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).]