The Aesthetics of Beauty Part 2: Eye of the Beholder

In my first post exploring the Aesthetics of Beauty, I talked about the connection between beauty and the Golden Ratio–how beauty is found in a specific kind of symmetry, balance and proportion. I focused specifically on physical attractiveness as a dimension of beauty, but was left wondering about the other dimensions of beauty. Instinctively, I know it is more than just physical attributes that creates something “beautiful”…but what is it?

The philosopher David Hume wrote, “Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.” 

This phrase echoes the more famous saying, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, and points to more subjective reasons for beauty other than the purely physical reality. In other words, we all see the world through the lens of our own culture and experience.

I want to talk about how all of our inner workings also contribute to how we interpret something or someone as “beautiful” and how inner beauty also plays a part.

After some thought and discussion among friends, I’ve come up with four main subjective dimensions for beauty. Since they are subjective, I am sure people will have different ideas and may or may not agree. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section!

Dimension #1:  Appreciation

The book, “The Search for Delicious,” details a journey to find the true definition for this word. As the group nears the end of their journey without having found what they were looking for, they become thirstier and thirstier. When they finally find water, it is this taste–a drink of water after having been without for so long–that immediately becomes the definition of “delicious.”

Half empty or half full? It’s all in how you look at it. (Photo by micmol )

Like the word “delicious”, value words, like “Beauty” can come from an appreciation for what is lacking– like seeing the mountains after spending time in the city. It makes me wonder if people may find beauty in things that they secretly or subconsciously wish for themselves. For example, the paintings of Thomas Kinkade have never really appealed to me. Yet is artwork is considered by many to be “beautiful.” Could his idyllic scenes and soft light touch a desire or feeling that is valuable to many people?

Bambi’s First Year, by Thomas Kinkade, 2010

Dimension #2: Education

An appreciation for beauty can also be cultivated, in the sense that we can “learn” to appreciate things or people as beautiful through education. Sometimes it takes another person to show us why something is beautiful. For example, I remember gaining a better appreciation for modern art after taking an art history class.

If someone took the time to show me the complexity and inner workings of a diesel engine, I might find it beautiful too!

Seeing beauty in other people can also be cultivated. Sadly, this can also work the opposite way. In preparing my first post on beauty, I inadvertedly came across a website discussing the “superiority” of a particular race’s features over another’s. Ugh. As someone married to an African, with a mixed-race daughter, I am fortunate that I live in an area where communities and individuals have been taught to see and value beauty in diversity. But this is something that needs to be cultivated.

This leads me into my third dimension:

#3: Popular Opinion

If enough people say that something is beautiful, chances are that you will find it beautiful as well. But of course we know that what constitutes beauty can change over time and fashion trends come and go. All the way from Shakespeare through the reign of King Louis XIV of France, a man’s leg was considered beautiful, and was often displayed with tights and high heels. I don’t know if “a man’s leg” would make the top 10 list of “most beautiful body parts” today.

Painting of Louis XIV displaying his legs, done in 1701

Also, Titian’s fleshy ladies were the epitome of beauty in his day. Compare this with today’s models.

Venus with Cupid, Dog and Partridge, by Titian, 1550. Venus is the goddess of love and beauty.

Beyonce, posing for the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated, 2007

The list of changes in beauty trends from then and now could go on and on, and a lot could be said about the reasons behind our communal perceptions of beauty and the pressures to conform. However, this could be a whole other post in itself, so I’ll just comment that public opinion can also be shaped and swayed by our feelings around health, gender and sexuality–in other words, the context in which something is presented.

Dimension #4: Story and Context

One of the most important dimensions of beauty has to do with the background of what we are viewing. What is it’s story or context? What is the history behind it? Are their any personal memories associated with what we are looking at? Chances are, if the story is beautiful, we will find beauty in the storyteller. And what makes the story beautiful? Perhaps it is a happy memory, or something that reminds us of a deep and powerful emotion; maybe it is something to which we aspire to ourselves; or perhaps it is a sense of understanding or connection with something or someone. Art can be a powerful way to reveal and magnify the beauty of a story.

For people, in particular however, there is a sense of inner beauty that cannot be captured fully on camera or in a painting. It comes from knowing a depth of story and experience.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said, “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

This is why some people either become more or less beautiful the more you know them. As their stories reveal themselves, their true beauty is also revealed.

Anne Frank, pictured in May 1942

Similarly, in Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, an ugly, horrific story becomes transformed into a beautiful celebration of love and life, through the relationship between a father and son.

To sum up, besides the Physical,  beauty is also found through the dimensions of Appreciation, Education, Public Opinion, and Story. Can you think of any others?

— Madelene


One response to “The Aesthetics of Beauty Part 2: Eye of the Beholder

  1. Pingback: Putting on a New Face « Connect Shore·

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