Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Age of Insight

Photograph: August Wieselmayer
The Nobel prize winning neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel used sea slugs to study memory. Of course Freud’s early work had been with eels and as everyone knows eel makes for very delicious sushi. Kandel’s latest book The Age of Insight, deals with Klimt, Koskoshka and Schiele, artists who Kandel describes as  “uncovering unconscious mental processes in their drawing and painting in parallel with Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schnitzler, who were doing so in their writing.” In commenting on the ideas that he deals with in the book, in the summer issue of Columbia Magazine, Kandel makes the following statement: “We even have an idea of why people fall in love with works of arts. What accounts for Ronald Lauder’s paying $135 million in 2006 for Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the painting on the dust jacket of The Age of Insight?” Kandel goes on to remark that the “love of art involves a number of brain systems, but it particularly involves the brain chemical dopamine…The dopaminergic system is recruited for love, for addiction, for food, for sex.” Dopamine and love make sense, but the love of art? The statement actually makes one think about the work of another Austrian whose work came much later than the artists Kandel cites and that’s the photographer Thomas Struth. Struth took a classic series of photographs of Prado visitors looking at Velasquez’s Las Meninas. Generally, the FMRI is recruited to study dopaminergic reactions.  But the FMRI only tells us what part of the brain is affected by x,y or z emotions. When you look at Struth photograph of a visitor to the Prado or other museums like the State Hermitage, you may conclude that art is more revealing about the relation of esthetics to emotion than science can ever be. Stanley Kubrick once made a movie about trying to understand the mind. Based on Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, he cannily titled it Eyes Wide Shut.

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