8.1 What Is Beauty, What Is Art?

8.1.1 What Is Beauty?

The term “beauty” is customarily associated with aesthetic experience and typically refers to an essential quality of something that arouses some type of reaction in the human observer — for example, pleasure, calm, elevation, or delight. Beauty is attributed to both natural phenomena (such as sunsets or mountains) as well as to human-made artifacts (such as paintings or symphonies). There have been numerous theories over the millennia of Western philosophical thought that attempt to define “beauty,” by either:

  1. attributing it to “essential qualities” within the natural phenomenon or artifact, or
  2. regarding it purely in terms of the experience of beauty by the human subject.

The former approach considers beauty objectively, as something that exists in its own right, intrinsically, in the “something” or art object, independently of being experienced. The latter strategy regards beauty subjectively, as something that occurs in the mind of the subject who perceives beauty — beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. In Aesthetics, objectivity versus subjectivity has been a matter of serious philosophical dispute not only with regard to the nature of beauty but it also comes up in connection with judging the relative merits of pieces of art, as we will see in the the topic on aesthetic judgement. Here we ask whether beauty itself exists in the object (the natural phenomenon or the artifact) or purely within the subjective experience of the object.

Objectivist Views

Some examples:

  • In the view of Plato (427-347 BCE), beauty resides in his domain of the Forms. Beauty is objective, it is not about the experience of the observer. Plato’s conception of “objectivity” is atypical. The world of Forms is “ideal” rather than material; Forms, and beauty, are non-physical ideas for Plato. Yet beauty is objective in that it is not a feature of the observer’s experience.
  • Aristotle (384-322 BCE) too held an objective view of beauty, but one vastly different from Plato’s. Beauty resides in what is being observed and is defined by characteristics of the art object, such as symmetry, order, balance, and proportion. Such criteria hold, whether the object is natural or man-made.

While they hold differing conceptions of what “beauty” is, Plato and Aristotle do agree that it is a feature of the “object,” and not something in the mind of the beholder.

Subjectivist Views

Some examples:

  • David Hume (1711-1776) argued that beauty does not lie in “things” but is entirely subjective, a matter of feelings and emotion. Beauty is in the mind of of the person beholding the object, and what is beautiful to one observer may not be so to another.
  • Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) believed that aesthetic judgement is based on feelings, in particular, the feeling of pleasure. What brings pleasure is a matter of personal taste. Such judgements involve neither cognition nor logic, and are therefore subjective. Beauty is defined by judgement processes of the mind, it is not a feature of the thing judged to be beautiful.

A complication emerges with a purely subjective account of beauty, because the idea of beauty becomes meaningless if everything is merely a matter of taste or personal preference. If beauty is purely in the eye of the beholder, the idea of beauty has no value as an ideal comparable to truth or goodness. Controversies arise over matters of taste; people can have strong opinions regarding whether or not beauty is present, suggesting that perhaps there are some standards. Both Hume and Kant were aware of this problem. Each, in his own way, attempted to diminish it by lending a tone of objectivity to the idea of beauty.

  • Hume proposed that great examples of good taste emerge, as do respected authorities. Such experts tend to have wide experience and knowledge, and subjective opinions among them tend to agree.
  • Kant too was aware that subjective judgments of taste in art engender debates that do actually lead to agreement on questions of beauty. This is possible if aesthetic experience occurs with a disinterested attitude, unobstructed by personal feelings and preferences. We will return to Kant’s notion of “disinterest” in the section on “Aesthetic Experience and Judgement.”

A supplemental resource (bottom of page) provides further details on the subjectivity and objectivity of beauty.

The following TED talk by philosopher Denis Dutton (1944-2010) offers an unusual account of beauty, based on evolution. He argues that the concept of beauty evolved deep within our psyches for reasons related to survival.


A Darwinian theory of beauty[CC-BY-NC-ND] Enjoy this 15-minute video!


Denis Dutton’s lecture ends with these words:

“Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? No, it’s deep in our minds. It’s a gift handed down from the intelligent skills and rich emotional lives of our most ancient ancestors. Our powerful reaction to images, to the expression of emotion in art, to the beauty of music, to the night sky, will be with us and our descendants for as long as the human race exists.”

Do you think a case can be made, based on Dutton’s Darwinian perspective, that the nature of beauty is objective? or subjective? Explain your position based on points made in the lecture, in 100-150 words.

Note: Submit your response to the appropriate Assignments folder.

8.1.2 Is “This” Art?

The question “what is art?” has engendered a myriad of diverse responses. At one end of the spectrum, aestheticians propose theories that demarcate the realm of art by excluding pieces that do not meet certain criteria; for example, some views stipulate a particular characteristic to be an essential element of anything considered to be art, or that conventions of art-world society apply to what can be considered art. On the other hand, there are views on aesthetics that claim that art cannot be defined, it defies definition — we just know it when we see it.

Do works of art have an essential characteristic?

Some main theories of art claim that works of art possess a defining and essential characteristic. As we will see in the section on aesthetic judgement, these same defining characteristics serve also as a critical factor for evaluating the merit of art objects. These are some examples of theories that define art in terms of an essential characteristic:

Representationalism:  A work of art presents a reproduction, or imitation of something else that is real. (With Plato’s theory of Forms, art is representational; it is an approximation, though, and never a perfect one, of an ideal.) Representationalism is also referred to as “imitation.”

Formalism: Art is defined by exemplary arrangement of its elements. In the case of paintings, for example, this would involves effective use of components such as lines, shapes, perspective, light, colors, and symmetry. For music, a comparable but different set of elements would create form.

Functionalism: Art must serve a purpose. While functionalism is often taken to refer to practical purposes, some functionalist theories maintain that experiential purposes, such as conveying feeling, fulfill the requirement of functionality.

Emotionalism: Art must effectively evoke feeling or understanding in the subject viewing the art. (Some theorists regard the criterion of evoking emotion as a form a functionalism – it is art’s purpose.)

An objection to “essentialist” definitions of art is that not everything that embodies one of these characteristics is art. Seeing the essential characteristic as “necessary” rather than “sufficient,” helps to a certain extent. For example:

If this evokes emotion, then it is art” denotes sufficiency – a child’s tantrum might be art.


If this is art, then it is evokes emotion.” denotes necessity – emotion is a necessary component but not sufficient to make something “art.”

This reasoning helps resolve one objection to essentialist theories, but there is another flavor of objection to essentialism. Something besides one essential feature seems to be required to define art; it is not a simple matter. The fact that essential criteria do not necessarily exclude one another helps; some art embodies several of the features. However, the true usefulness of these essential features may be as judgment criteria, rather than defining factors.

Does art defy definition?

The family-resemblance, or cluster theory of art is a reaction to perceived failures of theories of art that attempt to define art by a common property. According to the family-resemblance view, an object may be designated as “art” if it has at least some of the features or properties typically ascribed to art. There is no single common property among art objects. Works of art have a family resemblance, overlapping similarities. The family resemblance concept was originally suggested by Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) in his work Philosophical Investigations (1953, 1958) where he addressed the problem of attributing a common characteristic to all things that go by one name. His examples included games. There are many types of games — board games, ball games, card games, etc. “…look and see whether there is anything common to all.—For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that.” (66) Given the widely diverse array of objects accepted as works of art, it followed that merging their nature under a common definition was inadequate.

Morris Weitz (1916-1981) was an American philosopher of aesthetics. He was critical of the many theories of art that attempt to define art by finding an essential feature possessed by all works of art. Wittgenstein’s family resemblance theory supported his view regarding anti-essentialism in art. In his view, “artwork” is an open concept, and there is a non-specific set, or “cluster,” of characteristics that may apply to the concept of artwork.

Compared to theories on the nature of art that designate an essential criterion, the family-resemblance (or cluster) theory offers the possibility of being more inclusive; work rejected by other theories can be considered art by family resemblance. A criticism to the cluster or family resemblance theory is that it is ahistorical; that is, the cluster of concepts used to define art does not hold over time. In addition to discussing this criticism of cluster theory, the following journal article provides an example of present-day scholarship on aesthetics.


Contemporary Aesthetics “The Cluster Account of Art: A Historical Dilemma”: The Cluster Account of Art: A Historical Dilemma. [CC-BY-NC-ND]

Should art meet conventional standards?

Conventionalist theories of art are grounded in fundamental principles or agreements, explicit or implicit, of the art-world society. These theories for defining art set boundaries for what should and should not be included in the realm of art. Their effect is to exclude certain kinds of work, especially those that are progressive or experimental. Conventionalist theories include:

Historical Theories of Art: In order to be considered art, a work must bear some connection to existing works of art. At any given time, the art world includes work created up to that point, and new works must be similar or related to existing work. These theories invite an objection related to how the first art work became accepted. Proponents of these theories would respond that the definition also includes the “first” art.

Institutional theories of art: Art is whatever people in the ‘art world’ say it is. Those who have spent years in professional careers studying and savoring art and its history have an eye for fine distinction (or an “ear” perhaps if we are considering music.) Such theories are regarded as arbitrary or capricious by those who view beauty as purely subjective.

Conventionalist views define explicit boundaries for art. Such theories may exclude anything not intentionally created by a human “agent.” For example, natural phenomena are not art, nor are items such as paintings created by animals. (Search online for “paintings by elephants.” for example, if you are curious; this is not a course requirement.)

A supplemental resource (bottom of page) provides further investigation of definitions of art.

Supplemental Resources

Nature of Beauty

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP). Beauty. Read Section 1 on Objectivity and Subjectivity.

Art Definition

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP). The Definition of Art.