Beauty is a concept that can be defined in many ways. It can be a physical object or it can refer to something in the world around us that we find beautiful, such as a landscape or a work of art.
One of the oldest and most fundamental conceptions of beauty in Western culture is that it consists of an arrangement of parts into a coherent whole, according to proportion, harmony, symmetry, and other notions. This conception of beauty has permeated classical and neo-classical architecture, sculpture, literature, and music wherever it has appeared throughout the centuries.
The concept of harmony is not only central to this conception of beauty but also to the scientific study of the universe. Aristotle, for example, states that “to be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts, must present a certain order in its arrangement of parts” (Aristotle, volume 2, 2322 [1450b34]).
This idea of a unified entity characterized by an underlying harmony has been widely used as a basis for understanding beauty as an expression of the human spirit. It is a conception that is reflected in the work of Socrates, Plato, and other classical philosophers as well as in modern Western thought.
Moreover, this conception has served as a basis for many practical decisions, such as choosing a house for a new family, planning a building project or selecting materials to construct a work of art. It has even been used as a way to encourage people in a community to live together and form social bonds.
In contemporary art and philosophy, there has been a renewed interest in the concept of beauty, particularly during the 1990s. Several feminist philosophers have sought to reappropriate or reconstruct the concept of beauty, attempting to make it more inclusive and more useful as a critical tool in social justice movements.
Aesthetics and the Theory of Taste
In the eighteenth century, philosophers such as Hume and Kant believed that if we treated beauty as subjective, it would become a mere matter of personal taste, essentially meaningless for any objective reason. This would lead to controversies over the perceived beauty of works of art and literature, and it would ultimately deprive beauty of its importance as a moral value.
Another strand of philosophical aesthetics has been that of process pleasure, in which beauty is a matter of enjoying the pleasure that comes from performing a task. This idea is often criticized as philistinism, but it can also be seen as an attempt to enrich the concept of ‘use’ without compromising its pragmatic nature.
This approach is especially useful for a work of art, in which it allows an artist to express their ideas and feelings while also bringing pleasure to the viewer, rather than relying on a purely material sense of aesthetic value.
Some twentieth-century artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Judy Chicago took the issue of beauty a step further by seeking to flip the concept into a feminist instrument, as well as by exploring the complexities of identifying beauty in women’s experiences of the body, in an effort to reverse the objectifying gaze that had come to dominate female bodies in earlier times.