Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Or, is there an objective nature to beauty that transcends the opinions, tastes, and preferences of the individual?
In The Supper of the Lamb, Robert Farrar Capon splits the difference between subjectivism and strict objectivism, made possible by the amateur, the lover. The amateur “thinks heedlessness a sin and boredom a heresy.” It is the amateur who looks upon the things at hand so lovingly that he finds beauty, sometimes breathtaking beauty, in them.
Indeed, the whole distinction between art and trash, between food and garbage, depends on the presence or absence of the loving eye. Turn a statue over to a boor, and his boredom will break it to bits – witness the ruined monuments of antiquity. On the other hand, turn a shack over to a lover; for all its poverty, its lights and shadows warm a little, and its numbed surfaces prick with feeling.
Or, conclusively, peel an orange. Do it lovingly – in perfect quarters like little boats, or in staggered exfoliations like a flat map of the round world, or in one long spiral, as my grandfather used to do. Nothing is more likely to become garbage than orange rind; but for as long as anyone looks at it delight, it stands a million triumphant miles from the trash heap.
Perhaps the places in which we see no beauty, it is actually a loving eye that is missing?
Therefore, the man who said, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” was on the right track, even if he seemed a bit weak on the objectivity of beauty. He may well have been a solipsist who doubted the reality of everything outside himself, or one of those skeptics who thinks that no valid judgments are possible – that no knife can in reality be pronounced sharp, nor any custard done to perfection. It doesn’t matter. Like Caiaphas, he spoke better than he knew. The real world which he doubts is indeed the mother of loveliness, the womb and matrix in which it is conceived and nurtured; but the loving eye which he celebrates is the father of it. The graces of the world are the looks of a woman in love; without the woman they could not be there at all; but without her lover, they would not quicken into loveliness.
Even if we insist that beauty is ultimately objective, we cannot ignore the power of the loving eye, the attentiveness to a thing that brings its beauty to light. Insisting on objective “standards” for beauty, while witholding loving attentiveness, results in an ugliness worse than subjectivism – the ugliness of boredom.
So, is beauty in the eye of the beholder? In a way, yes, because only the beholder has eyes for beauty.