How to Define Beauty


Beauty is a central issue in politics and in times of crisis. As a result, there have been many controversies about how to define beauty. The debates are often based on a particular object and its appearance. Some acrimonious arguments have been able to be made, while others have been more convincing. Often, the reasons for a disputed claim are justifications for a different way of viewing the world. Nevertheless, despite the differences in theory, there are common underlying principles that can guide us to a more accurate understanding of beauty.

In the classical period, beauty was generally treated as a matter of proportion and harmony. Often, it was expressed in mathematical ratios. A sculpture known as ‘The Canon’ was considered the model of a harmonious proportion. It was often used as an emblem of beauty, and aristocrats and wealthy people believed that it would enhance their homes.

The classical era also witnessed the rise of the hedonist conception of beauty. During this time, a hedonist such as Aristippus of Cyrene would see the connection between pleasure and beauty. He defined a beautiful object in terms of value, function, and love.

Another hedonist, Kant, wrote about the antinomy between taste and pleasure. Although he did not explicitly say that beauty was subjective, he did posit that color perception is dependent on the human mind. He did not explain how to reconcile this idea with his own ideas about beauty. For example, he argued that a painting could have integrity without having the same appearance as the real thing.

Throughout the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, the concept of beauty was associated with pleasure. The French revolutionaries, for instance, considered that beauty was a sign of social status. However, later in the twentieth century, the notion of beauty was reinterpreted in a more critical light. During the 1980s, an interest in beauty was revived. Part of the revival was a result of the work of art critic Dave Hickey.

A number of feminist philosophers were especially interested in the concepts of beauty. Some of these feminist reconstruals of beauty also came into play during the 1990s. For instance, a writer named Peg Zeglin Brand published an article entitled “Beauty, a Symbol of Self-Expression.” Alan Moore, a former designer and head of art at Publicis in London, wrote an article called “The Business Case for Beauty.”

In the early twentieth century, the notion of beauty became associated with capitalism. This was a reaction to the fact that beauty was the dominant goal of the arts. Nevertheless, the discrediting of beauty by economic and political associations led artists to work on more urgent projects. When building projects were exploitative, the aristotelian formalism of the classical conception of beauty was no longer useful.

A number of political associations have been problematic in the past few centuries. These include race, gender, and other aspects. They have also been neglected by social justice movements in the early and late twentieth centuries.