustav Klimt in which a particular realistic anatomical detail, usually the face, is isolated against a two-dimensional gold surface. Kafka's characters are temporally flat—cut out of a historical continuum and presented to us as isolated, tantalizingly vivid, but finally opaque objects of interpretation.

Even Klimt, who in his drawings showed remarkable indifference to the conflictual aspects in his perceptions of women, in his paintings was willing to clothe these perceptions in cultural distortions that conflict with and obscure, rather than reveal, the implied biological self. The personae of Klimt's portraiture are not "illustrations" of single theses, but deeply divided receptors of various theses and intellectual positions, in the same way that a Mahler symphony does not so much suppress the affective qualities of traditional harmonic structures as extend them. Consciously or not, Klimt's paintings illustrate Schopenhauer's caveat:

[Morphology] presents us with with innumerable and infinitely varied forms that are nevertheless related by an unmistakable family likeness. For us they are representations that in this way remain eternally strange to us, and, when considered merely in this way, they stand before us like hieroglyphics that are not understood.

A year after Klimt’s portrait Arthur Schnitzler published a refined psychological study, The Road into the Open [Der Weg ins Freie, 1908], in which the characters (and specifically the characters who are Jewish, like Adele) are forever frozen in reach of options that they are unable to pursue: sexual, political, religious, ethnic. Rather than simply “getting it right” on biological destiny as Kandel fantasizes, Freud and even Schnitzler and Klimt were deeply concerned with the limits and options for change available to individuals confronted with their destiny: biological, national, racial, psychic, gendered. Kandel, makes a big production out of the fact that Darwin was discussed at the salon of Bertha Zuckerkandl, which Klimt frequented. Kandel sorta kinda forgets that if Darwin was discussed in Zuckerkandl's salon it was in the context of regular lectures by the influential philosopher Ernst Mach. Likewise, Freud was as much of a Lamarckian as a Darwinian, arguing that members of any one species had the option to partly modify their own genetic, biological or cultural inheritance—arguing, in fact, that the survival of humanity depended on it. Der Weg ins Freie concludes with a verbal exchange between the hero, a Christian composer, and his friend, a Jewish writer. The hero has broken free from a meaningful and therefore conflicted emotional attachment with a woman he loves and with whom he's had a child; his career has taken off, and he wonders if he should feel guilty about abandoning his lover for his music. His friend, who has gone through a similar experience, answers:

Yes, I have felt free of guilt. Somewhere in my mind. And somewhere else, deeper perhaps, I have felt guilty...and still deeper, innocent again. It's only a matter of how deeply we look inside ourself. And if the lights on all floors are turned on, all of us are, at the same time: guilty and innocent, cowards and heroes, fools and wise men.

The Jewish writer's statement is remarkably similar to Adorno's later argument that the "objectivity" of artistic representation is a painfully achieved balance of dialectical opposites. Schnitzler's character comes closer than Freud to a suggestion made recently by the South African neurobiologist Mark Solms, that if there is a regulatory system in the human brain it does not consist of a rational Superego sitting above the processes of perception, but rather that the regulation itself is an unconscious, physiological process receding into to the Freudian Id. (Elizabeth Danto has pointed out to me that this model is already present in Freud's writings of 1933; and there is an allusion to a similar model in Jacques Laplanche.) Bottom line: there is no Kantian noumen in the sense of a regulatory principle beyond and outside the reception of affect; the mind feels at every level; feels "guilty and innocent, coward and hero," etc. It's hard to tell how far the new discoveries of neurobiology will take this idea.

Kandel instead would side with Schnitzler's hero, the composer and detached observer for whom artistic creation is an affectless "higher" function that directs the perceptual process from one object to another, from screwing to music: different activities, same unconflicted discharge of libido. Even Klimt did not attempt to go that far—at least not in his paintings; his drawings, I think, are another matter.

In the early 'seventies, when feminist theory seemeed to be new and socialism seemed actual, many felt that feminism and socialism were united by revulsion against biology: if gender difference and therefore gender and class oppression were destiny (as Sherry Ortner, for instance, implied), then the only way forward was to turn away from biologism itself, from so-called scientific explanation, as Freud himself had done in Vienna almost a century earlier: to question the process of scientific, rationalistic explanation itself, as Mach, Wittgenstein, Neurath and others did. Of course this would mean facing the cruel, cruel fact that seeing, let alone painting, is more than a physiological, it’s a cultural, hence a political, activity. Ergo, therefore and QED: physiological activities are political, through and through.

As Salvador Dali famously said, "The difference between myself and a crazy person is, that I'm not crazy." It's a difference that scientific, psychiatric or neurobiological approaches are not competent to describe because it involves the question, whether affective impulses are deliberately manipulated by the artist or whether the patient is manipulated by them: in other terms, a question of power. Artists are far more adept at choosing the kind of data they want, and manipulating it; one might say they're people who attempt to turn the table on the impulses: their own, or those of others. Kandel, in his quest to proclaim a non-ideological epistemology, destroys any illusion the reader might have as to his own role in the power structure, let alone his art historical competence. As Degas said of Seurat’s own dubious brand of artistic scientism, “I would have noticed if it wasn't so obvious to begin with.”

[9/9/2012; last revised 8/31/2016]

- PW.


In reply to a brief review on Amazon, Michael Friedman writes:

[...] Your totally incomprehensible review was nothing but the self-promotion. How low, Brother! [...] I visited your "e-journal" and almost clicked on "contribution - financial", but stopped the last second.

Paul Werner replies:

Michael, you remind me of that old Vaudeville routine about the man who calls the cops because his neighbor is exposing herself. The cop comes in and says, "I can't see anything from here." The man says, "just stand on the table and lean out the window!" It appears that you voluntarily a) googled my article; b) found my article, c) read my article; d) got to the bottom of my article; e) decided you didn't like my article; f) saw the contribute button; g) decided to pay me for the pleasure of not liking my article; and h) at the last second decided not to click on a link (not a button) that would have merely explained that all contributions are voluntary, and on a pay-what-you wish basis.

I'm sure that Amazon would much prefer if I linked directly to the e-article version of my critique, downloadable directly from Amazon at a minimum charge of .99 cents—that's the only link they allow. I think I'll do that: If you're going to enjoy yourself that much, the least you can do is pay me up front.

Michael Friedman replies:

[...] I also noted that you have a statement that you refuse to service anyone "who appears to be intoxicated by free-market ideologies". That statement tells me a lot about you.[...] If you aren't market-"intoxicated" - why don't you carry your "Orange Art" to some better place like Venezuela?

Paul Werner writes:

Sorry, buddy, I think you've had enough for tonight...


jvv227 writes:

Am I to understand from your comment that only specialists in a field are allowed to comment on that field? [...] Brain surgery is exact and requires precision whereas art history is generally the opposite (not in a bad way, incidentally.) But have we really reached the stage that only a specialist is allowed to think about and comment on a field? It seems to me that art history can only benefit from the insights of neuroscience.

Paul Werner writes:

You have quite a bit of contempt for Art History, don't you? Perhaps you're confusing the discipline with the practitioners, witness your assumption that because I think Kandel does Art History poorly (and that's something about which I'm qualified to speak), I must think poorly of all neuroscience. [...] Perhaps we all need to remind ourselves that life (unlike blogging) is not all about turf warfare, n'est-ce-pas?


Roy Engstrom writes:

[...] Have you read Rupert Sheldrake's material on "Morphic Resonance & The Presence of the Past?" He manages to project a biology that connects with Memory which would include History/Cultural changes. In a 2009 book he include a former talk with David Bohm comparing his Morphic Resonance to Bohm's Implicate Order behind the materialist explicit order. Also Epigenetics as currently understood is bringing back a Lamarckian Evolution that can interact with historic/cultural change quickly. G.B.Shaw would have been happy with this.



Paul Werner writes:

I wouldn't quite use the same references, but, yes, we're in agreement, there is at present a crisis in the historic collapse of a unified field of knowledge, specifically the Kantian which, ironically, is most vulnerable in the field of neurobiology. Kandel is whistling past a graveyard, and after hearing him in person I believe he's smart enough to know it.