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What Makes Something Beautiful? 5 Kinds of Beauty

Updated on July 11, 2016

We often think about beauty in the context of women's beauty and the debate over things like fat-shaming, skinny shaming, and talk about women's bodies in general. This is because women are very big consumers of products designed to augment or enhance their appearance.

But this is a shallow, narrow-minded definition of beauty. As an art history student, I learned about ways that many people defined what is beautiful, looking at things that our boobs-and-butt-obsessed culture often fails to appreciate or understand.

Basically, beauty is when we get pleasurable feelings from a usually visual source. Although music can be said to sound beautiful, and certain smells, tastes, and physical sensations are pleasurable to us, the word beauty is primarily used to discuss a visual form that gives us visually-derived pleasure. Beauty in the art world is important, because it helps curators, gallery owners, and art dealers determine the value of art works.

But, since we are a very visual animal, it determines a lot of our buying behavior. For example, no one wants to be embarrassed by living in an ugly apartment building or driving an uncool-looking car. As humans, we're probably obsessed with beauty because the visual was always our primary means of assessing something's worth, such as a fruit's ripeness, or the likelihood that a certain snake was venomous or harmless. And even though other factors play a role, the visual aspect of a potential mate is something we can't help but assess when we meet them, and their looks play a big role in our attraction or lack thereof. Like it or not, we are a very visual species that makes a lot of visual judgments.

So, here are five types of beauty that I think represent qualities that make an object pleasing in a visual sense. Basically, they represent different definitions of "pleasure", because we have to realize that like beauty, pleasure is not only about the sexual. Reading a book we like brings pleasure. Success in business brings pleasure. Holding one's children brings pleasure. Being greeted by my dog when I get home brings pleasure. Cuddling with your significant other on a rainy day by candle light and watching an old romantic movie on VHS brings pleasure. Pleasure can come from many things.

1. Elements of Design

This work represents the foundation of Western renaissance thought about the idealized human form being the pinnacle of beauty.
This work represents the foundation of Western renaissance thought about the idealized human form being the pinnacle of beauty. | Source
Though this work elongates and idealizes the human form, it still represents the traditional Western principles of design, such as the composition being balanced by figures on either side of the main central figure.
Though this work elongates and idealizes the human form, it still represents the traditional Western principles of design, such as the composition being balanced by figures on either side of the main central figure. | Source

Elements and principles of design are the primary ways we talk about beauty in art classes. Things like line, color, shape, form, space, value, etc. are design elements, they are parts or aspects of visual design. Principles are ideas behind the design decisions, ideas that govern the look and feel of the 2-D or 3-D artwork. Symmetry, balance, emphasis, time, suggestion of movement, proportion, etc. are design principles. Principles and elements of design are about what we're trying to do as artists and how we do it.

In the Renaissance, beauty was defined according to a certain set of principles. The human form, like in Greek and Roman art, was considered the greatest form of beauty in nature. Human emotions and stories, whether Biblical, mythological, or historical, were the primary subjects in art, especially stories about humanity triumphing over inhumanity, such as David triumphing over Goliath, one popular subject. Michelangelo's ceiling painting of Adam and God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling is famous because it reflects this idea that man was the epitome of beauty, as in Christianity man is seen as the pinnacle of God's creation.

The renaissance also saw the innovation in beauty of natural realism becoming more and more prevalent in art. Artists did sketches of ancient sculptures and anatomical studies of cadavers to make their depiction of the human body more accurate. Human beings were idealized according to the ancient Greek idea of the canon of proportions; ideal bodies were forms constructed from mathematical principles. Similarly, artists depicted space using math and science as their guide, as single-point perspective was invented and developed at this time. Artists also became interested in the real way light affected the subject, inventing painting techniques that would make hair, facial features, human bodies, clothing, shadows, objects, buildings, and nature all look more true to life.

However, later art movements began to lessen the emphasis on human beings and move toward landscape and eventually toward experimentation, abstraction, and distortion of the human form. What changed? Did art lose its head? Maybe, but basically what happened was that the novelty of classic-style painting wore off gradually, and people wanted more from art. And certain artists for various reasons trained in the classic style and found it lacking as an approach, inventing new artistic movements like surrealism, impressionism, and cubism. Even so, however, the elements of design are an important fundamental toolkit when one is assessing or talking about any artwork.

2. Rarity

The art world is obsessed with distinctions like original vs. copy and real vs. fake for a good reason; art simply isn't worth as much if it's not rare. Even in a post-scarcity world, not everyone would be able to own an original Van Gogh painting, even if everyone could have a nearly identical copy. Authenticity is a big deal to some people though, because the real original work doesn't have this awkward, machine-made degree of separation between you and the original artist, much like the pleasure of having a copy of your favorite book that is signed by the author. It gives it a human touch and a warm connection with the object or painting.

Also, for better or worse, humans are a competitive species. People desire to own things no one else owns. We get pissed when someone dyes their hair purple too, because we used purple hair dye to mark our individual identity. We like to have things that are our own and no one else's, but this does not always happen easily in a society where so many things are easy to copy and reproduce by mechanical means.

This explains some of the more insane prices certain art fetches, when the art itself is not even "good" in terms of aforementioned design principles and elements. It's not about the desire to possess something just because it's aesthetically pleasing, but because it is unique and no one else can own it. It's the same principle that drives cultural collector-frenzies like the Beanie Baby fad of the 1990's. People like having ownership of collections of related objects, but they get a special kind of pleasure from finding things for such a collection that not many people can find, due to the item's scarcity and rarity. Sometimes, companies produce a limited quantity of a certain item to create this desire many people have to own things that are rare. Historical artifacts and monuments are seen as priceless because they cannot be replaced, their value is derived from their historical authenticity, something that can't be duplicated by a 3-D printer or contemporary artist's copy. Similarly, people like to have something owned by a famous person, like a guitar of a famous musician, because even if the object (like the guitar) can be mass-produced, that guitar gains a huge amount of value from its unique association with one's musical idol. Which brings me to the next kind of beauty; sentimental value.

3. Sentimental Value

This kind of beauty deals with emotions and personal attachment to a thing. This is where "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" becomes apparent, because while there are objective standards of good design and some objective aesthetic values that work for all people regardless of culture, there's no denying that emotionally, different things affect different people in different ways. How a person reacts to a work of art, movie, story, or piece of music can say a lot about them personally, which is why people are often judged based on their tastes in such things.

Many emotions can be affected by artwork. Sentimental value can include:

  • Nostalgia - the object makes us long for some aspect of our pasts.
  • Personal - an object we made, or we owned for a long time, or that we associate with some personal meaning, like a good-luck charm, an old love-letter from our spouse, or something we've held onto since childhood.
  • Familial/Relational - the object is valuable to us because it's associated with someone we love, or it's been passed down through many generations in our family. Thus, our loving care of the object is an extension of our respect and love for the person we associate with it.

This is why things like hand-crafted things, family heirlooms, and antiques associated with our childhoods or teenage years can be so important to us. Maybe no art dealer would give two shits about your grandmother's doilies, but you'd be tempted to go into a burning building to save them because they mean a lot to you, because they were your grandma's and they represent some aspect of her life that you can keep with you. In some people, this can lead to hoarding, having an instinct to cling to all old things rather than throw them away. You have to strike a balance, deciding what is truly important to treasure about the past and what really is just old junk.

4. Emotional Effect

Similar to sentimental value, this is also one that can be very personal and subjective, depending a lot on the viewer as a person. Sometimes we seek different art for different emotional reasons; we want to be inspired and uplifted, so we look for a beautiful landscape. We want to be amazed and thrilled, so we seek a depiction of something that inspires awe, whether a powerful animal like a tiger, powerful machine, flying object, or tall building. When we feel sadness or anxiety, we may seek out art that reflects this pain in us. That makes us feel less alone in our struggles with uncomfortable emotions.

Different types of emotional appeal used in art include:

  • Sexual appeal
  • Use of loud colors or bold diagonals in the design to grab attention
  • Cuteness of a subject (childishness, neoteny, etc.)
  • Vulnerability of subject, making us sympathize with them
  • Horror/Grotesque forms, which strike us with fear, amazement, and awe
  • Aforementioned nostalgic and sentimental feelings
  • Patriotism, racial pride, or religious faith
  • Glamor, elegance, high-end fashion, selling us on a fantasy ideal lifestyle

Basically, emotional images are powerful for human beings. They stay with us even as we forget other things. For example, few people who remember it will forget the image of the twin towers smoking on 9/11 that they saw on the news. Older people will not quickly forget the assassination of John F. Kennedy, for similar reasons. Every image in advertising is intended to create some kind of emotional effect on the viewer, because successfully creating that emotional connection with the brand name is very desirable. For example, I can't forget when Nike permanently etched into my head that their sneakers were associated with Michael Jordan (although wearing them does not a basketball player make, as elementary school me found out the hard way). Other times, a company can get by by making a cute, lovable mascot even if it has little to do with the actual products of the company, like Geico's gecko.

Emotional appeal is also given much more emphasis in Japanese aesthetic traditions. Wabi-sabi is the concept of loving a flawed thing because of its flaws, not only because they make it unique (with the rarity concept I discussed earlier), but because they add to its charm. We're all "broken" in that we all have flaws, so being able to appreciate the beauty of a flawed object feels warmly human. Similarly, the baby-faced cuteness of Japanese cartoons and mascots is designed to motivate the viewer's emotional response to said cuteness. Historically, Japanese aesthetic ideas were shaped by Zen Buddhism, with its focus on transience, change, and impermanence, and by Shinto, which taught that nature is rife with spirits of various kinds, giving no special significance to humans over anything else in nature. These ideas are why Japanese art did not emphasize visual realism, the human body, or use mathematical canons of human proportions. Instead, it focused on natural forms and the beauty of seasonal change, celebrating nature in a state of flux; from snow to cherry blossoms to rain to sun to fall and back to snow. This is intended to make the viewer reflect perhaps on their own mortality, their own place amid this ever-changing landscape.

5. Intellectual Stimulation

This work was designed to subvert the traditional way of depicting the female nude as soft, sensual, and not aggressive, as a passive object for the male gaze. This image distorts that traditional model of the nude female in art.
This work was designed to subvert the traditional way of depicting the female nude as soft, sensual, and not aggressive, as a passive object for the male gaze. This image distorts that traditional model of the nude female in art. | Source
Escher's work often challenges the viewer to question our own perception of reality, by drawing things that are logically impossible in the real world.
Escher's work often challenges the viewer to question our own perception of reality, by drawing things that are logically impossible in the real world. | Source
Ai WeiWei's work is political, as you can see, this is his way of criticizing the way modern corporate culture is trampling the ancient glories of historical China.
Ai WeiWei's work is political, as you can see, this is his way of criticizing the way modern corporate culture is trampling the ancient glories of historical China. | Source

This one is also one of the reasons why beauty can be very subjective, because something that is "deep" or "philosophical" to one person might be totally cliche and banal to someone else. You see this happen a lot with film criticisms, where generally,audiences just want an enjoyable movie, while critics want a movie that holds up under their intellectual scrutiny. Postmodernism in art and literature is about challenging the viewer/reader intellectually, getting them to question their assumptions, stereotypes, and expectations of the form.

Contemporary art is art that questions things, that takes nothing assumed about art for granted. I don't necessarily like every work or every artist, but what the best ones are trying to do is to stimulate growth by stimulating debate. Classicism produced wonderful art, but by the 19th century, it had stagnated into repetitions of the same famous poses and scenes, and it was criticized for not capturing the fullness of human experience. Later artists, such as impressionists, wanted to put more of the immediate human reality into painting, rather than doing a lifeless, cold, marble statue. Since then, artists have been adversarial, they have been about challenging what came before them. Some looked for non-western inspiration, such as Picasso looking at African masks for inspiration for his experimentation with the human figure. Many liked to put expressions of raw emotion into their art with bold colors. Later artists rejected figuration in favor of abstract forms, or rejected canvas as the go-to medium for painting. Some made installations intended to blur lines between "architecture" and "sculpture". Some wanted to take up traditional crafts and make them fine arts, while other artists tried to get rid of handiwork as a requirement of art altogether, with mass production, assistants, photography, and art as a concept to be executed by anyone, a kind of script, rather than a finalized form.

What is produced is not always "good", but it is good to risk failure by stretching the boundaries and playing with rules and audience expectations. This is well and good, but it is something of an elitist exercise, the knowledgeable art professor or connoisseur is in on a subversion, parody, or reference that won't be obvious to the average viewer. I'm not going so far as to say this kind of "in-joke art" is bad, but the art world could do more to make these kinds of ideas democratic and accessible to the general public, especially when being funded by taxpayers. And we could do with less art aimed at challenging for the sake of being challenging and more simply aimed at being good. But that's a debate for another time. The point is, in art, as well as in film, beauty can often be tied to something's ability to pose an intellectual, philosophical challenge to the viewer.

There are many kinds of beauty, and many ways we can mean it when we describe something or some person as beautiful. The pyramids of Egypt are beautiful because they are impressively large, composed of pleasing geometric forms, and because they are irreplaceable parts of the history of mankind. One man's wife of ten years is the most beautiful woman to him, because of the emotional attachment in their relationship, that cannot be replaced even by another woman who looks like a goddess. A sunset is beautiful because it's an experience of amazing colors. A movie can be pleasurable to us because it's fun and enjoyable, like Avengers: Age of Ultron, or because it has philosophical intrigue, like Inception. There are many types of beauty and many kinds of things and people who can be called beautiful. Beauty is a major reason to stick it out through the tough times in life. Stay beautiful, friends.


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    • RachaelLefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachael Lefler 

      3 years ago from Illinois

      Thanks! I also tend to prefer figurative art, but it's good to challenge that ideal once in a while. Thanks for reading!

    • Dbro profile image


      3 years ago from Texas, USA

      I really enjoyed this article, Rachael! As an artist myself, I know the feeling of trying to capture (and capitalize on) the elusive notion of "beauty." As you say, things can be deemed beautiful for a myriad of reasons. I am a representational artist, so my work is driven by identifying and hopefully celebrating things in our world that I find beautiful. My approach to art doesn't mean that I don't enjoy and appreciate work by other artists who create nonrepresentational pieces. I always say there is plenty of room at the table for artists of any stripe who help make our world more beautiful.

      Thanks again for writing this interesting and insightful article!


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