Who’s To Say What’s “Beautiful”?

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I wonder how often we think about what this means in terms of different angles of approach.On the one hand, saying that beauty is in the beholder’s eye quite easily slides into the kind of total subjectivism about truth and goodness that permeates our culture. For if what matters is *my eyesight*, well, just whatever *my eyes* are delighted by is beautiful (and so also true and good). No external control is possible.

This is how we wind up with thinking “art” is just whatever comes out of an individual’s own personal soul, no matter how lacking in technique and taste it is, and then thinking further that no one outside of that individual soul has any right to criticize. (Having just said “taste,” that brings up another angle of the subjectivism problem: “De gustibus non est disputandum” – “There ought to be no disputing about matters of taste.”)

But on the other hand, beauty really *is* “in” the eye of the beholder, for it’s only by means of an EYE (whether the physical organ or metaphorically the mind) that beauty can be perceived. So this leads to another way to read the phrase, namely, by asking questions about the status of the functioning of the eye that’s doing the beholding. And this is much closer to an objectivity of beauty, for no one can deny that not all eyes see (blindness) or that some eyes see along a spectrum of poorness (near-sighted, far-sighted, etc.).

From this fact it follows that some perceptions of a thing that call it “beautiful” are actually false perceptions, regardless of how evident or true or good the perceptions seem to the individual eye beholding them. If one’s eyes aren’t functioning properly, one’s opinions about what is and isn’t beautiful (and so, what is and isn’t true and good) can’t be given total credence.

And so to the point: as I’m reading Bonaventure’s “On the Soul’s Journey to God” some more, in speaking of what we can know about God from observing and reflecting on the things He has made (His “vestiges” and “images”) Bonaventure says several times in close succession that true “beauty” means “harmonious symmetry” or “proportion of harmony.”

He gives three sub-criteria for understanding proportion and harmony:

1) in relation to the principle from which it flows (the likeness, or not, of a certain created thing that we’re calling “beautiful” to a perfect original),

2) in relation to the medium through which it passes (the calibration, as it were, of the “power” of the perceived beauty relative to the object it beautifies),

3) in relation to the term on which it acts (the perceived beauty fills a real need in its recipient, such as taste and touch)

All these criteria do have a subjective dimension: each of us has to make a personal judgment about whether something we’re calling “beautiful” meets these tests (for if it doesn’t, we are likely misusing the term “beautiful” and maybe going far astray by calling evil good).

Yet all these criteria also have an objective dimension: a stick figure is NOT “beautiful” compared to, say, a Rembrandt painting; food that is so spicy in terms of “power” that it seriously injures the tongue is not proportional to the sense receiving it; the need for pleasure is not actually / rightly fulfilled by partaking of addictive substances.

To end where I began then: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” That’s really easy to say, but not at all really easy to understand. Surely much of our cultural confusion comes from how flippantly we think of beauty (and so, by conversion, of truth and goodness)?

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