In my February 12 post I presented an anti-naturalist argument from beauty.  A key premise of this argument is that beauty is an objective quality in the world.  This view is known as aesthetic objectivism.  Before offering some reasons in defense of this view, let me first explain the contrary perspective known as aesthetic relativism.  The aesthetic relativist maintains that aesthetic values, such as “beautiful,” “elegant,” “ugly,” “sublime,” or “poignant,” are entirely relative to the preferences of individuals or cultures.  So, for example, an aesthetic subjectivist would say that all aesthetic judgments are relative to the individual.  Or, as it is popularly expressed, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  The somewhat less common brand of relativism is aesthetic cultural relativism, which says that all aesthetic judgments are relative to particular cultures.

Notice that both forms of aesthetic relativism deny that there is any objective sense in which beauty or other aesthetic values exist in the world.  So according to relativism, an artwork (such as a poem or a film) or a part of nature (such as a flower, a sunset, or a human face) is not beautiful in itself but is only pleasing to a person or group of people.  Aesthetic judgments (like “this song is lovely” or “that painting is ugly”) do not reveal facts about the world but only reflect observer responses to aspects of the world.

While the claim that all aesthetic judgments are relative to a person or culture has a generous ring about it, a bit of reflection reveals the view to be absurd.  First, consider the implications of aesthetic relativism when it comes to comparing works of art.  My four-year-old daughter, Maggie, loves to draw, and on our refrigerator there are several samples of her recent work, including a crude drawing of three horses.  It is rendered entirely with a pink marker, and the horses have rectangular bodies and triangular heads.  So, we might ask, how does Maggie’s Three Horses composition compare, in terms of aesthetic quality, to, say, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa?  Is one of these works superior (i.e. more objectively beautiful) to the other?  Not according to aesthetic relativism.  Remember, on this view no work of art can be objectively superior to another, because the relativist maintains that beauty is entirely relative to individual or cultural preference.  So if I happen to prefer Maggie’s Three Horses to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, then the former is superior to the latter for me.  Or if a given culture—because of, say, a prevailing fancy for the color pink—preferred Maggie’s drawing, then Three Horses would be superior for that culture.  In neither case could it be said that the Da Vinci painting is aesthetically superior to Maggie’s drawing in an absolute sense.

Such a relativist view contradicts common sense.  Obviously the Mona Lisa is superior to Maggie’s line drawings, regardless of how fond I might be of my daughter’s efforts.  But the only way this judgment can make sense is if beauty is an objective fact, not merely a matter of individual or cultural preference.  Only an objectivist view can account for the common sense distinction we ordinarily make between personal tastes and real excellence in works of art.  So if we are to maintain (as we should) that the Mona Lisa is better than my daughter’s drawing, we must admit that aesthetic qualities (whether good or bad) are public facts about the world.  In other words, beauty is an objective quality of things. 

A second argument for aesthetic objectivism appeals to the universal, time-tested appreciation of many works of art.  Educated people will agree, as they have for centuries, that Shakespeare’s King Lear is a great play, that Handel’s Messiah is an excellent piece of music, and that Michelangelo’s David is a superb sculpture.  How do we explain this consensus of opinion among intelligent connoisseurs of art, except by acknowledging that the tremendous aesthetic qualities of these works are public facts?  If aesthetic relativism is true, then the convergence of opinion by hosts of art critics is mere coincidence.  There just happen to have been similarly positive responses to these artworks across cultures for hundreds of years.  But, of course, this is absurd.  So aesthetic objectivism must be true.

Third, consider the fact that we often debate the quality of artworks and we sometimes change our opinions about whether a film, book, or song is good or not.  We might find ourselves defending the merit of a novel we have read or saying something like “I was wrong about that film.  I think it is good after all.”  These are everyday occurrences in discussions of art, and they confirm the basic intuition that aesthetic judgments are objective, whether correct or incorrect.  Aesthetic qualities must be public facts and not simply subjective or cultural responses.  Otherwise, we could not meaningfully argue about them or improve our views on works of art.

For such reasons as these, we can safely say that beauty and related aesthetic attributes are not merely in the eye of the beholder or a matter of cultural preference.  They are objectively real facts about the world. 

[My arguments here are adapted from my article “Good Art and Bad Art: What is the Difference?” in Areopagus Journal, 4:1 (January-February 2004).  For an extended defense of aesthetic objectivism, including an elaboration on some of the arguments that I employ here, see Eddy M. Zemach, Real Beauty (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 1997).]

17 Responses to “Why Beauty is an Objective Quality in the World”

  1. Scott Coulter


    Even granting that you have disproved aesthetic relativism, and granting that by definition this means you have proved aesthetic objectivism, I’m not convinced that you have proved aesthetic realism. (I’m thinking by analogy from similar issues in metaethics.) Why not some form of objectivist (i.e., non-relativist) aesthetic constructivism? Why must materialists be committed to aesthetic relativism? (It isn’t clear to me that materialists are committed to moral relativism, unless we define moral objectivism quite narrowly; similarly with aesthetics.)

  2. SMF


    Some people are just over-educated! Of course beauty is a subjective concept:

    beauty – The quality that gives pleasure to the mind or senses and is associated with such properties as harmony of form or color, excellence of artistry, truthfulness, and originality.

    Just for the sake of example: I’m sure that Maggie (or some other child in a similar situation) might prefer her drawing to the Mona Lisa, and think that it’s more beautiful. Is a child’s perspective somehow invalid to you?

    Beauty is necessarily a subjective concept. Human beauty to some might be lip plates, or stretched necks, or pierced ears. Every nation, every culture, every individual, has its own standards of beauty.

    • Jim Spiegel



      There’s no doubt that our perception of beauty has a subjective component, but the question is whether beauty is entirely subjective. You seem to miss the point of my argument. If aesthetic subjectivism is true, then the Mona Lisa really is not in itself any better than my child’s doodlings. Of course the Mona Lisa is objectively superior to my kid’s drawings. And the fact that the former is world famous and virtually priceless is just one indication of this.

  3. SMF


    First of all: I’m sorry for my tone before, it was uncalled for.

    It seems that you’re discussing technical skill, not beauty…. with a working definition of “skill” being: the ability to manually render images photo-realism using traditional media. Obviously from that perspective, the Mona Lisa is represents a more skillful achievement. I think what you’re doing here is mistaking that ability for artistic success. Many non-artists and left-brain thinkers do that, you’re not alone.

    As for the allusion to the Mona Lisa’s fame and ascribed value… that’s kind of a fallacy, isn’t it? Appeal to popularity…

    Finally, regarding your reference to cultural preference: you seem dismissive of it. Beauty in one culture is different from beauty in another. Plates in ears aren’t particularly beautiful to me, but other cultures find them quite attractive.

  4. joe


    Hey Jim, email me if you want to talk more about this. But don’t argue with relativists. You have will have better luck converting an atheist. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is Nazi propaganda through news and culture. I can safely say 99 percent of relativists are so for this reason.

  5. SMF


    Joe: if you can support your perspective with strong supporting evidence, then you will have no problem convincing a rationally-minded person. Otherwise, I think it is reasonable to think that beauty is a subjective concept, especially since what is beautiful (having qualities that delight the senses) to one person may not be beautiful to another person.

    “Nazi propaganda”? Please… can’t you do better than that? Read this for some food for thought: We’re discussing cultural relativism here, not moral relativism.

  6. Jim Spiegel



    Again, no one is disputing that different people have varying feelings or responses to art objects, just as they do with regard to moral issues (e.g. abortion, war, euthanasia, etc.). The question at issue, however, is whether there is any objective (non-relativistic) sense in which certain art objects are superior to (i.e., more beautiful or aesthetically excellent than) others. And the point of my argument is that common sense strongly suggests that there is (because to deny this implies various absurdities).

  7. SMF


    Sorry Jim, but “common sense” is often neither common nor sensible. You can’t honestly be suggesting that “common sense” is rational evidence that can withstand critical analysis for the assertion that beauty is an objective quality. If I’m following your rationale: You and many other people feel that the Mona Lisa is more beautiful that many other artworks. Therefore, the Mona Lisa is objectively beautiful. Non sequitur.

    If you assert that beauty is objective, then there must be some way of objectively, undeniably, logically measuring beauty. For instance: I can say that a piece of wood one yard in length is objectively longer than a piece of wood twelve inches in length. What is the measure of beauty?

    Again, I think you’re merely mistaking photo-realistic rendering skill for beauty.

  8. DanSolo


    “Obviously the Mona Lisa is superior to Maggie’s line drawings ”

    It’s “obvious” so it doesn’t require logical proof? You can’t run any kind of argument if you’ll just stop half way through and say something is “obvious” and expect everybody to agree with you when it’s the very thing you’re disagreeing on.

  9. Jim Spiegel



    You misconstrue my argument and the nature of the entire discussion at several points. First, my argument is actually a reductio ad absurdum–showing that to deny that beauty is an objective quality in the world leads to a flouting of common sense judgments about art and natural objects. Are you really prepared to assert that the Mona Lisa is not superior to a little kid’s smudgings? If so, then no argument of any kind will work for you. Moreover, you would have no business critiquing or debating the aesthetic merits of works of art, because such discussions are premised on the notion that art works are more or less aesthetically excellent (i.e. beautiful).

    As for your second comment and the question you pose, you commit a category mistake by imposing a scientific epistemology on aesthetics. You can’t “measure” beauty as you can physical objects, since aesthetic judgments are value judgments. The situation is analogous to ethics, where there is objective goodness (e.g., kindness and generosity) and objective evil/badness (e.g., pedophilia and murder). And the means of discovering the truth in such matters is very different than establishing scientific truths empirically. Having said that, there are many factors–perhaps too numerous to count–which contribute to the beauty of an artwork or natural object. And art critics discuss such things routinely, including concrete and intangible qualities (e.g., in painting: simplicity, complexity, color tones, textures, balance, shading, lighting, perspective, etc.; in literature: thematic unity, character development, use of irony, metaphor, and hyperbole, etc.; and so on for each genre).

    • Mike


      It’s worth noting Jim that you only invoke European styles of art in your conversation. What this tells me is that you are not advancing an actual logical point, but instead attempting to appeal to one particular cultural style of work and aesthetic; in other words, something that is not “pleasing to a Eurocentric eye” is inferior to anything that is European in origin. You clearly have a nonreligious-but-cultural-and-aesthetic axe to grind here.

      You also invoked Godwin’s law. And since you failed to provide a reason why he is like the nazis or the supposed source you believe he watches are like nazis, you have made an emotional appeal, which is inadmissible in debate. Therefore, you automatically lost.

      Also, before you accuse me of being brainwashed, I don’t have cable (stopped paying for it 1 1/2 years ago when TV turned into a cesspool, plus another 120 dollars back in my pocket every month,) and I don’t watch any of the mainstream news. Fox, MSNBC, CNN, it’s all crooks and liars owned by the same people. And I find it funny that you accuse public schools of brainwashing, yet you guys didn’t have any problem with the “social guidance” films in schools in the 1950’s, tellin g people how they should act, what they should think, etc.


  10. Jim Spiegel



    See my response to SMF above.

    As for the delay in approving your comment, I overlooked it earlier. Obviously, I never deleted it, contrary to the harsh accusation in a previous comment of yours–calling me a “coward”–which I did delete. Ironically, I noticed that you conceal your own identity with a false email address. See my Nov. 23 post on internet anonymity. Your comments provide a case in point.

  11. DanSolo


    Oh I see. Because I haven’t given you my real e-mail address you have automatically refuted my argument.
    That was convenient. “Obvious” I suppose you would say.

  12. DanSolo


    “eads to a flouting of common sense judgments”

    You’re again assuming “common sense” is on your side. I think “common sense” says you are wrong. There you go. Common sense is worthless as a proof as it can be used to “prove” two exactly opposite opinions.

  13. joe


    hey smf, again, you fall within 99 percent of the people i know who i call relativist. you don’t believe that there is an absolute truth in beauty, morals, or anything else for that matter. yes, i know where you stand already, you believe all things are subjective to culture and experience. you believe this becuase you are CONDITIONED by your MEDIA and your education system to believe this.
    also in history books, you will remember a section about how foot binding or corsetts were considered beautiful or how indigenous people have relative standard of beauty. i will not go too deep into this.
    most of all, you are also CONDITIONED to believe that it’s MY JOB to CONVINCE you of my viewpoints. in fact, i HAVE NO intentions of convincing of the truth. that will be pointless. this because your entire life you spent BS-ing english papers, cite sources, trying to PROOVE teacher of this view point, you believe everything is a debate. you are also conditioned to discount everthing i said because i mispelled my words. this is what i meant by nazi propaganda. but anyway, everything i say is still pointless because you still think i am arguing with you. so say this to you. if you think beauty is relative, so be it.

  14. Scott F


    You’ve failed to prove that aesthetic judgment is objective.

    To do so you would have to prove why The Mona Lisa is better than your children’s drawing.The argument that everyone thinks so does not prove it so.It could infact be proving aesthetic relativism.The problem with Aesthetic Objectivism is that it would require there to be facts about art.These would include what is art and how do we judge art.Since neither of these exist and cannot be shown to exist then there is no way to prove what is good or bad art.

    What is good or bad art is defined the perceiver.Even what art is ,is defined by the audience.

  15. Steve


    Take this idea for a test drive: Beauty is a physical representation of good.
    Now the real missing piece in the discussion below is what might “ground” beauty as objective. And, the missing piece in how I defined beauty above is, how could I “ground” my use of the word “good”. If good and evil are objective, I have to identify an objective source. If beauty and ugliness are objective, I have to identify an objective source. If good and evil are only subjective, then I can’t complain when someone steals my laptop or kicks me in the shins – I may not “like” it, but it can’t be actually wrong. For these things to be “wrong” in the objective sense we’d need a being that held a perfect moral standard and was above the system of societies and cultures and what individuals “value”. I’d need God to define good, then evil would be anything that was missing “good” in all its fulness. But what of beauty? If beauty is God’s perfect design of me, then I’m beautiful to the extent that the design is intact. I have a genetic disease. That is ugly. To the extent that I don’t live sacrificially for others like the God who designed me, that is ugly. You get the idea. I was brought up to believe that beauty is subjective, but this idea that it is objective seems to fit better with how I observe the world to actually be. Objective beauty intrigues me. I hope you all have some fun working out how beauty could be objective. This is my crack at it. — Steve


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