While the term “beauty” is defined by society as “the quality of being beautiful,” there is a more complicated history to the concept. As early as the late 1700s, it was already associated with aristocracy, and the Rococo style incorporated decorative motifs and hedonistic expressions of wealth. But as the 20th century progressed, the term “beauty” became associated with capitalism and moral critique. The creation of great art was sometimes dedicated to furnishing the homes of the wealthy, and the repression and abuse that came with the status quo were largely hidden by the beauty that they created.
In the 1990s, a renewed interest in beauty emerged, largely centered around the work of art critic Dave Hickey. Feminist-oriented re-constructs of beauty also gained popularity, and several theorists attempted to address the antinomy of taste. Ultimately, though, the focus of this renewed interest on beauty was on self-expression. In the present, beauty is crucial to our wellbeing. As we struggle with the consequences of a climate crisis and political unrest, the importance of beauty has never been more important than it is.
Kant’s conception of beauty is clearly hedonism, and Plotinus’ ecstatic neo-Platonic view has elements of hedonism. In contrast, some philosophers view beauty as a value and a calling for love. Others equate beauty with usefulness. The question is, how does beauty define us? There are numerous definitions of beauty, and each of these approaches has its own merits and demerits.
Berkeley’s definition of beauty emphasizes its utility to humans. The classical conception of beauty focuses on the mathematical proportions of an object. Thus, a sculpture that is considered beautiful is capable of reproducing its shape reliably. However, it is impossible to determine how useful a given object is without considering its suitability for its intended use. Ultimately, beauty is a matter of taste and culture. This is not an easy task. This definition is far from universal and does not account for the specific nature of beauty.
Plato’s definition of beauty, on the other hand, focuses on the domain of Forms, and defines beauty as being outside the observer’s experience. However, his conception of “objectivity” is atypical, because the world of Forms is ideal and non-physical. Contrary to Plato’s view, Aristotle’s conception of beauty is based on the characteristics of the art object. The latter definition is a bit more specific than Plato’s, but it still represents a different approach to beauty.
Ultimately, beauty is subjective. Even though the world of art is subject to the opinions of individual individuals, art is always in a state of constant tension between individual tastes and popular acceptance. Therefore, there is no single definition of beauty. Art may be anything that pleases the senses. And yet, it is subjective. Therefore, we should leave it to the artist to decide what is beautiful. For example, a painting can be beautiful if its author has a personal aesthetic sense.