The Mona Lisa: Discussion

Is beauty just 'in the eye of the beholder', or are some things really beautiful whether we realise it or not?

The branch of philosophy which thinks about beauty and art is called Aesthetics. One of the key questions in Aesthetics is whether beauty is objective or subjective: whether it is 'really there' outside us, or whether it is merely a matter of opinion.

If beauty is objective, then there is something wrong with Philip because he doesn't like the Mona Lisa. Phoebe is correct: he needs to be educated to appreciate the beauty which is in the world around him. However, if beauty is subjective, the Philip's opinion about the Mona Lisa is just as valid as that of all the art experts in the world added together. Many philosophers side with Philip and think that beauty and art are just matters of personal taste. However other philosophers side with Phoebe.

The philosopher who makes out the strongest case on Phoebe's side is Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgment of 1790. Kant argues that saying 'the Mona Lisa is beautiful' is different from saying 'I like the Mona Lisa'. That whenever I say something is beautiful I mean that the beauty is objective, that it is really out there is the world, not just that I happen to like it. It is similar to the statement 'Murder is wrong'. This means more than 'I don't like murder, but of course you are entitled to your opinion.' It means that you should agree with me because murder is, objectively, a bad thing.

Kant believes that beauty is objective, but mysterious because we cannot define it in advance. We can tell in advance that acts of murder will be wrong and acts of kindness will be right, but we cannot predict whether a painting will be beautiful until we see it. For this reason, we cannot draw up a list for making a beautiful masterpiece, feed it into a computer, and have it turn out a reliable sequence of beautiful paintings for us. Beauty is mysterious because it cannot be reduced to a formula, but it is nevertheless real.

So who is right, Philip or Phoebe? Both have philosophers on their side. This time we may to let them get on with their argument!

Extra tricky questions for budding philosophers

  1. Which are more beautiful, and why: human works of art or the beauties of nature?
  2. What makes a beautiful painting beautiful? Its colours, shapes, subject matter, or something else?
  3. How should we decide how much a beautiful painting is worth?

To find out more about Aesthetics, click here.