Saturday, September 5, 2009

What is Beauty?

I wanted to just share some thoughts on the beauty and art that I had been having. I use a lot of intuition and go through it in an exploratory way, like a basic version of the Socratic Method, but I think it helps me realize more and more of how I really think of something, even if it’s different from the initial ideas. In any case, I just wanted some input on it, on whether you think I’m starting out in a right way.

I started by asking in the back of my mind “What is Beauty?” That was obviously very convoluted, and so I looked towards examples of things I found beautiful, not on a small scale, but things I felt really deeply had a beauty to them. I started looking at a few things, and realized that, like Mill, I felt there were separations of beauty: that is, there could be more than one type of beauty. I came to this by realizing that something was only beautiful, or could only be called beautiful, if it fit a certain mold.

If something is beautiful, it has to be art. By that I mean it has to evoke some experience beyond the simply functional. Simply using a urinal, treating it as a mere means, would not evoke an experience of art. However, if someone begins to contemplate not only the function of the urinal but its composition, etc, it could cross the threshold of art. This allows me to say a couple of things. One, art can be almost anything. This seems to fit, as we know there are many different types of art that many different people disagree and agree on. Secondly, to be art, it must be experienced by a self-conscious agent capable of reflection and understanding, or at least recognizing, the experience. I realized that if a dog saw a sign, it would see the sign. It might even understand, after learned and trained behavior, that the sign signifies something, or acts a means of location. But it would lack the ability to appreciate the sign for what it is, or to experience the sign in a “deeper” way. (I have to apologize if some of what I’m saying is vague, but art and beauty for me borderline on being qualia or very intangible and ineffable at times.)

In some sense, I think of a physics experience. From t (negative infinity) to t (almost 0) an object or creation, the moon and the earth, a painting and a cityscape exists solely as objects that exist, nothing more. However, at t(0), when a self-consciously aware entity engages the object and has an experience, it becomes art. If they do not have some experience of it beyond functional, it simply stays an object. If, however, they experience it as art, then it has the potential to be either “beautiful or not beautiful.” I hesitate to say beautiful or “ugly’, as that brings in a lot of connotations that I wish to stay away from. Something can be beautiful or not beautiful, sure, but what is it that makes it go either right or left? There can be no beauty without self conscious experience, but how do we know what’s beautiful?

Even though it’s subjective, I think it has to do with two different aspects that come together. One is a bit vague, but at the moment it’s the closest I can get to explaining it. Something is only beautiful to you if the experience of the item evokes a certain “goodness” within you. I refrain from using the language of right and wrong because I don’t consider beauty moral. This “goodness” comes in a variety of forms. For example: I hear a certain part of “Nivaos” by E. S. Posthumus that’s simply beautiful. When I hear it, I feel an emotional response, or something more, from inside, that resonates in me, a “goodness.” I know for a fact that, to me, this is art, and it is beautiful. I look at a watercolor painting by some famous painter from 300 years ago, and I’m awe stricken by the way in which he has used the medium. The canvas, the colors, the lights and darks, the composition of the painting seems to simply be more than art, and again, the experience elicits a “goodness” from me. I consider it beautiful, not necessarily out of the same emotion or feeling from the Nivaos experience, but from the image’s worth in itself. However, I also look at a picture by Dahli, of Christ being crucified on a Hypercube. I consider it art and beautiful, not because it is done well or the colors match, but because of what it is expressing. The combination of spirituality, the ideas of Christ as God, and the idea of transcending space and time come together to create a truly intellectually refreshing experience, similar to the intellectual pleasure coined by utilitarianism. It is beautiful.

So this leaves me to think that beauty is assigned to an object that we have an experience with that elicits some “goodness” in us, whether it’s emotional, intangible, or appreciation of its composition. There may be more types, but I have stayed with these three as they are my most prominent.

The 2nd aspect of beauty comes in what can be described as scarcity, non-expectedness, or surprise. An Eskimo in Alaska deals with snow on an hour to hour basis. For him, it exists as an existence, and while he might do things with it and appreciate it, he might consider it simply art. However, a man who has lived in Florida his entire life finally sees snow for the first time, and finds it beautiful. What is it about the two situations, besides the obvious, that makes it beautiful for one but not the other? It seems to have something to do with what type of beauty it is (intellectual? Physical? Emotional?) and how often one has encountered it. He encounters snow, finds it beautiful; the next time it snows, he finds it beautiful once again. After the 100th time he sees snow, something happens. It may not be simply functional, and he still may consider it art, but that initial type of beauty has faded. He, like the Eskimo, is no longer necessarily awed by it, and has no desire to make it beautiful. The experience does not elicit goodness. He may find it intellectually beautiful, possibly, but if he doesn’t, it may lose its status and become simply art.

If art is beautiful at some point, does that mean it is beautiful forever, even if it is lost? I’m not sure. The example earlier would have me believe no, but it’s possible that in some way it does.

Basically for me it comes down to this.

If a thing is not experienced, it remains a thing.

If a self-consciously aware, reasonably intelligent entity encounters this thing and ahs an experience of it, it becomes art.

If the experience of the art brings about a certain “goodness”, whatever that may be, it can be beautiful.

If that entity dies and no one ever sees/hears/tastes that item again, it may lose its classification of beauty. If the tree falls in the wilderness and no one hears it, it makes a sound, but simply that.

Beauty itself can be put in many different types. These types determine how readily someone may identify it as beautiful, as well as how long it can remain in that status.

There must be a “surprise” or “Un-usual” or “scarcity” aspect to most of beauty, sometimes to have it transform from art, sometimes simply to have it recognized and experienced.

There can be no beauty without experience. There can be no experience of beauty without consciousness that understand that “I am I, and that is that, and I am experienced that in x and y ways.”

This is basically what I have come to so far, and I look forward to reading what you guys think.

Some links, in case you guys were wondering at some of the things I referenced.

The Dali Picture:



  1. Thanks for the great post, Floyd. There's a lot of great stuff here, and we've already discussed some of it, but I wanted to bring up one small point that I found especially interesting in the following remark:

    "If something is beautiful, it has to be art."

    As you go on to say, what you mean by art is something whose existence--its reason for being--cannot be reduced to its utility, by which I take you to mean something like its instrumentality, or its suitedness to the pursuit of some end which is given in advance of (and as the final cause of) its coming into being. First, I just want to say that I very much agree, and that I think you've hit on one of the key features by which we define the fine arts, particularly in distinction from the very similar category of products that we refer to as "arts and crafts" or handiwork--things like finely adorned furniture or chinaware. The latter objects, although they require great skill to produce and may be quite beautifully made, are nonetheless not always thought of as belonging in the same realm as a painting by Caravaggio or a Beethoven symphony, precisely because they seem to owe the greater part of their being to some determinate purpose. (I want to leave the question aside for the time being, but of course this way of distinguishing fine arts forces us to take up the question of whether the "purposelessness" of the arts can really be defended, and if so, whether this is the same as calling art "useless".)

    At the same time, however, I want to point out that I think there is another way that objects can avoid the reduction to utility, and so appear to us as equally beautiful to artworks, and that is by their being (or appearing to us) as natural products. Products of nature cannot be thought of as owing their being to their utility, unless of course we posit some kind of divine purpose (and intelligence) not only within nature, but throughout it--that is, in every natural being as an individual, and not just in the whole of nature understood as a system. The latter is certainly a self-consistent possibility, but it is one that philosophy has tended to avoid, since it can tend to raise more new questions than it puts to rest.

    In any case, my point is primarily to draw attention to the fact that, very much in keeping with your argument, aesthetics has primarily looked to the fine arts and to nature as the basic categories in which beauty appears. In fact, we will see this semester that many of the thinkers we read will seek to set themselves apart from one another in terms of whether they give priority to natural beauty or to artistic beauty. I'm curious to hear what other people tend to think about this: When you reflect on what you consider to be the most empirically universal and uncontroversial examples of beauty, do you picture artworks or products of nature? Can you articulate why?

  2. That's a very good comment Prof. It's actually something I had spoken to a friend about, and I think my discourse definitely includes that. I believe, for instance, that the planet Earth, the universe, nature in other words, can definitely be beautiful. I am bypassing here the claim of "intelligent design" or some primary source that "intended" the earth to look as it does. For all intents and purposes, the maker of art has no bearing on whether it can be considered art and/or beautiful, as it is based on the person perceiving and experiencing it. But yes, certainly a good point, and one that I incorporated mentally in my analysis of it.