Beauty in Art

We have all heard friends and relatives react to our work enthusiastically with comments such as beautiful, pretty, or stunning. This means that they find the image visually satisfying, or it meets or exceeds their personal perception of beauty. This is all fine and good, and the accolades feel great. There is, after all, not a thing wrong with making pretty pictures.

Will the image be beautiful to the unbiased observer? Would someone on the other side of the world or a peer of a different genre think it beautiful? What is beauty anyway? Moreover, who sets the standards for and makes judgments about beauty in art?

These questions have been asked for many hundreds of years and there is, of course, no generally accepted consensus, no single definition. Because there can be none. Regardless of what we, as observers, personally believe qualifies an object as beautiful; it is thought that all beauty originates in one of the two following ways:

1.Beauty lies in the response of the viewer. In this definition, something outside yourself makes you feel a sense of beauty on the inside. This definition is more about the viewer, and the personal experiences, cultures, memories, and education they bring to the viewing experience. It is about feeling. For example, a scene in which Crepuscular rays (or God rays) beam down onto an unremarkable landscape at noon may not be the prettiest scene, but it may instill an overwhelming sense of beauty within a person of faith, or lead to a moment of personal reflection that is considered beautiful to the viewer.

2. It is also thought that there are qualities in subject matter that are inherently beautiful. With this definition, the viewer looks to the subject to see its beauty. For example, most people consider both a pink rosebud and a fiery red sunset beautiful. In this definition, it is the subject and not the feeling it gives us, that is considered beautiful. This is also subjective and can change with cultures and over time.

In the first definition, beauty is found within the observer as a reaction to the communication between artist and observer: it’s beautiful if I can feel the beauty. In the second, the viewer looks to the subject matter to find beauty: it’s beautiful if I deem it visually appealing. Each definition has its own qualifying attributes, and there are as many of those as there are individual observers. This is why there can be no universally accepted definition of beauty, and why it is important to understand that to produce something perceived as visually appealing, attractive, or beautiful is not always the goal of the artist.

Is it beautiful? Some could say ‘no, it looks like silver mud.’ Others could say it’s beautiful because its land being created. Nature’s Best thought it was special enough to hold for their prestigious international photography contest. They didn’t tell me why but I am sure that it was held for one of the two reasons explained above.

Given this, the artist who strives to produce beauty that pleases everyone places unrealistic demands on themselves. As we learned here, it is impossible for every observer to find either the object or the experience as one they would qualify as beautiful. It is equally unfair of an observer to bring to the viewing experience the expectation of beauty as beauty may not have been the intent of the artist.

The visual experience is a chain of events that begins with the making of the image and ends with a judgment made by the viewer. Only when we shed our expectations of an image and try to see the image as the artist would have us see it, can we see, or feel, the beauty.


Text and images copyright Gloria Hopkins. All Rights Reserved.