"L'instantané aux Fleurs", Collection Mémoires by Elodie G. Fira

Does Beauty Truly Lie in the Eye of the Beholder?

Daniel Arwas March 01 2023


Is beauty objective? Are things just naturally beautiful? Or do we innately choose what is beautiful based on our own personalized preferences and opinions? These are the foremost questions in the field of aesthetics, which I will unpack below.

The old English adage, “beauty lies in the eye of the beholder”, is used often to warn against judging our peers and their work too harshly. With contemporary society insistent on giving out awards for the best paintings, stories, movies and visual arts in general, this quote has never felt more relevant. The crux of this argument lies in this: Is beauty a feature existent in the object? i.e. is there something regarding the nature of the beautiful object (e.g. face, painting, etc) that makes it beautiful? Or, is “beauty” located in the person or subject perceiving the object? This is Objectivity v.s. Subjectivity of art, and is the core issue at the centre of the Philosophy of Art. Think of it as an elder gentleman who looks at the Mona Lisa at Le Louvre, and finds it to be beautiful. If beauty is objective, beauty comes from the Mona Lisa; if beauty is subjective, beauty is not held by the painting but by the mind of the old man, who finds the painting itself beautiful. If, after reading this, the majority of the above paragraph above made little to no sense, do not worry! Here I will flesh out the debate between the idea of objective beauty and subjective beauty, and determine once and for all whether beauty does indeed lie in the eye of the beholder.

Initially, you’d probably say, well - we all have different tastes and preferences, so of course beauty is subjective. And to an extent, this is true. We all find other people attractive, we like different foods, music, art, and humour. Even things as seemingly robust and specific as weather extract different feelings from people. Some people like rain (mostly strange people), and others prefer the warm sun. Some enjoy the autumn leaves and pumpkin-spiced everything, whilst others live for the hope and post-winter glow of spring. We know for a fact that through our unique minds and personal experiences, there is no objective best season (except for summer, obviously) or tastiest food because we all like different things, which is the fun of life.

On the other hand, there are things we all certainly do agree upon. We grade the top high-end food with Michelin Stars, we award writers the Booker and Pulitzer prizes, we wow at the most intricate ice sculptures and we weep at the most beautiful classical music (some of us at least). For those who say these awards are pretentious and mostly societally constructed, you may have a point, but I challenge you to watch a first-time comedian dying (comedically, not literally) on stage perform after watching a Jerry Seinfeld’s Greatest Hits on Youtube, and tell me the latter does not supersede the former.

Some technicalities make art, music, and humour beautiful: correct timing of jokes, using cohesive and pleasing musical chords, and cooking food to the absolute correct temperature with prime ingredients. No one would argue that a burnt-to-a-crisp chicken breast is tastier - or sensorily more beautiful than a perfectly cooked filet mignon with lots of butter.

And yet, even amongst beautiful things; paintings, sculptures, movies - there is disagreement. Visual arts, sounds, tastes and the like that are heralded as masterpieces and follow all the technical, objective beauty qualifications can still be interpreted differently by people. Many people think the Mona Lisa is unremarkable, Gordon Ramsey’s food is mediocre, or Jerry Seinfeld is simply not amusing. And we wouldn’t be able to say that they were inherently incorrect in having this opinion, as we consider tastes to be in the realm of knowledge. Saying the Venus de Milo is a wholly unimpressive sculpture is not the same as saying that “it never rains in Vancouver” or “2+2 = 5”.

Alas, it seems that whilst there are clearly objectively “beautiful” qualities in the aural, written and visual arts. The Golden Ratio, for example, which mathematically determines the facial beauty of an individual, is a tried and tested formula to determine the physical level of humanistic beauty with a high degree of accuracy. However, it seems that even among things that satisfy this objective criterion, there is still clearly some room for individual interpretation. And that, at least to a minor extent, beauty does lie in the eye of the beholder.

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