What do we mean when we say something is beautiful? Beauty, or other similar words, describe the attraction of something. However, while there is often similarity in the appreciation of beauty some people find somethings beautiful that other people do not. Any good theory of what beauty is will have to account for both the attraction and differences in taste.
‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ sums up old fashioned subjectivism about aesthetics. Old fashioned subjectivism is the simplest explanation for both attraction and differences in taste. However, old-fashioned subjectivism does not allow for much discussion about differences in taste, they are simply different and discussions end there.
Furthermore we expect some consistency in taste: if you like this piece of pineapple does it imply that you like most pineapples? If taste were simply a matter of subjective it would not be surprising if someone like Abba, Motley Crew and The Beatles; I once meet a man who told me that these were his favourite bands but he was a sailor working along coast of Borneo. We also observe consistency in the tastes of others, for if taste was subjective it would make it impossible for artists, designers, chefs, cosmetologists and other professionals to work.
Old-fashioned subjectivism doesn’t really explain taste any better than it explains moral perception. Better subjectivist positions on beauty require defining competent observers.
The first alternative to consider is some kind of objectivism. After all it seems natural to assume that others will agree with what think is beautiful and it is much easier to expect consistency from objectivism. It certainly appears that there are objective qualities to beauty that could be explained by biological/genetic driven tastes.
Given that the idea of beauty may also be a product of the environment and experiences with differences in age, background and other factors explaining differences in taste. This could explain some variations in the apparent objective qualities of beauty and this is occasionally tried in the area of evolutionary aesthetics. However, what if we aren’t attracted by what is objectively determined to be beautiful, what if we finds it repulsive, at this point objectivism completely fails.
Any attempt to find a biological basis for beauty ignores that ‘beauty’ is a word from a particular culture. It is like expecting to find a genetic difference between dogs and wolves because there are different words for them.
Beauty is also a recommendation that is often presented as prescriptive; my friend Geoff is always telling me that I must watch this TV series. Also in a prescriptive is the 1001 books etc. that you must read before you die meme. Cannons are prescription, the required reading for future critical discussion. What is it to recommend art? My friend, Geoff was trying to encourage another friend, David to watch the HBO series, Deadwood. “You must see it.” David didn’t think that it was necessary and a moral or existential imperative to movie watching is very difficult point to argue. So Geoff changed his argument to “It is very worth while because of the plot, attention to historical details, etc.” David replied that there were better things to do besides watch a TV series, like looking after his young children. Do we really mean by ‘beautiful’ simply a recommendation of its aesthetic quality? Was this what Geoff was really trying to say about Deadwood?
Does the beautiful require that we are cheer squad for it? To some extent this is true; encouraging others to experience something beautiful is a natural response to eating beautiful food or hearing beautiful music. However, the idea that beauty is only a combination of endorsements, recommendations and prescriptions creates a kind of conspiracy of definition. The emperor’s new clothes, and, although this may sometimes be the case, it lacks the objective quality that we associate with beauty.
So how can beauty be both variable between people and apparently objective and consistent? How it can be both a description and a recommendation?
This is the subject of meta-aesthetics.