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Upon the rising stairs

Meditations on the sublime

Single Line Spiral, Jim Denevan, 2011. Temporary sand drawing created by making 138 circling turns in Half Moon Bay, California.

Photo: Courtesy of the artist


As an artist, I came of age fully indoctrinated in the belief in the subjectivity of beauty. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” was a familiar concept, entrenched in our culture’s consciousness. It wasn’t until I began the formal study of aesthetics that I discovered this idea constituted a radical break from tradition. Before the 18th century, the belief that beauty was composed of objective properties dominated philosophic thought.

Were these pre-Enlightenment positions justified? Although the experience of beauty is necessarily subjective, a survey of history shows that specific properties of beauty recur. Proportion, for instance, has been associated with beauty since ancient Greece and still matters today. Yet a modern-day reaction against the objective view persists because of two main concerns: people can disagree about what is beautiful, and no one should have control over beauty.

For beauty to be objective, early thinkers believed it must have its source in something other than the human mind — either in the objects of the world or in something beyond the physical world. Since the world is a shadow of reality, Plato thought the perfect form of beauty resided in another realm, and physical beauty only imitates this perfect form. This view acknowledges our desire to transcend the banality of the world, which we can do by using worldly beauty as rising stairs. Transcendence carried through to Thomas Aquinas and other medieval philosophers, who believed that beauty had its ultimate source in the nature of God. When Aquinas presented his three conditions of beauty — proportion, wholeness, and radiance — each corresponded to a person of the Trinity. Even the cathedrals — their incense, vaulted ceilings, and colorful images — were designed so their beauty and sublimity would direct people to the transcendent God. These views can leave us feeling like beauty is beyond our reach.

An otherworldly beauty, however, is not necessary for objectivity; beauty could also be grounded in the objects themselves. For Aristotle, beauty consisted of the appropriate order of the various parts to the whole. This order was demonstrated in part by mathematics (such as the perfectly symmetrical golden ratio), which was physically represented in the Acropolis.

As aesthetics gradually became overshadowed by developments in science, thinkers shifted the source of beauty to the mind, turning their attention to taste. During the Renaissance and Modern periods, philosophers even posited an internal sense of taste. To account for obvious examples of better opinions, David Hume envisaged the “true judge,” whose imagined opinion consisted of five elements: strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice. Although Hume’s true judge was only hypothetical, it hastened the modern split between people of different social classes, a division that is still embedded into our cultural distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow, fine and popular art.

Immanuel Kant sought to unify previous positions, claiming judgments of taste were both subjective and universal. For Kant, judgments can be nothing but subjective. At the same time, we are justified in believing that what we find beautiful should have universal appeal. The problem with this arrangement is that beauty officially became the purview of people alone, with their varying judgments. There was nothing outside the individuals to ground their separate judgments.

When people were entrusted with beauty and their world shattered, they wanted to shatter beauty in return. Having experienced two world wars in the 20th century, artists and thinkers reacted, wiping the slate clean of historic tradition and its long-held assumptions. This opened the question whether there is any such thing as beauty at all. “Our era pretends to want to disregard” it, Albert Camus wrote in 1948, but “Man cannot do without beauty.”

Since that time, beauty has become a taboo topic among many practitioners of art and design. To guard against anyone controlling a single standard of beauty, they have suppressed their commitment to any particular notion of the beautiful. This has only backfired, as beauty is too often relegated to the inessential. Of course, people still appreciate and create beautiful things. But our attitude toward beauty has changed; few even attempt definitions of it anymore.

Yet it’s clear we still need beauty in our lives. Not having a firm answer about the precise nature of beauty is not an excuse to neglect trying to understand it or adapting it to our time. After all, it is through experimenting with new designs and putting our work out there that we occasionally hit on something that resonates with others. People may disagree about which objects are beautiful (or their degree of beauty), but no one seems to disagree that beautiful, pleasurable things exist. We should strive for beauty, so that we may create or experience it. ■