Beauty is one of those topics that have sparked intense debates and passionate thoughts for centuries. It is a topic that has been discussed and examined from every angle possible, from the mind of Plato to the neuro-psychological study of modern humans.
Aesthetics is the study of beauty, its values, and expressions in artistic creations. The study of aesthetics grew out of an ontology-oriented movement that began in the Renaissance.
The classical conception of beauty, introduced by the Greek philosophers, posited that it is a property of things that consists of the right proportions and symmetry of their parts. The ‘parts’ of beauty should be in integrity (integritas sive perfectio), harmony (proportio sive consonantia), and clarity (claritas).
These three formal constituents, according to Aquinas, were essential to defining beauty and distinguishing it from good or evil. He also argued that beauty is inseparable from God, the ultimate source of all such qualities.
This view, however, was not a very popular one. It was objectivist in character, and it had its skeptics, including Hume and Kant.
Moreover, many philosophers, including Santayana, argued that beauty was not objective. They interpreted beauty as an experience that was profound, even the meaning of life.
It is not hard to imagine that such a view would make sense in the context of a time and culture when art was being increasingly hedonistically decorated, with the implication that it should be used primarily for pleasure. Such an interpretation may not be entirely unjustified, but it has been subject to a lot of criticism.
As a matter of fact, it is important to note that even the most rigorously philistinism-avoiding interpretations of beauty are ultimately inherently subjective. Essentially, they are attempts to avoid the pitfalls of mere philism, by enriching the concept of use.
Some philosophers have argued that beauty is not simply an experience, but that it entails a practical task. For example, a work of art is considered beautiful because it conveys a particular emotion to the observer.
Others, such as Diogenes Laertius, argue that beauty is the quality of a thing’s suitability for use. In other words, it is the way it makes the user feel and behave.
Other philosophers, such as Ananda Coomaraswamy, argued that beauty is a function of the way it expresses itself to the user and to others. Such a view is more akin to the objectivist theory of Kant, who regarded beauty as an experience that was suited to human sensibility.
The modern approach, however, shifted the study of beauty from ontological components to the sphere of human faculties. This was a shift that was largely made by the German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714-1762), who coined the term “aesthetics” and introduced the concept of ‘natural’ beauty, in which beauty is derived from nature, rather than purely artistic or spiritual.
As a result, this turn away from the Greek and Medieval notions of beauty led to a very subjectivist account. It was not until the development of an objectivist account of art, such as that offered by Kant, that a truly comprehensive understanding of beauty became possible.