A reader asked me a good question about thoughts shared at my post “Why am I so Vexed?”
“Is this any more complicated than saying that you personally prefer more traditional architecture to modern architecture? You do realize that there are people who disagree? I like the first church better than the second. I find it more spiritual. On what grounds do you say that I am wrong?”
We can, at least to some extent, define beauty objectively, just as we can define and know truth. There are guidelines that can help us form conclusions about what is beautiful and what is not. Of course there is also the validity of personal taste. The Stanford Library of Philosophy offers this helpful analysis in the entry “Beauty”:
However, if beauty is entirely subjective—that is, if anything that anyone holds to be or experiences as beautiful is beautiful —then it seems that the word has no meaning, or that we are not communicating anything when we call something beautiful except perhaps an approving personal attitude. In addition, though different persons can of course differ in particular judgments, it is also obvious that our judgments coincide to a remarkable extent: it would be odd or perverse for any person to deny that a perfect rose or a dramatic sunset was beautiful. And it is possible actually to disagree and argue about whether something is beautiful, or to try to show someone that something is beautiful, or learn from someone else why it is.
On the other hand, it seems senseless to say that beauty has no connection to subjective response or that it is entirely objective. That would seem to entail, for example, that a world with no perceivers could be beautiful or ugly, or perhaps that beauty could be detected by scientific instruments. Even if it could be, beauty would seem to be connected to subjective response, and though we may argue about whether something is beautiful, the idea that one’s experiences of beauty might be disqualified as simply inaccurate or false might arouse puzzlement as well as hostility. We often regard other people’s taste, even when it differs from our own, as provisionally entitled to some respect, as we may not, for example, in cases of moral, political, or factual opinions. All plausible accounts of beauty connect it to a pleasurable or profound or loving response, even if they do not locate beauty purely in the eye of the beholder.
The rest is here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/beauty/
Aristotle’s definition of beauty also serves as my guide: beautiful objects have order and symmetry.
An ugly Catholic church can offer a small bit of consolation as there is usually a crucifix located on the central axis. Even if I am denied other forms of aesthetic pleasure, I can still find an anchor for my contemplation and cast my gaze upon the corpus and the cross. Though the lozenge shaped backboard, in this particular instance, is an odd distraction. And what are those pieces of cloth draped on the altar, err, I mean table: bath towels?
I respond favorably to objects that are symmetrical because they echo the human form. This is why I feel at ease and comforted by the presence of columns. The base of a column is referred to as a pedestal, a direct allusion to the human form (“ped” is the root of foot in Latin). When I visit The Palace of the Legion in Honor in San Francisco
I experience a rush of visceral pleasure as I pass through the colonnade—my view is obscured momentarily as I proceed by each column. In rhythmical fashion I am once again rewarded with a slightly different vantage point at the furtherance of my movement through the colonnade. My vantage point of the San Francisco Bay, the skyline of the city or the other aspects of the building is revealed depending upon my position in relation to the columns.
The rhythmically ordered columns at Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, along with the The Palace of the Legion of Honor, also follow Aristotle’s definition that beautiful objects adhere to a plan of order and symmetry. The columns lead my gaze toward the front of the church, the classical grammar of the architectural elements connects me to two millennia of Christians who have worshipped in similar buildings.
Yes, there is room for folks to disagree about beauty but as I further my exploration through reading, pondering and looking, I anticipate that I will continue to find grounds in which to state objectively that some things are more beautiful than others. I have just started reading Roger Scruton’s, The Aesthetic Understanding. I plan to share my findings in future blog posts.
Can we not agree that the Aztek is an ugly car?
Can we not agree that Chase Finlay’s beauty, in addition to his accomplishment as a dancer, adds an element of transcendence to his performance in Balanchine’s Apollo?