The Concept of Beauty in Art and Philosophy


Whether it be a sunset, the human form or a work of art, beauty affects us all. It can be a fluttering of the eye or a shudder in the skin, a moment of elation or a feeling of wanderlust. We are often aware of the beauty of a landscape or a sculpture, but just as easily we can be moved by a colour or texture that is not obviously beautiful in the same way. Beauty can also be a fleeting moment that lingers in the mind and creates a sense of sadness or melancholy. Beauty can even be an experience of terror or fear, as in a horror movie or at the sight of someone who has just been attacked.

In philosophy, the ancient concept of beauty has given rise to a wide variety of ideas. The classical view of beauty, exemplified in Plato and Plotinus, treated beauty as a kind of property, a quality that exists independent of the beholder’s response and is located in the structure or qualities of an object rather than in its mere appearance. It was a concept that could be reliably reproduced in a mathematical formula, the golden ratio, for instance.

With the advent of empiricism in the eighteenth century, beauty was seen as an experience that is dependent on the individual’s response and that varies from one person to another. It is not, as the philosopher Locke believed, a property of an object’s parts and that they are arranged in a certain way, but rather a kind of phantasm in the perceiver’s brain, which can be experienced differently by different people.

The notion of beauty gained new importance in the nineteenth century as a result of a series of gendered readings. These readings aligned the beautiful with feminine virtues and the sublime with masculine ones. Beauty merged with the idea of divine love in a vision that emphasized a desire for equality in human relationships, a kind of fairness.

From the late twentieth century, there has been a revival of interest in something like the classical philosophical sense of beauty in both art and philosophy, largely based on the work of art critic Dave Hickey and feminist-oriented reconstruals or reappropriations of the concept (see Danto 2003). The concept of beauty has continued to resonate with our moral, ethical and theological concerns as it is recognized as an essential aspect of being human.

For Friedrich Schiller, beauty in art performs the process of integrating the realms of the natural and the spiritual or the sensuous and the rational. Only when we recognize and acknowledge beauty in this sense, he argues, are we free to live fully, as we are meant to do. In this sense beauty is a type of knowledge, an ’embodying’ or’realization’ of what is true, good and right in the world around us. We can see this heterarchical sense of beauty in works of art today, for example in the depiction of black or transgender bodies that challenge the hierarchies of gender, race and culture that have defined many past images of beauty.