In the early twentieth century, beauty was regarded as a fad. This entanglement of beauty with capitalism and aristocracy caused the subject to be marginalized in many circles. However, there is a resurgence of interest in beauty in the 1980s. Its relevance to politics, commerce and a sense of wonder has resurfaced.
The classical or medieval conception of beauty consists of the ‘right order’ of the parts arranged in a unified whole. These parts may be in terms of symmetry, colour, size and weight, but this does not mean that an object is beautiful in and of itself. For instance, the light of the sun is not aesthetically pleasing. But a complex geometric design such as that of a mosque or a religious text is. In this case, the beauty is a function of its rhythm and complexity.
There are many theories of beauty in art and literature. The classical or neo-classical conception of beauty can be seen in the classical and neo-classical architecture, neo-classical sculpture, classical and neo-classical music, and classical and neo-classical literature.
One of the earliest, if not the earliest, accounts of the idea of beauty was provided by Plato. He argued that the most obvious example is the design of a building. A well-proportioned human being is a composite of proportions that must be incorporated into a harmonious whole. The most interesting aspect of this design is that the elements of the building can be represented in a number of ways.
David Hume’s essay on the ‘beautiful’ was written in the 1758 Essays, Moral, Political and Literary. It was a scholarly attempt to clarify a misconception in contemporary thought: that beauty is a mere ‘quality’ of things. In fact, the idea of beauty entails a number of other features that should be lauded.
The classical or neo-classical treatment of beauty was a more formalist one. As such, it eschews the’mimicry’ of the old masters of art and culture. The concept is akin to a ‘wisdom of the crowds’ proposition. The ‘right order’ of the elements of a building or a painting is a mere figment of the imagination of the artist or the observer. In other words, no two people will see the same thing. The beauty of a complex geometric design such as that of the mosque is that it models the larger perfection of God.
The idea of the best and the worst of the art of art and beauty was also explored in a more scholarly sense. This was exemplified by the golden ratio. This mathematical sequence of Fibonacci ratios is defined as the golden ratio. The art of art in this sense is embodied in a number of works, including a painting by Fragonard. The golden ratio is considered to be the most elegant of all the designs.
The’seen and unseen’ conundrum is a topic of great debate, but the classical or neo-classical treatments of beauty were able to make the case for their most noteworthy achievements. Among other things, they made the case for a formalist conception of aesthetic value.