The Concept of Beauty in Art and Philosophy


Beauty is a quality that can be found in all sorts of things, from architecture to art, and from music to dance. In general, a work of art that is beautiful is one that makes an impression on the senses and that is considered to have value in the mind.

The concept of beauty is an important topic in philosophy and art, and has developed a variety of approaches and theories throughout Western philosophical traditions. It is sometimes controversial as to whether or not it is objective and subjective, though some theorists believe that both aspects of the concept are important.

First, some definitions:

The classical conception of beauty, influenced by Plato and Aristotle, treats it as a definite property instantiated by objects. It is a matter of proportions or relations among parts, often expressed in mathematical ratios (such as the golden section). The sculptor Polykleitos was renowned for his ability to reproduce such objectively pleasing features as harmonious proportions in his sculptures.

Another conception is the ‘harmony between parts’ approach of Moore (1903, 201). In this view, beauty is a good that possesses a certain harmony between its parts. This can be ascribed to the object itself or to the qualities of the person experiencing it, and in the latter case, the harmony between its parts may also be attributed to the person’s emotions and feelings.

This is a very interesting conception, and it seems to hold that the aesthetic value of a thing consists in a balance between its good and bad characteristics, or, if there are any, that the good characteristic is able to overcome the bad one. Using this approach, Aristotle and Plato agree that beauty can be a matter of having certain definite properties, such as symmetry and perfect proportions.

However, the ‘harmony between parts’ theory does not explain why this is so, or why such a synthesis of values would be desirable. It could be argued that, in fact, a ‘harmony between parts’ does not exist in any sense, as it is an effect of the human imagination and is not objectively real.

Moreover, this theory is often accused of ignoring the human affective response to things that are beautiful. In other words, it is a very weak account of what beauty is and can be.

A more adamantly subjectivist line is the one taken by Santayana, who defined beauty as ‘objectified pleasure’: it is the pleasure that people experience when they judge that something is beautiful. This is a very strong, and very subjective, account of what beauty is and what it entails.

The problem with this line is that it implies that the subjective experiences of pleasure and pain are attributable to the object or device, rather than merely being produced by the object. This is very problematic because the experience of beauty often cannot be described as having subjective states in and of itself, and because it seems to imply that such a thing has a special agency or a kind of subjective agenda which is capable of producing those experiences.