Does Beauty Exist in the World or in Us?

November 13, 2012
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In the comments section, I recently had a great discussion with an illustrator named Mike over my recent comic essay called Hug the Elephant. Apparently Mike has lived in Japan and studied Japanese like me– so I’m sure we’ve got a lot in common, but we couldn’t be farther from each other in regards to our views on beauty. Here’s a piece of our discussion– it’s kind of long but very interesting. I’ve got plenty more points to add, but I wanted to pause here and invite you to join in. What’s your opinion? What do you think about beauty?

Mike

I agree and disagree with a lot of your points, but I would still argue that beauty is almost entirely subjective; sure, there are some things that are more commonly considered beautiful than others, but I think just about anything can be beautiful to someone in some way. I don’t think it’s that there’s a universal elephant that’s hard to see, it’s that everyone has their own personal elephant which they see so clearly but struggle to show to others. The fact that many people’s elephants happen to resemble one another gives the illusion of a universal elephant. I think the fiery connection I feel to a work of art isn’t from glimpsing the outline of some big, profound, cosmic thing, but rather from the realization that someone else’s elephant resembles my own, that they share with me something so small and sharp and personal.

I agree with the intent of your professor: the goal of art education shouldn’t be to try to dictate to you what beauty is, or tell you your own elephant is wrong because it doesn’t resemble what’s common. I think the goal should be to give you the tools you need to help you better reveal your own idea of beauty. But on the other hand, I agree with you that studying others’ art as an example of what is commonly considered beautiful can be a valuable part of that toolkit and can help expand and enrich your own tastes.

Ultimately, I do believe all methods of making art, when seen as an earnest attempt at sharing one’s own elephant, are equally valid. That doesn’t mean every artist’s work is beautiful (to me), or that if every method is valid I should feel satisfied with making art I consider ugly and abandon all attempts at improvement. But I respect the effort and intention of others’ art and recognize it as art even if it doesn’t move me.

Stephen

I really appreciate your eloquent description of your perspective. I resonate with the idea that we can be profoundly touched when we realize that someone’s art resembles our own ideas of beauty.

My professor frustrated me mainly because if he admitted to have nothing to teach, how could he justify charging me for his services? If there’s nothing to learn, then why was I there? I think I would have learned more if he had given me his theory about what beauty was, and allowed me to develop my own in reaction to his.

As I said in the essay, I can’t prove that the universal elephant is out there, so I really have no legitimate rebuttal to your perspective. Your view is logical and well put.

Why did I write this essay if I can’t prove my view? I suppose it’s because I’ve come to delight in the fact that though I can’t prove the universal elephant is there, no one else can prove it’s not.

What frustrated me throughout my college education was that many people almost religiously insisted on demonstrating to me that beauty didn’t exist. Yet it seemed like a shame to throw away such a profound idea when I could see no legitimate argument that universal beauty wasn’t there.

When I think beauty might contain principles and constants, it fills me with a hunger to learn, like a scientist trying to figure out what makes the universe tick. It moves me to action, to pursuit. The scientist searches because he assumes there is something to find.

My struggle is that I feel like our culture is constantly telling me I am not allowed to be a scientist in regard to art. People seem to find the idea of universal beauty distasteful, even wrong. I think this might be because a statement about beauty is a statement about humanity, about the eyes that perceive the beauty, about ourselves. We are very hesitant to say anything definite about ourselves, because we don’t want to be perceived as absolutist or dogmatic. But I think our hearts betray us– universal statements about humanity brings out our passions and hungers and hopes that we are not alone, that we are not so different that we can’t relate to each other.

When you look out in the world it does look pretty dark and unfathomable. There are two ways of interpreting the darkness. Either there is light in our eyes, but darkness in the world, as our culture seems to tell us, or we are blind but live in a world of light. I would rather believe the world is full of light and I am blind, because at least I’d have something to look at if I ever find a cure for my blindness.

Mike

I think you can definitely be scientific about your own tastes; you can say with certainty that A is beautiful to you, while B is ugly. And you can be scientific about which things are more popularly considered beautiful than others. You can be scientific about WHY some things are more popular than others (Evolution? Peer pressure? Cultural conditioning?). And you can be scientific about the common threads that tie together popular taste (i.e. “What is it that so many people like about A, B, and C, and what is it they don’t like about X, Y and Z?”). I think those common threads are the elephant you describe in the comic, and I agree with you that you can be totally scientific about searching them out.

However—and I realize I’m just squabbling over a technicality at this point—when I look at constantly changing tastes in fashion, in architecture, in product design, typography, illustration, music, movies, etc., and how those tastes vary not only by time, but by geographic location and culture; when I think about gay people or straight people, or people who are attracted to skinny people or fat people, old or young, black or white, hairy or smooth, etc., etc.; when I think about how animals are almost exclusively attracted only to members of their own species; when I think about influential artists who were ridiculed in their own time but later regarded as a geniuses who were able to see beauty where no one else could; I have to conclude that beauty is nowhere near universal or constant. The only thing constant about the elephant of popular taste is that it’s always shapeshifting.

If beauty were universal, you should be able to say unequivocally that A is beautiful and B is ugly—to every person (or intelligent alien), to every culture, for all time, in all places—but you can’t. Even if “everyone” loves A, there’s always that one guy who genuinely doesn’t see what all the fuss is about, and even if “everyone” hates B, there’s always that one guy who can’t get enough of it. That guy isn’t wrong for having tastes that violate the “laws” of beauty, he just perceives beauty differently. And even if “everyone” loves A now, in 20 years they might say, “God, what were we thinking?” Even if “everyone” hates B now, in a few decades they might say, “Wow, this is actually pretty good.” If you had been born 400 years ago, would your tastes be different? What might you think of the modern day artists you currently find inspiring and influential?

The world is beautiful only because we judge it to be. The only light in the world is what we bring to it, but even so, the world isn’t entirely dark; we all share each other’s collective light. We can help illuminate the world for others, to help people see the ordinary in new ways or find beauty in places they hadn’t considered before. The bulk of our collective light (that is, what we as a culture generally consider more timelessly beautiful, or “the rules” as you called them) may remain relatively constant, but the outer edges of our collective spotlight are always changing. Shining the light just a little ways out from the edge (that is, “becoming a slave to [the] rules”) makes it easier for people to make the jump to something new. Shining an island of light way off in the distance (that is, breaking too many of the established norms) makes it harder for most people to get there, but they might come around in a few decades (or not).

So I guess to sum it up, I agree with you about the value of searching out the shape of that relatively unchanging bulk of light (or elephant, if you prefer) if you want to use your art to communicate to others. But I don’t think popular consensus among one species on one lonely planet is the same thing as universal objective beauty.

Stephen

Great points! Thanks for all the thought and time you’ve put into your response. I really appreciate it, because I think this topic is important.

It feels like what you’re saying is that something is beautiful because it tastes good, where as I’m saying something tastes good because it’s beautiful. Ha ha! We are standing on opposite presuppositions about the world that color every idea we come in contact with.

When I hear that a man can love a woman or a man or a monkey, I think, wow, how amazing that men are lovers. Surely love is a part of universal beauty. When I hear that popular taste is constantly changing, I think, wow, we must all love the taste of something new. Perhaps newness is a part of beauty.

Do you see how my presupposition colors my view of the facts? I don’t deny it. Your presupposition colors the facts too, and together we hold our presuppositions by faith. My goal with this essay was not so much to prove my view as to say that no matter how many examples people put forth about how taste changes from individual to individual, from culture to culture, from time to time, they are still only speaking about the nature of taste, not the nature of what is being tasted. All statements made about objective reality (about the elephant) are made by faith, both your statements and mine. We have no evidence, just hunches.

I am like a conspiracy theorist, looking for a pattern in everything. It can be kind of schizophrenic, but in my opinion our culture could use some extra voices questioning the commonly held idea that there is no pattern. Maybe there isn’t! But why do we discourage each other from looking for one? We try to keep people from looking for meaning, which seems wrong to me.

My hope is to spread my hunch by making people my fellow conspiracy theorists.

I point to snowflakes and say, “Wow, there is such a diversity of snowflakes. From what we can tell, there has never been the same snow flake in all times and all places. Perhaps this means that each snowflake followed its own personal set of laws to direct its growth. Or maybe, all the snowflakes followed the same laws, but each held different factors, like temperature, wind speed and humidity and thus they all grew different shapes. Perhaps instead of one variable and many equations, there are many variables and one equation!”

Many people claim the theory of evolution outlines a bunch of random processes, but I don’t think the processes are random, only the variables. Even though from the outside the only constant you can see is that organisms are always changing, that they never stay the same from place to place, from time to time, I think inside of evolution there are some very specific laws.

And like a conspiracy theorist, I try to draw a line between the way these natural phenomenon work and beauty itself. For some reason, our culture says I’m not allowed to make that connection. But I can’t see a reason why not.

This has been a great conversation. Would you mind if I make it a blog post? I would give you the last word if you’d like to give a rebuttal to what I am saying here.

Mike

If something tastes good because it’s intrinsically beautiful as you presuppose, I still don’t understand how to reconcile that with the infinite variety of personal preferences. If we say that Thing A is intrinsically beautiful, but only 70% of humans think so, are the other 30% somehow broken or defective or blind because they can’t detect the innate beauty in it? Is Thing A somehow beautiful and not beautiful simultaneously?

It seems like you might be saying, “Everything is beautiful. It’s just that each person can only appreciate a limited range of that beauty because in their blindness they can only feel a small part of the elephant; the world is full of light, we’re just too blind to see all of it at once.” But to say “everything is beautiful” seems like just another way of saying “nothing is beautiful”; something is exceptional only by contrast with something else. It gets you no closer to revealing the shape of objective beauty. The same would be true of saying everything is simultaneously beautiful and not beautiful. It’s a meaningless and needlessly complex explanation. (I’m not saying you’ve suggested that explanation, I’m just getting it out of the way.)

So you might say, “Okay, so maybe not EVERYTHING is beautiful. There’s a smaller subset of things that are intrinsically beautiful, and any one person can only see a small portion of that subset because of their blindness.” But how can you even begin to determine the shape of that subset except by observing whether or not people think something tastes good? Whether something is beautiful because it tastes good, or tastes good because it’s beautiful, we’re still basing our evidence of beauty solely on people’s tastes.

The only way we know anything objective about the natural world is through observation and experience. Yes, we have to make a small leap of faith in saying, “The universe is knowable,” but after that presupposition, you can rely solely on observation as a reliable method of determining objective truth. But that observation can be tainted by our subjective viewpoint, so we can only determine that something is objectively true if the observed results are the same every time for every person.

If you gathered 100,000 people and asked them all in turn to hold their hand 1 inch above a candle flame for 5 seconds, all of them would have virtually identical physiological and psychological reactions to it. Clearly something universal is at play here. But if you took the same 100,000 people and showed them a painting, or played them a song, the reactions would be all over the map. If the only evidence of objective truth is people’s observations, but those observations are wildly inconsistent from person to person (the inconsistency being well outside the bounds of being explained by mental illness), then it’s impossible to draw any objective conclusions about which things are beautiful and which are not. Our observations of beauty speak only about us, and say nothing concrete about the object of observation.

I agree with you about “many variables and one equation” as it applies to snowflakes and evolution and other natural processes. The principles behind those processes function consistently and are consistently observable to anyone who looks. But the same can’t be said about the mechanics of beauty, which is why you can’t draw a line between the two. Questions like, “What temperature? Circle or polygon? Water or stone? How many? How tall? How fast? What angle?” are clearly not the same kind of questions as, “Are you sad? Are you happy? How sad? How happy? Is this beautiful? How beautiful?” Whereas anyone can look at a snowflake and say, “Its form is composed of six radially-symmetrical segments and it formed within very specific constraints as a result of consistent physical principles,” you can’t look at a painting and say, “It is beautiful. To be precise, it is exactly 86.24% beautiful.”

You can be very specific about the nature of what is being tasted. You can observe a strawberry and say, “It is composed of these specific chemical compounds which give it its unique taste.” But you can’t use that information to say, “It is delicious.” You can predict that most people will think it’s delicious based on the number of people who have already said so, but you can’t derive any given individual’s perception of taste solely by observing the nature of what is tasted. It always ultimately becomes a question of individual perception.

I disagree that both our positions are based on faith. “Beautiful to one person because they perceive it as good-tasting” is not faith-based aside from the basic assumption that one can know anything about themselves or the universe. “Objectively beautiful in spite of many conflicting observations” requires you to ignore all the conflict and simply take something’s beauty on faith. I’m not saying there’s no pattern to our tastes, and I’m not saying don’t look for a pattern, I’m just saying that the evidence doesn’t seem to support the pattern you’re suggesting.

I’ve enjoyed the conversation as well. Thanks for making me think more deeply about this subject. Feel free to make it a blog post if you’d like.

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17 Responses to Does Beauty Exist in the World or in Us?

  1. Matthew Sample II on November 13, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    I really look forward to reading this discussion later.

    Some thought that you may have covered in this:
    To believe that things are inherently beautiful means that to some extent there is an engineered correlation between the object that perceives beauty and the object that is perceived as beautiful. In other words, inherent beauty must have a Creator, someone Who has designed that correlation.

    I believe that there is ample evidence for both objectivity and subjectivity in the apprehending of beauty. A good model should account for both.

    The fact that we feel something when we view something outside of us, which has little to do us at all (for instance, a sunrise), is fascinating. Why should we care? And yet we do on a very deep, emotive, primal level.

    Anyway…. I’ll come back and read your thoughts later and then offer some real comment. :)

    • stephen on November 14, 2012 at 4:37 pm

      These ideas resonate with me as a Christian– The idea of a creative God is a big foundation in a lot of my ideas about creativity.

      Thanks for you input! I’m excited to hear more.

      • Mary Claire on November 14, 2012 at 8:07 pm

        I just read a quote that basically said God is the only true creator, because He makes from nothing. Humans can only be Makers, because we use other things to create.

        I don’t know if this really applies here specifically, but it came to mind when I read this comment/response :)

        • Matthew Sample II on December 9, 2012 at 4:37 am

          Michael Card said something similar in his Scribbling in the Sand book. Great book!

      • Matthew Sample II on December 9, 2012 at 4:40 am

        Working on something, but it will be done… in late December? Early January? We’ll see. But it’s a couple of essays trying to define beauty and form a practical philosophy that’s both simple and rigorous. We’ll see if I can do it….

        • stephen on December 10, 2012 at 4:41 pm

          Cool! Send it along when you get done– I’d love to see it.

  2. BJMNS on November 13, 2012 at 7:52 pm

    Hm. Well. I am inclined to agree with Mike’s points more, because, to be frank, that’s where the evidence seems to point. Different people experience beauty differently, so that would imply that beauty is not universal, right?
    However, part of me isn’t content with that conclusion. I suppose that an important distinction for me is between actual qualities that a beautiful object possesses (color, contrast, subject, etc.) and how it is interpreted by the consumer. While the same people might be looking at the same thing, does that necessarily mean that they are SEEING the same thing?
    I don’t think so, and I think that this is the source of our troubles. We’re trying to define beauty by the properties of an object, not the properties of its perception. And these are very different things.
    Let’s hypothesize, just for argument’s sake, that there is some sort of universal beauty. Then all of the perceptions of beauty that people have should have common similarities, right? But does that mean that the objects themselves have those same similarities? Not necessarily. The example of mothers praising even the most horrendous of their child’s works has become something of a joke in the art world because of this very principle. The lens distorts the image, and when looking for similarities, we shouldn’t be studying the original.
    Let’s say, then, that there is no universal beauty. There are not necessarily common similarities between the perceptions that people find beautiful, and the objects themselves will as a result be quite different. As in the previous case, we can account for variation in what objects are considered beautiful. The difference between these scenarios, though, is the severity. Although a universal perception can result in a variety of objects, these objects should be more similar than those from a scenario with no universal perception of beauty.
    So, the question becomes: Is the amount of variation small enough to be entirely attributable to the biases of the consumers? Or is there truly no universal truth behind how beauty is perceived?
    I would argue for the former. While different people find different things delicious, all attribute deliciousness as a desirable property for food. Would it not also stand to reason that such properties exist for beauty? Properties such as the ability to stir emotion, or a certain aesthetic appearance? While we might not be able to break down a work and say “This is what makes it beautiful”, we can take apart a perception and say “I like this work because…” Then, given these universal properties of beauty, we can reverse-engineer, so to speak, works so that these properties will emerge as the work is viewed through an individual’s lens.
    At least, that’s the way it seems to me.

  3. Amber Engelmann on November 13, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    I, personally, believe that everything is beautiful. Let’s look at the universe as a whole, rather than on an individual level, and consider ourselves a smaller part of a bigger organism. In this way, we are all observing each other and making judgments in order to greater understand the whole.

    For a complete understanding of anything (or at least the perception of a complete understanding), we must compare several different points of view and lay them on top of each other so that we can see the whole three-dimensional picture. Some points of view, like Stephen’s and Mike’s, will seem to contradict each other. And then, to explain that contradiction, we will overlay more points of view to understand how that was possible.

    It is true that beauty is a matter of perception, but isn’t everything when it comes down to it? How can you know anything about the world if you do not perceive it? Your entire ‘world’ is based on your subjective view of it — you will pay attention to the things that, in one way or another, resonates with you. The rest will fall out of your perception. In this way, we create everything that’s around us, and in that reality we are capable of perceiving beauty.

    Mike made the argument that if everything in the world is beautiful, then it is the same as saying that nothing is beautiful. And this is true. If we consider the whole picture and overlay every living consciousness’s perceptions of beauty over top of each other, then we would find that every single point that is considered ‘beautiful’ is also considered ‘ugly’. However, since we are only a small organism in the whole, we can only perceive a certain amount of this information. We can choose if we see the whole as ‘beautiful’ or ‘not beautiful’ the same way we can look at a painting and see beauty in the piece or not. Both opinions are equally valid, and both opinions are equally informative to the greater understanding of everything.

    • stephen on November 14, 2012 at 5:16 pm

      I respect your view on this even though I have major problems with these ideas. I certainly can’t prove these ideas wrong however– because, like you said, who can escape their subjective perspective? But I can appeal to a different view on the basis of practicality.

      “Your entire ‘world’ is based on your subjective view of it.”

      I’m of the persuasion that my subjective view is based on the world. I understand that neither I nor anyone else can prove the world exists– perhaps we are all trapped in the matrix, and what we think is reality is actually electrical and chemical signals in our brains. But why is our culture so set on disbelieving the world? Thinking on the problem from the other end, we also can’t prove the world does not exist, so why are we so quick to throw it away?

      I think it’s much more fun and daring to believe the world exists– that there are unknowable and mysterious entities outside your mind which may harm you or help you, and that your actions have real consequences on real people. It is much scarier to live in a world that exists.

      The idea that the world exists only in your own perception seems to take the joy out of many things. Take discovery for instance. To me, discovery means peeling back a layer of the world and seeing something no one else has seen. What makes it so exciting is that it’s been there the whole time, and anyone could have discovered it, but you got there first. That’s exciting! But if the world is all in your mind, discovery is reduced to peeling back a layer of your own mind. Maybe it’s been there the whole time, but who cares? Such a discovery only effects you anyway, and it’s not like anyone else but you could have discovered something in your own mind.

      What made the Matrix exciting was that even though all humanity was trapped in their own minds, there existed an objective reality beyond the matrix. If Neo never woke up, the story wouldn’t have been… well, a story. I’m not saying we can wake up like Neo did– I agree that our perspective is subjective and can be explained entirely with cones and rods and taste buds and chemicals and nerve endings. But we have to remember that any observation we make about the nature of perception is still only an observation about perception, it is not an observation about the objective world. You can observe that your glasses are made out of glass, but you can’t conclude that the world is made out of glass too. You’re eyes may shed tears, but that doesn’t mean it’s raining outside.

      The idea that nothing is beautiful and everything is beautiful is very discouraging to me as an artist because it robs me of direction and purpose. I take much more joy and excitement in the idea that beauty might exist outside of myself because then I can pursue it and hunt it and find it and maybe share it.

      Thanks for adding your ideas to the discussion! I appreciate that!

    • ollwenjones on November 21, 2012 at 9:43 pm

      I agree the idea that we create our own little subjective world by the act of perceiving is dangerous. When I step out into the street and the bus is there, whether I perceive it as a bus or not, and I will live (or die!) with the consequences of my finite perception. It doesn’t change the reality of the bus.

  4. Sarrah W. on November 13, 2012 at 11:57 pm

    This takes me back (*cough* way back) to high school, when a teacher divided us into groups and asked us each to come up with a definition for “art”. Of all my high school learning experiences, that one has stuck with me the most.

    I wholeheartedly believe there are certain rules you can follow for your work to have a consistently wider appeal. There was a particular study documenting what people found beautiful in other human beings; symmetry was at the top of the list, with several other factors being fairly constant. If you show someone an image featuring the color red, I doubt they would ever describe it as “cold”. Certain patterns of colors on the color wheel evoke consistent reactions.

    However, the evidence for a true concept of universal beauty is scant to the point of nonexistance. For example, I find spiders to be aesthetically beautiful creatures. This is obviously not a widely shared opinion! But I’ve never thought of them otherwise.

    The “rules”, I believe, come from the shared experience of all of humanity. Regardless of who we are or where we come from, there are experiences we will all have in common. Being born, learning to walk, to speak, exploring the world with every sense we have. Furthermore, we also have countless generations of evolutionary history binding us all together at the very core of our being. Beyond that, though, our individuality comes from the variety of experiences we all have, and those experiences color everything about us. They influence our tastes, our loves, our hates, our very perception of the world. Beauty is so closely tied with these personal experiences that I can’t help but disagree with the idea of a universal answer.

    Mind you, this has been very thought provoking and fascinating to think on. Thank you as always for sharing your thoughts, and for opening the floor for others to do the same!

  5. Russell on November 14, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    I don’t feel like beauty is one of those things that can be broken down easily into concepts like “subjective” and “objective”. It’s a train of thought that ends in the same jumbled, inconclusive mess as when philosophers ask whether “Truth” is something that is subjective or objective. In my opinion these questions are really kind of absurd to begin with. In the simplest terms I can think of for either argument, beauty is either a concept people have for things that they like, or a property of things that causes people to like them. Either way, if there wasn’t something to like, beauty wouldn’t exist. At the same time, beauty also wouldn’t exist if there was no-one to like it. They’re connected, and you really can’t separate them. In fact, you could even say that beauty is a kind of connection between a subject and an object. It doesn’t really matter which end you start at, as long as you’re working towards an ideal of beauty. If you have a subjective point of view, you’ll make something that you find personally beautiful. If you have an objective one, you’ll make something that you think is objectively beautiful. Either way, whether other people agree with you depends less on the nature of beauty, and more on how well you did it.

  6. Gin & Drugs on November 14, 2012 at 7:00 pm

    I’m not certain why this is being argued as if the two perspectives are mutually exclusive. I think you two were nearly arguing the same thing when Mike mentioned that our perception of beauty is simply a realization that our elephant looks similar to another’s. I agree that there isn’t a “universal” beauty in the sense that everyone, everywhere will find something beautiful but it seems pretty obvious to me that there are some things that are very beautiful to a great number of people. I’m thinking of the classics here. Books like “The Great Gatsby”. Art like “The Starry Night”. Does everyone love these? No. But as close to everyone as any piece of art can really get. Why is it that these pieces hit so many, so strongly? Perhaps because it reveals an elephant that looks similar to everyone’s elephant. It brings light to a part of the human condition that is in all of us. So yeah, we all have personal tastes and what I think is beautiful, you may not. But there are some things that a great many of us will always find beautiful. A sort of collective universal elephant that looks similar to all of our personal elephants.

  7. ollwenjones on November 21, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    The big Post-modern stance of agnosticism towards everything is dangerously vacuous, and I think exemplified in Stephen’s painting professor.

    I do think Mike overstates the case about the variability of human perception of beauty. There are principles and patterns that almost always work, like the golden mean, or relationships between colors. The feminine ideal varies widely from culture to culture (augmented boobs to stretched necks or bound feet) but most men in most cultures will agree that women are beautiful. I think we will find a lot more overlap in human perception of beauty than Mike seems willing to admit. How many people would say that a rare sunset, or a Japanese garden are ugly? (or a double rainbow!!!1 sorry)

    Yet, even if we concede ‘infinite variability,’ in human perception, that doesn’t mean that Beauty as an abstract concept or entity does not exist. That would be akin to saying that because languages and the meanings of words vary so much over time and place that there is no such thing as Language. Sure some post-modern philosophers go that far in philosophical discussion, but in so doing they forfeit the meaning of their own words in asserting that words have no meaning. It’s logically self-defeating and existentially unlivable.

    It would make more sense to argue that Beauty doesn’t exist as a metaphysical entity itself because it is a property of things. You can have five oranges in an absolute sense, but is there an actual thing called Five? Then again ‘Five’ is a pretty objective measure. I guess that comes back to Matthew Sample’s point about the relationship between observable properties and observers. And I guess that’s the big question: is it merely a property observers apply to things subjectively, or an universal property that observers notice?

    I would say that for Beauty to be a real thing (like language) it wouldn’t need to be universally agreed upon, it would only need to be a universal part of the human experience. If all over the world humans are perceiving things as beautiful, then we can examine the how and the why of that, and whether it is random and subjective, or if there are common threads. I think there are. Do they point to a transcendent source? I think they do. Consider this little guy: http://click.si.edu/Image.aspx?image=5960&story=604&back=Story

  8. JessieSue on December 2, 2013 at 5:08 pm

    Before I start I would like to apologize, It’s finals week and found this website/article/discussion during a break and really wanted to comment. My ideas are very fresh and haven’t begun to really solidify yet, let alone be challenged (I barely proofread this) and a lot are borrowed from other comment-ers. I saw a link between them that hadn’t been touched on yet as far a I see. So take these ideas, and expand or critique however you want.

    Beauty can be found in art, but art is not beauty. Art is experience. Beautiful art is a positive experience. Great Art can be connected to any deeper connection to a personal experience. It resonates.
    To be able to relate our selves to that of the artists work is a positive and therefore beautiful experience, and so we call the art beautiful. We call great art beautiful because it has “universally” resonated enough with everyone so that we have the beauty of the artists experience then added our own experience, and then finally the experience of everyone around us. It is three times as beautiful.
    Our experience can be either nostalgic or novel. Experiences from our past or from the past experience of new things effect our view of Art and beauty. We all exist in the same world with the same external influences that we subjectively experience. So in a sense there are “universal” experiences. Before I continue but I would like to clarify my use of the word “universal”. What is “universal” for us is really only for western culture, as we share the same events, history, art and scientific advancements. Because I am short on time I recommend reading “Shakespeare in the bush” by Laura Bohannan to illustrate this point. Our culture defines our “universals”.
    Back on topic there are some things labeled as “classic” such as Shakespeare that a lot of us resonate with, but how many of you read Shakespeare in high school and hated it, and then read the same play later in life and finally understood it? You disliked it because it didn’t relate to you, but as you got older either you experienced more or you can understand why others relate. You may not resonate, but as you tune in further to the social group, you can feel the world resonating around you.

    We innately recognize a societal need for a “universal” definition of beauty, because we need need to define this undefinable world. Language is proof of that. Consider the use of power words, most are unifying ( we, us, our, unity, together and so on). We label our world “universally” so that we can better communicate with the group. We as a group created “The Elephant”, and still are creating the elephant. Humans are a social creature and are programmed -per se- to be in tune to the needs of the group, but if the personal needs of the human are compromised we can separate from that and solve the problem for our selves. We can create our own elephant. Art is the manifestation of someone trying to better create or define “The Elephant”. Beauty may be subjective but we want it to be objective. We feel the need for an elephant and so created one. “The Elephant” exists because we put it there.

    • stephen on December 2, 2013 at 7:54 pm

      Hey Jessie! Thanks for your interesting thoughts. I hope you’re finals go well!

      Knowing the elephant exists– that is to say, knowing that there are rules to art and you can get certain results by following the rules– is the key bit of information that I believe many artists can benefit from.

      The question of who made the elephant is a deeply philosophical one. From a anthropological perspective, there is definite evidence for culture-based standards for beauty and aesthetics. However, that doesn’t stop me from still searching for ideals and standards that cross language barriers and apply across cultures. I believe such ideals exist because I believe in the universality of humanity– that in spite of our diversity, we still have some kind of commonality and basis for relationship and understanding.

  9. meonjeng on December 21, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    In almost all intelligent and meaningful discussion of “beauty” or “truth” and “justice”; the so called ‘abstract’ subjects, it almost always boils down to semantics, interpretations or subjectivity.

    For example to say that ‘Justice’ as a concept only exists because humans feel the need to remedy the experience of inequality would be akin to saying that God exists only because humans have a need for an inherent belief in a higher power as a way to explain the unexplained. I hope you can see where I am going with this. No, I’m not trying to turn this into a ‘science vs religion’ battle. What I’m trying to say is it comes down to what you believe in. What you have faith of.

    Theism is parable I use when discussing beauty, or truth for that matter. Now this categorisation is just something I use when having coffee-shop talk with friends that are 1) in the creative fields 2) interested to hear it out, and 3) when I want to confuse people. It is not well thought out or planned or laid out like Stephen’s ideas, so there may be things that might or might not make sense to you. But I like to believe that it works. And like the freedom of religion, we are free to have our own beliefs on beauty.

    Some believe that an absolute Beauty exists, that all beauty have parts of or resembles this absolute Beauty in some way, and the more it does, more people will consider it beautiful and/or it becomes more beautiful than other beautiful things. I call them the Mono-beautifist (Ok I’m not that good in giving names). They believe in a single pinnacle of Beauty, a point where-by reaching it will result in the so called universal beauty. I believe this. I believe there exists beauty in which all that experience it (and when I say all I mean all; be it human, animal, alien – any sufficiently sentient being) will have nothing left to say/think/feel except “that is Beauty”. Not beautiful, but Beauty, with a capital B.

    Now to continue this discussion would be long-winded (more than it already is) and slightly tiring to write and even more so to read, but you get the basic idea. There’s poly-beautifists, which thinks that there’s all sorts of Beauty-pinnacle for all sorts of fields/subject/things and it is different for everyone. There’s abeautifists, who does not believe in true Beauty, to them beauty is a concept created by those that feel the need to fill a gap in our imperfect lives or an abstract idea that we strive to achieve but does not exists. And that’s not even including the micro-facets; e.g. liberal abeautifists, who thinks that universal/absolute beauty might not exists, but our striving to achieve it is beauty unto itself, or socio-conservative poly-beautifists, who thinks that everyone should have their own different concept of what beauty is, but it should be a modification or follow a set of main ideas that are recognised as beauty, etc. Whatever it is, is comes down to what you believe, how you apply what you believe, and the approaches and perspectives you choose. And I believe in all of them. I just do not know how to yet. What I mean is that if only we could somehow unite all our ideas and perspectives on beauty we might achieve the absolute/universal Beauty. This does not mean I agree with everyone. If for example you do not believe in universal beauty, than I respectfully disagree with you. There’s also the agnostics of Beauty, the concept that true Beauty exists but all our efforts are nothing but futile attempts to emulate it and nothing we do is beautiful, it is only something that we think explains or shows what beauty to us. But I don’t believe in that line of thinking either.

    I present the example of the Poet vs the Linguist. Both seek beauty through the manipulation of words, but in 2 very different approaches. Both strive for perfection through structure, substance and meaning, but the words mean differently to both. Rhyme is to one what phonetics is to the other. Both agree that the sounds of the words play a part in achieving beauty, but which sounds as well as where and how the sounds are made are different to both. But it does not mean they do not appreciate each other’s works. This shows how in a same specific field using the same limited set of rules as a medium (words) but applying different ways and paths can reach different types of beauty that still can be appreciated by both. And many from both would agree that perfect prose or writings exist, only it has not been discovered. And it is not impossible for a piece of literature to be perfect in both prose and linguistically, thus fulfilling all the different perspectives and opinions of beauty, becoming a universal beauty to writers.

    Now that I’ve explained (kind of) my perspective on how our thoughts and opinions on Beauty are based on what we believe in and everyone should freely be able to have their own opinions on it, I’ll share my opinions.

    Yes we gave name to the concept, but to me, that does not mean we created it. It does not mean that if we did not think of the concept, it would not exist. I’m sorry, but to quote a commentor above, I don’t think we “recognize a societal need for a “universal” definition of beauty”. Just because we do not know of anything that’s universally beautiful does not mean it does not exists. It is just beyond our reach and thinking (at the moment). And I refuse to believe in this infinitely huge universe we live in, among the infinite universes that exists out there, there isn’t a(n) entity/substance/thing that can universally be considered beautiful.

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