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Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?

March 30, 2009

It has been said that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” That the beauty of a person or thing is not intrinsic to that person or thing, but is determined by the person who views it. That beauty is subjective, relative, referential. What you find beautiful, I may find ugly but neither of us are right. What matters is that you like it, you take pleasure in it, and if you like it, it may be deemed as beautiful. It’s simply a matter of personal taste. I like Bach, you like Brittney.

Basis for Beauty

But does personal taste actually determine beauty? Is beauty really just a matter of taste, what you like, what pleases you, or does it possess more objective qualities? In his scintillating and illuminating book The Evidential Power of Beauty, Thomas Dubay offers a definition of beauty in line with Science: “the beautiful is that which has unity, harmony, proportion, wholeness, and radiance.” During South by Southwest I saw M. Ward at the PASTE showcase. He opened his set with a 10 minute instrumental, during which he manipulated five strings, a guitar, volume, and silence that evoked an eruption of applause. His songs contain proportion, unity, harmony. Then, I drove down the street to hear a raging metal band screaming at the top of their lungs as they shouted and played indiscernible notes. Very little proportion, unity, and harmony. Which is more beautiful?

Morality of Beauty

It was Plato that described the opposite of beauty as the unpleasantness of seeing a body with one long leg excessively. A disproportionate, asymmetrical person. They say that leading actors must typically have proportionate, symmetrical facial features. Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, regardless of how short they are, they are still considered beautiful, in part, due to the symmetry of their faces. Is beauty, then, not merely a matter of taste, but a matter of symmetry? Of Science? What then are we to do with Tom Cruise’s Scientologist judgment against fellow beauty Brooke Shields, who took medication for her post-partum depression? And what of Gibson’s drunkenness and anti-Semitism? Is there not a moral component to beauty? We should admire a person of great personal beauty, not merely based on their form but also on their substance. Personal beauty extends well beyond possessing physical symmetry. Beauty is moral. It is a virtue, an image of goodness as well as an image of proportion. And we still recognize this kind of beauty. We celebrate the music of Amy Winehouse but bemoan her drug addicted lifestyle. Fans roar when Barry Bonds hits a homerun, while jeering at the sight of his performance-enhanced head. A beautiful performance necessitates honesty, integrity, no cheating. Even a dishonest person appreciates honesty, but appreciation for morality does not require cultivation of morals. However, just because we can recognize the moral component of beauty does not mean that we are, in fact, beautiful.

How do you think Beauty should be defined? Eye of the Beholder? Scientifically? Morally? Why?

For more thinking on Beauty:

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2009 3:43 pm

    Certainly we can’t get away from some degree of subjectivity in beauty. Solving this “riddle” probably lands somewhere on a spectrum (which probably too is subjective). Perhaps the test of time and consensus would aid in finding a possible solution, but I am skeptical that a solution will ever be found this side of eternity (and maybe not even then!)

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    z

  2. March 30, 2009 5:11 pm

    This is an interesting thoughts/article, I was reading one along the same lines at least regarding the subject of beauty, on Friday… here: http://www.jesusmanifesto.com/2009/03/the-cry-of-our-times/

    Anyway, it got me thinking and then…Monday I find yours.

    To answer your question(s): How do you think Beauty should be defined? Eye of the Beholder? Scientifically? Morally? Why?

    How do I think Beauty should be defined? I think it should be defined by seeing God at work as He’s restoring people. Do you when you look at a man without eyes or without feet, see something beautiful? Or is it beautiful only when another man creates it? That’s the question that rolls around in my head anyway, especially admist the christian culture. We look at the outward, not the inward to see beauty or fruit bear.

    I think of my life prior being born of the world, living in the world being defiled by sin…then He picked me up out of a hopeless situation and peice by peice put me together as He intended. Now if you heard my “story” you wouldn’t be impressed, but when I meet someone who is broken and lost, and without hope or love, all the more capable has God made me to have empathy and compassion on this person, because of what He walked me through, because of what HE did in me…made me new.

    That might seem like an off topic, but when I think of Beauty as the world defines it, I have no schemata for it. When I think of Beauty through God’s eyes, the love He has for us…now that’s something to stand still and look at, or to reach out and touch. Being a part of someone coming out of darkness and stepping into light is somethine that doesn’t even compare to the worlds or most american’s definition of beauty.

    We paint, we take pictures, we make music, we enjoy making beautiful things that reflect what God has done in us, what love He has for us…but the things mentioned that we do for outlets are not beautiful, its what’s behind them that is. my 2 cents.

    I’ll definately be stopping by here again, hopefully this made sense, but I suppose it was more for me, thinking outloud.

    Thanks!

    Peace,
    Heather

  3. Sara permalink
    March 30, 2009 8:23 pm

    that’s a good quote! now I’m curious, what was the 2nd band?:)

  4. March 31, 2009 9:12 pm

    Ooooh. Perfect timing. In my Grupo de Vida (small group Bible study) we are studying the Arts this semester. The topic tomorrow night is “La definición del arte”. Last week was “La justificación del arte” (nodding to Lewis’ “Learning in War-Time”–how can we justify spending $30 on a concert ticket (be it Mozart or M. Ward).

    Devil’s advocate: if mere harmony, unity, and proportion constitute beauty, then (despite what you heard at SXSW) there are plenty of death metal bands whose music qualifies as beautiful. Sometimes it’s virtually indiscernible, but it’s there, subtly (which some may include subtlety as a component of beauty).

    Perhaps another descriptor that might help in the definition of beauty is “transcendence”. Good music, art, poetry, literature, movies, etc., all have transcendent qualities. They point to the higher, the greater, the mysterious, the paradoxical, the nobler, the brighter.

    George Steiner said, “That Bach and Beethoven actualize reaches of human endeavor surpassing rap or heavy metal, that Keats challenges insights of which Bob Dylan’s lyrics are innocent, is or ought to be self-evident whatever the political-social connotations—and these do exist—of such conviction.”

    There is creme brulée and there is Pez candy. There is gourmet cuisine and there is fast food. Similarly, there is healthy, skillfully wrought high art and there the common denominator pop-art. To say that it’s all the same is an insult to the chef or artist and betrays ignorance and laziness on the part of the consumer.

    High art is an acquired taste, which cannot be acquired over night. But today’s education system has neither the patience nor intellectual foundation to promote the acquisition of this taste, and today’s students are blinded by the hazy sugar high of realized instant gratification.

  5. March 31, 2009 9:14 pm

    Ultimately, though, I think we all need to acknowledge that, as the wise and culturally defining Spring Break t-shirts tell us, “Beauty is in the eye of the beerholder”…

  6. April 1, 2009 7:22 am

    Great to hear your thoughts, Heather. Thanks for your eloquent response too, George. I like the addition of transcendence to the qualities of beauty. I wonder if high art is an acquired taste or if we have simply dulled our senses to true beauty? After all, the Renaissance was a zenith for high art and it was admired by all classes.

  7. April 1, 2009 3:29 pm

    Perhaps that is what is meant by an “acquired taste”–the restoration and refinement of our dulled senses. Since our current culture is saturated with flippant entertainment and crassness, we must be restored to our original state of being able to appreciate high quality art.

    Or perhaps our dullness is not due to the passage time and devolution of culture. Maybe our aesthetic sensibilities parallel the natural states of our souls. We are born fallen and broken. We need grace (which comes through epiphany type experiences as well as education and discipline) to be able to walk in newness of life/appreciate fine art. Therefore acquiring a taste for high art would be akin to redemption and sanctification.

    Or in Edwardsian terms, acquiring a taste for good art is like acquiring true religious affections…

  8. Jordan Brau permalink
    April 3, 2009 8:58 am

    I came across your site as I am researching for a paper on Theology and Beauty. One thing I would like to note about your definition of beauty.

    “the beautiful is that which has unity, harmony, proportion, wholeness, and radiance.”

    Unity, harmony, proportion, wholeness and radiance are all terms of relationship. At the beginning of the article, you criticize the relative approach to beauty, seeing it as an objective thing that brings about enjoyment, satisfaction, and appreciation.

    What I wonder is, perhaps you have two distinct concepts confused. Could not what you describe as bringing enjoyment, satisfaction, and appreciation, be simply attractiveness? Could not people like Tom Cruise and the like be seen as attractive, not beautiful? I think there is a difference between the two, and that they are often confused. Beauty ≠ Attractive, though those which display beauty are attractive.

    Here is a more concrete example. Disney has made numerous films containing both villains and heros. It could be argued that the villains are often attractive (one finds them physically appealing) yet lacking any sense of beauty. Beauty is found in the heroine, who’s relationships are more whole, virtuous, and proportionate. The difference between the villain and the hero are their relationships. It is this that determines ones beauty.

    Thus, we will see a relativism to what people attribute as beauty. If beauty is relationship oriented, one would expect to have differences as people relate differently to things. One may relate to a picture by Salvadore Dali different than to one of Da Vinci. It is the relationship of the observer to the picture that allows beauty to exist, not the mixture of colours or lines on a canvas.

    How do you see this fitting your understanding of beauty? Do you disagree?

  9. February 16, 2010 2:20 am

    I really like what George had to say.

    Still, even the ones whom history deems “great” often disagreed amongst themselves, and not only in minor regards. And it is sometimes the nature of genius to take even the most refined taste by surprise. Andre Gide kicked himself his whole life for having refused the publication of Proust’s “In Search Of Lost Time”, now considered perhaps the most formidable prose work of the 20th Century. Schopenhauer found Hegel’s philosophy morally and aesthetically repugnant. Nietzsche called Plato “boring”. Tolstoy prefered Harriet Beecher-Stowe to William Shakespeare. And the list goes on.

    Ultimately, I think this is just one of those eternal questions. It’s a mystery which was never meant to be solved and which, anyway, has no solution. But, precisely because it is an insolvable paradox, it provides for endless hours of musing, speculating, and conjecturing upon the most abstract, noble, and abiding elements of our human condition.

    If I had to articulate my present view, I would say that beauty is both objective and individually tailored to the eye of the beholder. Beauty is always harmonious, but what is harmonious to one is not necessarily harmonious to another. The harmony is not in the piece, but in between the piece and the one who appreciates it. Because these two are in sympathy, there is no discord. To put it somewhat abstractly, If a man is not receptive to your wisdom, it is not wisdom. In any case, it is not wisdom intended for him. Not yet, anyway.

    We may imagine that our conception of beauty is more enlightened than another’s, but there is, so far as I know, no purely objective way of determining the truth of this. Every man’s concept of beauty is his own — and even that may be in flux. It is not altogether curious that we each, secretly or openly, believe ourselves to be in possession of an impecable sense of taste. Though we may discern a million flaws in the tastes of others, we are, each and all of us, blind to the flaws in our own discernment.

    ~ Valus

  10. Natalie permalink
    August 3, 2011 7:05 pm

    Well to answer this very interesting question about beauty, I would have to say that beauty lies both in the eye of the beholder and in science. For one because their are many people in the world, who are deemed universaliy attractive because of symmetry of their face. I believe we all recongnize a good looking person when we see one. In that being said, I also believe that we still up hold our own defintion of beauty. We all have our own distinctive tastes and attractions. Which would explain relationships right? I believe thats why two certain people get together opposed to others, because they see and like each other distinctive beauty. Therefore there is not just one form of beauty, I believe there are various forms which are highly influenced by class, religion, race, media and social evironment.

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