A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Thursday, 20 March 2014

What Is Beauty?

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.       


The Weaver of Grass said...

Also Robert, I think some people see beauty in things whereas others don't even notice it - or at least don't put a word to it.

Ruth Mowry said...

This topic is important. I agree with the things you've written.

I remember the cover article in National Geographic about human faces, and how studies showed that the more symmetrical they were, the more beautiful they were perceived to be. But I am totally with you that an old man or woman is just as beautiful as a newborn baby. I do think it's semantics. What do we mean by "beauty"?

I am fascinated by people's different aesthetics. I can appreciate the grungy aesthetic of urban decay, for instance, and even consider it beautiful, though I don't seem able to create grunge art. I do prefer an old, worn [wabi-sabi] wooden bowl (or the handmade ceramic one you posted with this post at FB) to a rococo porcelain, though history would probably favor the latter?

The Solitary Walker said...

That's certainly true, Pat — the sensitivity of an individual's subjective perception is a big factor.

Thanks for your comment, Ruth. You touch here on another aspect I hadn't really considered: the aesthetic snobbery and élitism around the concept of beauty. How some people arrogantly think they are the arbiters of taste. There is no way a fine piece of porcelain is necessarily more beautiful than a roughly-crafted pot (a subjective view), though you can point objectively to differences in skill levels. Cellini's bronze bust of Cosimo de' Medici may be artistically highly skilled, but the resulting work is chilling and unlovable — even Cosimo hated it.

George said...

Notions of what is beautiful and what is not have been inculcated into us since birth, and, as a result, most people walk through life wearing blinders, unable to see beauty in places where they have been told it will not be found. Once again, as we've talked about in other contexts, concepts always lead to preconceptions, and preconceptions are nothing more that prejudices which limit our ability to experience the world in all of its fullness. Without putting a religious emphasis on the point, I think it is wise to be "born again" each day, and to remain open to the unfolding of life (and beauty). To rely upon the preconceptions of others is to deny ourselves the joy of individual discovery and appreciation through experience.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes to everything you say, George, and thank you so much for saying it!

roselle said...

As you suggest, ultimately beauty is a subjective thing, isn't it? I suspect it's to do with our capacity for love as much as any externally-applicable 'standard'.

I guess if any kind of objective measure were to exist, it'd be a continuum at the most, as it's hard to me to imagine anything really truly ugly.

As you also suggest, judgement is also a conditioned response.

With the doors of perception cleansed, everything is itself, and is therefore beautiful, perhaps, as essence is.

I guess too the old adage is right: whatever we love cannot help but be beautiful. The more we are able to love the more we perceive beauty.

That all sounds glib and banal; it's difficult to speak of qualities that are more to do with soul than with judgement, isn't it?

Rubye Jack said...

I think there is both universal and relative beauty. There are works of art that most of us agree are beautiful, things in nature such as a sunrise/sunset, human beauty...
Beauty is another one of those words, like love, that is so often misused that it is hard to define on a daily basis. Sure an ant is beautiful but when compared to the moon, most of us would choose the moon as a thing of absolute or universal beauty.

For me to see an old wooden spoon or worker's shoes as beautiful requires I do some thinking or meditating on the object whereas with the moon I need not think about it because I just "know" it is beautiful.

My old mother is more beautiful to me than any fashion model because my love for her causes me to see her as such. My mutt of a dog is so very beautiful to me, but to another he might seem ugly. And so beauty is relative.

Perhaps as the old Eskimos had so many different words for snow, we need more words for ideas such as love and beauty.

Nick said...

Beware concepts (of beauty, of anything), they are merely the food of delusion. 'Beauty is in the eye of...', and nowhere else.

am said...

Don't know what to say about beauty, but this came to mind:


Vagabonde said...

The concept of “beauty” is difficult to define as each person has a different opinion. It is very human to decide what is beautiful and what is not, it is deeply personal really. It is a judgment that was learnt. Then also, which beauty are we talking about? Esthetical beauty? The beauty of emotions? There could be beauty in sadness and so on. Years ago Don Miguel Ruiz came to talk in my town and my daughter and I went and listened to him. We bought his books and I certainly enjoyed their reading.

The Solitary Walker said...

Roselle — thanks for visiting my blog and for your excellent comment. What you say doesn't sound at all glib and banal to me. The symbiotic relationship of love and beauty you describe is true and important, I feel.

The Solitary Walker said...

Rubye, I just loved your comment. I'm so lucky to have such interesting people making such thoughtful and valuable comments on my blog. It really is great.

I agree with what you say: how there's beauty in humble objects, in things we don't perhaps automatically think of as 'beautiful', in all that we love… all of this chiming with comments made by George, Roselle and others.

I like your idea of having more words for love and beauty — there are so many different kinds of love relationship and so many different kinds of beauty, all meaning different things to different people.

However, something in me also instinctively believes in that universal love you mention in your first sentence: an essential, unchanging, all-encompassing, overwhelming timeless Love and Beauty, perhaps only to be truly and wholly found in God or Tao — or in a little part of each one of us (ref. Hinduisim).

The Solitary Walker said...

Nick — I agree wholeheartedly that we must be sceptical of concepts, indeed of everything (The 5th Agreement of Ruiz: question everything, but learn to listen) in order to discern the truth.

The Solitary Walker said...

As you know, I love Robinson Jeffers, Am, and wish he were better known in the UK.

'As for us: We must uncenter our minds from ourselves…'

I'm also reminded of this poem:

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your comment, Vagabonde, reminding us of the deeply personal nature of our idea of beauty and of all the different connotations of the word 'beauty'. You were lucky to see and hear Ruiz.

Goat said...

Beautifully put, sir.

I grew up in and around mangrove "swamps" and wetlands. I still find such places incredibly calming and beautiful. When i was growing up, my small town north of Brisbane was the butt of jokes for being a "slum" (originally a kind of cheap fishing-shack settlement): mud, mangroves and mosquitos. Now it's a place only millionaires can afford to buy into; the wetlands that were treated as wasteland in the 60s and 70s (and earlier) are protected by conventions and hordes of people drive there on the weekends to walk their dogs on the once-disgusting mudflats...

So concepts of the beautiful and important etc can definitely evolve along with other social attitudes. And even a mosquito has a certain "beauty", both before and especially after it is slapped into oblivion.

Loren said...

I couldn't possibly define "beauty," but I sometimes think I know it when I see it through the lens of my camera.

I must admit, though, that I find it easier to see beauty in nature than in man-made creations.

Amanda said...

There are those things, such as the Golden Mean, that are supposed to be scientific affirmation for such a concept as objective beauty in the universe. But that's a human-made concept, isn't it? Don Miguel has it right - what we perceive to be beauty as humans is learned. More to the truth is that no such thing exists out there, except a singularity which we can only barely conceive in our consciousness.

Wabi-sabi gets is, as does Keats. Philosophers and poets always do.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for this terrific comment, Amanda.

The Solitary Walker said...

And thanks, too, for your own comments, Goat and Loren.

I agree, Loren — beauty in nature is almost a given, but beauty in some man-made creations can be hard to find.

A nice snapshot history of Brisbane, Goat, and its ambivalent 'beautification'. You are God's own ambassador, my friend — seeing the beauty in a mosquito!