Thinking About Beauty – A Trick of the Eyes


I was looking at a photograph of someone this morning and thinking, Wow. That’s really beautiful. But it was beautiful according to my definition. According to the generally observed American definition (not mine), this person would be old and wrinkled (mid-forties), freckled (sun-damaged), too thin (out of shape), etc. In other words, ugly. So what was it about the photograph that made me think “beauty”? Was it the lighting? the composition?

I’m certainly not the first to ponder the concept of beauty. Countless philosophers have pondered the nature of beauty: Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, to name a few. Most of us are familiar with the quote:

Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.

Beauty is not simply the perception by the eye of the one who gazes, but by that gazer’s understanding of the form of beauty itself embodied in the gazed upon. Beauty is also relevant to function: this object might be a beautiful bottle but an ugly vase. The problem with the concept of the eye of the beholder theory is that each of us has our own concept of what the Form of Beauty actually is–we make it up.

For example, Hume on beauty:

Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others. (1757)

So wait. There isn’t a problem with the theory, unless someone tries to impose their idea of beauty upon someone else’s. The Sigur Rós Ekki Múkk video below is beautiful–unless of course you have a phobia of snails, or you have a fear of death and decomposition, or you don’t find aesthetic pleasure in Aidan Gillen’s messy hair.

In order for us to utilize the word “beauty” in our vocabulary, we must agree on an accepted meaning (from Merriam-Webster):

the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit

Beauty, then, is as much related to what we perceive as it is to our response to what we perceive.

I’m giving myself a headache. Definitely not a thing of beauty. And I’m not even exploring the misogyny or the acceptance of it within the concept. (Google “beauty” and look at the images to see what I mean.)

Before I go completely sideways, let me say this: perhaps true beauty resides in our ability to perceive it, our ability to respond to a person, object, or concept. In other words, it ain’t all in your eyes, beholder. It is an active participation in both your internal universe and the external one.

Have you ever met someone who you initially thought was extremely attractive–beautiful–only to get to know that person and decide that he or she wasn’t all that after all? Suddenly in this “beautiful” person you begin to perceive characteristics of ugliness: rudeness, dishonesty, a look in his eyes that indicates cruelty. Conversely, have you ever met someone who was “okay looking” who, over time, becomes more and more attractive? It is his or her intelligence, strength, or humor that attracts us instead of how they look. This definitely resounds with something my grandmother used to say: “Pretty is as pretty does.”

Our concept of beauty, if we are active participants in our world, is always changing, altered by our perception, by time, by our knowledge of the object, person, or concept. We have the ability to tell ourselves to seek beauty in the quotidian, in what frightens us, in giving meaning to our existence in an unconcerned universe. The power of perception and response are ours to tap into. And that is truly a thing of beauty.

What do you think is beautiful? Has your concept of beauty changed over time?

Image credit: Untitled (Skull) by Jean Michel Basquiat 1984


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