Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder?

Saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder is often taken the be the pearl of wisdom that ends debate, leaving us with the need to accept that tastes vary and that is all that can be said. But although accepting the subjectivity of aesthetic judgment may close off some fields of objective enquiry, it opens up another which is at least as fertile.

Take human beauty, for instance. It may well be in the eye of the beholder, but it is also nonetheless true that our eyes tend to agree on a great deal. If I were to ask a hundred people to rank pictures of ten very different-looking people according to their beauty, I bet you could make an accurate guess as to which, on average, were ranked the highest. What is more, we can actually identify the kind of objective characteristics that mean that someone like George Clooney will almost always be considered more attractive than I will. In other words, our subjective impressions of beauty are at least in part the product of objective facts about human nature, the social world and how things actually look. So in some sense, beauty really is ‘out there’ as well as in the mind’s eye.

It is also the case that the significance of beauty varies according to what it is we’re talking about. When we debate art of music, for example, we are often concerned with more than just whether it strikes us as beautiful. Arts criticisms is only partly about taste and personal judgement. It is also about form, structure, meaning, historical and social context, technique and so on.

What the dull mind misses is that the eye of the beholder is itself a fascinating subject for objective investigation; and there is much more outside of it to explore once beauty has been taken care of.

'A matter of taste' says the monkey and bites into soap. (German saying)

(Adapted from Julian Baggini’s ‘Should You Judge This Book by Its Cover?’)


~ by irwin on February 21, 2012.

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