Beauty is often defined as the pleasing appearance of things which makes these things enjoyable to see. These things may be nature, humans or works of art. Beauty, with art and beauty, is possibly the most important theme of aesthetics, among the largest branches of contemporary philosophy. It is the one common thread that unites all of the theories regarding beauty, including anthropology, art, cosmology, psychology, sociology, visual culture, and visual studies.
The twentieth century, however, saw the rise of a new school of thought, referred to as the Nouveau movement. Led by the famous French art dealer Paul Gauguin, this school of aestheticians sought to search for a deeper meaning in the aesthetic, a desire to find beauty in all things, in all dimensions. They rejected the subjective view of beauty as meaningless and sought to give a more objective definition, an Idealist conception of beauty.
The idea of beauty, they believed, was not a timeless one, shaped according to a pre-determined aesthetic formula. Rather, their definition of beauty included all those qualities which were found in nature, and which had their own value independently of any human value. In his book The Essence of Beauty, Gauguin gave examples of such a quality which he called the ‘ideal quality’, on which he based his aesthetic theory. According to him, beauty – regardless of what it might be – was the beauty of simple objects, of the whole physical world.
The ideal beauty, then, was that which existed independently of any human valuation, according to Gauguin. This led to a number of problems, the first of which was the rejection of certain traditional aesthetic concepts. He denied the legitimacy of forms as points of comparison, for example, the concept of proportion. He felt that the collection of individual figures into a picture, or the impression formed by the moving eye upon a given object, had no value independent of the aesthetic sense. Beauty as he defined it was a subjective concept, dependent upon the aesthetic sense which we have been discussing.
It therefore seems that beauty is not a form, and that it is not dependent on a particular shape. The most famous modern writer on art, Pablo Picasso, pointed out that ‘forms are not beauty; beauty is not forms.’ And yet, while Picasso himself did not see the importance of form in determining beauty, his theory of form is intimately connected with the subject matter of the debate. What we call beauty is a complex web of values and ideals, and Picasso’s theories of form are only clues to this wholeness. If one could strip art completely of all its forms, it would still contain the essential features that make it beautiful.
But, if beauty is not a form, what is it? According to the great French philosopher, Malebranche, it is a ‘conversation’ – a consciousness-image-or, more precisely, an idea that gives rise to feelings. In other words, Beauty is something abstract that makes a man think about himself and beautifies his world. And if you beautify yourself, you will make yourself beautiful.