Beauty is an objective concept, but one that is also subjective. The beauty of the object relates to the experience it gives to the aesthetic and moral senses. Some of the most beautiful objects in nature have none of the parts.
The classical conception of beauty is a matter of arranging the integral parts of a whole into a harmonious whole. This can be expressed in mathematical ratios or as an assemblage of colours. In the classical and neo-classical periods, it was associated with art and literature. It is present in the form of classical music and neo-classical sculpture.
While this conception was in vogue during the nineteenth century, it was supplanted in the twentieth by an increasingly politicized and morally critical view of beauty. This is where it became the subject of numerous philosophical treatments. Many attempted to reconcile the antinomy between beauty and taste.
One of the earliest accounts of the same was the work of Plotinus. In his treatise On Wonderment, he describes the experience of wonderment as the ecstasy of a good thing. He describes the feeling as being comparable to trembling.
A related account was penned by the ancient Greek hedonist Aristippus of Cyrene. He wrote about beauty in ecstatic terms. His ode to the most beautiful of all things was probably the best of all.
The modern era brought about a number of theorists who took an obtuse or less direct approach to the subject. Hume and Kant, in particular, tended to emphasize the subjectivity of the process. Others, such as Arthur Danto, who wrote a book on the topic, sought to quantify the magnitude of the effects of beauty.
There was a revival of interest in beauty during the 1990s, partially based on the work of the art critic Dave Hickey. However, in the twenty-first century, this notion has been challenged. Increasingly, artists are focusing on more urgent projects.
The most exciting thing about the beauty of the universe is that the experience of it is something that we can all enjoy. Whether we are looking at the dazzling skyline of Manhattan or the stunning floral bouquet of Georgia O’Keeffe, we can be reminded of the wonders of the world. That is, if we pay attention. For many people, the beauty of the object resides in its symmetry. If we are colorblind, the same object may be perceived as different colors at noon compared to midnight.
It is the experience of beauty that connects us to the world around us, bringing together the objects we see with the communities that appreciate them. These connections are the defining factors in the ‘world of art’.
To get the most from the experience of beauty, we need to look beyond what is seen and consider what is unseen. For instance, what is in the mind of an artist? Are they re-enacting a scene from Shakespeare or are they simply trying to elicit a feeling that will be felt by others?