The Concept of Beauty in Art and Philosophy


If a thing is beautiful, it has qualities that delight us when we see or hear them or think about them. The word is used for both ordinary objects, such as a flower or a piece of furniture, and also people, such as a man or woman. The word is related to the idea of beauty in art, which describes the creation of a work of art.

The concept of beauty has a long history in philosophy and art, although it is not always prominent as an issue. It was not until the late twentieth century that a new wave of feminist and anti-racist attacks on dominant body norms brought a fresh sensitivity to questions of beauty. Then interest in beauty blossomed in both art and philosophy, with a renewed emphasis on the classical philosophical sense of beauty.

In its classic form, the concept of beauty posits a tension between beauty as a purely subjective feeling and beauty as a quality that can be objectively identified. In the first place, ancient hedonists like Aristippus of Cyrene took a utilitarian view of beauty, holding that a thing is beautiful only when it has the right qualities for its use. This approach led to a utilitarian aesthetic that is still influential in the philosophy of art today.

Other philosophers, such as Hume and Kant, argued that the experience of beauty is dependent on a subjectivity that is influenced by culture. This influenced eighteenth-century empiricists who held that the primary qualities of beauty are sensations of pleasure that differ among people. These empiricists attributed color, for instance, to the perceiving mind, rather than to a physical world outside the mind.

Schiller, on the other hand, thought that art, including beauty, performs the process of integrating or rendering compatible the realms of nature and spirit, the sensuous and the rational. This approach is somewhat similar to Plato’s ladder of beauty, though it differs in that it seeks a harmony of the levels, instead of a transcendence of them.

Synonyms: a beautiful, handsome, lovely, pretty describe a pleasing appearance. Beautiful implies perfection of form, color, or arrangement, and often also noble and spiritual qualities: a beautiful landscape; a beautiful woman. Handsome suggests stateliness, and may also suggest pleasing proportion and symmetry: a handsome man. Lovely suggests a warm and endearing quality: a lovely smile. Pretty suggests moderate beauty, and may be particularly used of persons or things that are small or feminine: a pretty blouse; a pretty girl.

The political entanglements of beauty tend to throw into question various of the traditional theories. The purity and transcendence associated with the essence of beauty in the realm of the Forms, for example, seems irrelevant when it is tied to politics and commerce or concrete dimensions of oppression. The austere formalism of the classical conception is likewise unsatisfactory when the building process is brutally exploitative. In addition, the modern associations of beauty with consumerism and materialism have thrown doubt on the traditional notion of its intrinsic value. Nevertheless, the impulse toward the beautiful remains strong in modern society. Confident young women pack their closets with mini-skirts, and modern artists toy with femininity in ways that make many of their feminist elders uncomfortable.