What started as a disagreement between me and friends about the radio station we should listen to, quickly escalated into a big discussion on whether beauty and the arts are subjective or objective matters. Is beauty a thing defined by us, or a thing that exists apart from us? They, as many, argued that beauty is subjective and everybody has his or her taste in music, movies, paintings, etcetera, end of discussion.

In this video, I’ll try to make the case for the existence of objective qualities in the arts and other domains outside of the natural sciences.

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Back to our topic

The objective view is known as aesthetic objectivism. Before offering a defense of this view, let me first explain the contrary perspective known as aesthetic relativism or aesthetic cultural relativism which makes judgments on beauty relative to a certain individual or culture.

The nature of beauty is not a settled issue in modern Western philosophy, arguments have been made for both the subjective and the objective camps.

David Hume who was in the ‘in the eye of the beholder’ camp argued that:

“Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them, and each mind perceives a different beauty.”

The interesting thing about the schism between the two strongly opposed camps is that it’s a relatively recent divide.

Until the eighteenth century, most philosophers’ statements on beauty categorized it as an objective quality that could be located in the beautiful object itself or at least in some of its qualities.

It was Plato who first championed this position. He explained it through his famous cave allegory.

Unlike today’s thinkers, ancient Greek philosophers liked to use allegories since they believed that ideas are bigger than mere words and that allegories are useful tools to convey complex messages easily and practically.

THE CAVE ALLEGORY

(you can skip this part if you’re already familiar with the cave allegory)

We’ve touched on the cave allegory in one of our previous videos, a video game by Plato, so here’s a quick reminder of the allegory:

It’s about prisoners who have never seen anything in their lives other than shadows being cast in front of them.

Shadows are the only form they conceive and understand as real, not realizing that shadows are a by-product of something that is even more real.

WHAT PLATO WANTS TO SAY

Through this allegory, Plato tells us that the physical world around us is merely a reflection of a perfect ideal world of Forms.

Our world is observed by us through our senses, but the ideal world is one of ideas.

What about beauty and objectivity?

Plato saw beauty, truth, and justice at the core of that ideal world and the way to objectively measure beauty in our world is by measuring its closeness to that ideal.

We can all recognize beauty in individual things such as sunsets, flowers, music or even people. Appreciating these things is the first rung on the ladder of the knowledge of Beauty.

Like chairs that we recognize as chairs regardless of their appearance simply by knowing the idea of the chair.

What’s important to learn from Plato is that beautiful things can be observed by our senses — we can literally see something that is beautiful. But the knowledge of beauty can only be known by the mind, by understanding the qualities of the objective and ultimate beauty that, according to Plato, only exists in the world of what he calls the Forms.

So, seeing an imitation of the true “Form” of Beauty can lead us to a better understanding of Beauty itself.

When two friends disagree about the beauty of a sunset and, let’s say one of them thinks that sunsets in general are dull and completely unremarkable, does that end the discussion and confirm that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder?

If disagreement amongst men refutes the existence of truth, then the statement that the truth is, ‘defined by us’ is irrelevant — it cannot hold to be true, as there is no such thing as “truth”. 

I believe instead that one of us is actually closer to the truth than the other and we misinterpret these differences as different tastes.

What about the aesthetic cultural relativist view that our judgment is being influenced by the particular culture that surrounds us?

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a great selection of poems, Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor is an excellent piece of music, and Michelangelo’s David is a magnificent sculpture. How do we explain this consensus among intelligent experts of art, in different cultures and different centuries except by acknowledging that the overwhelming aestheticly pleasing qualities of these works are facts? If aesthetic relativism is true, then the consensus of the opinions of art critics is just an insignificant coincidence. There just happens to have been positive acknowledgment given to these artworks across civilization for hundreds of years.

Recognizing these beautiful things in the world we all live in is like being confined to Plato‘s cave watching shadows— we only see glimpses of real beauty, we only get a small clue of what it might be.

Plato’s theory of Forms and ideal beauty has profoundly impacted western arts through the centuries, what’s interesting is that Plato himself did not think highly of artists and the arts, he saw art as imitations of imitations. That, however, did not stop artists from being influenced by his ideas, especially from the Renaissance era until the end of romanticism.

Beauty for me and you?

Back to the debate I started with some friends. One of them asked “Who decides the ideal form of art and who decides if we are getting closer to it?” 

The question was another attempt to inject subjectivity into the equation.

The answer is simple. Let’s take music, for example, all you have to do is to pick a musical instrument, start learning its basics and then move forward with your knowledge until you master that instrument. You’ll start to appreciate new qualities in music, hear nuances you never heard before and you may find you have less appreciation for the music of Ed Sheeran or Sam Smith.

The same experiment can be replicated in other fields of arts but let’s not confuse taste with beauty. Taste is purely subjective and differs from one person to the other, but beauty is out there waiting to be discovered.

. Kant has a very interesting take on the question of beauty’s objectivity. He is somewhere between categorizing it as objective and subjective.

Let me summarise his position using the Internet’s Encyclopaedia of philosophy as follows:

In his Critique of Judgment, he begins with an account of beauty. The initial issue is; what kind of judgment is it that results in our saying, for example, ‘That is a beautiful sunset’. Kant argues that such aesthetic judgments must have four key distinctive characteristics. First, they are disinterested, meaning that we take pleasure in something because we judge it beautiful, rather than judging it beautiful because we find it pleasurable. The latter type of judgment would be more like saying “I like chocolate.”

Second and third, such judgments are both universal and necessary. This means roughly that it is an intrinsic part of the activity of such a judgment to expect others to agree with us. Although we may say ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, that is not how we act. Instead, we debate and argue about our aesthetic judgments – and especially about works of art -and we tend to believe that such debates and arguments can actually achieve something. Indeed, for many purposes, ‘beauty’ behaves as if it were a real property of an object, like its weight or chemical composition. But Kant insists that universality and necessity are in fact a product of features of the human mind (Kant calls these features ‘common sense’).

Fourth, through aesthetic judgments, beautiful objects appear to be ‘purposive without purpose’ Kant argues, that they should affect us as if they had a purpose, although no particular purpose can be found.

Let me end this video by going back to the original question. If somebody doesn’t recognize beauty in a painting by Botticelli or Caravaggio, does that mean that beauty itself is subjective?

It’s like colours. Green leaves aren’t green because we perceive green when we see them, but we can tell they’re green because we see green when we look at them. If all people suddenly went colour-blind, green leaves would still be green – we just wouldn’t be able to see them. Their greenness doesn’t depend upon anybody’s ability to see. Likewise, beauty doesn’t depend on someone’s ability to see it. It is there my friends.

In our next video, we will tackle the issue of beauty and scientism. Think of it as a new wave, trying to quantify all things around us and using measures borrowed from hard sciences like physics and biology to make sense of things like beauty, arts, and music. We believe that this movement is very short-sighted and actually unscientific but enough for now, let’s tackle the topic next time.