In the film Educating Rita
, Rita and her mother are sitting in a pub while a band is playing. Rita's mother is looking glum and says: 'There must be better tunes'. That is a version of one general question in the film: what is good in literature and the arts, and can we be educated to appreciate it? Discussions of such questions can be cut short by one or other of two familiar phrases: 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder', or 'It's just a matter of taste'. People who cite either are not usually stating a philosophical position but rather indicating that further discussion of some issue is pointless. The phrases are obviously connected but raise slightly different issues. But both can be challenged.
Beauty may well be in the eye of the beholder but, as I have argued in a previous essay, so also are, for example, colours. The colour yellow is not out there in the world. Physicists tell us that what is objectively out there in the world is pulsing energy, electrons and many other strange particles and waves. Physiologists, neurologists and psychologists add to the story and point out that our perceptions of colours requires our eyes and brains to transform this energy into the coloured world we perceive and put an interpretation on it. So, if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so in the same sense is most of our perceptual world.
But even if we allow the scientific story, we may still want to argue that people do not agree over matters of beauty whereas they do agree over matters of colour. There is something to be said for that position but it can be a bit exaggerated. As far as colours are concerned, we can usually but not always agree on whether a colour is blue or green. Is it true that equally we can usually, but not always, agree whether something or someone is beautiful or not?
In trying to answer that question, we must be clear on what we are talking about. The word 'beauty', like the word 'good', can be used to express approval of almost anything. For example, football is described (rather oddly after the Rangers' disgrace) as 'the beautiful game', and a black eye can be a 'real beauty'.
In more specific contexts, beauty must be distinguished from what is sexually attractive. Beauty can be but is not necessarily sexually attractive: 'She had an ice-cold beauty'. Evolutionary pressures may be behind the features which cause sexual attraction, such as physical build. Hume thinks that 'a lank belly, broad shoulders and tapered legs' are 'universally admired' in males. I will refrain from comment. But the point here is that beauty and attractiveness belong to different, even if overlapping, categories.
Within the category of aesthetics, our perception of beauty must be distinguished from other types of aesthetic appreciation. Francis Hutcheson, who wrote the first treatise on aesthetics in the modern period, makes a start on this. He includes within the category of aesthetic appreciation the reactions we might have when hearing or seeing something novel or striking. For example, we might have a positive aesthetic reaction at the novelty of a painting by Matisse, or we might be struck by the sublimity of the Alps or the Milky Way. These are valid aesthetic responses but they must be distinguished from our reaction to beauty.
It is also important to note that beauty as an aesthetic category is not well-regarded by contemporary artists or composers. Rather than expressing beauty, they prefer what they see as original, or challenging, or novel, or striking, or disturbing, or in general displaying a sort of 'in-your-face' quality. Works which display such characteristics are no doubt worthwhile and can be of aesthetic interest but they are not beauty and aren't intended to be beautiful.
More specifically then, can we say what beauty is? Hutcheson makes some suggestions about the features of objects or statues, or of music, art and gardens which do cause us to say they are beautiful. Taking over an idea from Aristotle, he suggests they show unity in diversity. They have an overall symmetry but interesting detail. This takes us some way to understanding why a sonnet by Shakespeare, a haiku, a symphony by Mozart, a Corinthian pillar, or a portrait by Allan Ramsay are considered beautiful. Indeed, Allan Ramsay was directly influenced by Hutcheson.
These great creators of beauty have given their works a form in the sense that their creations are clearly one symmetrical whole, but within that unity of form there is diversity. The diversity can be of language and sentiment, or harmony, or colour. Similarly, we can still recognise the formal beauty of a Greek statue 2,000 years later, and our appreciation of the symmetry of a beautiful face cuts across racial or ethnic differences.
I shall not here attempt to defend the aesthetic views of Hutcheson, far less develop a general theory of aesthetics merely in terms of unity in diversity. My point is that we should not feel blocked from discussion by cliches such as 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder'.
If we distinguish beauty from other aesthetic categories we may find that there can be widespread, even if not universal, agreement over what is beautiful and what is not. And that does not mean that we are attracted to them or like them. In art, music or human relationships we may prefer the dramatic, the novel, the quirky, the challenging, the dainty or the dumpy to the beautiful. But unity in diversity or symmetry is at least one characteristic of the narrow aesthetic category of the beautiful, and that is no more in the eye of the beholder than other features of the perceptual world.
I said that 'we' can usually agree on what is beautiful, at least in the specific sense I have outlined. This invites a challenge: who are the 'we' who agree? One answer is provided by David Hume. In his essay, Of the Standard of Taste
, Hume notes that like many people he subscribes to two apparently incompatible positions which nevertheless co-exist in our common sense outlook: that matters of aesthetic judgement are subjective, are just matters of taste, but that some books, music and other works of art, are objectively better than others.
Hume's aim is to reconcile these positions but he doesn't really attempt to do so. His method of reconciliation is to step round them and consider a different question: what makes someone a reliable judge of these matters. In other words, he suggests who are the 'we' who should guide us, and he offers five criteria.
Briefly, he suggests that the good critic must have 'delicacy of imagination' by which he means that he/she must be open to or not dismissive of aesthetic experience; that the critic must have 'practice' in the art; that the critic must be able to form 'comparisons' with other examples of the art; that the critic's mind must be free of 'prejudice' (don't dismiss the work because it was by a 'dead, white male'); that aesthetic judgements must be backed by 'good sense', or that the critic must be able to examine the component parts of a work 'in order to conceive the consistency and uniformity of the whole'.
Hume's criteria require much development and defence but unless criteria of that kind are acceptable it is hard to make sense of the whole conception of cultural education in schools and universities. The educational process assumes that there is a canon of good literature and other arts and that it is one of the tasks of the educator to introduce students to it in schools and universities. The approach assumed still leaves open the possibility of change and innovation in the arts and for a variety of responses to them. And it also means that we can learn to appreciate and be helped to greater understanding by those with more experience in them. Good taste in the arts (and other areas of life) can be acquired and developed. It is rewarding to try to do so.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow