Beauty is often defined as a subjective feature of particular objects, which makes these objects enjoyable to see. These objects could be landscapes, sunsets, beautiful humans, works of art and other artistic works. Beauty, along with beauty, is perhaps the most important part of aesthetics, another of the major branches of modern philosophy. The word ‘beauty’ itself has a plethora of meanings and it is widely used and abused in many contexts, yet few can provide an accurate definition.
In my opinion, the best way to define beauty is to use the example of ancient Greek art, specifically the art of Ptolemy. As an art historian, I believe that it is impossible to talk about beauty in general or aesthetic beauty in its broadest sense without also discussing ancient Greek art in particular. I would argue that for any definition of beauty to be meaningful, it should take into consideration both beauty in the broadest sense and also the narrower sense, which are found in the art of ancient Greek artists. It is these artists who can best give an account of beauty in general and their contribution to the definition of beauty in the modern world. This article will therefore discuss three aspects of classical Greek art, the idea of beauty, the nature of beauty and the idea of artistic beauty.
According to the most common notion, beauty is defined as natural beauty. However, this definition is problematic, because natural beauty is necessarily relative, depending on the cultural and geographical context in which it is found. For example, while some consider certain features of an animal to be ‘beautiful’, others would argue that such features are meaningless while in the native context it could be considered ‘ugliness’. Thus, the true beauty is determined according to each individual’s perspective, for example, the beauty of a horse’s mane and hooves, the beauty of a woman’s face and hair, or the beauty of a Grecian vase filled with gemstones.
The second way by which we try and define beauty is through its role in defining beauty in terms of its effects. This is perhaps the most popular method, and it is used in academic writing on beauty to illustrate how different parts of an object relate to one another through time. For example, many aesthetician and anthropological writers would compare the features of ancient Egyptian faces and paintings with those of Polynesian art. They will note similarities in skin color, facial features, hairstyle, makeup and jewelry. They may also draw attention to architectural aspects such as the use of crowns and masks, which they will say were pivotal to the formation of beauty in Egyptian culture.
The third way by which we try to define beauty is through its impact on us as we see it. This is an especially important consideration in our modern context, where we live in a materialistic, competitive and utilitarian culture where beauty has often been defined by the ability to look white, clean and/or perfectly matched. That is why many beauty gurus stress the importance of using cosmetics that match your skin tone as closely as possible, without using any artificial cosmetics that will change your appearance when you shower or bathe.
Beauty therefore has a rather fixed definition in the cultural and historical contexts of beauty that we have today. In the past, there was much more latitude for defining beauty, particularly because of the difference in social and religious roles that women held in the past. However, today the definition of beauty remains largely dependent on what the social and cultural expectations are for women. As such, beauty products continue to be targeted at women who fit into these categories.