ON OBJECTIVE BEAUTY (1/2)

Rembrandt’s Mother Reading (c. 1629)

What started as a disagreement between friends and me about the radio station we should listen to, quickly escalated into a big discussion whether beauty and arts are subjective or objective matters, Is it a thing defined by us, or a thing that exists apart from us? They argued that it’s subjective and everybody has his taste in music, movies, paintings or whatever, period.
I’ll try to make a case for the existence of objective qualities in arts and other domains outside of natural sciences and the next time I’ll connect the topic with the myth of scientism that may block our views these days in all fields of life.

The objective view is known as aesthetic objectivism. Before offering some reasons in defense of this view, let me first explain the contrary perspective known as aesthetic relativism or aesthetic cultural relativism which makes judgments relative to a certain individual or culture.

The nature of beauty is not a settled issue in modern Western philosophy, for both the subjective and the objective camps, arguments have been made.

David Hume who was in the ‘in the eye of the beholder’ camp argued that:

Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them, and each mind perceives a different beauty.

The interesting thing about this schism between the strongly opposed camps is that it’s relatively a recent one, until the eighteenth century, most philosophers statements on beauty categorized it as an objective quality: that can be located in the beautiful object itself or at least in some of the qualities of that object.
It was Plato who first championed this position, he explained it through his famous cave allegory.
Unlike today’s thinkers, ancient Greek philosophers liked to use allegories since they believed that ideas are bigger than words and allegories are useful tools to convey a complex message in an easy and practical way without confining them by language.

THE CAVE ALLEGORY
(you can skip this part if you’re already familiar with the cave allegory)

In the cave allegory, Plato Imagines a cave, in which there are some prisoners, who are tied to rocks, their limbs are fastened, and their heads are attached so that they cannot look at anything except for a wall in front of them.
To make things more interesting, Plato asks us to bear with him and imagine that these detainees have been here since birth and have never seen anything outside of the cave.
Plato continues the allegory by describing the scene like this: Behind the prisoners is a source of light (let’s say fire or sunlight that enters the cave), and between the prisoners and the light is a walkway.
People outside of the cave frequently walk along this walkway bearing their daily objects on their head like; Plants and animals.

So the situation for the prisoners is like this: they cannot see anything other than the shadows of the objects being cast by the light on the wall in front of them, and that’s all they have seen all of their lives.

If you were in their position and had never seen the real objects before, you would assume that the shadows of objects were ‘real.’ or worse that the shadows are the objects. No one would blame you if you took that position because shadows are the only layer of reality that you can interact with through your senses.
Plato then continues the allegory by imagining the situation if one of the prisoners escapes from the cave.
He would be astounded at the world he sees outside the cave and would not believe it. Slowly he would accept the existence of a new layer of reality that is more real than the one he believed in, and shadows are just a byproduct of a more real Form.

WHAT PLATO WANTS TO SAY
Through this allegory, he tells us that the physical world around us is merely a reflection (he calls it an appearance or an imitation, depending on how you translate Mimêsis from Greek) of a perfect ideal world of Forms.
Our world is observed by us through our senses, but the ideal world is one of the ideas.

Let’s take chairs as an example, they come in different shapes and colors (appearances), but no matter how they look we instantly recognize them as chairs. For Plato what’s common between all of these chairs is the idea of the chair, the ‘Form’ of the ideal chair that they aspire to look like, which also allows us to recognize them as chairs.
Since we see the appearances and know the abstract essence ‘Form’ of what makes these ‘appearances’ chairs, there is no reason why we should not apply the same logic to other domains like truth, justice, and beauty.

What about beauty and objectivity?
Plato saw beauty, truth, and justice at the core of that ideal world and the way to objectively measure beauty in our world is by measuring its closeness to that ideal.
We can all recognize beauty in individual things such as sunsets, flowers, music or even people. Appreciating these things is the first level on the ladder of the knowledge of Beauty,
Like the appearance of chairs that we recognize by knowing the idea of the chair what these things have in common is the Ideal Form of beauty.
What’s important here is that beautiful things can be observed by our senses — we can literally see something that is beautiful. Even if it’s part of this world, but the knowledge of beauty can only be known by the mind, by understanding.
It doesn’t exist in the world as we understand it. But seeing an imitation of the true Form of Beauty can lead us to that understanding of Beauty.

When two friends disagree about the beauty of sunsets and if one of them thought that it’s dull, doesn’t that end the discussion and confirms that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder?
If one man says, “2 + 3 = 14”, in all honesty, and conviction, while another man says “No, 2 + 3 = 5”, it would be a psychopath who concludes that there is no such thing as truth. For if this disagreement amongst men refutes the existence of truth, then the statement that the truth is, therefore ‘defined by us’ is irrelevant — it cannot hold to be true.

What about the aesthetic cultural relativism view that our judgment is being influenced by a particular culture that surrounds us?
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a great selection of poems, Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor is an excellent piece of music, and Michelangelo’s David is a magnificent sculpture. How do we explain this consensus among intelligent experts of art, in different cultures and different centuries except by acknowledging that the enormous aesthetic qualities of these works are facts? If aesthetic relativism is true, then the consensus of opinions by art critics is an insignificant coincidence. There just happen to have been similarly positive acknowledgments to these artworks across civilizations for hundreds of years.

Recognizing these specific beautiful things in the world we all live in, and staying here is like being confined in a cave — not ever able to know real beauty but through its appearances, we get a clue of what it might be.

Plato’s theory of Forms and ideal has profoundly impacted western arts through the centuries, what’s interesting is that Plato himself did not think highly of artists and arts, he saw art as imitations of imitations. That did not stop artists from being influenced by his ideas especially in the Renaissance era till the end of romanticism. Their works were not aiming to mimic the real world but to idealize it and bring it closer to Plato’s ideal,

Even the term ‘renaissance’ means rebirth by rediscovering the Greek philosophy which idealized the man and made him the measure of all things. When the Greeks invented the architectural orders, they used the proportions of the human body as guidance in buildings; they wanted to shape the world around them into in idealized Form of the human body.
This rebirth and idealizing of the human were not aimed at Christianity, to the contrary, it merged with it.
We see Jesus in pre-renaissance works of arts as a weak, skinny and clueless on the cross, but the ideal one was modeled as the Greek god Apollo by being more muscular, athletic and confident.
Mary was idealized by making her look like Venus, the Greek goddess of love.

Last year in Florence when I visited Michelangelo’s magnificent Statue of David, like most visitors I noticed that he didn’t look like anything in the biblical description of him as the weak, vulnerable underdog in his battle with Goliath. It seemed as if I was staring at the strong, fearless and daring Goliath.
Now unless you understand Plato’s theory of forms and ideal, the statue of David would not make any sense to you.

Beauty for me and you?
Back to the debate, I started with some friends, one of them asked about who decides the ideal form of art and who decides if we are getting closer to it? The question was another attempt to inject subjectivity into the equation.
The answer is simple, let’s take music, for example, all you have to do is to pick a musical instrument and start to learn its basics and then move forward with your knowledge by learning about the musical notes. You’ll start to see yourself appreciating new qualities in music and less appreciation for the music of Ed Sheeran or Sam Smith.
The same experiment can be replicated in other fields of arts but let’s not confuse taste with beauty, taste is purely subjective and differs from one person to the other but beauty is out there waiting to be discovered.

That’s it for this part, the next time I’ll try to write about scientism and the evolution of western culture into individualism in the last centuries that may be responsible for some of the disagreements people have these days about arts.