Dec 28, 2006

a theory of beauty

I've been having an interesting and challenging debate with my brother Matt and sister-in-law, all about whether beauty is a property of objects (their view) or a transaction between objects and subjects (my view). In other words, I argue that it is meaningless to discuss beauty in a world without subjects who understand and appreciate it--beauty doesn't exist in the eye of the beholder, but it can't exist without the eye of the beholder.

In fact, my theory of beauty-as-transaction squares nicely with some statements my brother made about meaning. He writes,
“Meaning” seems to hinge upon the “form/matter” relationship. If I typed gibberish–apsodinfapsioerhasperhzdv; nzpdifjapeorija opifjaopfnseprq–it has the matter (letters) without form. But this sentence is meaningful because the letters and words are arranged in such a way that they convey information. If a wave washed up stones that spelled, “Everyone should read Mere O all the time,” they would convey meaning, but only in a context where the governing laws for that sentence were understood, that is, where people understand the syntax. In other words, the rules that govern meaning are prior to, and determinitive of meaningful statements, and meaningful statements only occur within certain rules.
My position on beauty is similar: the "rules" of beauty, whatever their origin (either evolved, designed, declared, or what have you) exist prior to beautiful objects, actions, or processes.

In fact, let me try to restate it using his words, and see if it coheres.
"Beauty" seems to hinge upon the "subject/object" relationship. A sunset has color and depth and form arranged in such a way that they convey beauty. If a sunset occurred on a distant planet, it could be beautiful, but only in a context where the governing laws for beauty were understood, that is, where people understand "beautiful." In other words, the rules that govern beauty are prior to, and determinant of beautiful things, and beautiful things only occur within certain rules.
In my estimation, the word "people" could be generalized to "subjects," since there is no reason why an organism with senses (or a robot) couldn't also have a "theory of beauty," as some recent animal research suggests.

Where my brother and I part ways is where "meaning" and "beauty" lie: he claims they lie only in the text, or only in the object, where I see both lying in the contextual, rule-governed transaction. In other words, he sees even the rules of beauty existing independently of subjects, and I don't.

My previous aesthetic thoughts (which I think are initially consistent with what I've said here) are found here.


Andrew Bailey said...

Here's an intuition pump (that might not change anyone's mind):

Suppose we have a painting, and a beautiful one at that. People enjoy the painting; they find it aesthetically pleasing, interesting, etc. Now erase from the world all persons, but keep the painting exactly as it was before (with respect to its intrinsic properties, that is).

Does the painting then cease to be beautiful, even though there's a strong sense in which it underwent *no change at all*?

Jim Anderson said...

I say "yes," because "beauty" is a description wrapped up in (and inextricable from) the negotiation between subject and object. Beauty simply isn't an intrinsic property, although it is dependent on other intrinsic properties for its existence (color, shape, composition, balance, etc.).

As a different intuition pump, consider what a society of, say, people who can't see, smell, or hear would find aesthetically pleasing. Would "beauty" mean a balance of smoothness and roughness? Are there any criteria of "beauty" that would still universally apply, if beauty is contained "in" objects?

I've been accused of conflating epistemology and ontology, but as I see it, beauty is just one of those concepts where the two can't be teased apart.

TeacherRefPoet said...

So have we gone through all of this just to determine that beauty is in the eye of the beholder (as the beholder must be present to create that beauty)?

Could this also have proven "out of sight, out of mind"?

Ah, I love proving cliches...

Jim Anderson said...

No--that's a misstatement of my position, which is that beauty is neither "in" the beholder nor "in" the object, but a transaction between the two--just like a shadow isn't "on" the object that casts it or "on" the object that it covers.

TheTachyix said...

Is the transaction exclusively between the observer and the object?

If I look at a picture and find it to be ugly and later beautiful (or vice versa) what brought about that change? Presumably the actual transaction itself did not change. So what did?

Jim Anderson said...

The theory, an oversimplification for the sake of argument, presumes a social, historical, and situational context that can change the subject and their ability to perceive the features or facets of the object, or deepen their appreciation for unappreciated features--or change the object, which may be, for example, beautiful in natural light and garish under ultraviolet light.

In other words, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and "beauty is inherent to the object" are both overly reductive.

And yes, I'm sure I'm about to skate down a slippery slope.

TeacherRefPoet said...

What the hell, I'll play:

Can there be beauty without an object? Can there be beauty without a beholder?

To (again) oversimplify, what you're talking about makes "beauty" into a verb, more or less...a kind of seeing that depends on too many factors within object, beholder, and context. It's a thing that -happens-, not a thing that sits there. And that, I have found, makes a lot of sense.

My ex-girlfriend got a helluva lot uglier after she cheated on me.

Jim Anderson said...

trp, your latest response brings up the moral dimension of beauty: that our aesthetic judgments and moral judgments may rest upon the same (emotive?) principle. I don't think the two are necessarily related; one may hold to a descriptive theory of beauty while being ethically normative.

(One could also argue that our tendency to conflate physical beauty and positive morality is evolutionary baggage related to the search for quality genes.)