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 firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘Mailbag Monday’ in the subject line.
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?
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.