Is there such a thing as an objective standard of beauty?
Some people insist that there isn’t. They usually cite the wide differences in individual tastes as proof that beauty is strictly subjective. According to this view, what’s beautiful to you may not be beautiful to me.
But if beauty is purely subjective, what does it mean when someone calls a painting or a baby or a sunrise beautiful? Saying “It’s beautiful to me,” is a non-answer that just rephrases the question as a statement. What we’re after is the meaning of this “beauty” concept for which the person in question is said to have a subjective standard.
You could define beauty as “a quality that causes a pleasant emotional response”, but someone who says, “That painting is beautiful,” is talking about a particular kind of emotional response, as opposed to the satiation of hunger, sexual gratification, the thrill of victory, etc. What’s more, it’s assumed that others have a similar response in the presence of a quality called “beauty”.
Unless a statement that something is beautiful is made in reference to a standard that exists independently of the observer, the statement has no meaning, even to the one making it (because it doesn’t define what this “beauty” concept is). So calling an object beautiful on a purely subjective basis is unintelligible noise which effectively denies that beauty exists.
Sometimes when people call objects beautiful, they’re making preference statements like, “I’m fond of pizza.” Statements of preference really are subjective. There’s no way for others to test the truth or falsehood of such claims.
But a lot of the time, aesthetic statements are value judgments. When someone who’s in love says that his beloved is beautiful, he doesn’t add the qualification “to me”. He’s making a value claim about his beloved’s attractiveness that he wants others to agree with.
Sure, there’s some variance in aesthetics between individuals, and even whole cultures. But concluding to aesthetic subjectivism from that fact leaves out a step—the unstated premise that “the lack of unanimous agreement among all people in all times and places rules out the existence of objective standards of beauty.” The reason it’s never stated is because it’s pretty easy to disprove.
Most geologists didn’t agree with the theory of plate tectonics until the mid-twentieth century. Was the theory false until a majority of scientists accepted it? Virtually all past civilizations thought that slavery was perfectly moral. Were they right?
I know that these are examples from empirical science and ethics, but the same principle applies to aesthetics. Just because everyone doesn’t clearly and immediately recognize a norm, that doesn’t mean it’s not objective. The existence of an objective standard doesn’t mean that everyone is automatically infused with perfect knowledge of that standard.
At this point, the following questions often arise: “What are the objective standards of beauty, and how can we tell if a work adheres to them?” Many postmoderns assume that those questions are unanswerable. That’s because the institutions that once taught the answers—places that used to be called “universities”—focus almost exclusively on practical knowledge to the detriment of speculative reasoning. Thank you, Immanuel Kant (throw fruit now).
Luckily, Plato, Aristotle, and Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas have us covered.
Firstly, all of these guys agreed that beauty is a quality possessed by objects independent of the observer. How did they reach that conclusion? Well, it’s pretty much self-evident if you accept the model of knowledge that prevailed in the west for thousands of years, viz. that the human mind forms impressions of real, external things (much like how Silly Putty works).
In contrast, postmodernism arbitrarily declared that the world is formless or non-existent and our minds project form onto it (and yes, you can believe that, but you can’t trust empirical science while you do).
Medieval philosophers held that beauty is fundamentally connected with knowledge. As was said here previously, every creation reveals something about its creator. Since God made the world, the world reveals truths about God.
Because God is existence itself, everything else only exists by virtue of participation in His existence, including beauty. Because God is infinitely simple (not composed of separate parts), He is beauty itself. Therefore, beauty is being, i.e. an object is beautiful to the extent that it fulfills the category of its being (i.e. is all that it can be).
St. Thomas notes that beauty gives pleasure when contemplated, but he maintains that beauty is located in the object. In other words, beauty is not a concept in the mind of the beholder imposed onto a given object; it’s caused when the form of an object is impressed on the mind. Beauty is pleasurable because it satisfies one or more of the following criteria to a greater or lesser degree.
- Being: everything has its ultimate source in being; therefore, being is the basis of beauty. (Without existence, there’s nothing. Therefore, an object owes everything, including its beauty, to its being.)
- Proportion: symmetry, harmony, and balance.
- Radiance: according to Etienne Gilson, radiance is that elusive aspect of beauty that “hooks” us and keeps us coming back for more.
- Wholeness: completeness/integrity; how close the object comes to being a perfect specimen of its type.
Anyone who’s still reading may wonder what good objective beauty is in the first place. Considering where you’re reading this post, it’s a safe bet that you’re interested in art, especially writing; and especially fiction.
Hugo-nominated sci-fi author Mike Flynn notes that, “Until the early 20th century, artists saw their job as portraying beauty according to a standard of craftsmanship.”
What’s the point of portraying that beauty? The mellifluent John C. Wright describes authors as custodians of a great secret in his indispensable essay anthology, Transhuman and Subhuman.
The secret is that we are exiles here on Earth. This is not our home. We do not belong here.
If the readers and authors did not feel that way, if we did belong on Earth, and if we loved mortal life and mortal suffering, and if we desired nothing more, we would read newspapers for the news and engineering reports for discoveries of useful tools, and gossip about real people and histories of real events, and we would never, ever, ever desire something more.In a nutshell, an SFF writer’s job is to tell people the truth about themselves by making stuff up. But if it’s not objectively beautiful stuff, the writer’s just lying.