“Beauty is subjective” Oh yeah? Says who?

Joel and I have been trading interesting ideas in the comments of the last post. And if I have any real hope for this blog its that folks will engage some of the ideas, especially in their own lives, and that these types of conversation can take on a life of their own. So thanks Joel for keeping things going, for being a seeker after truth, and for being an open minded explorer! These are conversations worth having.

So anyway, the proposition I did some wrestling with was that “Beauty is intrinsically subjective”. And you can see why we often say that. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is this mantra in our culture, and if we don’t look too closely it can be a flaw that condemns any pursuit of the ideals of beauty. But is that right? At least, it seems an idea worth examining. Here’s what I had to say in response:

The idea of ‘subjectivity’ needs a bit of examination, though. It usually gets used as a contrast with ‘objective’ where one is accidental and contingent and the other is firm and universal, the reality that stands behind subjectivity. But the worse association we make is that ‘subjective’ things are therefor only in our heads and that they thereby lack any independent reality. We often take that to mean that ‘subjective’ is therefor ‘untrue’. We take it to mean that something which is personal or open only from a particular point of view has less value than things which are agreed upon in a community’s objective conformity. We seem to prefer ‘objectivity’ to ‘subjectivity’ when asked to choose.

But does that always make sense? We can’t see another person’s pain. Pain is subjective. We have to take other people’s word that they are in pain. But does that make it unreal? Does something that appears only in the ‘eye of the beholder’ discredit it? If that is the case, then imagination is by definition a lost cause, and our dreams but the worst sort of flagrant and deniable opinion. Dreams are not even subjective experience. They’re just made up flights of fancy. Are we willing to go so far as to say that anything ‘tainted’ by subjectivity is not worth our time?

What I would argue is that agreement isn’t always the test of a thing’s worth. Its not THAT we agree that is important as much as why we agree and what we are agreeing about. Just how broadly does consensus ever map ‘objectivity’? The moment we start throwing around accusations of ‘subjectivity’ we need to ask ourselves just how many of our sacred cows are left if we truly measure them against universal objectivity. ‘Subjectivity’ sometimes just looks like an excuse to dismiss things we ourselves don’t agree with. It sometimes looks like another reason to stand with the accepted way of looking at things rather than deciding for ourselves. And as artists that surely can’t be our mission. Shouldn’t we instead be celebrating our subjectivity, our diversity, our unique points of view? Just how often are artists supposed to aim for rigid conformity? Just how often are artists supposed to shun their idiosyncratic and personal point of view? Isn’t it the case that we learn more about the potential for meaning in the world by exploring our own subjectivity?

So subjectivity may not end up being the worst thing in the world. And I’d also ask whether “meaning” and “conceptual content” were in truth any less subjective than beauty. Isn’t the meaning we understand kind of precariously balanced on our own subjective interpretation? Is this any less personal than our grasp of beauty? The fact that any of us ever disagree surely must mean that universal objectivity is as much an unrealized phantasm as anything else. Isn’t that an interesting conclusion? Isn’t it perhaps that we’ve built up an expression which seems to talk about the world but actually never really describes it that well at all? At least the way we mean it to? Isn’t that just the ‘flawed’ nature of our being human and using human language to look out at the world? Isn’t all our experience intrinsically ‘subjective’?

So I’d say that there is nothing wrong with beauty. It is, in fact, simply another manifestation of meaning in the world. Intuitive rather than conceptual, but there in the world. It is in our daily lives, so how could it not be in the world?

If any meaning has value in the world, why not beauty? Because we often disagree? That would be like saying poverty wasn’t important because people disagree about it. And the fact that only some of us see the same things is not a statement of the failure of any concept, much less of the idea of beauty. It is a statement that we have not learned to see all there is to see in the world. Isn’t our disagreement simply a call to us to help others see what we see?

Are others ‘wrong’ to not see what we see? Are we ‘wrong’ not to see what they do? Isn’t the world simply filled with a multiplicity and variability that strains concepts like ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’? Isn’t it true that the world is so filled with contestable points of view that the only sane conclusion must be that our universe admits of contrary and even contradictory interpretations? If we could but name one proposition that every single human throughout the history of mankind would agree with, then there might be an objectivity worth considering. But infants have their own point of view, different cultures believe different things, and madmen also have conclusions of their own. And if these are merely ‘subjective’, just what does that say about our own point of view?

In the end I’d say that to deny the fundamental importance of our subjectivity, to demean it and pretend to cast it aside, is a criminal offense to what in fact makes us human and what is often most valuable as our experience of being human. There would be no culture without subjectivity, bias, preference, and other wholly personal attributes. And we need to own this rather than denying it.

So I’d also ask the question of just how a thing like ‘beauty’ can be valued as important or even necessary. Does it not pass the test of an almost universal human compulsion? Have there been any cultures throughout history that have been as opposed to the idea of beauty as some of today’s artists are? And are these artists themselves representative of the feelings of their fellows in the community? When we cast out beauty are we not denying something that is intrinsic to our experience of being human?

The simple and poorly understood truth is that our lives are brimming with aesthetic choices. And as creative and perceptive beings we are hardly immune to its call, artists perhaps least of all. An anthropologist friend of mine made this case very persuasively. Every time we decide on something we like or something we don’t, we are recognizing what appeals to us. ‘Beauty’ isn’t always the obvious hit you over the head variety. Sometimes it sneaks up on you, or catches you by surprise. Its not always the easy conventional sort that we get taught by advertising and the icons of our culture. It is also the quiet everyday things that touch us and speak to our ‘souls’. Every time you decide “this, not that”, you are making a value judgement. Simply saying “I like this” names that thing ‘beautiful’ in some sense for you. How can that not be an important lesson on what it means to be human?

It just seems a shame that beauty needs defending in the first place. For potters to be embarrassed by the beauty of what they are doing is truly a sad statement about the way of the world. And why anyone would disown the beauty they helped give birth to just seems wrong. The world needs more beauty, not less. And artists need to claim their ancient place as the ones responsible for nurturing and nourishing a society’s connection to beautiful things.

Every human has an innate sense of what things are beautiful. And if we let ourselves be manipulated to believing only the dominant cultural opinions we will lose the sense that beauty can be almost anything, and that its just a matter of knowing how to look for it. Culture shoves certain ideas down our throats, but this doesn’t make it right, or the only way. Isn’t it incumbent on every creative soul to take a stand on what other things also count as beautiful? So that we continue living in a vibrant and diverse world? That subjectivity is not winnowed out such that we are left with only the bland incontestable things? Isn’t variety the spice of life? Doesn’t our difference and disagreement, in fact, make life more worth living at times? And if we disagree with each other shouldn’t we embrace our own subjectivity, not feel awkward about it? And if others are open minded and willing, can we not attempt to teach them how to also share that vision?

Beauty CAN be shared. The fact that there are as many opinions as there are people does not mean that all of them are ‘wrong’. Does it? If it does, then maybe we need to consider how good our ideas of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are….

What do you think? Do we need to be ashamed of beauty?

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to “Beauty is subjective” Oh yeah? Says who?

  1. Jenn Morley says:

    Wow, Carter…I love that you take your responsibility as an artist so seriously! I mean that whole-heartedly….I think that being an artist does come with the obligation to engage the public with the big questions in life.

    This is a wonderful exploration of some key elements of art. I’ve always felt that appreciation of beauty and meaning come from a unique place within each person’s spirit. To me, the act of appreciating beauty is sacred, and yes, totally subjective. Yet I have a kind of quantum spirituality, so that each time I – or anyone else – beholds beauty, I feel as if the entire universe has been altered. To me, the appreciation of beauty is akin to feeling love. And love seems like the most healing and sustaining energy in the universe. Beauty can take any form – I feel altered by beautiful visual art, music, words, or energy — beholding a person whose personal expression of spirit is so beautiful I cannot help but feel love towards them.

    I have a very difficult time understanding people who seem cut off from all appreciation of beauty, who are driven purely by profit and can find no joy in the arts or in simply loving people for who they are as individuals. In my experience, it is primarily this type of person who is concerned with “objective” reality, as if there were really such a thing. They seem more interested in quantifying, regulating, and homogenizing experience than in simply accepting things as they are and appreciating the beauty in unique expressions of nature or humans.

    It is interesting to me that more than one person can find beauty in the same expression. I feel that their reaction to it – how they are altered – is probably very similar but can never be the same….just as we can never dip our feet into the same river twice.

    Just today I was reading the comments on a photo a friend posted from her visit to MOMA — the photo was of a seemingly “blank” canvas. Most comments were along the lines of “gee, some color would be nice,” or “I just can’t get into modern art like this,” but one person seemed to appreciate the conceptual motivation behind the artist’s expression. I felt a kinship with that person, because I felt like they were reaching out to the artist, saying, “tell me about your work.” Art is a two-way communication between artist and beholder, and I especially love experiential or collaborative art where those lines between do-er and see-er become blurred or irrelevant! Participatory, ever-in-process art renders the differences between “subjective” and “objective” meaningless.

    Well, I gotta go get me some food, but there’s my thoughts on it for now :~) Thanks again Carter, I love what you’re doing here!

    • Carter says:

      Thanks Jenn!

      We’re pretty much on the same page. Yeah, I agree that the idolatry of ‘objectivity’ is pretty distasteful and down right disrespectful. But I wouldn’t really think most artists are coming from that angle when they poo poo things like beauty. Calling beauty ‘subjective’ is just a handy spear to fling at this wild beast they want rid of. Rather, calling it ‘subjective’ seems to be an institutional prejudice against things of beauty which gets pedaled around by academics and the commercial markets that want to sell something more important (more valuable) than beauty.

      As much as every day people admire and enjoy beauty in their lives, it is only an academic stance that belittles it. And since the gallery and museum systems tend to pay attention to what each other are doing, tracking down and murdering beauty takes on an institutional fervor. And deep within the walls of an increasingly isolated ivory tower they are afraid that if all they are offering is beauty that they will get laughed out of their jobs. So instead they disown beauty and belittle it. Beauty just doesn’t seem as important in academia as the grand ideas of other fields. When they measure beauty alongside the Theory of Relativity they simply lose their nerve and start feeling diminished. “Surely art has to mean more than subjective beauty?” they say. And so they turn to the conceptual side of meaning and offer the academic take on art as content based.

      This might never have happened (at least the way it fell out) until Dada came along and questioned the propriety of classical notions of beauty. It was right to do this. The institutions of beauty at that time were so hidebound and intransigent that their claims of being the only proper view of artistic value simply HAD TO BE challenged. The reign of institutional beauty had to be overthrown for art to move forward in the 20th century.

      And there is nothing inherently wrong with talking about art in those terms. But when academics became ashamed of beauty they threw the baby out with the bath water. Beauty is more than what the institutions prescribe, and its more than simply a thing that is ‘subjective’. And now the prejudice against art objects that are ‘merely beautiful’ is a default stance of academics (there’s a whole other academic argument against functionality, so you can see that potters get slammed from both ends). Not that they’ve thought it through, necessarily, just that they are doing their utmost not to be ridiculed in an ivory tower and can’t afford to be seen standing next to trivialities like beauty. If beauty has been institutionally discredited, what academic in their right mind would ever lay claim to it?

      So we end up with the people who SHOULD be the champions of beauty actually doing their best to disparage it. How bizarre is that? If artists aren’t responsible for beauty, who is? Clearly the world has been turned on its head, and in this befuddled upside down point of view the academics can’t see just how wrong they are…..

      But this is yet another example of how art becomes less than it should be when it mixes its ideals with a world that is sometimes driven by commercial aspects and sometimes driven by intellectual pursuits that set only alien standards when imposed on art. Its not that art doesn’t belong in academia. Its that it should stand up for the ideals that brought it to the dance. It should embrace all of its merits and think critically about them rather than spewing default doctrines that end up diminishing what they are doing in the long run. If beauty is more slippery than the Pythagorean Theorem, so be it. Isn’t a confusing truth about the world more interesting than a simplistic lie?

      So you see I’m on a bit of a mission to challenge all the agendas that are being used to discredit pottery. If pottery isn’t beautiful, if its beauty isn’t important, and someone cares to convince me of it, I will eat my hat and hope I choke on it. I could be wrong, after all. I just haven’t heard a slander of pots, beauty, or art that I buy into. Yet. But then a heretic should expect a bit of dissonance, and who if not potters are dissidents in today’s art world….?

  2. Scott Cooper says:


    I’m curious about these potters that are “embarrassed by the beauty of what they are doing”. Are these real people, or are you just setting out a hypothetical example?

    Perhaps this is just a symptom of living out in the weeds as I do, but it’s hard for me to imagine someone dedicated to making pots — and pots that are aimed at their personal idea of beauty — actually feeling apologetic about it. I certainly don’t.

    Maybe you mean beginners — people who haven’t gained the confidence that aiming for beautiful pots is acceptable or sufficient. Or are you thinking of people who started out as potters, then migrated to sculpture? (And, perhaps, embrace the prevailing High Art aesthetic that “mere” beauty is aiming too low?)

    I want names!

    OK, not really. But I am curious.

    • Carter says:

      I’m curious too! They do seem a bit like shadowy unicorns when I hear the whisper of their tread. Being embarrassed by the beauty of pots is decidedly hard to imagine for me as well….

      Maybe we should take a census of pot makers who have been discouraged from talking about what they do in terms of beauty. Perhaps some of them held fast to their principles and perhaps some of them bought into the idea that beauty is not enough or is of lesser value than things like conceptual content. A show of hands anybody? Maybe its just true that by the time you get to grad school you already know you’re not supposed to even bring it up in conversation, like maybe summoning an evil spirit by calling its name…..

      I don’t really want to call individual artists out, though I do want folks in that position to stand up for the beauty of what they are doing. But if there are active and partisan proponents of beauty’s irrelevance I’d love to get their argument for its poor standing. I’m really more interested in examining the ideas than in offending or insulting individuals. In fact, I’d rather not do that.

      But just to get your mind chewing, let me leave you with this anonymous snippet from a potter’s artist statement put out for a recent gallery show:

      “I am not interested in making beautiful pots, useful pots, or important pots– these judgments I find best left to others.”

      Any thoughts on why a potter would ever go so far?

      But maybe we don’t need to abuse the idea of beauty to diminish it. Maybe we do enough harm just by refusing to own it. And if you think about it, how often do artist statements boldly proclaim the beauty of what they are offering? Is that not part of a pot’s value? So why doesn’t it get talked about? How clearly do you (Scott Cooper, since you want names) make this case in your own artist statement? ( I did a quick check and the most you refer to it is that “I aspire to make utilitarian pots that are well-crafted, aesthetically interesting and enjoyable to use.” And that “Striking a good balance between these qualities is difficult.” Kind of sparse, I’d say….)

      So maybe its the case that sometimes we don’t even realize that we are downplaying the beauty of what we are doing. Its that big pink elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about, possibly because we think we need to display better manners. Maybe its the case that what we believe in private and what we talk about in public should be two different things. Maybe it doesn’t take an outright disavowal of beauty to diminish its cause. We don’t need to stand on our soap boxes and declare that beauty doesn’t mater to make it seem of less value. Maybe all it takes is not talking about it….

      Check out my ‘artist’s statement’ for an excursion into genuine pink elephant love!

      • Scott Cooper says:

        I cry foul! Reminding me that I actually composed an artist’s statement, and then was foolish enough to post it online. That’s just mean, dude.

        Seriously, though, you make a good point. I guess in that old phrase of mine you quoted, “aesthetically interesting” was my (now painfully) fancy way of saying “beautiful”. Or, at least, of referencing it obliquely. Also — the part I’d still readily stand behind — “enjoyable to use”, to me, is a way to suggest that there’s beauty to be hand in the way these objects perform their jobs; a beauty of performance in addition to the beauty of representation that I aspire to create.

        But, yeah… sparse; not much of a footsoldier in your Beauty crusade. So — thinking out loud here as to why that sparseness — in part that’s because, to me, the very idea of writing an artist’s statement is an academic exercise… the sort of thing I only did when I was trying to get into grad school, to support shots at juried shows, etc. (Maybe that’s what I meant about now living in the weeds; those things seem like distant concerns for civilized folk to me these days. (cf. Living in the Country Growing Weird).)

        I think that sparseness — that lack of specifically calling out making beauty as my goal — is because, as you said, in academic circles it’s commonly frowned upon as inferior, and in general company it’s easily clumped together with “pretty” or “cute”; words that, to me, DO suggest an inferior goal. (Guessing I’ll hear from the Pretty Cute lobby next.)

        So, in the potter’s time-honored way of straddling multiple domains, living between the rocks and the hard places of academia and the mass market, I resorted to vagueness; an attempt at offending neither party, but also failing to please myself.

        Now that your crusade has brought the word more to my attention, and highlighted that it can stand on its own despite what either of those other groups might think of it, maybe I’ll go back and insert it in that statement. Then again, maybe not… because, you know, like… websites.

        • Brilliant!

          Why don’t I just get you to explain what I’m talking about when I get these hair brained ideas in my noodle? You always say it better than I do. Damn you Cooper, for being so good!

          Anyway, thanks for getting this discussion juiced up and pointed in the right direction. It seems like these are serious issues to contemplate. Thank the lucky stars you are here to ride herd on me….

  3. Scott Cooper says:

    I still say you’re doing the hard part. It’s easy to ride herd after someone else has volunteered to be the cows.

  4. linda says:

    Hey Carter – I would have loved to have been in on your discussion with Joel. Have you read David Hickey’s “The Invisible Dragon” – four essays on beauty?
    He can be scathing, but brilliant, make no mistake.

    and for clay specifically; elaine Levin.

    I recently re-watched the “Mythos” series of Joseph Campbell lectures. There’s a collective message with the experience of myth, which began with art; beauty is practically a religious experience. Today, the difficulty with beauty is it’s a moving target, right? The “beholder” part. But the thing that interests me more is beyond the beholder’s personal experience. The influence of the collective experiencing. Perhaps in our modern advertising laden world we are directed towards beauty based on trends, peer pressure – sort of queued along with the herd and shown what we’re “supposed” to think of as beautiful. Beauty is my name, don’t wear it out. It’s a “kind” of beauty, what do we call that? Every day beauty? Or is every day beauty just cute or pretty.

    So, which beauty are we talking about? it’s the sister of truth. Illusive, impossible to contain or grasp, ethereal. Is this too highfallootin???

    • Hadn’t heard about Hickey, but will try to check it out. Its also been a long time since I saw the Campbell series. I’ll try to rewatch that again too. Afraid I haven’t heard of Elaine Levin either, but I’ll put her on the list.

      What I’d say is that our experience of beauty being non conceptual is not a strike against it. Love and kindness seem to matter greatly to us, so why not beauty? And as far as the target moving, why on earth is that supposed to be a bad thing? Because its not ‘science’? If we are talking about what matters to human beings as human beings then our whole lives are simply filled with shifting sands and moving targets. In no way does that diminish our time on this planet. In no way does this impede our moral and intellectual progress as human beings. So in my mind the more important question is whether our fixation with steady targets is not in some ways counter productive. Just do a bit of research into the ideas behind our stable notion of ‘the self’ and you will soon discover an alarming lack of centrality to the notion. I’ve talked about it plenty in the blog, though you may have missed that phase of my blog momentum.

      The danger seems to be that we takes our agreement with others too seriously. Its as if that precarious conformity between several individuals is enough to support and justify our conviction of reality (though it by necessity also ignores everyone who disagrees with us). So what do we conclude? In my mind it seems more important to be less critical of disagreement and more open minded toward alternate takes on the world. Its less that we may be right and more that others can be right too. Disagreement does not negate that. Pure and incontrovertible objectivity is a phantasm, at least in the parts of our lives that tend to matter the most. And if two people disagree about beauty? That’s not like us disagreeing about the sum of “2 + 2”. Maybe its more akin to a disagreement over who we intend to marry. Even if we both want to marry the same person, is there anything wrong with wanting to marry different people? Why do different people’s experience of the world HAVE TO line up perfectly? Who told us this? (Which is why I phrased the title of the post the way I did)

      So my point about beauty is that it makes almost entirely NO SENSE to say that its all just in our heads. If we see beauty in the world its only as remarkable as seeing a loved one there as well. So the point has to be that point of view is more the cause of our differences than any shortcomings in comparison to ‘objectivity’. That we can agree is not a sign that we should agree.

      And rather than worrying about putting a name on beauty, we need to appreciate that beauty is varied, that it is complicated, that it is simple, that it is often contrary, and that it is often contradictory. Should that be a surprise? Pinning it down with names, as if we can trap it and hold it fast within an embrace of selected letters of the alphabet, is too simple a story. Some names carry their own associations that we either endorse or disparage. So it makes sense to examine all that beauty IS, not just what we call it. The potential for beauty can be found in the most surprising places, and its sometimes only our own prejudice that holds us back from seeing it.

      When you share your pottery you are telling us what things you call beauty. I can learn from that. It doesn’t have to agree with what I already knew. And that’s why every opinion matters, because they explore the potential. The idea that anything could ever be definitive is a sister phantasm to objectivity, so why bother with it? Beauty is not less important by not being objective. Is it?

      That’s my take on it at least!

      I’ll check out the links and see if I can add anything more intelligent (I might get lucky, after all. I could find a nugget of gold within the burned out chambers of these clay mines….)

  5. Just saw this in an article by one of my favorite contemporary thinkers, Julian Baggini: “If you had fallen asleep, Rip Van Winkle-like, a decade or so ago, all this talk of morality might well strike you as, well, wrong. Inspired by respect for diversity, fear of “cultural imperialism” and a kind of democratic relativism, for some time it was considered arrogant to judge the morality of others. Who are you to say what’s right and wrong? Isn’t that just your opinion?”

    “What has changed is that it has finally been accepted that we can’t function without values. (Indeed, the very project of avoiding moral judgments itself rests on the firm belief that they are wrong.) But the suppression of morality-talk has served another very good purpose: the language itself is being used differently, as if it needed time in retreat in order to purge itself of its puritanical associations. It left the stage muttering about people shagging each other and strode back on later lamenting how the privileged are screwing the masses. Look at how the uses of moral language have been pressed into service in recent weeks and you’ll find that they do not concern mere private behaviour but the point at which individual actions have consequences for wider society. Morality has recovered its political dimension.” From http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jul/24/why-morality-is-fashionable-again

    The idea being that we have learned to treat ‘beauty’ with contempt because it seems to reflect a value judgement (subjective), and maybe we are now again able to recognize its importance….. The political dimension would be that difference between “mere private behaviour” and “the point at which individual actions have consequences for wider society”. In other words, that the idea of beauty is important in that individuals add beauty to the world rather than simply being your or my idea of the beautiful.

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