Monday, August 15, 2011

Mailbag Monday: Aesthetics

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.

Rocket writes,

Bro, I have a few questions about Aesthetics. It seems that beauty is defined by both objective features and subjective experiences, but how do they come together? You see, most of us seem to agree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, yet many of us would more likely agree that a Manet painting is more beautiful than a stick figure drawing. So despite what they say about subjective beauty, there seems to be a fairly objective standard to art, or at least the kind of art that we could put in a museum, charge people to view and convince intellectuals to write endless papers about. At the same time, many artists we respect today weren't always respected or their works would not have been appreciated by an audience from a different period. And I don't just mean fine art, but literature and film and the next cover girl of vogue too. How can art or beauty be both subjective and objective at the same time?

Fucking aesthetics.

If you go to the Stanford Encyclopedia and search for 'aesthetics', you get a bajillion pages titled '[Some guy]'s Aesthetics'; there aren't schools of thought in aesthetics so much as wholesale attempts to explain the phenomenon that is art by practically every important bro in history. Okay, maybe not all of them. But a fucking lot of them.

I'm no aesthetician, and here's why: Kant? Hegel? Dostoyevsky? Hume? Heidegger? Every single one of them said the same thing: "Fuck those assclowns. I know what beauty is, and I'll fucking school you in it." And it's exactly for the reason you give: it seems so simple on the face of it. Beauty is tantalizingly obvious; we're all drawn to it, and we all recognize it when we're confronted with it. Like the Sirens themselves, it calls out to philosophers. And like fools, philosophers fucking dash themselves on the rocks, the whole time insisting, "I fucking got this. How hard could it be?" Anyone giving a final answer to the question, "Is beauty objective or subjective?" isn't something I see happening. But I think I can shed some light on your question anyway.

So how can beauty be objective and subjective at the same time? Well, maybe, as Plato suggested, the Beautiful is like the Good - things are objectively beautiful and we just don't always recognize them the same way. Everyone agrees, generally shooting grandmas on Christmas is bad and keeping promises is good, but there are also a lot of fringe cases, and sometimes those fringe cases are constructed for the exact purpose of challenging our intuitions. Plenty of contemporary art is meant to do just that - sit on the fringe of what we consider 'beautiful' and go, "Eh? EH? What about this, hmmmm?" So somehow beauty is rooted in the world - and here it faces the same problem as 'goodness', which is "what the fuck is it about the way the world is that makes something good/beautiful? Because someone said so? Because human beings exist?" - and we use our capacity to recognize it, even though we can't recognize it perfectly. So here, the subjectivity of beauty is an illusion, the result of human fuckups - so when someone says of certain things, "that's kind of ugly" - he's just straight up fucking wrong.

Now, that thesis seems kind of problematic post-Darwin - after all, much of the physical beauty we're drawn to serves some sort of evolutionary advantage. Why is it we prefer potential mates to have bi-lateral symmetry and not radial symmetry? Let's say some aliens landed tomorrow, and they had tentacles and a bunch of eyes all over the place and long bodies with a dozen legs covered in a thin mucus membrane. If you were talking to one of them when his, uh, mate walked into the room, maybe you'd be like, "Uh..." and he'd be like, "I know, beautiful, right?" and you'd try not to vomit. The point is there seems to be some sort of advantage to beauty, especially in mate selection. If that's true, then we'd all agree largely on what is beautiful, for the same reason that most of us enjoy the taste of sugar and fucking hate the taste of soap: because appreciating sugar more than soap, or symmetry more than asymmetry, somehow made it easier to pass on your genes. So no wonder we all agree that Manet is more beautiful than a stick figure; we evolved to appreciate that kind of shit more. On this view it's the objectivity of beauty that's an illusion - beauty is completely subjective, it just happens that our respective subjectivities happen to coincide.

Of course, "what is beauty," amirite? There's another one of those fuzzy words that we all know how to use, but don't exactly know the definition of. We use the word to describe things that... provoke a certain reaction, even a particularly human reaction? That sounds about right. Maybe. But without a concrete definition, it's hard to say whether it's an objective or subjective concept. Maybe certain things that we create, or certain features of the world, are in some sense objectively beautiful, and some other things we call beautiful are subjectively so because they appear to mimic those objective things to some people. I'm just spitballing here, because I don't have a conclusive definition of "beauty" and I've seen enough failed attempts to put me off trying.

Art suffers from the same problem. For a while we had a pretty good sense of what art was, it seemed like something we could easily draw a circle around. Then Andy Warhol just drew a soup can and we were like, "Yeah, okay, that's clever, I guess. We can count that." And then Pollock started just fucking dripping paint on canvas at random and bros were like, "Well, I guess we can call that art too," but they started shifting uncomfortably in their seats, because they saw the floodgates starting to open. Suddenly some assholes started literally smearing shit on things and going, "What about this?! Why isn't this art?" If you've ever seen a thing in a museum and gone, "THAT'S not art..." then you've had exactly the reaction the artist wanted you to have, and his entire point is, "Oh yeah? Who gets to say?"

But again, 'art' is probably one of those words we all know how to use but can't conclusively define. As the Supreme Court said about another important subject, "We can't define it, but we know it when we see it." When you look at a shit-smeared statue and go, "That isn't art!" if the artist says, "Oh? How do you know?" All you can do is throw up your hands - "Fuck you, it just obviously isn't! C'mon! That's not even close to what we mean when we say, 'art'! We mean a certain thing, and that's just not that thing!"

I hope I've shed some light on your question here, though this is hardly a conclusive or exhaustive answer. Beauty and art appear, at times, objective and subjective, because we all recognize it but none of us can exhaustively describe it. Plenty of concepts are like that, but these two are particularly important because of the emphasis we put on beauty in our daily living.

Once again, since I'm not an expert on this topic, I'm going to ask my audience to email me suggestions for useful resources on the questions of beauty and art. I'll update this post on Wednesday with those suggestions.


  1. That's a beautiful answer.

  2. I've always been interested in getting into Aesthetics. Now, I think I'll stick with Ethics, thank-you-very-much. Interesting read, though :)

  3. "Beauty is completely subjective, it just happens that our respective subjectivities happen to coincide."

    How does this not completely answer the question?

  4. Ever read 'Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance?' (Robert Pirsig)
    Most of the book revolves around a philosopher struggling with this concept.
    Eventually he arrives at the term Quality. Quality is something that is much more objective that beauty. It's along the lines of plato's good. But doesn't good get caught up with just or right which does imply some subjectivity? Like beauty, quality is another one of those hard to pin down words that we can all recognize, but unlike beauty we can accept that there is quality as an objective trait regardless of how appealing we find it.
    You can have high quality stuff that you find ugly, but it's rare to find something of low quality beautiful?

    Any thoughts on this bro?

  5. It seems to me that Quality is purpose-directed. If I say I have a high-quality hammer, I'm mostly saying that it is good at being a hammer. High-quality means it performs well the tasks we expect of a hammer. Of course, the hammer can have other Qualities, like quality of structure. A high-quality structure does not fall apart quickly or easily. But that's still directed to the purpose of not falling down, a negative purpose instead of a positive one.

    I wonder, is beauty related to purposeless quality? Philosophy Bro said we recognize beauty rather than defining it, maybe what we're recognizing is quality that isn't directed to a purpose. But without a purpose, quality becomes subjective, I think, which would make beauty subjective.

  6. It'd be sweet if you could summarize a few of the major ideas on aesthetics. Even if those dudes were speaking out of their asses, are there a few that are worth noting just for being innovative and thought-provoking?

  7. If you think in terms of lexical semantics, I don't know why "art" and "beauty" and "good" are exceptional at all. What about "red"? How do you know what counts as red? Think it's a certain wavelength of light? Well, what about red-orange? What about pink? What about "red" wine? What if I tell you I'll give you $20.00 for every red thing you find, does that broaden your boundaries a little?

    The definition of any word "is completely subjective, it just happens that our respective subjectivities happen to coincide."

  8. awesome. this is one of my favorite MMs.

  9. I hate to be one of those assholes who just quotes people, but here's a bit've Wilde..
    "We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
    All art is quite useless."
    So I guess one way to look at it is that beauty is present when somebody admires something "intensely" when it serves no purpose. So yeah, I'd agree with the subjective argument.

  10. What about Math? Where does Math fit into the question (equation) of Art and Beauty?

    It clearly serves a purpose to us, so I disagree with mr. Anonymous above me. It can describe nearly everything about the physical universe. And yet we take plenty of "artistic license" with Math.

    For example, take division. The idea of 4 / 2 = 2 is pretty simple, and we see how it describes the physical world. But what about 4 / 0.37564 ??? How do you divide something by a non-natural number? What the hell does it mean to divide something by less than one?? It's actually MULTIPLYING. Somehow though, it works. You have to do it in physics all the time. Velocity = distance / time. Say the time t is less than one second, you plug the value for t into the formula, and it still works out! You get the correct velocity.

    Exponents are funny too. Raising something to the third power makes sense, you are multiplying a number by itself three times. But how is it that, when you multiply any number, ANY Number at all, by ZERO, you get ONE?! Is that not fucking absurd?? It's completely abstract in concept... And yet, it fits. The y-intercept of any number's exponential curve is exactly at 1. Like a beautiful fucking puzzle WE created, but at the same time was already there!

    The list goes on. Imaginary numbers, set theory, 4+ dimensional space, it's all human creation but it's all fair in Math.

    I'm not really getting into the objective/subjective argument, because obviously it's just, like, my opinion yo, that math is beautiful. But here's my real question to y'all: is Math Art?

  11. Small correction in 4th paragraph: ***RAISE any number to the zeroth power***, and you get one.

    Sorry, was thinking faster than I could type. You know what I meant.

  12. Wonderful jab at the Supreme Court's "definition" of pornography! :)

  13. "Suddenly some assholes started literally smearing shit on things and going, "What about this?! Why isn't this art?" If you've ever seen a thing in a museum and gone, "THAT'S not art..." then you've had exactly the reaction the artist wanted you to have, and his entire point is, "Oh yeah? Who gets to say?" "

    Jesus i raged so fucking hard...
    it's sad that literally anything can be considered art today and the simplest of things suddenly has the deepest meaning... fuck this

  14. To answer about any number raised to zero, at first glance, it reall does not make sense that 235^0 = 1.

    BUT, I believe that this issue shares the same logic as dividing by 0. Most mathematicians agree that any (positive) real number divided by zero is infinity. Why? because we can never really divide by 0, true, but we can sure as hell divide by 0.0000001 which gives you some huge number, and the closer you get to zero, the bigger the number is. And while zero is a quite abstract concept in reality, it is very similar to the concept of infinity. So we can say that any real number divided by 0 equals infinity because of limits.

    If we look at limits for the x^0 = 1 part of the question, raising something to the 0 doesn't make logical sense, at least not as much as 2 + 2 = 4. But if we do x^0.1 we get a little higher than one, and x^-0.1 gives you a little less than one. (Also x^-0.1 is also 1/(x^0.1) and as we approach 0 from both sides, we see that all the possible values of x (real numbers) and their graphs coincide at the same point of 1 when raised to the power of 0.

    Limits are actually really cool (beautiful concept?) that can explain things that we cannot otherwise understand.

  15. You can dump on attempts all you want, but the thing is that beauty HAS to be subjective. I mean, you hear in myths about people like Medusa who was so ugly that she turned you to stone by looking at you, or someone who was so beautiful that they LITERALLY glowed. It seems to me that beauty would directly affect the world if it were objective.
    Contrarily, beauty seems to occur in the mind. If someone said that something that I thought was beautiful was ugly, I wouldn't jump to saying that they're wrong. That sounds too much like Gimli defending the beauty of Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings. It just doesn't seem like a normal or right thing to do in a modern world. It seems strange and foreign, almost. I mean, some guys like asians and some don't. And the slightly upturned nose that is typical in attempted descriptions of objective beauty in women is not, by any means, universally accepted as a beautiful feature. I don't think that anyone would jump to the conclusion that someone is wrong here.
    This is why it doesn't seem wrong to say "Well, I think [person that you think is not incredibly beautiful] is beautiful", whereas it seems backwards as hell to say "Well, I think that gravity repels us from the planet".

    And as to the art question:
    In my group of philosophy peeps and our little club, we seem to have pretty well accepted that art can come in literally any form and even be a shit sculpture. The sticking point for us, which you may want to think about, is whether or not intention is a necessary component. Does it count as art if you trip, knock over some buckets of paint onto a canvas and that paint just happens to make a perfect replica of the Mona Lisa? Or if you take a dump and it just happens to come out in the exact shape of Michelangelo's David? I say no, some say yes.
    And what about replicas? Is a photograph of a landscape with no artificial manipulation art? It seems to me that it is no more art than a news article or a transcript of a speech. The speech may have been artful, but the transcript itself I would not consider art.
    Just some things to think about.

  16. Just thought I'd bring up that Warhol and Pollock came waaaaay after Duchamp, who pretty much invented modern art (amidst a lot of controversy), which is essentially what you're talking about towards the end. Obviously if you wanted to talk about art specifically there are a lot more details to go into but I just wanted to give Duchamp his due ;)

    Keep it up!

  17. check out Goodman on Aesthetics.

    He took it on in a very productive way.

  18. A photograph is not simply a mechanical reproduction, there is agency behind a photo. What is cropped by the frame? What is the perspective? At what moment is the shutter triggered? Photos do not = transcripts.

  19. @Sam Adams, to your point, Kant has traveled back in time and written a response: Purposiveness without purpose (see

    @Mike, Duchamp did indeed come before Pollock and Warhol (in that order), but if you're really wanting to pinpoint the 'Father of modern art' I would say Manet fits the position better - he was the first dude to break the fourth wall, so to speak.

    @talkstomachines, while beauty/aesthetics and art has long been walking hand in hand, it is arguable whether or not the ontology of art requires consideration of aesthetics; that is, some may be beautiful but (probably) isn't art. So, math is beautiful (and elegant!) but isn't art.

    @Anonymous (the one talking about 'shit sculptures' and replicas), you might find Hegel's [Lectures] on Aesthetics an interesting read, as well as Arthur Danto (who is a contemporary philosopher with a Hegelian-Kantian hybrid). Since the invention of photography, the role of art lost one of its uses and also one of its goals, both pertaining to mimesis. In terms of uses, art was appreciated for documentation (e.g. portraiture, so that rich people going into arranged marriages would see what their better half is supposed to look like). In technical aspects, artists were disheartened by their relative inability to precisely capture (i.e. imitate) the world in their representations, so perfect mimesis was no longer a real end goal for art at large - artists turned towards things that photography couldn't do, and the idea of artistic concept became ever so important.

  20. ^ So glad Artephile wrote all that. I was getting annoyed (especially by the lack of Kant references...).