The Concept of Beauty in Art and Literature


Whether beauty is a sham or a genuine phenomenon is a subject of debate. The question of what constitutes beauty is one of the most important topics in art and literature. The answers to this question have been sought by a wide range of thinkers in a variety of different traditions.

In the early modern period, the idea of beauty was associated with pleasure. Hume and Kant both wrote treatises on the topic, and both stressed the subjective nature of the experience. The eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume suggested that beauty is a matter of personal sentiment. In his book Essays, Moral, Political and Literary (1758), he argued against the tyrannical conceptions of taste. In addition, he clarified that beauty is not a quality of things, but a subjective state.

The classical conception of beauty identifies beauty with a symmetrical relationship between the parts of an object to the whole. It is sometimes expressed in mathematical ratios. For example, Euclid uses the golden ratio as an example of a beauty-like phenomenon.

In the twentieth century, the goal of beauty was abandoned, partly because of a tendency towards trivialization and indifference. As the world became more militaristic and violent, the question of how to reconcile beauty with a bleak age of wars and wastelands was raised. There was also a general suspicion of pacifiers, as art became an object of sabotage. In the 1980s and 1990s, a new interest in the concept of beauty arose, largely prompted by the work of art critic Dave Hickey.

The ancient Greeks saw beauty in the form of symmetry, proportion, and harmonious unity. The Islamic tradition modeled larger perfections, while the Christian tradition interpreted beauty as the creation of God. Some thinkers, such as Plato and Aristotle, disagreed with each other on the definition of beauty.

In the twentieth-century, thinkers were confronted with the question of how to reconcile beauty with the age of wars and genocide. Some, like Arthur Danto, described the abandonment of beauty in a ‘age of indignation’. Others, such as the Surrealists, sought to reconstitute traditional poetic forms.

The concept of beauty has always been controversial. Although it is often thought to be the simplest of concepts, it is impossible to agree on its exact meaning. A unified theory of beauty should address both its subjective and objective aspects. The best explanations, according to various authors, can be found in a combination of both.

The earliest treatments of the concept of beauty describe the pleasures of beauty in ecstatic terms. For instance, Plotinus wrote about delicious trouble and wonderment. He saw the enjoyment of beauty as a means to a more profound understanding of life and existence.

A more contemporary account of the concept of beauty is a product of the British empiricists. During the nineteenth century, they tended to regard color as a phantasm of the mind. The same object is perceived as different colors at different times of day. A color-blind person might see the same object as different colors at midnight. Likewise, John Locke argued that colors are a subjective response.