July/August 2012

Is Beauty Subjective?

Written by William Tam

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” the saying goes. We are now living in a world where we can no longer assess whose taste is better or worse, for the subject of beauty lies in the realm of pure subjectivity, which one can proudly proclaim he is the greatest living aesthetes, or perhaps even artist, of his own time. A subject which once belonged to a professional minority is now only considered a confused private imperative.

But it wasn’t always like this. In what sense is something beautiful? How can one firmly criticise that one’s taste is better or worse than the other? How can one defend a particular style in the face of many other contradictory opponents? These were the questions that were widely and professionally discussed and were the central task for architects, painters, and sculptors in the past. For the most part in the history of aesthetics, at least in the West dated far back to Plato, who might be the first one who wrote meticulously on the subject, what is beautiful was largely defined by a few individuals who were thought to actually have taste, who thought that only a classical building could represent beauty. They suggested that there was an objective criterion in measuring beauty instead of one that was subject to our moods, emotions, and personality.

For many years, Classical beauty was born, dead, and revived. It was once thought to be the supreme aesthetic guide of the European aristocrats.

And those who repelled such style were despised. Now remnants of Classical beauty, which have been carefully preserved and rebuilt, are still scattered across Europe and remain part of the western heritage that is highly praised by the educated class. But where did the objective standard of beauty go wrong? Why would anyone rival against the absolute formulas to constructing a window and a door and relating rooms to hallways that had been left unchallenged for hundreds of years?

One of the biggest rivals of objective beauty is perhaps what might be called postmodernism. It suggests that beauty, unlike science, can hardly subscribe to the rigours of rational examination and is critically dependent on what holds up our moods, hence lacking an objective assessment of what is beautiful. If we are to truly appreciate beauty, according to postmodernists, we need to cast aside the assumed certainty in science and favour a trust in the fact that something is not necessarily beautiful in all races and cultures. They contend that the imposed objective standard of beauty is a violation of human nature, denying us the liberty to freely express what we value. Thus we should exercise our right as individuals rather than submitting ourselves to the socalled “professionals”.

Encouraged by a democratic vision of being aesthetes, all art critics are therefore rendered useless, for, according to this aesthetic relativism, no one is in the power to judge someone’s taste based on how he decorates his home or what he wears, because “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Everything can be beautiful when you think it is beautiful.

Yet if the concept of objective beauty offends our human nature as the postmodernists suggest, we may be tempted to look back to the western history where cities struggled to enforce city planning to do away ugly houses and tedious buildings. The Great Fire of London in 1666 that swept through the central parts of London is a sobering reminder of how the masses are not in the position to judge what is beautiful. With many parts being reduced dust and ashes after the Great Fire, Christopher Wren was the architect for the redesigning and rebuilding of 51 churches in London and most notably, the St. Paul’s Cathedral. The reason why Christopher Wren, instead of the masses, was summoned was obvious, because the masses were most unlikely to be as aesthetically sensible as Wren. He was an architect, a man who was able to look at things with an aesthetic eye and knew the essential ingredients to making a city beautiful. Many great religions have also constructed temples and churches in the same manner. Though many biblical stories and wisdoms may lay at heart the force of gathering the faithful, we also find it hard to deny that a series of stained glass windows that depict the story of the Christ, high ceilings with centre-pointed windows, and castellated roofs with pinnacles are the crucial factor for summoning thousands of followers. In the face of financial necessity, political disgrace, and romantic pessimism, the heaviness concentrated upon our mortal souls is perhaps too great to be fortified within our material casings. Hence we are tempted to inscribe certain values on works of architecture to act as sobering reminders of what we hold dear to. These architectures at once harbours within us a feeling of solemn awe and force us to contemplate ideas that might have been inconceivable in the commercial world. Surrounded by the Gothic grandeur, ideas that might seem laughable in the secular world would begin to make sense and assume an air of sanity, for works of architecture administer the correct dosage of our missing virtues we wish to savour in our hearts. Behind these churches and temples lie the implicit attempt to support a way of life that appeals to the religious, the kind of beauty that provokes them. If the architects of these structures have been successful in seducing millions of followers in the world, does this not say something about our idea of what is beautiful? Is it not beauty more objective rather than subjective?

Hence the idea of city planning is founded on the assumption that beauty is objective. Without this assumption set forth in the first place, most cities cannot be built with such coherent beauty. Likewise, if we have no common ground on what is beautiful, how can we explain thousands of architectures that seduce and move us to tears? After all, we are all clung to the same aesthetic language because there are some of the things in the world the whole of mankind feels the need to value.

Yet the issue of aesthetic relativism does not easily settle here. On the face of it, it might seem liberal. But on closer examination, it reveals a risk that we might be in danger of resorting to. Instead of appreciating beauty through a conscious effort of seeing and noticing the minutest details of the object of beauty, aesthetic relativism offers us an outlet to be lazy, for everything is beautiful if we think it is beautiful. Hence we are likely to overestimate our aesthetic sensibility and assume that our uneducated eyes can assure us automatic possession of beauty without even a second of contemplation. After all, only when evaluation of beauty is confined within a few remarkable individuals, our idea of what is beautiful will start to bear fruit, for the masters will have sensitised us, exposing us to the details we may have previously neglected and allowing us to take on a new perspective when we confront the same object again.

We all long for beauty. But all too often we are too inclined to think that we are the masters of our own senses which require no training whatsoever. We should not be afraid to accept the fact that some may see, hear, and write better than us. Admit that their awareness of colours, rhythms, and usage of words are far better than ours. They are able to guide our mind to pick up certain signals that initially bypasses our consciousness, and from that, cultivating our aesthetic sensibility, solidify and amplify it, and thereby grant us access to certain aesthetic textures we may have never experienced before. The postmodernists are right in asserting our right to express what we fancy. But the evaluation of beauty is not as individualistic as it seems. Let’s not forget to learn from the masters so as to prevent ourselves from destroying what is truly beautiful.

© William Tam 2012