How often have we heard the phrase, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”?
True or not? For starters we can stipulate that beauty is a complex concept defined both as identification and evaluation. As identification: a perfection of physical form that brings pleasure to our senses. Leon Batista Alberti (1480) put it best: “I shall define beauty to be a harmony of all the parts, in whatsoever subject it appears, fitted together with such proportion and connection that nothing could be added, diminished or altered but for the worst.” As an evaluation: pleasurable or approving response to the values inherent in an entity or an idea,” beautiful” describing that which we judge to be good.
Both aspects of beauty function together in art by way of aesthetic appeal to our senses followed by a personal response to the subject matter’s explicit interest and its ability to express an implicit value substance if there is one. Art that is purely aesthetic can be beautiful in form but cannot hold prolonged attention of a thoughtful audience.
Meaningful, value-oriented art that projects “beautiful” ideas holds our attention rapt for blissful contemplation. Each of the fine arts appeals to a particular sense organ—painting to sight, sculpture to sight and touch, music to hearing, and so on.
The visual arts may be the most accessible because (unlike music or drama played out over time) they deliver the sum of their aesthetics, subject, and theme simultaneously, providing a dynamic triple-whammy with the power to elicit an immediate reaction which makes them more easily examined. Here, because we are dealing only with positive, ideationally inspired art — evaluated to be beautiful (good) — we shall confine analysis to representational painting and sculpture where subject matter is discernible and value substance is decipherable.
Subject matter matters in the visual arts because it is selected for its ability to communicate this value substance or in artistic parlance “content” in an artwork. Content is the inner ideational vitality of such art. It is the expression of values held, consciously or unconsciously, by the artist that are revealed by choices of form, medium, and subject. Content causes a work to transcend obvious subject matter and indirectly express the most intimate, animating principles of the artist.
And it is content transformed by the artist into a stream of visual aesthetics that flows through our senses to elicit an emotional “Amen” when we respond positively and profoundly to a painting or sculpture. Beauty of form, technical skill, and success in expressing a theme in art can be judged objectively; the aesthetic canon of Western art forms was established by the ancient Greeks, found its second flowering during the Renaissance, and continues today.
Beauty of form when it comes to a human being’s physical presentation, however, is entirely subjective. In the realm of human responses to the visual aspects of another person, individual taste surpasses objective standards of proportion and harmony. Our reaction to outward appearance now depends entirely upon the preferences we hold about attractiveness in others; thus, in real life beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder. The allure of physical form — the beauty — of another person’s physical characteristics depends solely upon personal choice. Blond or brunette? Tall or small? Hefty or slender? A chaque a son gout.
But, let us pause. After the initial lure to beauty in the “identification”process of physical form causing pleasure to the eye whether in art or in another person, different because one is objective and the other subjective, let us note that the next “evaluation” phase of response to both art and another person involves identical processes. “Beautiful because good” arises from our assessment of the values we discover both in another person and in the content of an artwork.
Finally, the triumvirate of “the true, the good, and the beautiful” has been evoked to sustain judgment not only of art but also of people throughout a long history of time. Why have these three been intricately and tightly interwoven like the weft and warp of a superior and significant tapestry to represent the ultimate of all combinations for supreme worth? After we surrender to the outer physical aesthetics of either an artwork or another person — “beautiful” — and then attend and respond positively to the inner qualities of content — “good” — what about the “true”? We can see that the good can only arise from that which is true to the merit of ideas inherent in both art and another, true to the intellectual allegiance to life-serving values that confirm and inspire excellence. In art, values are inherent in frozen form. In human beings, values are alive, speaking, behaving.
When we reveal the art that we love and the persons whom we love, our own deepest values are revealed ineluctably at the same time. Intellectual allegiance to the good can only come from moral affirmation of that which is true. And that which is truly good — the moral imagination in art and the moral achievement in life — will surely and forever be beautiful.
[First published at Newsmax.]