The question of whether beauty is objective or subjective has been a thorny issue within the philosophical and artistic traditions for centuries. It is one of the most-prosecuted disagreements in Western philosophy, and it has prompted some very serious debates about what it means to be beautiful, and about how art should be conceived of as beautiful.
Some of the major approaches or theories developed within Western philosophical and artistic traditions are sketched below, some of which may be incompatible with one another:
The first of these views is the classical conception of beauty. It posits that all objects have beauty, because they are a compound of parts; these parts should stand in proportion to each other, and the whole should have symmetry. The most explicit articulation of this view was the Italian Renaissance, and it found a strong following in seventeenth-century natural philosophy as well.
Other versions of this approach are based on the idea that all objects have the necessary components, and that these parts must be proportioned to each other so that they make a comely whole (for example, Plotinus’s account in the Enneads), while others rely on the idea that all things have beauty because they are part of a larger form. The earliest such accounts are often very mystical in nature, but their significance is to show that everything in the world is part of a larger order and purpose, which must be from God.
Various philosophers have also explored the notion of beauty in terms of hedonism or disinterested pleasure. The hedonist Aristippus, for instance, suggested that anything which we use is both good and beautiful: its usefulness is its primary value.
But hedonism is an incompatible approach with many of the other approaches. For example, Kant’s treatment of beauty in terms of disinterested pleasure has obvious elements of hedonism, but it also implies that everything is beautiful because it is pleasant.
The more adamantly subjectivist line is taken by Santayana, who defines beauty as “objectified pleasure,” as though the judgment of something that it is beautiful responds to the fact that it induces a certain sort of pleasure. Alternatively, some philosophers have identified beauty with suitedness to use.
This approach is generally used to critique the distinction between fine art and craft, and it avoids sheer philistinism by enriching the concept of ‘use’ so that it might encompass not only performing a practical task but doing so with an especial satisfaction.
An alternative, more radical approach to the problem of beauty has been advocated by Ananda Coomaraswamy, who suggests that art should be understood as expressing not only the use it performs but also an especial sense of enjoyment.
This treatment has been widely influential, and it has remained in force in the literature for much of the twentieth century. It is especially prominent in social-justice oriented thinking, but it is not without its critics and dissenters.