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    The Objectivity of Beauty

    October 21, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    [dropcap]M[/dropcap]ystie made what I thought was an excellent point in the comments of my Poison of Subjectivism post. Remember, Laura Berquist asserted that subjectivism is “the view that there is no objective reality by which we are measured.” Her conclusion is that a good defense against the falsehood of subjectivism is to come to know something.

    The Objectivity of Beauty

    Mystie’s criticism was this:

    I was a little disappointed that she only dealt with subjectivism in truth and goodness but did not deal with subjectivism with regard to beauty. That’s the aspect I have a harder time with. I hold that there is an objective standard of beauty because I’ve come to that logically, but I have to stop there because I don’t really know what it is or means or implies.

    I had to agree with her. I, too, have come to realize that if I’m going to reject subjectivism, I necessarily must reject the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder–that beauty is completely subjective.

    But what does that mean? And what is beauty in light of this?

    That is where we stumble and fall. We are so far removed from a culture of objectivity that talking about beauty objectively may just as well be done in a foreign tongue as in our own, because either way there is hardly a hook in our brain upon which the idea might be hung.

    I’ve known this, and that is why I purchased Umberto Eco’s Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages. I’ve been reading through it, sometimes only a page at a time, for almost a year. It is tough reading for me, and many times I’ve resorted to beginning anew in hopes that when I reach the same place again, I won’t be completely lost.

    So far, no dice.

    However, comma.

    Mystie’s comment seems to have honed my focus a bit. Last night, I picked it back up, asking only the question: What does it mean for beauty to be objective? What did the ancients think? Why did they think it? What was the practical result of this?

    Lo and behold, Eco has a lot to say about this!

    Who knew?

    It’ll probably take me a year to finish it because I just can’t read Eco quickly, even when I’ve tried. I have contented myself with the thought that some ideas taste best when simmered slowly, and that’s what I’m going to do with Eco.

    Today, I’ll just leave you with a single thought on the objectivity of beauty, courtesy of Eco via the ancient Greeks and a smattering of Christian saints: a foundational element of beauty is proportion. We will come back to this again and again, because Eco himself spirals out from it, only to return in almost every single chapter.

    An application of this idea is the beauty of the human body. The human thumb is not particularly beautiful, no? Nor the knee. An eye on its own looks quite odd, or even gross, as we see this time of year when fake eye balls are all the rage in Halloween decor. So how is it that all of these elements can come together and form something that is beautiful and pleasing? {And how is it that sometime the same parts come together and are not beautiful?}

    The answer is: proportion.

    Eco quotes Galen as defining beauty thus:

    Beauty does not consist in the elements, but in the harmonious proportion of the parts, the proportion of one finger to the other, of all the fingers to the rest of the and … of all parts to all others …

    We see the opposite in Leonardo da Vinci’s odd drawings of ugly people. What do they all have in common? To put it simply, their features are disproportionate. {An example may be viewed here.} The chin or nose are too large for the face, the eyes are not set at even heights on either side of the bridge of the nose, etcetera. None of us are perfect, and yet we all tend to agree that the most symmetrical people are the most objectively beautiful, and we often do this instinctively. {Here is an interesting application of math to human beauty.}

    The point is this: tangible beauty has certain contributing factors that can be ascertained objectively. Now, we all know that there is more to beauty than meets the eye. We have all seen the beautiful woman who, upon opening her mouth and revealing her heart, no longer seemed so attractive. But the idea here is that beauty has certain objective standards, built by God into the universe, which we can observe and understand. Knowing and understanding this will help us combat subjectivity in our own home, yes, but we can also be certain that in knowing and understanding this, our own souls will grow as well. Because, you see, another description of proportion is harmony and understanding harmony gives us greater access to peace, and greater ability to be ministers of peace.

    Scripture tells us that we have been given the ministry of reconciliation. To reconcile means to bring the elements back into right relationship with each other. In this way, our striving for physical beauty is symbolic of our ministry. And the physical beauty we see illustrates the beauty of our task — we are ministers of beauty, returning the elements to harmonious coexistence, striving for the proper proportion of all things.


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  • Reply dawn October 24, 2010 at 12:41 am

    CiRCE has a great talk by Debbie Harris on Beauty called, “Understanding and Instilling a Love of Beauty (2007)” It is a good talk, and while it might not go to the objectivity of beauty, it is helpful in thinking about training ourselves and our children to see and appreciate what is beautiful. Plus, it is only $5 to download.

  • Reply Lynn Bruce October 23, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    First, you hit the nail on the head about Eco. Oh, how I have tried. I’ve re-read the opening chapters of The Name of the Rose more than once only to put it back on the shelf and reach for something more along the lines of Wendell Berry or Elizabeth Goudge instead. Ahhh. I think I have Eco’s Middle Ages book around here somewhere. You’ve got me curious; I may have to go snoop around for it.

    But what I really want to say is: The Teaching Company has a dandy course entitled “The Joy of Thinking: The Beauty and Power of Classical Mathematical Ideas.” (Great title, huh?) You would really enjoy watching this course at this point in your contemplations. The lecture on the Golden Rectangle is fascinating and very germaine to the things you wrote about in this post, not to mention the one on the Fibonacci Sequence (amazing). To me, these classical mathematical ideas (or realities, more like it) establish that there is a standard of beauty embedded in what many would call Intelligent Design. I would simply say that it’s reasonable and consistent that a God of order and beauty would use order to bring about beauty.

    And now I’m going to go back into my corner and try to figure out the relationship between proportion and the nature-purpose-propriety triumvirate. I’ll get back to you in about a year. 🙂

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts October 21, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    Yay! You are my favorite book friend. 🙂

    This time I was using a collection of things, but yes, I am going back to the beginning of the book so my NEXT post will be from Chapter 1. I think the Galen quote today was from Chapter 3, but I’m not positive because I took it from my notebook, not the book itself.

    Interesting about the clothing suggestions. Maybe I need to read a book like that! :/

  • Reply Mystie October 21, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    Wonderful! I bought the book, but haven’t cracked it yet. I’ll go slowly with you, though. Tell you what? You mention in the post which part your post is dealing with, and I’ll read it within a couple days and come back to discuss. 🙂 Chapter 1 here?

    I just got through paging through several “what not to wear” type books from the library, and proportion is what it all came down to: choose clothes and shapes and colors that accent where you are proportionate and disguise where you are not. It didn’t really strike me, though, until now, reading this post. Interesting.

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