Beauty is the quality that evokes pleasure and emotion. It is an aesthetic, or subjective, quality that can be defined by a person’s sense of aesthetic pleasure or by the qualities that he or she recognizes as “beautiful.”
Classical definitions of beauty focus on proportion, symmetry, and harmonious relationships among parts. These elements are believed to elicit pleasure in humans because they represent the essence of human nature: a desire for order, symmetry, and harmony.
The concept of beauty is a common element in the philosophy of art, and also a major theme of aesthetic theory. Early theories of beauty were influenced by the classical philosophers Pythagoras and Plato, and later versions were shaped by Christian theology.
Some of these ideas grew from a belief in symmetry and proportion, but others are more abstract and broader. In some cases, the notion of beauty is based on a transcendental or spiritual view of the world, or a triad of truth, goodness, and beauty.
Transcendental definitions of beauty define it as the ultimate qualities of truth and goodness that can be experienced, proclaimed, or embodied in something or someone. A triad of transcendentals can be a very powerful theory for explaining why humans want beauty, because it connects the qualities that we know as truth and goodness with the unobservable aspects of reality.
For Schiller, the ideal of beauty is that it performs a process of integration between the natural and the spiritual: it is a means by which we can attain a state of freedom or transcendence that is both natural and sensuous. This process of integration takes place at a higher level than what we see and experience, but it is an essential part of our lives.
In the past, beauty was often associated with luxury, and hedonist pursuits such as those found in the paintings of Fragonard. It was also often subject to a moral and political critique, especially in the French Revolution.
As the twentieth century approached, beauty fell out of favor as an artistic goal, in large part because it was relegated to a largely uncritical role as a means of promoting status and adornment. It was also frequently associated with capitalism, and it came to be associated with social class and power, rather than aesthetic or intellectual enjoyment.
Modern aesthetics began to explore the idea of beauty in a more critical way. Many artists, notably those of the Renaissance, sought to create beauty with a more objective view of the world than their contemporaries, and this reflected their new understanding of human beings as free-spirited and creative spirits.
Contemporary philosophies of beauty have attempted to recover the ancient and classical conception of beauty, as well as to recast it in a more feminist or contemporary way. This has been done, for example, by the work of art critic Dave Hickey (see Hickey 1993) and by feminist theorists such as Brand 2000, Irigaray 1993.
The concept of beauty has been revalued for some designers and creative people as a way of enhancing the quality of their work. It is a powerful tool for creating and communicating ideas, and for building trust with customers. It has been proven that customers who have a positive emotional experience of a product are more likely to purchase it, and are more likely to recommend it and forgive mistakes.