Aesthetics, Alison, Art, Beauty, Cultural Traits, Culture, Human Nature, Ideas, Life, Memes, People, Philosophy, Ugliness

Is it Really True that “Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder”?

(About a 7 minute read)

When I was 20 years old, I discovered — for the first time in my life — that I was in love with a woman.  That was surprising enough, but my surprise was compounded when I kept meeting people who knew her.

Nearly everyone, you see, agreed about her so much that almost all of them pointed out first and foremost, “Alison is beautiful, both inside and out”.  They agreed on some other things too.  Highly intelligent.  Compassionate.  But I noted at the time that the first thing nearly everyone said about Alison was that she was “beautiful both inside and out”.

Most likely you would need to have heard their voices to get the full impact of their statements.  They verbally emphasized how beautiful she was.  The rest was sometimes added in tones that suggested it was almost an afterthought to think of her as “intelligent” or “compassionate”, etc.

I seem to have been the only one among the several people who knew both of us to think she was merely average on the outside.  I used to say if you showed a photo of her to people, they’d say she was pretty, average pretty — but if you met her in person, then you’d say she was beautiful.

But I made up for my “sin” of not thinking her physically stunning by thinking her the most mentally and emotionally healthy person I’d ever met.

I was so scared of rejection back in those days that I waited until after class on the last day of the semester to ask her to meet me, on the theory that, if she shot me down, I would at least not have to face her in class again.  “Not for a date”, I assured her, “Just to talk.”  Thinking the prospect of a date with me would put her off.

She laughed with delight, opened her appointment book, and offered me a choice of two times and dates.  Then said, “I’m inking this in, Paul.  You had better not stand me up.”

The thought of standing up Alison — well, that was a novel idea!

We spent four or five hours conversing that Saturday next.  At one point she volunteered, “I used to be so messed up!  When I was in middle school, I painted my room black with pink trim. Can you imagine?”

I could imagine the colors, but I couldn’t see the significance.  How did that paint scheme translate into being messed up?  Alison patiently suggested that it did, but elaborated no further than that.  The afternoon rushed on until she had to leave for another appointment.

It is a generally undisputed truism in our culture that there are no objective aesthetic values.  We follow Margaret Hungerford in saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, and think the issue is thus made a settled fact.

But is that so?

Abram Maslow, in an intriguing footnote to the second edition of Motivation and Personality, mentioned a single study that had concluded people’s aesthetic judgements significantly depended on their mental health.

Folks who had relatively poor mental health held (as a group) diverse opinions about such things as whether a particular work of art was beautiful.  But folks with relatively good mental health tended to agree on whether the same work was or was not beautiful.  Moreover, the higher people scored on standardized tests for mental health, the more they tended to agree with others who scored in their range.

A single study, while it cannot be dismissed if proven sound, does not by any means a fact make.  That would take at least several studies all pointing to the same conclusion.  But the study Maslow mentioned has always interested me.  Is it really true that mentally healthy people might more or less all agree that, say, the Mona Lisa was more beautiful than Van Gogh’s Starry Night?

In our culture that is a daring question.  It risks getting you butt labeled “naive”, “immature” — or much worse, “conservative” — as in, one who believes in objective values.  The latter is such is a dire risk most sane mortals are unwilling to hazard it.

I think a lot of the reluctance many of us have to believe aesthetic values might be objective comes from knowing of folks who hammer home that notion as a means of declaring that certain political values are “objective” and “indisputable”.  To be precise, they hammer home the notion of objective values, which includes the notion of objective aesthetic values.  If you can establish either one, you can most likely establish both to be true.

But that’s not a rational reason to oppose the notion there might be object aesthetic values.  It is merely a political reason to do so.

My own experience of people has been somewhat ambiguous on the question.  It is true I have noticed a tendency for people I consider especially healthy to agree on aesthetics — especially on what is in bad or poor taste.  But the tendency has been anything but what I would call “marked” or “pronounced”.

There is certainly no one-to-one correspondence between, say, mentally healthy people and an aversion to wearing paisley socks with sandals, let alone an affirmation of how Van Gogh’s works stack up compared to DaVinci’s.

Moreover, I haven’t noticed any strong cross-cultural leanings either way.  So it would be very difficult for me to say, based on personal experience alone, that X was cross-culturally recognized by mentally healthy people as beautiful.

Yet, there is some indication of cross-cultural standards, is there not?  Nearly everywhere you go, nature is recognized as quite often beautiful.  The moon, the stars, a pleasant sunny day.  I know of no culture in which those things are thought displeasing or ugly.  And some studies have suggested that even certain standards for feminine beauty are cross-cultural.  A symmetrical face and body, the glow of youth, and so forth.

Which leads me to a thought.  There are only three or four attributes that are thought cross-culturally to be standards of feminine beauty.  But if that is so, then what should we make of that fact in light of the study that found mentally healthy folks tend to agree about aesthetic standards, while mentally unhealthy folks tend to be all over the board on the issue?  Can we say that — apart from those few cross-cultural agreements — all of our notions of feminine beauty are the products of unhealthy minds?

I laugh at the idea of it, but the thought illustrates an interesting point.  Perhaps those of our aesthetic values that are not cross-cultural are the only ones that are genuinely subjective — even if everyone within any particular culture would be likely to swear to them.

Does that not raise a question though? Even if everyone on the planet were to agree that a symmetrical face was a mark of feminine beauty — or that the moon was beautiful — would we have logical grounds for saying we had discovered objective aesthetic values?

I think not.  If you’ll recall, one of the oldest informal fallacies of logic is the appeal to popularity, which holds that an idea must be true simply because it is widely held.  To say the moon is objectively beautiful simply because everyone on the planet believes it is beautiful would be to commit that fallacy.

Consequently, I do not think it can be argued that aesthetic values are objective values on the mere grounds that everyone (or, say, every mentally healthy person) agrees with them.  Rather, I think it more likely that we humans would share the same aesthetic values because we — in effect — share the same brain.  That is, our brains are 99.9% genetically identical, if I am interpreting the statistics correctly.

Put differently, there is a sense in which there is only one human brain, and if that brain is healthy, it would most likely have some single sense of aesthetics.

To sum, I am of the opinion that mentally healthy humans probably share many or most of their aesthetic values, but not because those values are objective, rather because they, in effect, share the same brain.

Of course, I gleefully note my opinion on the matter is likely to be insufferable to both liberals and conservatives.  How could I live with myself if it was not?

Questions?  Comments?

8 thoughts on “Is it Really True that “Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder”?”

  1. That was a thought provoking post. I don’t think i agree with Maslow. Aesthetics is super subjective, but then again you said it is cross-cultural to adore the moon and stars. Still thinking about it!

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  2. If you really think about it, it seem self-evident. “Mental health” means “They all answered the questionnaire similarly and meet the same set standards for behavior and thought.” Surely if they all have similar thought patterns, similar emotional coping techniques, etc, they’ll have similar aesthetics too?

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    1. That’s a good point! I think that ultimately, the value of the questionnaires would depend on the extent to which high scores correlated with highly functional behaviors and low scores correlated with dysfunctional behaviors.

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      1. There was a woman in the office named Carol, about 50. She was very popular and everyone was in love with her, myself included. I’ve been trying for years to figure out what exactly it was about her that seized people.

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  3. Evolution. You speak of feminine beauty, but were not all ideals of feminine beauty honed by evolution? (rather than ill or good mental health). I propose that most (if not all) traits that make up ‘feminine beauty’ also contribute (somehow) to successful motherhood and survival of offspring.

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