What is beautiful? (And how do you know?)

by Patty Templeton

You could die at 90 in a comfy bed, and if you never study aesthetics, you could still live a good and full life. But who doesn’t want more pleasure? Why not bulk up your days with bliss? Part of an abundant, vibrant life is breathing deep and being fully present in the everyday, and asking questions of yourself and the world can lead to exactly that, an ecstatic presence.

Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy that studies the nature of art, beauty, and taste – and people argue the hell out of it. “As you can imagine,” said Devin Frank, instructor of philosophy at Fort Lewis College, “in philosophy, there’s no agreement on anything. A main question is, ‘Is there objective beauty?’”

If beauty is objective, it means that beauty is in an object or action intrinsically, whether it’s noticed by anyone or not. Objectivists, like Plato and Aristotle, are more likely to believe that beauty is eternal and innate.

If beauty is subjective, it, means that beauty is a matter of taste, meaning, it’s dependent on a person or a group (like a culture or, on a smaller scale, a gathering of experts) to matter.

“You might think there is no use arguing about beauty because whether you describe something as being beautiful or having aesthetic value it is a matter of taste – individual or cultural preference,” said Frank.

This is a common view, Frank said, but the idea that beauty is up to each person raises a lot of questions. Frank explains, “It’s a generally accepted marker for a good piece of artwork to ask, ‘Will it stand the test of time?’ That sounds like we are asking, ‘Does it contain the features that will be perceived as beautiful independent to our opinion or moment in history or cultural bias.’” Why ask if something will stand the test of time if it is just a matter of taste?

To take an intellectual dive into beauty elevates your brain. It can help anyone savor the arts, performance, nature, and the people around you. Let’s be clear, though: People much smarter than all of us, (you know, Aristotle, Plato, Hume, and Kant) argued the questions “What is beauty?” and “Is beauty eternal?” and “Does appreciating beauty make us better human beings” for millennia. For thousands of years, philosophers have tried to create a working definition of beauty and how people interact with it and no one has come up with clear answers, only more questions. That doesn’t mean that studying beauty is a lost cause. Asking any questions, aesthetic or otherwise, leads to a richer internal life and a better appreciation for the world around you.

In the spirit of normal people searching for enlightenment, here are some aesthetic questions to ask of yourself, or converse with friends about.

The human formEvery person deserves to be seen. To, at least once in their life, have someone look directly at them, and see them, including you. The following are questions to think about that dig into how you see your own aesthetic value, your culture’s standards of human beauty, and how those ideals of the human form work into the greater world: Who in a culture gets to decide what is considered physically beautiful?

Are your standards of beauty the same as your culture’s standards of beauty?

Do all cultures have the same standards for the ideal human form?

Must a person evoke a physical reaction in you to be considered beautiful?

Does knowing someone make them more beautiful to you?

Is there something inherently beautiful in celebrities and that’s why we watch them – or is the reason they’ve been decided on as an ideal human only because so many eyes are on them?

What do the fashions a culture considers ideal tell us about that culture?

If you find out that someone has had plastic surgery, does that make them more or less beautiful? Should it change your opinion of them?

What do you think is the most aesthetically pleasing element of yourself? Is that element you’re most important feature as a human being, overall?

Are there universals to human beauty? If so, do these universal features extend to all cultures?

Three people wait for the bus. They are randomly picked by a curator to stand against a white backdrop on an opening night at a gallery. Are these three people now more or less beautiful, ideal, or interesting than when they were just waiting for the bus?

Is it necessary to be beautiful to have a good life?

NatureLiving in Durango, we are surrounded by striking natural wonders that people travel thousands of miles to experience. Here are a few consciousness-raising questions to ask while looking at the mountains, the Animas River, or while experiencing any of the outdoors.Should you judge how beautiful an outdoor scene is in the same way you judge how beautiful a painting or person is?

Is the outdoor scene in front of you a work of art? When you take a photo of the mountain, is that art? When does (if it can) an outdoor scene change from a setting to an artwork?

What is your reaction to the outdoor scene you are looking at? Why did you have this reaction?

Does your opinion of nature change the longer you look at it?

How would you describe the mountain to someone who had never seen it before?

Would knowing the history of a mountain and those that have traveled over it make it more beautiful to you?

We often describe nature as picturesque. Does the natural world become more beautiful when we frame it in artistic terminology?

PerformanceSeeing performances – whether that’s a ballet, concert, poetry slam, or what have you – can be an integral part of feeling like you’ve had a good weekend or a fun year. Here are a few ways to think about the artistic performances that you’ve seen or will see.If someone pours coffee at home, is it art? What if they pour coffee in a museum? When does that action become art?

Who gets to decide what a good or bad performance is?

Is a requirement of a beautiful performance that the audience enjoys it? If so, how many must enjoy it?

Is it art if there is no audience?

Can a performance that took 10 minutes to create be as beautiful as a performance that took six months to plan? Is creation time a factor in how good art is?

Is the cost of performance important or necessary to determine its aesthetic value?

Is a performance done on a stage more important than one done on the street?

Is there ever a time when an artistic performance should be banned? What does banning a performance say about a culture?

Can different people have different interpretations of a performance? What if an audience’s interpretation differs from the creator’s? Is there a right or wrong interpretation of art?

Visual arts Main Avenue is chock full of art studios. You don’t have to think about the following questions to enjoy the art you’ll see there or over at the Durango Arts Center, but putting a critical mind to the visual arts can bring a greater depth of satisfaction and intensity to your viewing experience.Must art be beautiful?

Can something be considered a work of art if, when it was made, art was not the intention?

Can a mass-produced object be considered artwork?

If a painting is used/changed to be featured in an advertisement, is that advertisement painting still a work of art?

Does art have to communicate a message? Does a message make an artwork better or more beautiful?

Why do we call certain works masterpieces?

What makes a masterpiece versus just an artwork?

Is beauty and ugliness in art a matter of opinion?

If beauty and ugliness is a matter of opinion, why do we ask if artworks will stand the test of time? Does standing the test of time mean there is an inherent beauty or ugliness in an object regardless of someone’s opinion?

You’re a curator with a tight budget. Do you preserve a mediocre original painting or a masterful forgery?

How much cultural context is needed to understand or enjoy an artwork from another culture?

Can an animal be an artist? For example, elephants can paint. Are they artists?

A person picks up a rusted trashcan lid from an alley and displays it on a gallery wall. Is that person an artist? Is the trashcan lid art? Was it art in the alley, too?

You don’t have to ask any of these questions to enjoy art, the other humans around you, performances, or the outdoors, but if you’re looking to sit around a kitchen table and talk late into the night, searching for truth and beauty, they’re a good place to start, and they just might enrich your life..

Patty TempletonDGO Staff Writer


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