Beauty is one of those ideas that we all seem to have an opinion about – from the beauty of a sunset to what makes someone look beautiful. The beauty of a person or an object is often very subjective, but there are also things we tend to agree about, such as the beauty of a particular type of art.
Whether or not it is objective, there has been much discussion about what exactly constitutes beauty in the world around us, both within philosophy and in the art world. In the twentieth century, a revival of interest in the concept of beauty emerged in both areas. Theorists attempted to re-conceptualize beauty in ways that fit with the more feminist and postmodern approaches of the time.
Some of the major approaches to beauty are outlined below:
While some philosophers, such as Augustine, sought to locate beauty in the qualities of an object, other philosophers such as Plotinus, who treated the question of beauty as a matter of Formal Aesthetics, located it in a more objective sense. For instance, Augustine’s account in De Veritate Religione distinguishes between a ‘delight’ or ‘pleasure’ that a thing evokes in the mind and a ‘beauty’ that is an element of that delight (Augustine, 247).
Other philosophers such as Santayana and Hegel, while not explicitly rejecting the idea that an object could be both beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, did so in a more subjectivist way than does their successors. For example, Hegel’s concept of a ‘objective’ beauty can be compared to the notion of a’relationship’ between an object and its observer, which has an empirical content that enables us to verify or disprove its validity.
Another approach is to view the word “beauty” as referring to a set of qualities that objects have that elicit certain kinds of experience, ranging from simplicity to harmony. These qualities can be found in a Bach cantata, in a painting, in a piece of music, and in natural phenomena such as waves or a flower.
These are all objects that have a definite set of properties, and when these are recognized, they elicit an experience. These are the characteristics that get to be called ‘beauty’, and they are all properties that an object can have even if no one is looking.
Ultimately, however, all these aspects of an object’s beauty are subjective, and there is no universal standard that applies to every object. For this reason, the question of beauty is a controversial one.
There are various approaches to this debate and they have been developed over the centuries in different ways by philosophers, art theorists, and artists. Many of these approaches have been influenced by the work of philosophers such as Hume and Kant, who saw the concept of beauty as a kind of antinomy that had serious philosophical consequences. Some of these approaches are still in use today, and a number of new ones have been developing in recent years.