Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder?
We’ve all most likely heard this phrase at some point. It’s a proverbial sounding way to say that beauty is a subjective quality. That the only true standard for beauty is that the observer finds the object to be beautiful. Something might be beautiful to me but not to you.
Because there are always differing opinions on things, it’s natural to assume that something like beauty is a subjective quality. This is especially true in our modern “everyone is right” society in which it’s taboo to say that any opinion can be wrong. But is beauty really solely in the eye of the beholder? If you and I look at the same thing, and one of us finds it beautiful and the other doesn’t, are we both right? Or is one of us missing out.
I’ve thrown this question around on a few forums and discussed it with some friends. It seems that most people want to answer that yes, beauty is subjective. They usually then wind up siting something that they find beautiful that other people may not. When the question is phrased differently though, opinions tend to change.
Think of something specific that you find incredibly beautiful. A person, a work of art, something in nature, an emotion, a past experience, anything that is, in your opinion, one of the most beautiful things in the world. Got it? Good.
Now tell me this. If you were the only one on earth who thought that was beautiful, would it still be beautiful? Most people answet that question with “of course.” But how about this one. What if no one, including you, thought it was beautiful? Nothing has changed about the object or experience, it still has all those same qualities that have made you choose it as something beautiful. The only thing that’s different is that no one, not even you, holds the opinion that it is beautiful. Now, at this point, is it still beautiful? Does it retain that beauty that you’ve ascribed to it even if no one believes it?
Interestingly, most people, the same people who at first thought beauty was subjective, will answer yes to that last question. Something inside us is not willing to believe that the things we find beautiful would lose their beauty if they went unrecognized. Now, if we believe that, then we have to believe that beauty comes from somewhere other than our own opinions. Something about that beautiful object must make it beautiful. This means that beauty must be a concrete objective quality which has standards. Otherwise, if beauty is simply rooted in opinion, then an object cannot be beautiful without some person there to think it’s beautiful. It has no actual beauty, nothing does.
So logic takes me to a point where I have to believe that beauty is either an objective quality… or it simply doesn’t exist. It’s just an illusion of perception. I have a hard time believing that an idea that has played a major role in society since before written history isn’t based in some sort of truth. That, and as someone with a passion for art I’m rather obligated to believe in beauty. ; )
So I’ve arrived at this idea that there are concrete standards for beauty. What are they? I’m not sure to be honest. I’ve got some ideas, but not a workable definition that hasn’t fallen apart yet. I think I’ll throw a few more posts on this topic if I come across any interesting in my little quest for a standard. I’d also love to see your comments. And while I feel pretty convinced about the whole objective/subjective thing, I won’t stick to my guns without reason. I want to hear if you agree or not.