What is Beauty?

How it is that we judge something as Beautiful.


I am told that this painting is beautiful: Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose, by Baroque Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán (executed in 1633). I’m not sure what that means, that the painting is beautiful, so let’s investigate this a little. Again, I am told that the following is beautiful:

Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose, oil-on-canvas, Francisco de Zurbarán, 1633

My question is: How do I know that this work of art, this painting, really is beautiful and that I’m not just being sold a Lemon? (The audience bursts into applause, these evidently and truly being real lemons!)

No, but all seriousness aside, How do I know that this is beautiful and not just some half-assed, silly, badly painted lemons? My real question is: Is it the PAINTING that is BEAUTIFUL? i.e. Is the Beauty that I See some property of this painting by Francisco Zurbarán? Where is the BEAUTY? What is beauty anyway?

My best guess is the following. First and foremost, I find the painting more or less “pleasant”. I might prefer a Picasso, but at the very least this painting here by Zurbarán is pleasant. Then, I would argue that the REPRESENTATION that I make to myself of this painting, is BEAUTIFUL. Not only that, it is UNIVERSALLY so. Its Beauty is universally VALID, is universally communicable. How is that exactly?

I find this painting to be beautiful, to have beauty, etc. A judgement that I make about a thing’s being beautiful or not is not some “logical” conclusion, that it either is or is not beautiful, like the sky would either be or not be the color blue. At the same time, while it is pleasant to the senses, it’s not pleasant in the sense that a spoonful of vanilla ice-cream might be pleasant to the palate. Yet the painting is pleasant enough.

I would argue that it is pleasant, but that it does not have some “Concept” to which I am refering myself, when making the judgement that it is beautiful. It is beautiful, but I’m not referring myself to some concept of The Beautiful Painting by Zurbarán. I am merely making a representation of the image to myself and deeming it to exhibit beauty as though it were a property of the painting, though knowing fully that it is not. Yet the apparent property of beauty, while it is not a property, is strong enough that I, were I in my right mind and possessed with common sense, I would say that it is universally so, that this painting is beautiful to anyone who has ever lived.

I am not saying that it is a Good Painting. If it were GOOD, I WOULD be referring to a concept, namely a concept of A Good Painting. But all I ever said was that it was Beautiful, not that it was Good. I said it was pleasant, but it wasn’t pleasant like vanilla ice-cream is pleasant to the taste.

What we have is an aesthetic judgement, a judgement of taste, not a judgement on something’s pleasantness, or whether something is Good or not. When I represent this work of art to myself, I fancy it beautiful. To be continued…

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