The subject of beauty is a matter of intense debate in Western philosophy and art. It has occupied philosophers since antiquity, but it gained much attention in the eighteenth century as a point of debate among social-justice oriented philosophers.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, many of these thinkers argued for an objective view of beauty that would tame its adolescent and sometimes even rapaciously self-serving impulses. The concept of beauty was a major concern for the likes of Hume, Kant, and Schopenhauer, as well as other writers on aesthetics.
A more subjective account of beauty, however, was defended by Santayana in his book The Sense of Beauty (1896). He took the view that beauty is “objectified pleasure”: an object or experience evokes a certain sort of pleasurable response in the beholder.
This line of thought is reminiscent of the idea that beauty is the process by which an object or experience “integrates” the sensuous and rational aspects of existence. It was also akin to the idea of beauty as a way to ascend to a higher state of being, a la Plato’s “ladder.”
The problem with this approach is that it overlooks or ignores the broader implications of what a work of art does for people. A painting or sculpture that is considered beautiful can be perceived as having a moral or religious significance, for example, and the viewer or the artist will be able to reorient their life accordingly.
On the other hand, beauty may also be a way to make connections with other people, to connect to our pasts and to create a shared experience. This is especially true in the context of social-justice oriented philosophy, where it is seen as an important way to build relationships and to encourage community cohesion.
Neurobiology and the Science of Beauty
A recent scientific discipline at the intersection of art, psychology, and neuroscience is called “neuroaesthetics.” According to Semir Zeki, a professor at the University of London’s Department of Cognitive and Clinical Sciences, aesthetic emotions are based on “a deep and enduring bond with an object.” In his study, he found that admiring an attractive face, a scenic sunset, or a magnificent building creates a chemical reward in the brain.
Psychologists believe that beauty is not only about the object itself, but also about the way it looks and how we perceive it. A painting that is painted in a way that gives it an appealing and interesting color is considered beautiful.
The idea that beauty is a way to connect with others is central to social-justice oriented philosophy, and it has played an important role in many feminist and anti-racist discussions of gender and body norms. It has also been a powerful tool in the cultural critique of dominant and oppressive norms, and has helped to dismantle some of them in the process.
This view of aesthetics is a bit controversial in the current era, when it has come to be seen as a tool for liberation rather than an oppressive force. It is a belief that beauty can be an important part of a process that deconstructs stereotypes and re-conceptualizes bodies, thereby opening up a world of possibilities to people who have never been able to access them before.