John Onians, art historian, on a painting of a a cave bear from the Chauvet Cave, France.

GB Tell me why you chose this

JO I think it was made at a time when there was certainly no discussion of aesthetics and what was beautiful. What you get here is a print-out of a very intense visual experience from someone 30 000 years ago who has looked at a bear in that position from above and had such a strong visual memory of it that when he saw the cracks in the rock it recalled the outline of a foot, so he completed the rest of the bear. It’s a record of an extremely intense visual memory. There’s an interest in the bear’s brain, the bear’s intelligence, the eyes, the ears, the nose – the sensory alertness and the way that’s driving his physical movements as the paws reach out. The intentness and the alertness of the bear have been picked up on by the artist who looked at the bear with same intensity that the bear was attending to its environment and when we look at the painting we also come to share this intense looking. I think this intense looking is one of the principle dimensions of beauty, something which forces you to look at it and be amazed. The artist wasn’t interested in the whole animal as much as the animal’s business end. Artists in later periods would have felt compelled to draw the whole bear in, but by doing so they would have lost focus on the most important parts and the image would be much less powerful. The concentration on these aspects of the bear distill its essence in the most potent way.

GB Do you think beauty was part of the intention of whoever drew this?

JO No. Absolutely not. I have argued that the person who made this didn’t know about art and was driven by completely unconscious neural processes, so that they were amazed by what they had made. There’s another similar bear just behind it. It looks as though the artist was so excited by what they’d made that they went on to make copies of it. Each time they make a copy they degrade the neural resources that were so fantastically rich when they had only looked at a real bear. But once you look at your own image and try to make another then the next images become gradually more reduced so the history of art goes downhill from its start. To me there is no more beautiful portrayal of a bear in subsequent history. Leonardo drew bears and they look absolutely crummy. Leonardo never had that intense admiration for the bear that this artist did.

GB Was the admiration for the visual beauty of the bear?

JO I think what happened was that the human who made it admired the bear’s qualities, saw this shape evoked in the wall of the cave, completed it and as they did, so the pleasure came back of looking at the bear. There is pleasure in this intense engagement. But I think this was done through neural processes of which the maker was completely unconscious.

GB Why do you think these artists only drew animals?

JO There’s a very wide range of animals in the cave at Chauvet. There are bears, lions, mammoth, bison, reindeer, horses and owls. I think the makers had looked at these creatures in astonishment wishing that that they could have teeth like that or claws like that, skins like that. Humans had just come out of Africa as naked, hairless creatures . They’d gone north to look for food but they were extremely vulnerable and they looked around at these animals which were all much better equipped than they were and were jealous of this – including their mental equipment, their ability to hunt and protect themselves if they were hunted. The only type of humans that they show an interest in drawing are female genitals. There are also handprints in the cave and I would argue that the whole idea of making paintings comes from the acts of the bears. When humans entered the cave they would have found it full of the markings of cave bear paws. There are places where cave bears have accidentally put their muddy paws on the walls when they were standing on two feet. Humans have made hand print paintings on top of these paw prints and also made engravings on top of the places where cave bears have made parallel scratches with their claws. So humans were stimulated by these cave bear markings through the phenomenon of neural mirroring. Mirror neurons in the humans were activated by these markings which led to the humans imitating the gestures. Not only were the bears better dressed, better armed and more sensorily alert than humans but they were standing on two feet so humans would have looked up to them in the same way they looked up at their parents.

GB So you don’t subscribe to any of the theories that these paintings were part of some shamanic ritual?

JO No, that’s complete rubbish. There’s not the tiniest evidence for it. It doesn’t look like later shamanic art.

GB So this simple process of mirror neurons at work was the start of what was to develop into all the great works of art of the Renaissance?

JO Yes. I think they were closer to the great artists of the Renaissance than anybody in between because they shared the same intense looking.

GB So when did beauty start to come into art?

JO Beauty in art itself is not typically talked about until the sixteenth century.

GB So art started out as something useful to us in understanding the world.

JO Exactly.

GB When you first saw this bear did you find it beautiful or was your interest more intellectual?

JO Well I’ve always been interested in prehistoric art so when this cave was discovered I though, “Oh my god!” I would talk about this image as being very high quality in the same way that you might talk about a Rembrandt drawing. The nature of the marks conveys something very eloquent about the subject they’re portraying.

GB Do you think this conferred status on the creator in any way?

JO There’s very little evidence that anybody went into the cave at Chauvet. People didn’t go from far and wide to see it. Nobody seems to have copied it or made anything similar around that period in this area. I don’t think it evoked any great social commentary. I think we’ve been misled into thinking that the concept of beauty is always socially constructed. It comes much more from people’s personal autobiographies.

GB Do you believe that there are things that are universally beautiful?

JO I think there are things that have the capacity to be universally beautiful but my view on aesthetics was changed when I found a book on eighteenth-century architecture. As a teenager I thought Salisbury Cathedral was the most beautiful thing I could imagine and this book said, “What is Salisbury Cathedral but a vast and lumpish pile of stones.”

Anybody that I know is likely to think that a swan or a racehorse is beautiful. Those are universally regarded as beautiful. I don’t begin to know why. I suspect that it has something to do with the fact they have something in common with the human body through the flowing lines. Fitness for purpose is also a part of it.

GB Do you think that art is something we evolved to be good at because of its usefulness?

JO When we look at art we’re using neural resources that came into existence for totally different reasons. For instance, they were helping us to find fruit. Most humans have a very high colour sensitivity and that makes them good at finding ripe fruit that’s particularly nutritious. You can see why paintings that have lots of colour in them are a celebration of our colour sensitivity. Our interest in art is not selected for as such, it stems from our interest in food and sex. The dopamine reward that you get from looking at a beautiful member of the opposite sex is similar to the dopamine reward you get from looking ta the Mona Lisa. For a long time, beauty as such would have been less important than things being naturally correct. Vasari celebrated the great artists of his day as creating works that were like nature.

GB So the artists at the turn of the last century had a good point when they rebelled against beauty?

JO I think they were absolutely right not to make it the most important attribute of art. I would say that the supreme attribute of art is visual interest.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

JO I suppose it is this property of visual interest in the sense that it captures the essence of something. This is the capturing of the essence of a cave bear.

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