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.
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.)
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 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 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!
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.
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).
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.
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)