Why should vision science turn its gaze towards artworks? One possibility is that understanding visual processing might yield some fundamental insight into the nature of art. However, there are many examples of phenomena that can be seen - such as automobiles, clouds or leaves - but which are not explained in any deep sense by the properties of human visual perception. We examine one art historical question that might benefit from knowledge about the visual system: why do some artworks 'survive' historically while others fade into the dustbin of time? One possible reason, suggested by studies of rapid visual categorization, is that some objects are recognized more quickly and easily than others and thus are less culturally specific in terms of pictorial representation. A second, related, explanation is that many artistic techniques use the eyes as a channel to evoke other senses, cognition, emotions and the motor system. 'Art' is a social and historical construct - after all, the concept of 'fine art' was invented in the 18th century - and thus many aspects of artistic appreciation are specific to particular cultural and historical contexts. Some great works, however, may be adopted by successive generations because of an ability to appeal to a shared perceptual system.