A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: / Its loveliness increases; it will never / Pass into nothingness . . . JOHN KEATS Endymion
Is beauty in the eye of the beholder or is there some objective standard, some Platonic realm of beauty? This is a question which has preoccupied aesthetes and philosophers for centuries.
Don Miguel Ruiz has no doubts: Beauty is just a concept we learned. (The Mastery of Love.)
Natural objects just are — they are neither beautiful nor ugly. These are emotive descriptions accorded to them by the minds of human beings. Good, bad, ugly, beautiful — we can't seem to avoid evaluating things in this way. In fact it's essentially human to do so: we have an in-built sense of ethics and aesthetics, which is useful and necessary to us.
Yet, also being human, we sometimes get things askew. We tangle and subvert the concept of ethics by committing crimes, by creating totalitarian societies etc. We tangle and subvert the concept of aesthetics by insisting that Leonardo paints more beautifully than a Neolithic cave painter, that person 'x' is more beautiful than person 'y'. We often confuse artistic skill with natural beauty. Artistic skills and their products are variable, but all natural beauty is beautiful and cannot be graded.
Beauty is a concept and a belief. The only difference between the beauty of one person and the beauty of another is the concept of beauty that people have. (The Mastery of Love.) A dandelion is as beautiful as an orchid. A frog is as beautiful as a prince. An old person is as beautiful as a newborn baby. My mother with old-age Alzheimer's was as beautiful as she was as an intelligent young woman. A so-called 'ugly' person is as beautiful as a so-called 'beautiful' person.
Our idea of artistic beauty is relative, and changes with time and according to culture. The classical Greek and Roman idea of beauty is quite different from the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, which values incompleteness, impermanence and imperfection.
These are just a few thoughts about beauty which came into my mind this morning. I would love to hear your own thoughts. My own feeling is that the key to it all is semantics: yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but at the same time I think there is definitely beauty per se out there (Michelangelo's David; a snowflake; the basic simplicity and unity of cellular life). It all depends on how you define the word 'beauty', and being clear what you actually mean when you use it.