The Concept of Beauty in Art and Philosophy

Beauty is a term used in the philosophy of art and in philosophical and aesthetic criticism, to describe those things which inspire pleasure. Generally it refers to qualities such as color, harmony, and symmetry.

There are many theories and approaches to the concept of beauty developed within Western philosophical and artistic traditions. They all address the question of whether beauty is objective or subjective.

The classical conception of beauty was that it consists of an arrangement of integral parts into a coherent whole, according to proportion, harmony, or symmetry, often expressed in mathematical ratios. This conception was held up by Aristotle as the fundamental basis of Western aesthetics, and is embodied in classical and neo-classical architecture, sculpture, literature, and music wherever it appears.

Aristotle’s aesthetics were later Christianized by Thomas Aquinas, who linked beauty to the Second Person of the Trinity and gave three qualifications for something to be considered beautiful: integrity, due proportion, and clarity.

Integrity, or perfectness, is the first of Aristotle’s requirements for beauty; however, it is not impossible to have a work of art which does not have integrity but is still beautiful. A realistic portrait of a woman, for example, would not have integrity even if it followed its own rules of realism; a cubist painting, on the other hand, could have integrity in spite of being based on a model who did not have three eyes.

One of the problems with this conception is that it imposes a definite set of standards, which are incompatible with the way that we normally perceive reality: for example, to some extent all colors are ‘beautiful’ because they are brightly coloured, but not all objects have beauty by virtue of their being coloured. Moreover, there is a wide range of experience of ‘colors’ among human beings: those who are color-blind see objects as having a yellow cast; to a person with jaundice the same object may have a greenish hue.

Despite these problems, the classical conception of beauty was the guiding force behind most of the work of the ancient Western philosophers. It was also a defining feature of much Western art from the fifth to the eighteenth centuries.

Some modern critics have taken the classical conception of beauty as a starting point for developing new and more critical approaches to beauty. These include Dave Hickey, who coined the term ‘new aesthetics’ to describe his own work in the 1990s; feminist-oriented reconstruals of and reappropriations of the concept (see Brand 2000, Irigaray 1993); and several other theoretical approaches.

Nevertheless, most twentieth-century philosophers have eschewed the classical conception of beauty and instead have opted to regard beauty as subjective. The most prominent exceptions are John Locke and Santayana. The former views the pleasure of beauty as a kind of “relation of the mind to an object or an experience that causes delight”: he takes this relationship to be a “kind of agency or a subjective agenda,” while the latter takes it as the “ontological priority” over particular Forms or qualities. In both cases, the pleasure is “a kind of ‘appreciation,’ and it is a pleasure that can be enjoyed only when the thing being appreciated is itself lovely.”