Is beauty Subjective or Objective?

David: In your essay, that lovely essay that I read, you chose truth, morality and beauty. So, truth, good and beauty. Why did you choose those three above anything else?

JC: Well, there’s a sort of traditional Platonic trio, I suppose. It’s difficult to explain, but they call forth a response from us.

David: They call us on in some way?

JC: In some way they call forth from us a response and we may be disinclined, if you like, to hear it. We may be disinclined to orient ourselves towards it, but nonetheless the pull still remains  I think a lot of people are accustomed to think of beauty as just a matter of subjective taste, but it’s surely more than that. When we are overwhelmed by some great work of art, or by some stunning natural beauty in the world, of course there is a subjective reaction, but we’re responding to something in the object: something which calls forth our delight, our admiration. But there’s something real, there’s something true in the object, which generates that response, and which is also, I think, good.

Wordsworth in some of his poetry talks about those ‘spots of time’. These are quite ordinary experiences, but they are moments when the mundane, drab, routine of reality somehow gives way, and we see through it to something richer, something which, as Wordsworth puts it, ‘lifts us up’, which raises our spirits. And the key there is that there’s something in reality which calls forth that response. It’s not just him subjectively musing about it, though, of course, he’s doing that, but he’s describing a response to a reality that’s already there.

Ard: So, one critique of some of that would be that people clearly view beauty differently. There are things that some people think are beautiful and things that are not. Different cultures have different moral systems. So there’s a lot of diversity in our perceptions of beauty or our perceptions of what’s ‘the good’. And I think it’s a natural step sometimes to say, ‘Well, given that there’s diversity, perhaps we should just agree that that’s all that there is’. But you’re saying that’s not quite good enough somehow?

JC: I mean obviously there are wide variations in taste and fashion from culture to culture, but to believe in certain objective standards of beauty is to believe that, despite those divergences, there are core values which remain in place, which are common to these culturally variable differences.

So, to be beautiful, a work of art must have some harmony, rhythm, form, which intrinsically is valuable irrespective of cultural and social preferences. And we can’t, as it were, violate that. Well, of course you can make certain moves in the cultural game: you can create a disordered pile of bedclothes and put it in an art exhibition, and it may have a perfectly valuable function to shock people out of their complacency. I’m not, as it were, knocking it, but I’m saying you can’t make something which is messy or ugly, beautiful, just by an act of will. Beauty is not entirely in the eye of the beholder: it’s in the object, and so with goodness.

David: There’s something that bothers me about that.

Ard: Okay?

David: In the sense that I’m not sure I want to live in a universe where it can all be summed up, eventually, by the top ten in everything. I’m more attracted to a universe where we it continues to change rather than converging on a set of truths – whether those truths are ones laid down by scientists or God.

JC: But surely there can be creativity and variety? It needn’t be monolithic, surely?

David: Well, I hope not. But it sounds a bit that way – either monolithic or whittled away.

JC: If you think of music, there are many rich and varied and wonderful forms of music. There’s no reason why they should be whittled down to a single pattern. But it surely makes sense to say that they all exhibit certain structural features, symmetries of form or rhythm, which call forth our admiration – not identical in each case.

David: Yeah… maybe I’m putting it badly. To go back to mathematics is always the easiest one. I’m happy that there would be mathematical truths which are just true, and one set of truths opens up another. The question is whether that set of truths opens up new ones and new things emerge and it becomes… and the horizon broadens and makes up new things out of itself. Or whether it becomes a closed system, that eventually you’ve got all the answers. So, it’s whether it’s open and creative or just, sort of, finite: big, but finite.

JC: Yes.

David: I don’t want a prison house of certainties.

JC: No.

David: I’d rather live in…

JC: I totally agree with you, but I think this connects with what we were talking about, the transcendent urges that human beings have, not to rest content with the boxed set. So, something could be flowering every outward, if you like, in innumerable ways, always reaching forward, but informed by, infused by goodness and beauty, rather than degenerating into ugliness.