Beauty Is Not In The Eye Of The Beholder

It is commonly said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, yet, in the real world, there seems to be a fair amount of congruity about what people consider beautiful, with most arguments about particular instances being about degree, not direction.
Furthermore, when people are asked about what they find beautiful, there is a fair amount of cross cultural congruity on the matter.  Which raises an important question: Is there a biological basis for it? In a famous “cultural experiment” two artists, Komar and Melamid commissioned a market survey in several different countries to determine what people actually liked to look at. The results, while horrifying to the art establishment, was interesting from the perspective of human nature. It appears that despite the cultural milieu in which a person was raised, most people actually preferred the same things. Landscapes, water scenes, similar colors, and traditional types of art.Another fascinating study looked into the relationship between attractiveness and associated color.

Elliot et al, looked into the effect of the color red on female attractiveness in a group of culturally isolated (from outside cultures) men in Burkina Faso and found that here, too, the color red augmented female attractiveness. It appears to be a universal phenomenon.Part of the problem with the analysis of beauty seems to be with how it has been historically treated. In the Classical Western tradition, beauty has been associated with the act of contemplation and thus its abstract nature has tended to be emphasized. Beauty became an intellectual pursuit. On the other hand, more recent left-wing thinking on the subject has tended to emphasize the blank-slate aspect of human nature, seeing beauty as a social construct.Both views in my opinion are wrong, though as usual, the traditionalist version is less wrong than the leftist one.

The traditional Western view of man tended to divide the intellect from the body, philosophically cleaving the two and habituating men to the notion of a rational mind distinct from from the body. Reality, however, does not allow this distinction.  The response to color is not only an observed psychological phenomenon but an example of a cognitive bias generated by an external effect. Why a woman wearing red should appear more attractive than one wearing yellow is not a rational phenomenon but a predetermined biocognitive effect. And it would appear that we are “hard-wired” towards certain aesthetic preferences as a result of our biology.

The rational mind operates in a biological milieu which affects the way that it processes information. Or to put it another way, in computer science terminology, we have an inbuilt “operating system” which has direct influence on the nature of our rationality. Woman+ Red= favorable cognitive bias generated at a subrational level. And in many respects what we perceive as beautiful may have a predetermined genetic basis. Symmetry, rhythm, fractality, scale, and the color emotive response is hard wired into our DNA and manifest as very high order reflex type response.

Looking at beauty this way changes it from being a moral inquiry or status-whoring contest and instead, channels the discussion to what is visually “ergonomic.” A waist to hip ratio of 0.7 is pleasing because it is ergonomic in the same way that a chair is comfortable when designed to meet human need, instead of other reasons.  Discussions about beauty, then, revolve around what people like on a biological basis, instead of what people should like. This isn’t to say there is no beauty-normativity, just that normativity has its foundations in biology. It’s a restricted set, one not amenable to the far-left program of obesity and grotesque piercings.

Part of the reason the modern world is so ugly is because it has been designed without this visual ergonomic aspect in mind. We design our cities without any reference to what people have found to be pleasing and instead focus on novelty, utility, or cost. This state of affairs has come about from the notion that beauty is purely subjective and therefore, since there is a wide range of opinion on the matter, there are no objective standards. Modern science is showing this to be wrong-headed.

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20 Comments

  1. Jared Huggins May 6, 2015 at 9:36 am

    The computer science analogy would be more accurate if cognitive bias were the firmware of the human computer, not the operating system.

    I’ve never been particularly enthralled by the beauty of buildings. The most objectively beautiful buildings I’ve been in were old Victorian houses, but they were all squeaky and unappealing for their fragility. I actually don’t mind the brick-and-mortar, no greenery in sight view from the ground level of Chicago and I kind of like its simplicity, though I can’t say whether I could tolerate living there for more than a few days. Right now I live in a Chicago-style dorm room surrounded by greenery in the outskirts of semi-urbanized Edinburgh, which is to say you can see greenery in the distance as long as you’re standing on the peak of any of the hills. Neither flat concrete nor objectively beautiful buildings are as nice as being in a cabin in the woods. I don’t understand why people would like curvy, intricate buildings, which use more resources than flat buildings, when really the limiting factor for comfort is how much greenery is nearby. Is it because flat buildings assert de-individualized cultural settings like apartment complexes, while we’ve evolved to appreciate settings in which we can express individualism?

    1. IMHO, this is because you find such buildings useless, because you have enough experience to notice the difference between a beauty signal (like red lipstick) and innate beauty (a woman whose lips are naturally red.)

      My wife is Asian and Asian girls in Western settings are noted for not using ‘cosmetics’ – makeup – but rather using things that enhance what they already have; moisturizers, balms, etc. The result is that where the Western girl’s attractiveness (or even beauty) varies in extremes based on her active effort (and available dollars) the Western Asian girl’s attractiveness is rather even, provided she already is attractive.

      I believe that adornments have a use, but most moderns cannot conceive of their use and therefore regard them as not actually beautiful, but only deceptive. But is a crown on a king deceptive? I think most beauty in a lot of things comes across as merely beauty signaling, because that IS all it is. The obsession with nature and handicrafts has a lot to do with the hidden aspects that copying the outward form misses; and beauty in a democratic society must always become debased since popularity is power; it is the democratic spirit that turns business into prostitution and beauty into mere ‘sex sells’. Would we say of a king, “Oh, he only wears a crown to make himself look impressive” – no, the assumption is that it is a symbol of rank, and the person may be worthy or unworthy of it, but it itself is not a ‘mere signal’ (status whoring.)

  2. Excellent.

    From personal experience I found that the ability to draw realistically is hardwired. You can get a group to draw a still life of basic geometric forms. You can explain perspective and even illustrate the horizon line and vanishing points. But, you cannot teach a person to make a drawing of the forms realistically, i.e., in space, if that person cannot intuitively comprehend perspective. Certain brains are able to process perspective easily and others cannot no matter how hard they try or how intelligent they are.

    There are cave paintings in France and Spain 35,000 years old that create a believable illusion of space by placing an animal in front of another. Yet, today there are others who cannot do this in a drawing.

    The Greeks invented “contra postura” or weight shift 2,500 years ago which revolutionized the mimetic illusion of the human figure. Yet, to my knowledge, no other group did this until the late 19th century after exposure to western methods.

    The ancient Greeks also invented easel painting and glazing. Glazing may be associated with landscape painting since it went out during the Middle Ages and had to be relearned when interest in landscape images returned.

    I have often wondered why the Greeks were able to create images far beyond the capability or interest of other races. They weren’t merely interested in mimesis since they created believable illusions of gods and heroes.

  3. A minor quibble against otherwise interesting article. I don’t think the view dividing intellect from body is traditional. It sounds as Cartesian, a modern view.

  4. While what you say may be true, I’m not sure of its necessity. I don’t see any need to prove that beauty is somehow objective. It’s fedora-wearing, Black Science Man-worshipping, IFLS autists who seem to believe that unless something can be proven with equations, there is absolutely no valid way to establish its truth or falsehood. This is nonsense, and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be trapped in this frame. It is instead better for us to insist on the essential truth that “subjective” is not a synonym for “unknowable”. I cannot, for example, prove with equations that The Godfather is a better movie than Birdemic – but it is. I cannot prove with equations that Bach was a better composer of music than Wesley Willis – but he was.

    Let us not surrender to those who cannot see beyond their obsession with scientism the idea that subjective truths aren’t validly knowable. Behind that assertion lies the impulse to deconstruct. To deconstruct what? Beauty, art, morality, philosophy, tradition, custom, religion, literature, music, aesthetics – all these things are subjective at their core. All can be deconstructed if we allow ourselves to agree that subjective = unknowable.

    Defending the subjective is a battle worth fighting; a necessary battle.

    1. I don’t think you understand the nature of the situation. Modernism has been attempting to consign traditional western art to the garbage dump for over 100 years. Traditionalists have been fighting a rear-guard action. While the vast majority of human kind dislike modernism and it has not gained popular acceptance the elites are still very much gung-ho in their war.

      You might ask, so what? Because elites are using modernism to destroy ethno-centricity in architecture and monuments too, not just paintings or music. There has been a huge fight recently over the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, DC. The Frank Gehry design was bizarre, emasculating a white man, while a distance away is the brooding, hulking image of a negro.

      There are countless other examples of anti-european images in public spaces. Eventually, there may come a day when Bach is considered racist, or sexist, Islamophobic or homophobic and banned. If you think that’s not going to happen go to a classical concert and count the blacks, or the Muslims. Visit a museum and count the blacks. They don’t give a damn and in fact view all western culture before MLK as racist, just as feminists view pre-60s culture sexist and homophobic.

      Because modernism has picked this fight it is necessary, unfortunately, to address their arguments, yes, with art and patronage but also intelligent awareness of where we have come from and where we are going. For example, one of the main arguments modernists use is that there is no difference between high and low culture. It’s all the same. This destroys good taste and discrimination and of course eliminates the necessity of describing ideal form because there is no such thing.

      1. One may understand that a battle has to be fought, but that does not mean one should be *so* eager to fight that they’re willing to allow their enemy to choose the terms and the battleground. That’ just dopey.

        Remember that standard operating procedure for the left is to define terms and set the frame such that it’s literally impossible for anyone to win against them in a debate. Mainstream conservatives keep letting them get away with doing that, and that’s why they lose debates against them over and over again. Here, the left/Modernists/IFLSers have set a frame which says that the only valid way to establish a truth is objectively (i.e. mathematically). They then apply objectivity to areas of human endeavor in which it does not belong. Often they do that to deconstruct that which they dislike. Sometimes they come up with laughably tortured rationalizations to try to prove that their subjective morals, artistic tastes, etc. are actually objective. All of these rest on the frame of the idea that either something is objectively knowable or it is completely and utterly unknowable. Again, I reject this frame completely. “Subjective” is not the same as “unknowable” – a truth can be subjective, but that doesn’t mean it’s invalid – it just means it’s not *mathematically* provable.

        If you accept the leftist frame, they’re going to kick your ass every time. If you try to fight them on their terms, you’ll lose. Don’t – instead, fight them on every one of their dishonest definitions, and make them prove every frame valid. Challenge them on everything, not just the specific details that they *want* to challenge them on.

  5. Man for all seasons May 7, 2015 at 2:50 pm

    Another proof of universal standards of beauty is the Marquardt Beauty Mask. It’s based on mathematics and the golden ratio proportions. The ancient Greeks already knew something about this.

  6. It is and it isn’t.

    We have to be aware that some things are objectively more easy to appreciate than others (this is the project where the anti-science Left badly dropped the ball). However, we should also probably recognize the importance of one’s own internal faculties and how they can veil or embellish the beauty of anything. For instance, after I’m done working out at the gym, everything is beautiful. The world starts to resemble that great monad that the Hindus call Brahman, or the Taoists call the Tao, or the Neoplatonists call the Nous. I can stare at a dog turd and be amazed at the little flies buzzing around it; I can appreciate its textural complexity, the intermingling shades of brown. It’s beautiful.

    Now, on the other hand, if I haven’t been exercising or am feeling down about something, nothing is beautiful — not the most radiant sunset, not the most stunning young woman, nothing.

    You’ll notice that I’m not diverging at all from the topic of biology, and I’m certainly not going into “social constructions” or anything like that. What I’m saying is that the beauty of something doesn’t come entirely from its innate qualities. The beauty emerges halfway between the object and subject, the seer and the seen.

    This simple formulation is largely why I disagree strongly with the conservative notion of beauty — and to be sure, they often fail to bring evolutionary psych and other subjects into the discussion, instead striking a medieval pose or something like that. Evolutionary psych is necessary, though, because it helps to explain the desirable qualities of the object, and the capacity of its subject to appreciate said qualities. It’s a necessary way out of the meaningless push/pull between conservatives and liberals about whether something’s appeal is objective or socially constructed.

    1. I enjoyed your comment, but I do hope you’re exaggerating your mood swings to make a point.

      I don’t know which liberals and conservatives you are talking about though. Scruton? Pound? Pound said, Culture is left over after you forgot what you tried to learn. Is that conservative or liberal?

      Are Damien Hirst’s spot paintings objects or social constructs? After all, he didn’t paint most of them himself but hired other people and signed his name. He sells them for big bucks too through a complex media and gallery “social” system. He also did a series of “spin paintings” to the same effect.

      1. Yes, it’s a bit exaggerated. Although my father once told me he thinks I’m slightly bipolar. He was drunk.

        I’m mostly describing conservatives in the twenty-first century, definitely some of the paleocons. Scruton as well. Some White Nationalists also, for sure. I have some issues with Pound’s interpretation of literary history, but he is no enemy of mine; in fact, he’s one of my biggest inspirations.

        There is a very real tendency for conservatives to start talking about how the Left killed beauty. I don’t believe that for a second. It feeds beauty to the proles every day. Just look at all the beautiful people in People magazine. “High art” represents more of a challenge for the elites to see beauty in difficult or challenging things, but it’s far from an assault on beauty. It’s more like a weird sort of mystical exercise.

        As for Hirst, I think the problem of authorship is an interesting one, and definitely worth some theorizing, but I’m not really concerned with that at the moment.

        1. ‘“High art” represents more of a challenge for the elites to see beauty in difficult or challenging things, but it’s far from an assault on beauty. It’s more like a weird sort of mystical exercize.’

          High art was sponsored, paid for, by the traditional elite, the aristocracy. It was supposed to be mysterious.

          The mystery of People magazine: how very rich, attractive, and in most cases, intelligent people can find ways to be dull and predictable.

          My advice, avoid pop culture.

          1. There are qualities in prole culture that, at one point, were perfectly acceptable in high culture. Since World War II, things like musculature, representational depictions of attractive or important people, “fascist” aesthetics, etc. have all been forbidden in high art. Conservatives see this happening, but they lack the appropriate argumentative edge. Jonathan Bowden understood all of this; he commented on the situation admirably. The reason is because he never explains art and culture to the detriment of the modernist movement, or anything like that. In fact, some of his speeches engage in the question of how to resuscitate modernism and marry the “thorny” aspects of it with the human need for tradition, beauty, etc. without losing intellectual dignity. If restoring beauty in high art meant getting rid of Messiaen’s music, I would not be on board.

            Personally, if there’s anything I find supremely offensive, it’s middlebrow culture. Stuff like HBO series and “intellectual” comics like Maus by Art Spiegelman. That’s a whole other story.

          2. Izak,

            “. . . representational depictions of attractive or important people . . . have all been forbidden in high art.”

            Is Warhol high or low?

  7. A thestic argument for beauty:
    ”There are two alternatives only: either beauty subsists only in our subjective consciousness, or else it subsists somehow also outside our awareness, as a real feature of reality that is not existentially dependent upon our sentience.

    The former alternative is a non-starter. If beauty is only in the eye of the beholder, then what we call the beautiful is not really beautiful in fact, and in itself, but rather only seems so. In that case, our apprehensions of beauty are not verisimilar; they are, to put it bluntly, false. But if all our apprehensions of beauty are false, beauty is not real, but only an illusion, a mere phantasm. To say that beauty is only subjective then is tantamount to saying that it does not exist – or, at most, that it has the same sort and degree of existence as the delusions of a madman.

    That dog won’t hunt. We experience everything as more or less beautiful; whatever else it is, experience per se is an evaluation. And you just can’t get very far with a theory that says, “everything you experience is wrong.”

    Whether or not it exists in our own minds, then, beauty must exist independently of us. It must be an objective character of reality, every bit as concrete as mass or energy. More, even, perhaps; mass and energy might be a species of beauty, given that, since being is the forecondition of all other subsidiary goods, and is thus the good of all goodness, therefore whatever exists is ipso facto somehow beautiful, to some minimal degree.

    Is mass a species of beauty? Pick up a rock, and heft it. Is there not something strangely pleasant in its weight, and resistance? Think of a rock too heavy for you to lift. Is there not something noble in its greatness? If having failed to lift it you then went and trained with weights for a few months so that you were able to come back and succeed at doing so, it would be a noteworthy achievement, which would feel grand, no? Whence that grandeur, if the mere mass of the rock were not itself inherently grand, so that overcoming it was therefore grander?

    As physical aspects of sheer actuality, then, mass and energy would seem to be aspects of sheer beauty.

    Our feelings of beauty then may be simply what it is like to apprehend the actuality of something. Such feelings might be intense because we apprehend something extraordinarily actual in itself – i.e., unusually excellent, consequential, powerful, sublime, important, significant, large, immaculate, etc. – or because we pay extraordinarily close attention to something quite normal, thus noticing its excellence, significance, and so forth, better than we usually do. Or both, of course.

    Everest would be beautiful, then, even if no one was looking at it. If it was not, then it could not be beautiful to those who do look at it, but rather only “beautiful.”

    Everest is beautiful, furthermore, even though there are perspectives from which its beauty is not apparent – such as the perspective of the room where I now sit, in California, or the perspective of an observer in the Andromeda Galaxy. The Andromedan and I cannot see Everest at all; so we cannot see that Everest is beautiful (or anything else). And there may be observers who can see Everest perfectly well, but who are blind to its beauty, or at least to such aspects of its beauty as bear down so forcefully upon us – a gnat, say, or a snake. But that we must look at Everest in a certain way to see its beauty does not mean that the beauty is anywise unreal or merely phenomenal. In the daylight, I can see the orange of the leaf; at night, I cannot. This does not mean that the color of the leaf, the aspects of its being that give rise to my phenomenal experience of its color, are unreal. So likewise with beauty.”
    -Kristor

    http://orthosphere.org/2015/04/16/the-beauty-of-being/

    1. No, beauty doesn’t exist independent of us. It simply cannot be objectively quantified. You can (as someone mentioned with the “Golden Ratio”) quantify symmetry, but you can’t make the leap to symmetry being objectively beautiful.

      Look, a mountain has mass, objectively. It would have mass if no human was there to measure it. It would have mass if humanity had never existed. It would not have beauty if that were the case. Perceiving beauty is a subjective reaction of sentient beings. It is not objective. It cannot be proven mathematically. It does not exist independent of the subjective perceptions of sentient beings.

      If you try to beat Modernists within their own (bad) frame, you’re going to get your ass kicked. Sam Harris’s attempts to show that morality can be objectively proven via the scientific method are a truly laughable bunch of rationalizations, gross oversimplifications, and logical fallacies that end up in the perfect marriage of junk science and junk philosophy, and your attempts to show that beauty can be objectively proven won’t go any better.

      Don’t do that. Don’t let them set the frame. Admit that you can’t prove beauty objectively, but then say: “So fucking what?” Again, “subjective” is not a synonym for “unknowable”. Things that are not objectively knowable can still be validly knowable. I don’t care if a bunch of Tumblr aspies can’t understand why that’s true. Remember, excessively literal thinking is not a sign of intelligence – it’s just a sign of autism. Make fun of them for being the autistic, uncultured, boorish, tasteless automatons that they are.

      The rise of the IFLS left has given us the perfect chance to recapture the banner of high culture from the left, which used to own it through its middlebrow, PBS-watching, bourgeois pretenses to “loving the arts”. Now they think – they publicly and loudly proclaim – that high culture is The Big Bang Theory and high philosophy is Black Science Man. Like so many principles and pretenses that they discard when they no longer think them useful, they’ve dropped the defense of high culture – pick up that ball and run with it.

      1. *No, beauty doesn’t exist independent of us. It simply cannot be objectively quantified.*

        Sounds like you accept the modern notion that only properties that can be quantified are objective and independent of us. If beauty is purely subjective it means it is objectively non-existent. It is a mere state of mind that refers to nothing outside of mind. In that case there is no way you can communicate it to others. What then are we talking about here?

        I believe that the particular state of mind is triggered by something outside of mind which means it is objective and mind-independent as mass or any other property of a thing though, as you say, a non-quantifiable property. If humanity had never existed beauty of mountains would still be there as well as mass etc.

        Science seems to support this view as mentioned in the article. That some aesthetic preferences are result of our biology suggests that beauty is an objective pattern that manifests itself in the world and creatures (at least intelligent creatures) benefit from perceiving it.

        1. >If beauty is purely subjective it means it is objectively non-existent.

          No, not even close. I know you accused me of buying into Modernism, but here’s where I accuse you of actually being the one who’s doing that – the IFLS Modernist, caught up in scientism, is the one who thinks that something is either objective or invalid; objectively provable or nonexistent. I don’t accept that frame at all, and I think that finding “subjective” to be a dirty word is pure Modernist thinking. I don’t understand the drive to prove that everything we love or find valuable can be proven worthwhile by some objective standard. Not only is this doomed to failure-by-deconstruction, I don’t even find it necessary – Why do you feel the need to kiss up to IFLS? Tell them that they’re uncultured boors and they should go back to fixing computers.

          We can objectively measure the things we find beautiful – symmetry, harmony, color balance, etc. – but to say that they are beautiful assigns them a subjective value. That may be a subjective value that will be perceived near-universally among humans, but that doesn’t make it not subjective. Humans do subjectivity. It’s easy to mistake a near-universal subjective reaction among subjective beings for objectivity, but it isn’t that, and it wouldn’t take much to deconstruct the notion that it is.

          Why are we all so intent on denying the value of subjective human thought? Why do we need to turn everything into a math problem?

          1. ”Why are we all so intent on denying the value of subjective human thought? Why do we need to turn everything into a math problem?”

            Because this brings it back full circle back to the fact that ”Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” This in term allows the berth of legitimizing what used to be considered Ugly as Beautiful see: “Big is beautiful” and the “Fat acceptance movement”

            Objectivity exists regardless of perception or the opinions of human. Like the objective excellence of God is true regardless of how man regards God.

            Beauty is Beauty regardless of how rebellious man attempts to redefine its meaning. Objectivity cannot be redefined.

  8. Well, at night there would be no light to reflect off and make the leaf orange.

    So is the leaf really orange at night?

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