Thursday, March 15, 2012

Beauty, observation and objectivity

The following fact is typically seen as evidence for the subjectivity of beauty:

  1. Very long necks look beautiful to the Padaung but not to contemporary Americans.

But the following fact is not typically seen as evidence for the subjectivity of beauty:
  1. Van Gogh's Wild Roses is looks very beautiful by visible light but not so much by x-ray.

Why do we not see (2) as evidence for subjectivity about beauty? I think the answer is simple: Wild Roses is no more meant to be viewed by x-ray light than the Moonlight Sonata is meant to be viewed visually in Fourier transform. Wild Roses and the Moonlight Sonata are intended to be beautiful in those respects that are perceived visually or aurally, respectively, and they succeed admirably at these aims.

We can be a bit more subtle here. A microscopic examination of Wild Roses is not going to reveal the relevant beauty of the work, nor will an auditory examination of the individual notes of the Moonlight Sonata. These works are beautiful in respect of those features that are salient to the appropriately trained "eye" or "ear"—and of course it is not the literal eye or ear that is mainly being trained.

But why not say the same thing about long neck of the Padaung woman, then? She intends her long neck to be beautiful in those respects that are salient to trained Padaung observers. Maybe she is beautiful in respect of her long neck in contemporary North America, too, but we lack the training to make salient to us the features that make her beautiful.

Moreover, it is important to note that the features that make something beautiful may very well be relational features. A part of what can make a work beautiful is precisely the allusions to other works and to the outside world—what makes Anna Karenina a great work of art is in part that the people in it are like real people (which does not mean that every work of literature needs to have people in it that are like real people). Thus it may be that the Padaung woman's long neck is beautiful in part precisely by its relation to particular social practices (and hence when she travels to North America, and is no longer appropriately related to these social practices, she ceases to be beautiful in respect of her neck). Recognizing the aesthetic role of such relations is not a form of subjectivism, relativism or contextualism—it is no more that than recognizing the aesthetic role of the reality of the characters in Anna Karenina makes one a subjectivist, relativist or contextualist.

(Of course, there is also the possibility that the Padaung are simply wrong in their aesthetic judgment. But it is hard to say that without their training. And the possibility of their being wrong is significant evidence for objectivism about beauty.)

[Edited on March 16, 2011, to remove near-contradiction. -ARP]


Anonymous said...

This relational aspect of beauty that you speak of could have real possibilities when applied to God. Perhaps the beauty of some worldly things can only be seen (or maybe be best seen) in relation to divine things. Maybe some suffering is beautiful (I dare say) because of some relation to Christ's suffering. (St. Paul seems to think there is really something to be said for suffering.) Anyway, just some thoughts inspired by your post.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That sounds very promising.

Aaron Nash said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aaron Nash said...

I wish you'd write a book on beauty and objectivism . . . Any suggested readings? Gilson's "Arts of the Beautiful" is helpful, and some of Scruton's stuff is suggestive. But most of the current literature seems so off-the-mark.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am afraid that I don't have the sort of eye for art and beauty that would be needed...