It’s not every day one encounters glossy images of twentieth-century abstract paintings alongside illustrations of a monkey brain. Yet this is precisely the mash-up Eric Kandel successfully presents us with in his new book, in which he seeks to reconcile the cultures of art and science. Kandel, a Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine, says that our noggins fire in a special way when we look at abstract art. To prove his point, he brings neuroscience into the art museum.

A river of ink has been spilled over the meaning of the Abstract Expressionist movement, typically focusing on artists’ intentions and historical considerations. Kandel takes a different tack and asks: what does the art do to us? This has a precedent. The “beholder’s share” theory was developed at the Vienna School of Art History at the turn of the nineteenth...


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