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Are aesthetic judgements entirely subjective?

Are aesthetic judgements entirely subjective?

Now, of course to some extent it depends upon how one defines "subjective" and "objective." But tersely, I'd say this: No, there are relatively objective bases to aesthetic judgment in at least two senses. For one thing, the criteria by which we come to make aesthetic judgments are in a significant way shared by members of our cultures, socieites, histories, and traditions. For another, the cognitive faculties and sentimental structures that underwrite aesthetic judgment are shared among large numbers of human beings.

I'd like to ask a question about aesthetics and philosophy in general. As an

I'd like to ask a question about aesthetics and philosophy in general. As an undergraduate student of philosophy, looking around at different traditions and particular, dominant thinkers, it seems that aesthetics is generally discounted as a strong motivation or deciding force in many facets of our lives. For instance, I think that most people will find it an odd when one suggests that aesthetics is an important part of ethics, economics, politics, science, mathematics, logic, ontology, epistemology, and so on. Yet in each of the disciplines I've just mentioned, it seems that an 'elegant' definition, solution or description is strongly praised by most people over 'messy' ones. For instance, we wonder at the simplicity and power of both Newton's laws and Einstein's e=mc2. An elegantly 'neat' solution to an ethical dilemma between two parties is generally preferred to an obscure, complex one. Plato is praised by many for his elegant use of illustrative metaphors. Elegance is surely an attribute firmly...

An interesting question, and well-observed. Of course, it might be the case that the term 'elegant', despite appearances, is being used in a non-aesthetic sense. For example, it might mean something like clear, simple or self-contained. In which case the preference for elegance of which you speak would be something more like a preference for things that are easy to understand, in one way or another. Also, one should point out that there is not actually a category on this site for 'ontology' or 'epistemology' either, presumably because of the designers' desire to avoid jargon.

So much for the easy way out! Historically, 'aesthetics' refers to the branch of philosophy that deals with experiences like beauty and phenomena like art. To take your question seriously would mean to ask whether there must be an ineradicably aesthetic element within reasoning or knowledge -- i.e. well outside the presumptive domain of beauty and art. One implication of such a claim would be that the nature of aesthetics changes, too. We are no longer talking about beauty or art, some type of experience that can be isolated from the rest. This means the first priority must be to explain what the differences are between an aesthetic phenomenon and how various epistemologists define the proper object of knowledge. From there one would have to show that any adequate account of the latter would have to assume the involvement of the former in its formation. I would venture to suggest that Nietzsche held this view: one's taste manifests itself in one's basic beliefs about the world. I would also venture to suggest that Kant, in the Critique of Judgement, at least came close to this position. (However, I suspect you are looking for much more recent philosophers.)

Is a poem about nature beautiful because of its form, or is it beautiful because

Is a poem about nature beautiful because of its form, or is it beautiful because it reminds us of the beauty inherent in nature? Philosophers tend to equate aesthetic beauty with the form of a work of art and our 'interests' get in the way of appreciating the form. However if this is the case why is there not more beautiful poems about rubbish dumps and oil spills.

A great question! There may be a middle ground to the answer. Beautiful natural objects, and beautiful poetic objects, might both be considered beautiful because of complex or harmonious formal properties that evoke certain responses (this is, roughly, Kant). If this is the case, the a beautiful poem about something ugly would function differently from a beautiful poem about something beautiful. In the former case, the beauty would be purely formal; in the latter, it would be in part representational.

Again, a great question, although I suspect it might also be misleading. Many well-known poems about nature are not actually about nature in a straightforward sense. Poems are rarely like landscape paintings. (Come to think of it, neither are landscape paintings.)

I was looking out the window of a bus yesterday and noticed the hoar frost on

I was looking out the window of a bus yesterday and noticed the hoar frost on the snow bank. It's beautiful - it looks like the pelt of some huge beast or maybe alive, like coral. I started thinking of other beautiful things in nature like snow flakes and the patterns that frost forms on car windscreens, and not just freezing water examples but the shapes of trees, the songs of birds (okay, maybe not everything - e.g. the caw of a crow isn't necessarily beautiful but it doesn't hurt the ears either). Why do we find things in nature beatiful? Thanks, David

Why shouldn't we find things in nature beautiful? I am actually very impressed with the caw of the crow, which to me is a sublime sound. There is no requirement that something be humanly constructed for it to be beautiful, many would say quite the reverse.

If I hypothetically make something that is widely accepted as beautiful, then I

If I hypothetically make something that is widely accepted as beautiful, then I reproduce it and put it everywhere so that everyone in the United States will see it at least once a day, but probably more than that, will it be considered less beautiful? If so, why do objects become less beautiful if they become more accessible? How much do wonder, curiosity, and imagination contribute as factors in defining something's aesthetical value? A friend of mine studying architecture said this: "In the context of architecture, the original modernist designs were considered stunning in their simplicity... but once they were reproduced over and over, and classical/victorian/old buildings were knocked down and destroyed, the situation reversed: those old buildings were considered beautiful again and the now over-abundant modernist buildings were now just noise in the background." How much of aesthetics is determined by the attribution of favorable nonaesthetic traits? If I look at a logo for a company whose...

I don't know that the beauty of a thing is diminished by its prevalence. Roses, blue jays, and the newfallen snow, for example, continue to strike me as stunningly beautiful no matter how often I am privileged to see them. Perhaps there is something different about human creations. Or perhaps, with art and architecture, we respond to something other than beauty, such as originality.

I recently considered getting a nose job. Whenever I told people this, they were

I recently considered getting a nose job. Whenever I told people this, they were horrified and started ranting and raving at me about superficiality, shallowness and vanity. The most frequent comment was, 'It's better to have a beautiful mind than a beautiful face.' What confuses me is that this seems just as shallow as only caring about physical appearances. So much of the world is based on physicality and aesthetics - why is finding a beautiful face more significant than a beautiful idea more shallow? In fact physical beauty can sometimes be a great inspiration for thoughts and ideas. Recently I have begun to think that judging people on physical appearances is no less shallow than judging them only on the contents of their minds. Is this valid at all? Should I go back to the 'better clever than ugly' camp? Thanks for your time.

I agree completely with Oliver on this one. But perhaps, perhaps, one worry your friends have is the following: that wanting a nose job is just the beginning of a whole cluster of potential future wants, in the wings, waiting to emerge, from a chin job to a tummy tuck, to ... that is, they might view this currently single desire for a nose job as the start of a slippery slope of wants, ending who knows where! And, if this were true, then they might worry about having a friend who was off-balance in weighting the crafting of the body over the crafting of the mind. And this would indeed be a justifiable cause for worry. But I don't see why this should be true, in your case, and I do think that people can sometimes be too quick to slide down that slippery slope in their reassessment of others, and even, at times, of themselves. In fact, if your wanting a nose job meant that you were ceding your right to be viewed as a serious person, then surely the very thoughtfulness of the question you've raised for us here is a strong argument against that view!

So: if you want that nose job, by all means get it!

What, if anything, distinguishes natural beauty from artistic beauty?

What, if anything, distinguishes natural beauty from artistic beauty?

I don't think that natural beauty and artistic beauty are fundamentallydistinct, but the beauty of art often depends on representation in away that the beauty of natural objects does not. Works of art can bebeautiful because of what they represent. For example, a portrait orlandscape painting might be beautiful in large part because of thebeauty of that which is depicted. But they may also be beautifulbecause of the way thatthey represent. So, for example, it is possible for a painting to bebeautiful even though it depicts anobject or event that is not beautiful. There are, for example,beautiful paintings that depict scenesof great suffering, which we would not count as beautiful (e.g., somebeautiful paintings that depict St. Sebastian's martyrdom). Or considersome famous paintings of ordinary objects (Cezanne's still lifes) orordinary scenes (Vermeer's). We might be hesitant to describe thoseobjects or scenes as beautiful, even though the paintings of them arepretty central cases of beauty. And that these paintings representseems relevant to their beauty. So the beauty of much art has to dowith its capacity for representation. (Much, but not all. Some ofthe beauty of art--such as the beauty of some purely instrumentalmusic--has very little to do with representation.) This is not thecase with natural beauty. The beauty of flowers, trees, sunsets,landscapes, bodies of water, rock formations, sunrises, etc. does notdepend on representation, because those things do not represent.

Do truth and morality affect beauty? We hear of immoral beliefs being 'ugly'.

Do truth and morality affect beauty? We hear of immoral beliefs being 'ugly'. All other things being equal, would a piece of art that supported falsity and immorality be any less beautiful? (For example, art that supported the Nazi party?)

This questions raises all sorts of interesting issues. I'm going tolimit my focus to the question of the relationship between morality andbeauty and avoid any discussion of more general questions relating totruth and the value of art. But there's a wealth of good literature onthe relation between morality and artistic value. See, for example, theessays in Jerrold Levinson (ed.), Aesthetics and Ethics, (Cambridge: CUP, 1998). But here are a few thoughts on beauty and morality.

Itis true that we sometimes talk of immoral beliefs being ugly. We mayalso characterize immoral actions as ugly and moral ones as beautiful.And character assessment is sometimes made in terms of beauty andugliness ; e.g., 'she has a beautiful soul'. But I'm tempted by thethought that these usages are metaphorical; that is, we are not reallymaking aesthetic judgments--we are not literally ascribing beauty tothese objects-- when we talk this way. Why? Well, beauty and uglinessin the paradigm cases are associated with perceptual experience. Themost uncontroversial cases of literal judgments of beauty involvethings that can be perceived. And the clearest cases in which we can besaid to experience beauty are rooted in perceptual experience. Forexample, our experiences of the beauty of the sunset, the painting, theflower, etc. are based on our perception of those objects.

Ourcharacterizations of immoral beliefs as being ugly doesn't seem to meto be based on their being able to be perceived. Neither perception norperceivablity seem involved in our talk of their ugliness at all. Butthere does seem to be something appropriate or fitting in talking aboutimmoral beliefs as ugly and virtuous people as having beautiful souls.This appropriateness is just the sort of thing one finds w/metaphoricallanguage. So I suggest that immoral actions are only ugly in ametaphorical sense.

Now, it's also true that we characterizeand experience proofs, theories, and literary works as beautiful, andthat these judgments do not seem necessarily rooted in perception. Thesame seems true about non-perceptual imagery. But I don't think weshould assume these characterizations are metaphorical. Note that experienceis still really crucial in these cases. For example, the ordinaryjudgment that a proof is beautiful seems dependent on that proof beingthe object of someone's experience (typically your own). So too withrespect to imagery. This seems very different from the immoralbelief/action case. There it seems you might be tempted to call anaction or belief ugly just on the basis of its description. Experienceisn't required.

Upshot: I don't think the fact that wecharacterize immoral beliefs as ugly suggests that morality affectsbeauty, since I think these characterizations are metaphorical. Infact, a disturbing fact about human life and art isthat beauty and morality often pull apart in dramatic ways. Forexample, some works of art are particularly dangerous because theypresent immoral ideas beautifully. Mary Devereaux makes a nice case forthis in her paper "Beauty and Evil: the case of Leni Riefensthal's Triumph of the Will," in J. Levinson (ed.), Aesthetics and Ethics, (Cambridge: CUP, 1998).

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and we decide what we think. Then why

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and we decide what we think. Then why can't we make everything appear to be beautiful?

Even if beauty itself is is not in the eye of the beholder, the appearance of beauty is. But we don't always decide what we think. For example, you can't come to believe something just because I ask you to, even if you want to please me. Similarly, you can't decide what you will like and what you will hate. And the same goes for the appearance of beauty. If something appears ugly to you, you can't just decide to make it appear beautiful, even if you know you would be happier if you could. Some parts of our mental life are under our direct and conscious control; but lots of them are not.

Can you recommend any introductions to aesthetics?

Can you recommend any introductions to aesthetics?

Here are a few good introductions (there are others):

Noël Carroll, Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction

Marcia Muelder Eaton, Basic Issues in Aesthetics

Cynthia Freeland, But is it Art?: An Introduction to Art Theory (note: this is the least academic, but it's fun and interesting)

Gordon Graham, Philosophy of the Arts: an introduction

You also might look at some of the good anthologies out there. Here are two that I like:

Peter Lamarque and Stein H. Olsen (eds.), Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: The Analytic Tradition (note: this is excellent, but it's more difficult than the other books on the list)

Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley (eds.), Arguing about Art: Contemporary Philosophical Debates (note: this doesn't give a general overview, but it focuses on a variety of interesting topics)