Beauty is not subjective
Beauty is not subjective. It is not simply in the eye of the beholder. If beauty were completely subjective, no two people would love the same architecture, the same flowers, the same sunsets, or the same actor. Universal appeal would be a meaningless phrase, and beauty a meaningless term.
Consider this: if Beauty is completely subjective then Steve Jobs was a fool to spend billions building a company obsessed with beauty. It informed the design of his computers, iPads, iPhones, and even the retail stores. Beauty was an essential part of his vision.
And yet, the culturally sophisticated person often proclaims beauty is subjective without hesitation. They even shun those who want to consider some objective standard to anything, much less the idea of beauty. In a society obsessed with individuality and personal expression, it has become a staple of conversations to hear people claim beauty is subjective.
If you are person of faith, this presents a real problem you may not have considered before. A tension between divine standards and personal preference come head to head in this discussion: is beauty in the eye of the beholder, or anchored in the character of God? These two extremes are not new. They are well represented through the ages, by philosophers, theologians and artists. Yet a person of faith cannot claim beauty is subjective, and then read passages that speak of the beauty of God, or Jerusalem, or Heaven and make any sense of them. If it is subjective, it is of little value, merely personal preference, and a waste of God’s time to make anything that attempts to be beautiful to everyone.
Stanford Encyclopedia, on Beauty
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy it is illogical to proclaim beauty is completely subjective. It must reflect some set of standards or it is meaningless. Likewise, it cannot be a rigid, objective standard that has no room for preference. Read this excerpt from the Encyclopedia:
“Perhaps the most familiar basic issue in the theory of beauty is whether beauty is subjective—located ‘in the eye of the beholder’—or whether it is an objective feature of beautiful things. A pure version of either of these positions seems implausible”
If any object can be called beautiful by one person, when the rest of the world disagrees, then it is a useless, and meaningless term. If however, there are aspects of beauty we can agree on, then and only then does the term have any real meaning. Then we have a starting point for meaningful conversations about beauty. Upon this foundation of meaning and mutual understanding we can consider things like variation and variety. Meaningful beauty provides room for expression and personal preference. Like all of creation and all of life, there is diversity within a form of unity. There is a beauty to the symmetry and shape of leaves, even though they are not all precisely the same. There are many snowflakes that share similar proportions, while being perfectly unique.
The Atheist Objection to True Beauty
Throughout history people have expressed how beauty moves them, and awakens something within their soul. As the band LIVE wrote in their song Heaven,
“I don’t need no proof when it comes to God and truth
I can see the sunset and I perceive”
Beauty points our hearts to the heavens (Psalm 19). But what if you don’t believe in heaven, or God or anything transcendent? Then beauty must be redefined and dethroned. That feeling it stirs within you must be made meaningless and merely subjective lest it threatens your entire philosophy, religion, or worldview. People who despise God or simply don’t believe in him cannot bear the idea of a universal, objective standard of beauty that point to (and emanates from) God.
Beauty must be brought down from the heights. And transcendence made a servant of our fickle fantasies and personal perceptions. Then it is no longer a threat to their way of thinking.
Kant & Marx
Anyone who follows the philosophies of Emmanuel Kant, or Marx, or claims to be an atheist or a materialist has this problem : They are bound by their beliefs to insist there is nothing beyond this material world. They have to insist that beauty cannot point to God, to heaven, or to love, joy, peace, or even a better society. The only option is to reduce beauty to some subjective feeling.
In order to maintain their worldview, they create a bald-faced lie – and try to convince you your desire to look beautiful and live in a beautiful home, city or neighborhood is irrelevant, meaningless and worthless. But this never completely works because you cannot change human nature just to fit your political or philosophical ideas. Human nature will revolt, and your worldview will eventually crumble. . . no matter how charming it is at the outset. Long after these ideas began, humanity continues to spend billions on beauty every year because it is meaningful to our hearts, our minds and our souls.
The Problem with Subjectivity as a Conclusion
What about different cultures? This is another commonly touted objection. I remember reading a tremendous answer to this question years ago in grad school while reading Art in Action by Nicholas Wolterstorff (amazon affiliate link) who was a professor at Yale University. In his book he referenced a Syn-aesthetic, which is the conclusion that people experience a 90% agreement on basic aesthetic judgments – such as what colors are more soothing, and what colors are more exciting.
They asked people questions about the different aesthetic appreciation of straight lines or wiggly lines, and which ones have more energy, or have a greater sense of rest. The results of this study demonstrated we have near universal agreement on how colors, shapes, and contrast affect us. The shocking conclusion is it was true regardless of your race, creed, gender or religion. It didn’t matter if the people were living in first world mega cities to third world villages. We are hardwired with the same basic preferences, and appreciations for beauty and aesthetics.
The Answer is in Design
Designers could never market to the masses without standards in making beautiful objects, or a beautiful user interface in your apps and software. Beauty must have objective standards. Designers build upon the assumption this syn-aesthetic referenced by Wolterstorff is objective and dependable. This is why we should not be surprised there is a field of research called the Psychology of Color. See below how the use of basic colors in design of company logos has tremendous impact on the marketing: from Apple to the National Gallery. Notice how designers break down how colors affect us and therefore which colors your brand should utilize, based on your product and audience.
Image credit: Psychology of Color in Logo Design by the logo company. https://logocompany.net
Designers depend on the universality of proportion, color perception, symmetry, balance, repetition and variation, and unity and diversity. These concepts have guidelines and rules. Violate them and your product will not sell, your music will fail to find fans and people will hate the movie. Well-designed cars are pleasing to the eye because they reflect principles of beautiful proportion, symmetry, etc. They are not just a functional bucket of bolts on four wheels. In fact, the more beautiful the car, and the more it exudes some particular idea or feeling, the better it will sell – to everyone.
Great designers and great marketers can only have a job because they can design something once and then sell that exact same product, phone, or widget to thousands or millions or customers. If beauty were subjective, their jobs would be meaningless, and would not exist.
Beyond colors and basic shapes, we have models for proportion, balance and other principles of beauty. Two of the most common and well-known models are The Golden Ratio, and the Vitruvian Man. I don’t have time to unpack all the ways in which they influence design and art, but they are the objective standard. Dismiss them at your own peril if you want to make great art, successful marketplace products, or something lovely for your home.
A Place for Preference
Finally, after these essential principles are pursued, our preferences come into play. We may prefer things because they are familiar or exotic. We may desire what our parents have or want the opposite. There are many preferences we will have that make us unique and we may never fully understand where each of them comes from. However, these unique preferences only work on the surface after the objective principles of beauty are met. People may prefer different iPhone phone covers, but they still love the elegance of the iPhone. People may prefer different car models, but they still want the same cool look. Those preferences are not about beauty, and they do not disprove the objective nature of beauty. They simply inform our aesthetic preferences.
Our World Operates from Standards of Beauty
Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. Beauty is found first in how it mirrors the eternal and transcendent proportions, symmetry, unity, and integration of form and content. It moves us deeply because it points us to God himself. Whether you believe this or not, the only way to succeed greatly in business, is to make a product everyone desires. The means you must follow the principles of beauty, and make a product so beautiful in form, content, use, and experience that everyone will spend their hard earned money to buy it, and even spend hours waiting outside your store to be the first one to experience each new beautiful product you create.
This is a major reason why Apple Computers and Steve Jobs created one of the most valuable brands in the history of the world – because they cared deeply about beauty and believed there were principles and proportions that are essentially measurable, objective, and valuable to their brand. If beauty was subjective, Steve Jobs was a fool, and Apple Computers a foolish venture. It may be time to reconsider your view of beauty, and ask if your viewpoint fits with the world you live in, the way people behave, and the God we worship.
Copyright © 2020 Joel & Michelle Pelsue. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.
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