Definition, Origins, and Critique

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Pareidolia is the psychological mechanism responsible for us seeing animals, faces, and other familiar objects in natural forms where they don’t actually exist. Common examples are seeing animals, faces or objects in clouds, rock formations and the man in the moon. Seeing the Virgin Mary in everyday common objects is another example.

Pareidolia itself is a highly adaptive evolutionary mechanism that enables humans and presumably other animals to quickly recognize potential predators, prey, and conspecifics from often obscuring backgrounds. This enables us to very rapidly identify threats and opportunities from very minimal information such as partial faces or forms of concealed predators with the quickest possible response time. This can often be a matter of life or death. Thus those who had more pareidolia tended to survive to pass it on to their descendants. Even though pareidolia results in frequent false positives these can simply be ignored so the mechanism itself is highly adaptive.

Now this ability to see forms of animals in inanimate forms is the most likely origin of art. Early humans would see animal or human shapes in many inanimate natural forms. And when these forms were self contained as in sticks, clay lumps or stones or in the natural surface discolorations and bulges of rock surface and cave walls in flickering fire light they would naturally be thought of as containing the spirit of the animals seen.

However upon examination some elements of these objects would be seen as inconsistent with the animal form. The innate manipulative ability of humans due to their upright hands free stance would then give them the ability and desire to improve the objects to further bring out the form. Herein lies the origin of art.

Over time humans learned they could improve the forms of the objects they found in nature to make them more closely resemble the animals and other familiar forms they recognized in them. This would primarily be done by carving and painting. And with these techniques established one could even start from scratch to reveal animal forms within any workable material.

So the innate psychological mechanism of pareidolia that helped early humans survive is also the most likely source for the origin of art. Given this and our ability to manipulate objects with our hands art was probably inevitable…


In regards to the origin of art a question that has long bothered me is why early European cave art is of such high artistic merit and so naturalistic and beautiful when almost all other early rock art around the planet is stick and child like, highly stylized and geometric, a tradition that persists into early historical times in the very stylized and child like art of the earliest historical civilizations.

It appears there was at the time of the European cave paintings a unique isolated artistic culture of very high artistic capability and consciousness. Who these artists were and why they had it so early when no one else did, and why it vanished so long ago without apparent descendent artistic tradition is a mystery and it seems to me a very important question. One possible and at least partially time consistent answer is that this early European cave art was created by Neanderthals and died out with their culture. There is recent evidence that at least some of the earliest cave art was created by Neanderthals1 but as yet little evidence to support the overall theory.

1. U-Th dating of carbonate crust reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art. Hoffman, et. al. Science 359. 23 February 2018.

CONCEPT: The concept of art is a human invention, therefore it is possible to define art in any way one chooses, just so long as the definition is useful and applied consistently. I offer a definition based in human perception that I believe useful and quite general. In my view, art has to do with the distinction of form and function. Art concentrates on the form of things, and details of form such as symmetry and balance that elicit experiences such as that of beauty. Beauty has traditionally been the experiential goal of art, but more recently this has been extended to other responses such as disgust, shock, and other emotions. Nevertheless what is constant in art is the concern with form as opposed to function. (I'm including color here since form is often rendered with color as in painting.)

Now everything has form, so art can be seen wherever one looks, if one looks at the form rather than the thing itself. Eg. the beauty of a horse's form as it gallops, as opposed to it being a flesh and blood beast of burden. One could restrict the definition to a product of human creation, but I would rather just refer to that as 'human art'. We wish to avoid the problem of not seeing art in the creations of weaver or bower birds, or in the beauty of nature. After all, it is common usage to refer to beautiful form of whatever origin as art.

So what is human art then? Human art is an object primarily created for its form, rather than any attendant function. A painting is pure form, that is its only function. So something that is divorced from function is art, since we must consider only its form. Therefore a toilet in an art gallery becomes art because we cannot pee in it. It is isolated from its function so that we are forced to consider only its form. Therefore art is form divorced from function, or an object whose primary function is to display its form.

CRITIQUE: Now the question of what is 'good' art versus 'bad' art is another question entirely. I have my doubts about the toilet in the art gallery being 'good' art, nevertheless I can certainly admire the form of a beautiful toilet. Recall that the 'artist' who submitted the toilet to the gallery did not actually create its form, therefore he might be said to have pointed out its artistic merit, but certainly was not the actual artist who created it. On the other hand by placing the toilet in the gallery we are forced to confront its function in an abstract way, we are forced to consider the function, and all its attendant meaning to us, in a purely formal sense independent of any participation in that function. While this can be interesting and might in some cases have merit, I still find it rather unconvincing as art. Perhaps those who have strong issues with peeing may disagree?

Picasso defined art as 'lies that tell the truth'. That's a pretty good definition, even though I don't consider Picasso much of an artist.

As one who has worked in the art world as a gallery owner (classical art and antiquities ) for 27 years, I can tell you that most of modern art is 'made' by covens of top gallery owners, reviewers and museum directors who artificially hype incompetent 'artists' to record levels so they can make a killing by selling their works to ignorant and tasteless rich people. The modern art world is a house of cards that is unlikely to fall because so many people have so much money invested in what is essentially garbage. I recommend for an excellent site which develops this idea fully and contains a vast high resolution museum of good art. Perhaps it is simply best to let sites such as to define good art by enumeration.

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: In broad strokes the history of art is figural. It begins, as children do, with simplified figural forms, but the attempt is nearly always to represent figural forms, especially the human form, and the forms of familiar animals. That trend reaches its apex in Greek art and is continued with variations up through roughly the 19th century. Within that tradition there have been constant peripheral side branches in which figural forms were partially abstracted to emphasize more strongly particular aspects of their form. Ethnic art exemplifies that offshoot. Nevertheless the trend for millennia throughout human history up until recently has been toward the perfection of form, and the perfection of representation, and the finest artists who achieved that technically also did so in such a way as to communicate insights into the mystery of existence, to show us the mysteries of being by looking through those forms to the mysteries beyond.

From the point of view of this great historical tradition modern art is an historical anomaly and therefore from an EP perspective it deserves analysis. Much of the impetus for modern abstract art came from the advent of photography which produces a much more exact reproduction of visual reality and thus usurped the perceived raison d'etre of many artists.

Meanwhile in addition to the figural tradition there had been a concurrent tradition in decorative art that was even more ancient, centered mostly in personal ornament and jewelry and adding beauty to the forms of utilitarian tools and other constructed aspects of life such as building design, clothing etc. Though often incorporating figural elements this tradition was primarily abstract and concerned with expressing the beauty of pure form in various materials.

With the usurpation of some of the reason for figural art by photography we could expect it would tend to morph away from precise figural representation and that is in fact what happened as 'modern non figural art' was born. In principle there is nothing wrong with this, the figural art tradition could have simply incorporated the beautiful accomplishments of abstract form from such sources as Greek jewelry or the new designs of industrial machinery into the figural tradition and all would have been well. There were of course a few artists who did and have done just that.

The problem is that abstract art was rather highjacked by what I'll call Freudianism (for lack of a better term) and instead became primarily a vehicle to express the newly emerging angst of the industrial age, existentialism, and an ethos riddled by fear of neurosis and depression as an inescapable aspect of human existence. Part of the symptoms of this hopelessness is a breakdown or abandonment of the rational faculties. Now modern art took an additional evolution and began expressing this breakdown of reason by the breakdown of artistic technique itself! What better way to express the loss of reason than by the loss of artistic technique itself!

Thus in recent times abstract modern art has come to be characterized by loss of technique (indicating abandonment of reason), loss of figurality (being divorced from reality or wishing to be divorced from what is perceived as meaningless and hopeless reality), and an expression of one form or another of parapsychology, or the reduction of a hopeless, meaningless superficial reality to the level of cartoon (pop art, Warhol etc.) where the most important aspects of reality become celebrities and soft drinks.

So the basic problem with modern art is that it has become an icon of what is worst with modern culture. True we need to be shown the problems with modern culture and properly interpreted modern art does show us the dissolution of culture by only by exemplifying that very dissolution. But the major problem comes by then creating a market and adulating that art so that we effectively perpetuate and idolize that very dissolution and prime the next generation to accept it.

Thus modern abstract art is an extremely unhealthy cultural tradition. We need instead a new art of hope and joy and return to reality and an art that gives us the vision of a better world in which the horrible problems facing our planet have been solved. We need a new art which shows us the way to that better world, an art which shows us how heaven on earth could look like. Only by imagining a better world in which our problems are solved can we perhaps make it real....

By this I don't mean the genre of Thomas Kinkade, which most of us are familiar with, who wouldn't be as it is everywhere especially around the holidays. That wasn't quite what I was thinking of, being more of an idealized view of a nostalgic perfect past which never actually existed. I must say I enjoy looking at his art once in a while and certainly it has much more content than that of say Rothko. It does however become a little saccharine but it's certainly fun to look through curled up in front of the Christmas fire with the carols playing...

What I had in mind was future oriented and much more realistic. Depictions of the best that could be so civilization can visualize what to aim for and hope for. Isn't it very strange come to think of it that mankind has no broad clear hopefully vision of the the best possible future? Where are our prophets when we need them? Isn't that a clear sign that we don't know where we are headed and are at the mercy of likely very dismal forces?

BEAUTY: Beauty is not an easy concept to well define and it may be so relative and personal a universal objective definition is impossible. Many confuse it with sexual attractiveness, but before you can be making statements like that you need to formulate a well thought out canon of beauty. Statements like male and female forms are equally beautiful might be correct according to such a canon, but without the canon such statements are merely PC feel good equality of the sexes opinions.

Why not take a shot at stating your canons of beauty first, and then make the applications? In the end I agree it will all be relative to the individual observer, but nevertheless there should well be some objective standards that apply across most of the subset of humans concerned with aesthetics.

Personally I do agree that the ideal male and female figures are both beautiful as exemplified in Greek sculpture and a very few photographic examples of exceptional humans. Aesthetics is a very tricky concept difficult to divorce from the implied dynamic function and evolution of the forms involved. I'm not even sure it can be.

There are two different meanings of the word 'average'. In the sense of most ordinary it is not normally thought of as beautiful, but in the sense of an actual morphed average of say faces one quickly sees an amazing emergence of the beautiful archetype underlying the human form. A big big difference.

I've always said that when it comes to feminine beauty God came up with an absolutely exquisite blueprint. It's just the quality control that is abysmal!

The exquisite blueprint of ideal perfect beauty tends to very quickly emerge from morphed averages as can be seen at this fascinating site: In contrast the most ordinary is just the most frequent mistake in executing the blueprint!

Some would argue that human females are no more beautiful than any other primate female since beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Well, I had assumed I was speaking to humans, but perhaps I was mistaken? :-)

That being said this statement assumes that other animals have equivalent concepts of 'beauty' as humans do. There is a big difference between sexual attraction and an abstract concept of beauty, which is what I was referring to. My suspicion is that humans have that much more than other species due to their greater abilities to consider forms abstracted from real world shapes in isolation from the objects which embody those forms.

I personally agree that horses are among the most beautiful of animals. But why is that, that's the question. is it the efficient manifestation of function, or only the integrity of the form?

In my experience almost everyone who has expressed an opinion, both men and women alike, view pro bodybuilders as ugly freaks, the very antithesis of male beauty. I'll go with the Greek statuary ideal any day which always portrays the ideal man with a good set of muscles covered with a natural and healthy layer of body fat - not to mention nobility of visage.

There very big difference between physical existence and a quality of perception that depends on the perceptions of some observer. Three boulders might be there but they would be neither soft nor hard because that describes not the boulders but how they are sensed by some observer. Same with beauty. It does not exist unless it is perceived by some mind attuned to that perception in a particular manner we or it calls 'beauty'.

Any theory of beauty must not just encompass female human beauty but mathematical beauty and the beauty of ideas and natural forms as well. Ultimately it is dependent on human cognition which perceives it but it has generally been argued that there must be some hidden universal characteristics that make some particular things of all types beautiful.

Elegant simplicity of form that best encapsulates and clearly reveals some type or category of form in its essential nature is my first cut at a definition of beauty.

What's your definition of beauty?