Friday, May 30, 2008

"In the Eye of the Beholder"

BEAUTY, so says contemporary art theory, "is in the eye of the beholder".

The word "is" indicates a state of being, and the word "in" implies that beauty exists completely in each individual's subjective perception. So according to contemporary theory, there is no beauty "out there", but it all exists completely in our eye, or mind.

We could assume that perception is fairly constant among most people (at least under controlled conditions), but modern theory goes one step further, saying that these perceptions cannot be compared with each other. This is due to the denial of the existence of an objective human nature.

So the contemporary theory completely discounts the concept of beauty. Just because you think something is ugly, doesn't mean that someone else may think it is beautiful.  In other words, if you think something is ugly, shut up.  They don't want to hear your opinion. Or if you insist on stating your opinion, you are obviously a philistine who doesn't understand the contemporary art scene, and are therefore to be excluded.

Now we could have recourse to sociology, and its favorite tool, the public opinion poll, and we could have voluminous data on the perceived beauty of large numbers of artworks.  Imagine an art museum allowing viewers to rate each individual work of art, and eliminating those works that are rated poorly, and putting up works similar to those that are highly rated.  That probably is not going to happen anytime soon, nor should it:  polls are interesting and often worthy, but too many bad policy decisions are made in response to them.

What we get instead is some work of art that everyone hates (experts and public included), yet is still proudly displayed as an exemplar, because individual opinion is suppressed.  Debates on certain topics, especially beauty, are prohibited.

I am reminded of a certain atonal symphonic work, which in my opinion, was unlistenable, and I could tell from the reactions of other listeners that they thought that it was unlistenable, too. But someone told me that he did not want to hear my negative opinion, and wore a forced smile (more of a grimace with teeth gritted), as if he was pretending to be enjoying it.  Or maybe he did not like being in the company of "philistines".

Instead, let's go back to Thomas Aquinas' simple definition of beauty:  "pulchra enim dicuntur quae visa placent" (Summa, I q. 5 a. 4 ad 1) or "for beautiful things are those which please when seen" (New Advent translation).  Note that beauty is a property of things, and hence is a Formal Cause, but it also includes the process of seeing, which is indeed influenced by subjective and relative circumstances.  We ought to note that modern art theory developed in reaction to 19th century art theories that were absolutistic and which denied those personal factors.  The truth, we believe, includes all three factors.

And just because something is subjective does not mean that it does not follow certain laws, which modern theory often denies.  For example, the influence of the color blue has a certain predictable effect on perceived tone value even in colorblind persons.  And when persons, blind from birth, are asked to draw pictures of objects, they will naturally use common artistic conventions, although they never seen them.  And in polls on beauty, taken throughout the world in diverse cultures, have seen strong similarities on what is perceived as beautiful, strongly indicating an objective component to beauty, even if it is only an objective component of human nature and not of the object itself.

We live in a fallen world, and so our perception and judgment of beauty is flawed, but with grace and right reason we ought to be able to improve our understanding and appreciation of it.

1 comment:

  1. Mark, this is one of my favorite rant topics so I appreciated your thoughts. What really gets me going is the modern rejection of art as being "pleasing to the eye," say nothing of actually being beautiful. Modern art seems to be approved of only if it is stridently "disturbing," "edgy" or "making a statement" rather than provide viewing pleasure. Art for "beauty" gave away to art "with a message" to often art "for depressives!" I enjoy modern art but I don't think the job of modern art should be that I should feel worse after looking at it than before!