The issue of whether or not beauty has any objectivity is hotly contested. You often hear the phrase ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ – and what this essentially means is that someone’s idea of beauty or what is beautiful will differ. Basically, it’s subjective.
But this is a somewhat flawed piece of knowledge, as what it implies is that we live detached from all types of influence or bias – ie, it is our individual opinion and that is the reason. However, this usually ends up shutting down continued questioning and skepticism. It is not only misguided, but it is also a simplification of the world we live in and the impacts it has on us. Beauty is simply one example of this, and it transcends the threshold of ‘art’ as an area of knowledge into the wider scope of thinking to do with individualism and what shapes us as human beings. This will indirectly also fundamentally impact each and every other AOK: perhaps most obviously the natural sciences looks at what has influenced what is a sort of cause vs correlation analysis. Obviously, history will fall under this as well, as the evaluation and interpretation of events bring into question what caused us to take certain actions, etc. It even has an effect on mathematics – where the whole principle is so abstract that each conjecture relies on many others to work. 1 + 1 does not equal 2 if 2 has a different value to the one we have assigned to it. We can change one conjecture, and there is a ripple, domino effect on all others.
Whereas this sound may obvious and seemingly self-evident (why yes, of course, everything impacts everything! Duh millie!), it points out the flaws in many discussions about the arts. Yes; art can be subjective – that is, based on our personal ideas or feelings – but it fails to explore what it is that most significantly shapes our thoughts which we seem to usually just accept at surface value as part of us. I would like to challenge that assumption. While of course, we could keep digging down and asking ‘why?’, there are two things which I would argue have the most impact on us and our ideas of beauty: biological factors and societal factors.
In order to analyse these factors as we would using the scientific method from the natural sciences or mathematics, we have to isolate the physical (beautiful) from anything else that humans tend to take into consideration. Of course, this is more difficult when dealing with humans (arts) than mathematics, as we are complex and often difficult to explain.
But everyone knows that different cultures find different things beautiful – after all, we all come from different contexts. In India, it is better to have lighter skin, as it means you are wealthy enough to not need to work in the fields or agricultural industry. In China, it is beautiful to be small and petite with big eyes. In much of western civilisation, being curvy is what makes you beautiful. Same goes for paintings – during the Renaissance, religious art became less beautiful and naturalistic art came into popular culture. Pop-art was very different from this realistic style of art but was still pop-ular (ha ha).
Of course, biologically, we are sensitive to beauty too. We are biologically programmed to find women with wide hips more attractive – as it is better for giving birth – as well as a well-toned physique as it means they are healthier and likely will be better at caring for offspring in the future. Things like good teeth, clear skin and good health are always more attractive – spanning across both history and geography. Given that there is such a wide range of political beliefs, economic systems, social policies – these fundamental things that are seen as beautiful everywhere suggest that maybe beauty isn’t as subjective as everyone makes out.
If beauty really is subjective it is within a very narrow spectrum. But then it’s not completely subjective if there are limits to it, no? Perhaps the reason we like to think that beauty is subjective is because we like to feel in control of our lives. The thought that we are born with our standards for something as individual and unique as our looks is frightening, and frankly, is a rather unpleasant thought. I know that I would rather make up my own mind about what I think, but ignorance does not make it true.