Beauty – In the Eye of the Beholder?

Beauty – In the Eye of the Beholder?

Hand in hand a couple looking to be in their 50’s stroll through the art museum. Coming upon an area dedicated to impressionist art they stop and observe a Monet painting “Grainstack, Impression in Pinks and Blues”

“Hmm, Alice, here’s one I just don’t understand.”

Looking first at the example then at her companion, she responds,

“Why Henry, I think it is beautiful.”

It is interesting how differently people discern beauty. It’s as though each of us has an individual eye for it.  But, is beauty individually or collectively determined? Let’s see what we can learn.

Why is this important? It certainly can go a long way toward explaining or at least establishing an understanding of our human differences. Such steps, if used wisely can go a long way toward allowing for disagreement while not destroying something far more valuable than a response.

May we agree that there are certain elements that must be present for that which is observed to be judged as beautiful? An emotional chord must be struck yet, there also seems to be a more universal understanding of what makes certain things beautiful. Among the more commonly shared examples of particular experiences considered beautiful are:

  • A sunset
  • Clouds leisurely floating in the sky
  • Children at play
  • A happy family dinner

The list is endless. Just as it is with Alice and Henry whom we met earlier, both share the idea that art can be beautiful. Although, when broken down to individual works there can be a difference in their views. But this serves only to increase the dilemma of the proper judgment of beauty.

In order to resolve this dilemma, let’s move beyond the obvious, personal opinion. Let’s examine what role psychology may have in this. Psychology, that science or study of the mind, behavior, and other human responses. In most instances psychology establishes a “norm” for these responses. That is, more people than not respond to an event in a similar way.  Those that do not are viewed as a statistical deviance from the norm.

The Bell curve is a fine example of this. Across the center are the range of the most responded to descriptions. The further away from the center you go, the more the answers are considered a deviance from the norm. If a cross-section of people agrees that attractiveness is the baseline for beauty, then the deviances might include” ugly” or “it’s confusing.”

More specifically, the psychology of beauty. Yes, there continue to be volumes of work on this topic to the point that certain assumptions can be made.

When studying the psychology of beauty the first assumption is that there appear to be shared responses to certain events within humankind that defines beauty across all cultural and language differences. Earlier there were four events identified as beautiful. Each one touches an emotional response without adequate words to express it. Let’s take children at play as an example.

What family doesn’t take pride in seeing the children at play? This is a transcending experience.  An experience that regardless of what it is they are playing or the reason for the games it is a beautiful sight.

But, psychologically, we have a need to share the experience with others so we select a word to use. In English that word is beautiful.   A second assumption is that more and more we find shared indicators used for defining beautiful. Now beauty has become more than just one person’s opinion. What features go into defining a woman as beautiful? Is it her age, body shape, how she carries herself, all of these and more.

From a cultural standpoint, there is broad acceptance among Euro-American’s that certain qualities thought to be beautiful go into creating a picture in the mind of a beautiful woman. If you were to go into the deepest areas of the Amazon jungles those values considered beautiful would be considerably different.   An entirely different set of criteria would be used. Both cultures have a shared definition of beauty in that the presence of A, B, and C make for beauty; but, A, B, C are different in each culture.

A third assumption is that beauty must be strikingly different from the norm. Psychological studies have shown that beauty is often measured by its averageness. Going back to Alice and Henry there is no agreement on the beauty of the Monet. Could it be that this piece of art is so different from the average that it can’t be classified as universally beautiful?

Psychologically, people develop their own comfort zone of what constitutes beauty. From childhood on we are asked to make decisions about what is attractive to us. As we age our individual judgments often assimilate with more commonly held ones. One important observation to keep in mind is how children learn certain prejudices. The very young child has little to compare an overweight child with one of a healthy weight. It isn’t until much later in their development, that the child begins to discern overweight from normal. And this is where many hurtful and even destructive attitudes begin.

One of the ways we can use psychology to help inform us of beauty is by recognizing how our judgments are made. If, for example, the Monet painting were displayed amidst a collection of works by Norman Rockwell from the Saturday Evening Post it would stand out like a sore thumb. But, when displayed in context with other Monet works its beauty is viewed differently.

The observation of something can be used in many contexts and with many different values placed on it. Yes, these observations could be considered beautiful, or rather bland or neutral, or downright ugly.

Yes, individual perceptions and judgments of what constitutes beauty will always be present, but beauty also will be defined in much broader terms. It is for these reasons that our best response to the question “Is beauty in the eyes of the beholder?” remain open to discussion.