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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.