Beauty is axiomatic

I just read a friend’s essay on a class she is taking described as “Beastly Beauty: The Value That Astounds, Confounds, Perplexes and Vexes Us”. Its great that folks are thinking about these issues! I totally wish I could be a fly on the wall of that conversation.

Maybe you are thinking about similar topics. If so I invite you to join me, in your own spaces or in the comments below. Lets talk about beauty. And just maybe, between us we will have a better sense of the diversity of what it means for us and for others. Here is what I have to say about beauty this morning:


One of the questions that interests me these days is the respect in which something is being measured (Why something counts as beautiful) and the respect in which it is doing the measuring (What things do we find beautiful). There is a difference that I’m not sure we often account for.

When we look at it as a case of needing to measure to find the beautiful we are looking for the ingredients or criteria that add up to something beautiful. We can make a checklist of the attributes that compose beautiful things. We get to say “This is *why* its beautiful”.

On the other hand, beauty also acts as a measure for us, and we apply it out in the world without first needing to find its ingredients or qualifications. Sometimes beauty is the axis about which our judgments turn. We have this sense of the beautiful and we go out in the world and discover where it finds a home. We judge things AS beautiful not by doing an inventory of its various qualities but by seeing beauty FIRST and then accepting that these objects measure up.

The difference is between using something as a measure and using it as a thing to be measured. If it seems like an inconsequential distinction, think of how we use a ruler to determine length. The ruler measures length. Now go ahead and measure the ruler. Do you see where I’m going with this? Some things operate axiomatically for us, and as in the case of beauty, we are not always clear what those things are and when its right to do so. When we don’t see the difference it can seem as if beauty still needs to be justified. The things we measure need justification, but the things that do the measuring ARE the source of justification.

When we fail to see beauty as a measure we assume it is something needing justification. And you know where that attitude has gotten the arts…… If beauty is not (or poorly) justified we can dispense with it. Beauty is not a fact in the way some other things are. And there are times when beauty itself is out of place. That was the conclusion artists came to in the period after the First World War. The aftermath left many feeling that aspirations of beauty were actually repugnant….. Beauty was no longer a measure worth using….

But that’s a cultural mandate. Folks had to decide against using beauty in art. So be it. But life generally tells a different story. We can’t stop seeing things as beautiful, as humans. Sure, the arts can disown it, and it can be riven from us in times of atrocity, but it is also a natural human capacity, and we seemingly need to understand it better than we do.

I just think we make a mistake when we imagine that beauty needs to be justified in some other way by some other quality. Its a common sort of confusion in a world that obsesses with finding how things can be measured. And beautiful things are no different. Our obsession is blanket. Occasionally beauty even seems to hinge on certain presences and absences. But while its true that if we occasionally removed certain qualities from an object they would no longer strike us as beautiful, that does not mean beauty is an aggregate of qualities.

(I wanted to find an image to illustrate this, so I just did a google search for images of ‘beauty’ and was confronted with oodles of dolled up white women. That made me sad, but then I thought to do a search for images of ‘beauty makeover’, which only made me sadder…. Try it at your own risk)

Even if it seems we can add certain things, do a makeover, that achieves beauty from its absence, there is no formula for beauty that holds for every observer universally. The idea that it is cumulative of certain ingredients is persuasive. Measurability is at war with subjectivity. Its the conundrum of quantitative difference leading to qualitative difference, and we have not made much headway with that, least of all in terms of beauty.

But the thing to remember is that beauty IS qualitative. So if beauty fails on the level of ingredients it also fails between different cultures, between different proponents. The lenses themselves are not without controversy. And yet we all have a sense of the beautiful, from early childhood on. So whatever the failure, its not the catastrophe it is often taken for.

Is it strange that everyone carries their own sense of what things measure as beautiful? No more than that some use ‘meters’ and others ‘yards’, and most of us at various times also approximations of ‘near’ and ‘far’, ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, etc. Space is divided differently depending on what you are doing and whose measurements are getting applied. Beauty is no different, as a human activity. It simply can’t lay claim to ‘objective’ status in the way that geometry and physics calculate space….

But why would beauty need to be compared with something amenable to science? Is that our confusion? If beauty fails objectively we can’t condone it?

“The measurability rule is anchored on the above conceptions, and so requires that the variables around which the researcher intends to collect data should be measurable, or susceptible to acceptable ‘measurement’ (Leedy, 1980: 46)[1]. This is easier done in the natural sciences than in the social sciences; in quantitative studies than in qualitative. Still, one must, in the social sciences too, endeavor to quantify, measure and evaluate. Indeed, the guiding principle of the measurability rule — its corollary, in other words — is this: “What can be measured must be measured.” Thus, not measuring what can be measured is not an option allowed anyone.”  Measurability: A Key Standard of Scientific Research

In a sense, science is a way of looking at the world. Its holding up a microscope to things. Beauty is also a human way of seeing the world, but contrary to what we so often assume, its less a subject for investigation than the method of inquiry itself. Just like science is. Beauty holds its own standards up against the world.

As such it is akin to scientific truths in the way it operates for us. The role of beauty in our lives is axiomatic. Its not a test subject as much as its the experiment we use to determine the character of the world. We just need to learn to recognize beauty as the thing that justifies our appreciation rather than feeling our judgment itself needs justification. We have as much right to see things as beautiful as we do in using a ruler to measure lengths or describe a distance as ‘close’.

The totally awesome Diane Ragsdale has some truly wonderful points to make in defense of beauty. I found myself crying at times as I watched this…

Things to think about at least 🙂

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


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, Beauty, Imagination, metacognition, Wittgenstein. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Beauty is axiomatic

  1. Ashley says:

    Great post Carter! It brought a memory burbling to the surface of a very silly book called “Legal Daisy Spacing” that was essentially about bureaucracy run amok, but the whole idea of trying to measure beauty parallels the sentiments behind that book. I think there are just some things that we shouldn’t try to measure with a ruler and aside from the distance between daisies, beauty, IMO, is one of those non quantifiable concepts. I also wanted to add that your posts on art and beauty have made me more conscious of my reactions to pottery, art, beauty etc and I now find that I will purposefully stop myself when my brain says “I don’t like that” and re-evaluate my knee jerk reaction. I usually always find something beautiful when I take a moment to really look and not just react.

  2. Liz Crain says:

    Well Carter, you’re blowing my mind here! I printed this post out and am absorbing it in small pieces and throwing them in the very churning hopper with my course work. I watched the Ragsdale video and will do so again. (The responses of students who took her course were fabulous!) SO many great ideas spinning around my daily life now. Not only about beauty in general, but what I am seeking to manifest in my own work. Neverending quest. I agree with Ashley that your posts over the years have led me to question my work and my responses to the works of others – probably led me to even enroll in my Aesthetics course to begin with. I have always appreciated how well you “go there.” Thanks for furthering the discussion, sharing a link to my post, and in general stirring it up. (P.S. I envy your ability to write so thoughtfully and so quickly – it takes me hours and hours for one short blog post – or even to get to writing this reply…) Cheers to Beastly Beauty!

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