Coining of the term Neuroarthistory

01/01/2008View on timeline

On the other hand, there is “neuroarthistory” (Onians 2008a). The book that launched this barbarous term was advertised as “a fascinating account” of “one of the newest and most exciting fields in the human sciences,” and its author was praised by his university for “cracking the real Da Vinci code.”

He did that thanks to the concept of neuroplasticity, which allegedly opens the way to explaining why art looks the way it does. This, it is claimed, will for the first time in art history allow access to artists’ minds. For example: the animals painted in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave look so “strikingly naturalistic” (a questionable assertion) because paleolithic humans watched them so intently; the neural networks of a contemporary Australian bark painter were particularly attuned to parallel lines because as a child he admired his father’s expertise in using fibers to make fish traps and was later exposed to parallel lines through op art; a similar reasoning explains why Florentine Renaissance artists made more use of lines, while Venetians, more use of color. In such a perspective, the answer to the question “What might neuroarthistory add to the discussion of Duchamp?” is that the objects Duchamp used in his readymades 

had become so familiar as valuable devices that viewers would necessarily have enjoyed seeing them. They might not have placed them in the category of art, but the response they evoked was one at the centre of artistic experience, an unconscious pleasure, a pleasure enhanced by the additional references associated with title and text and context. It was such a neurally-based response that Duchamp unconsciously exploited. (Onians 2008b)

Vidal, Fernando and Ortega, Francisco. Being Brains: Making the Cerebral Subject (Forms of Living)....

Cover of the book by John Onians

Summary of the book

This provocative book offers a fascinating account of neuroarthistory, one of the newest and most exciting fields in the human sciences. In recent decades there has been a dramatic increase in our knowledge of the visual brain. Knowledge of phenomena such as neural plasticity and neural mirroring is making it possible to answer with a new level of precision some of the most challenging questions about both the creative process and the response to art.

Exploring the writings of major thinkers (among them Montesquieu, Burke, Kant, Marx and Freud), and leading art historians (including Pliny, Winckelmann, Ruskin, Pater, Gombrich and Baxandall), as well as artists such as Alberti and Leonardo and scientists from Aristotle to Zeki, John Onians shows how an understanding of the neural basis of the mind contributes to an understanding of all human behaviors—including art.

Neuroarthistory at Amazon

Below, you can find an interview with the author, as well as a video of him explaining neuroarthistory.

Neuro ways of seeing

Neuroarthistory: an introduction with John Onians
John Onians lectured in Art History at the University of East Anglia for over 30 years. Specialising...
Find out more at his website:



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Published in 15/01/2019

Updated in 19/02/2021

All events in the topic Chap. 2: Neuroaesthetics:

Invalid DateCoining of the word NeuroaestheticsCoining of the word Neuroaesthetics
Invalid DateNeuroaesthetics as a field of studyNeuroaesthetics as a field of study
Invalid DateCoining of the term NeuroarthistoryCoining of the term Neuroarthistory
Invalid DatefMRI Experiment on Art Creation, by Robert SolsofMRI Experiment on Art Creation, by Robert Solso
Invalid DateAndy Warhol's Brillo BoxAndy Warhol's Brillo Box
Invalid DateThe Power of Images, by David FreedbergThe Power of Images, by David Freedberg
Invalid DateDavid Freedberg's articles on neuroaesthetics
Invalid DateDiscovery of Mirror NeuronsDiscovery of Mirror Neurons
Invalid DateAndy Warhol: Brillo Box, by Arthur DantoAndy Warhol: Brillo Box, by Arthur Danto