Saturday, June 04, 2005

Aesthetics 101:
"Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder" -- Really?

Perhaps this will spark discussion, or perhaps not, but it's been on my mind of late (especially in anticipation of my upcoming "Philosophy of Aesthetics" class in the Fall)...

What is Beauty? Is it something objective? Or merely subjective? Or a mix of both?

Here's a little history that I've pieced together on the origin of the phrase in the title above...

In 1878, Margaret Wolfe Hungerford penned the proverb as we know it today, in her novel Molly Bawn:
'I have heard she is beautiful -- is she?' 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,' quotes Marcia. (Molly Bawn, I.xii.)
But the concept goes back further in a variety of forms. Charlotte Bronte wrote, "Most true is it that 'beauty is in the eye of the gazer'" (C. Bronte, Jane Eyre, 1847). Even earlier, it was said, "You should remember, my dear, that beauty is in the lover's eye" (F. Brooke, History of Mary Montague, 1769). Here's the rest of the phrase's history in the English language:
"The first stirrings toward this proverb appear to have come from the English dramatist John Lyly, who wrote in 'Euphues in England' (1580). 'As neere is Fancie to Beautie, as the pricke to the Rose,' and from William Shakespeare, who in 'Love's Labour's Lost' (c.1594) penned the line 'Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye.' Almost a century and a half later, Benjamin Franklin in his 'Poor Richard's Almanack' of 1741 included the lines, 'Beauty, like supreme dominion/ Is but supported by opinion,' and Scottish philosopher David Hume's 'Essays, Moral and Political' (1742) contained the perhaps too analytical 'Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.'"

(Stuart Flexner and Doris Flexner. Wise Words and Wives' Tales: The Origins, Meanings and Time-Honored Wisdom of Proverbs and Folk Sayings Olde and New. Avon Books, New York, 1993.)
Supposedly it goes back even further though. I found one online source citing The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (Fifth Edition, p. 595 "Proverbs", to be precise) as describing the idea to go all the way back at least to Greek writings in the 3rd century BC. Though I didn't find any primary sources to document this, I have no problem believing it. Afterall, the phrase does seem very commonsensical.

But is it absolutely true? Is beauty purely subjective? Is there no objective beauty? And consequently, is there no objective ugliness or filth?

I'm still thinking all of this through myself, but I really want to hear others' perspectives, especially the artists! Please share your thoughts and any good and/or interesting readings on the subject. I've always loved art, so this is a very interesting topic to me.

Here is one essay that I'm trying to work through, if anyone is interested (let me say though, it is not an easy read!):

Alice von Hildebrand. "Debating Beauty: Jacques Maritain and Dietrich von Hildebrand." Crisis. July/Aug. 2004.


At 10/31/2006 04:25:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey there. First of all, i would like you to know that i'm not an ARTIST or somebody SPECTACULAR but i really want to give my opinion about the true definition of beauty. You asked, 'Is beauty purely subjective?'. Let me tell you one thing, beauty can be both but it's more into subjective rather than objective b'cuz why? b'cuz if you can see, during the era of Shakespear, fat women are considered beautiful and the slim ones are ugly because in that time, fat women resemble wealth and the slim ones resemble poverty,poor. ( i wish that trend will still be happening in this millenium, i will be glorified by then). However, now, in the 21st century hourglass women are considered more beautiful than being voluptuos. So, you see? beauty is both objective and subjective but it's more towards subjective b'cuz the perceptions on beauty are different in different centuries. Back then, thin lips are more beautiful, but now,lips like Angelina Jolie are more 'in'. Beauty is just like fashion, it comes, it goes. It's seasonal. That's why one day,a person is said to be ugly but after few years, when the trend has changed, she is glorified by the media due to her beauty or exotic-ness.That's why in this world, there are both ugly and beautiful people. Beauty is something unconventional. A person might be said beautiful or ugly by different persons. However, it's up to you to define yourself, UGLY or BEAUTIFUL?


Post a Comment

<< Home