May 31, 2022
Last week I was enjoying the vistas of the Sonoran desert hills while the Phoenix morning air was still cool, and mentally visited the old question of whether beauty is subjective or objective—whether it exists in the mind of the observer, or is a real attribute of beautiful objects. It must be both, I thought, but how can that be? I enjoyed the rest of my hike, and when I got home I did some reading on the subject, and scribbled the following list under the heading of Beautiful Things:
- Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony
- Borodin’s “Notturno” from String Quartet no. 2
- John Tavener’s “Mother of God, Here I Stand”
- Cabanel’s Birth of Venus
- The Bust of Socrates
- Sedona, AZ
- The Grand Tetons, WY
- Cupsogue Beach, Long Island
- Piazza Venezia, Rome
- Every photo and video of Audrey Hepburn
While writing I was conscious that all ten of these items fall into one of the following categories: Art (music, painting, sculpture), Nature, and People. Then I thought:
Beauty is the quality that stimulates amazement and delight in me as an observer. Beauty does not exist in my brain; the pleasure it creates exists in my brain. The things listed above—they are beautiful. I respond accordingly. People like me respond similarly.
Beauty is a reflection of the face of God. It is a glimpse of that with which I yearn to be connected. God is conceived and experienced differently by different people. He is not like physical objects, the existence of which can be empirically verified. But he speaks to us through physical reality—he fills us with longing, or he longs within us, for connection with the beauty we see in the world—or rather with the deeper reality of which these are the manifestations—divine love, or in Plato’s terms, absolute beauty.
Beauty is the manifestation of divine love acknowledged by human beings, who are also manifestations of divine love. When beauty is experienced, God is seeing an aspect of himself with longing through a physical form into which he has been incarnated.
Thus the experience of beauty is different for different people. God is speaking to them differently—or being glimpsed by them through different things—or glimpsing himself through himself in different ways. Forms awaken longing or joy in the individual that possesses some kind of symmetry with it. Thus beauty is personal. But patterns emerge. Groups emerge. I and people like me emerge, who see beauty in similar things. These groups may be described as informal communities. They are Tolkien fans, supporters of the Phoenix Chorale, Arizona backpackers with REI memberships, subscribers to any number of magazines, etc. None of the individuals in these groups will experience the thing they love in exactly the same way. No doubt they will be as indifferent to strangers within the “community” as to anyone else. But the core agreement puts them into intellectual proximity and is one of the conditions of friendship. Humans are delighted to find others like themselves, who see what they see. The faster the agreement, the greater the joy of discovering the other person. Even as few as two may agree, and form an island together. They will clasp hands and affirm that their opinion is not arbitrary or coincidental, but a natural response to the excellence of the thing they love—because beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, but in the object, and similar souls acknowledge it.
This attempt to articulate the mystery of the experience of beauty acknowledges its transcendent quality. The individual perceives excellence outside himself or herself. This experience should not be minimized. Accordingly, we should reject the subjectivist view that makes beautiful mean nothing more than I happen to get pleasure from it; and we can reject that view without denying that people obviously have different experiences and will rank the value or impact of them differently.
The subjectivist movement of last century (not the most important intellectual phenomenon happening at the time) coincided with a decline of interest in beauty amongst the artists historically regarded as prominent—Schoenberg, Kandinsky, Cage, Warhol, etc. This hiatus could not last very long because it contradicts human nature. The longing for deeper meaning cannot disappear, and honest people are eventually bound to admit their reflections. By the end of the century there was a renewal of interest in beauty in the academy and in the arts. Of course, subjectivism remains alive, and ever-opposed to the spiritual experience of beauty as described above.