What is aesthetic beauty?


by cheri sabraw

This photograph of a single California Brown pelican floating in the silvery-grey Pacific Ocean is not cropped or enhanced. It represents a real moment in time in the life of a solitary seabird who is resting from   flight.

Is this bird aesthetically beautiful? Is the photograph a thing of beauty? Do standards exist that enable us to judge the beauty of a bird or a photograph?

Is a piece of fine art, such as a painting or sculpture, or a work of literary art, such as a poem or a story, or a sentient being or object in Nature, such as a pelican or an ocean, a thing of beauty? Is beauty found in the cliched “eye of the beholder” or does beauty have qualifications?


This austere scene, taken in the mid-afternoon on the Central Coast of California, reveals the silver light of the sun on a distant horizon. We may appreciate the illumination of the line and its contrast to the dreamy clouds. But is  this scene or photograph an example of beauty?


Consider Jackson Pollock’s art, particularly his masterpiece entitled lucifer-1947.jpg!Blog

Lucifer, now on display in a new museum devoted to abstract impressionist art, a gift to Stanford University by the Anderson family. Some may view this large work as an ugly and violent smattering and whirling of oil paint thrown onto an unsuspecting canvas. Others may see pure genius in Pollock’s interpretation of Satan. But, do they see beauty?

It was Diotima, an Ancient Greek priestess and teacher, whose dialogue about the love of beauty Plato shares in his Symposium ( 4th century BCE). Diotima suggests that first we must appreciate the beauty of a single person or object. We may agree that a single pelican embodies what Plato believed constituted beauty: proportion, harmony, and unity.

We are aware that our senses identify the pelican as an example of beauty. Diotima tells us that after seeing beauty in a particular bird, we are now capable of experiencing beauty in all birds. We move from the specific to the general.


Ecstatic emotion may flood our senses when the silver line expands to reveal a three-dimensional candlelabra of flowing light and motion, coming toward our eyes in gentle waves. Our hearts open to the beauty of all light and all seas and all waves.

Diotima would suggest we are now ready to see absolute beauty.








About Cheri

Writer, photograph, artist, mother, grandmother and wife.
This entry was posted in My photography, Writing and Teaching and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to What is aesthetic beauty?

  1. Yang Ho says:

    Not having set standards for beauty seems to align with skepticism.

    • Cheri says:

      Hi Yang,
      Excellent point. I can see from your blog that you are a philosophy student. It has always been my view that philosophy–more than any other discipline–demands the highest intellect.

      Your point–that if there are no standards for beauty–then skeptism abides–is a salient one and one I plan to address in my posts that concern the philosophy of aesthetics.

      Your comment reminds me of some of my most hard-working (and frustrated) students who visited me after school to complain about their “B+” grade in composition. “You just don’t like my writing…” they would whine…It was at that point that I had to revisit the standards of beautiful writing.

      As you might discern, the study of aesthetics is fraught with disagreement!
      Thanks for stopping by and more importantly, for adding gravitas to this discussion.

  2. cpartner@comcast.net says:

    lovely. What setting did you shoot the sunsets? Do you use a tripod. so clear! your shirts are ready tomorrow. I will pick them up end of day! Cindy

  3. Cheri says:

    Hello Cindy,
    Thank you. They do look like sunsets, don’t they? Theses photos were all shot in the middle of the afternoon at about 2:30pm. The skies were mottled; the silver lines were far out in the Pacific where the sun was shining. None of these pictures are enhanced…that’s what seems so fresh about them. I did not use a tripod but interesting that you should ask because I am going to take a tripod to AZ for the first time. Thank you letting me know about the shirt orders.

    What do you think about beauty? Is it subjective?

  4. Richard says:

    Can the beauty in all things be subjective or definable when our hold upon it is so fragile and easily lost or overworked, only to be restored by some external, often unexpected, influence?

    “Form” or “Ideal” are but shadows of what we all know. The natural world is perfect: our expression or description of it may not be. We can forgive those imperfections. It is how we use our humanity that is imperfect.

    … .he leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul….

    Too many questions.

    • Cheri says:

      Too many questions may, if one is lucky, yield one or two answers. I’m not sure that you make your point in the first paragraph. Let me make sure I understand what you are saying: because beauty can be lost and found by serendipity–that makes it un-definable?

      I do agree that the Natural World is perfect but is perfection necessarily beautiful?

      • Richard says:

        By perfection, beauty is achieved and in beauty perfection is perceived. All those tales of painters, poets and composers who agonise over the completion of their works so testify.

      • Richard says:

        As to my first para, yes, I did have trouble formulating it.

        Beauty does not yield to definition because we are part of the world and do not always recognise it – as with the pelican in St James’s Park below. If we do grasp it, our grasp is transient or we overwork it and lose it by imposing ourselves. The recognition of beauty is often sudden or unexpected, whether or not we are familiar with it, suggesting that it originates not within the eye of the beholder but is external.

  5. Christopher says:

    “…….Is beauty found in the cliched ‘eye of the beholder’…….”

    I think………yes.

    Of “Lucifer”, you said, “………Some may view this large work as an ugly and violent………..Others may see pure genius in Pollock’s interpretation of Satan…….”

    Indeed, it’s all about……..the beholders.

    I, for my part, loved particularly your picture of the pelican bobbing so alone in the water. It, like, spoke to me. I saw myself in that little pelican. What does this say about……. me!!!?

    • Cheri says:

      I loved the photo of the pelican too and was quite surprised that it turned out. I did not have a powerful zoom on my camera as I was out for a walk along the sea. When I uploaded the photograph, imagine my delight with the result. What luck.
      I’m not sure what you see about yourself in the solitary pelican but I suspect (after reading your blogs and comments throughout the years) that were the pelican in a flock, you may not have had the same reaction. How am I doing?

      I’m not sure absolutely beauty is in the eye of the beholders, especially when I see what the current beholders think is beauty.

      • Christopher says:

        “…….I’m not sure what you see about yourself in the solitary pelican…….”

        I saw in this solitary pelican, my own solitariness, and my own vulnerability, in this vast world, which, don’t forget, is mostly ocean, like the one the pelican was bobbing on.

        So, yes, had this pelican been with other pelicans, my reaction would have been much different……….

        “…….I’m not sure absolutely beauty is in the eye of the beholders, especially when I see what the current beholders think is beauty………”

        I’m thinking of *this scene* in the film, “Getting Straight”. The teacher is encouraging his student to continue reading his “Batman” comic because it’s telling essentially the same story as “Don Quixote”.

        The adventures of Batman in comic form, speak to the student in a way Don Quixote may not. So, in their own way, aren’t the literary adventures of Batman as much literary art as the literary adventures of Don Quixote? Who am I, or who are you, to say they’re not?

        If I say they’re not, or if you say they’re not, I suggest this says more about us, personally, than about the literary merits of Batman or Don Quixote.

        I’m thinking of buying Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, “Purity”. So I went into Google to find out what the learned literary critics think about it. Most seem to like it, and to like it a lot.

        But there was one review by an obviously erudite critic, that was totally scathing about “Purity”, and about everything else Franzen has written. Who am I to say he’s wrong?

        However, I’m going to read “Purity anyway, based on what the other critics have said, and based on the fact that I’ve liked the other stuff Franzen has written – whether or not it may have been thought rubbish by the aforementioned critic, or others of his ilk.

        I like what I like. That’s all…….

        • Cheri says:

          Dear Christopher,
          Thank you for this comment which, I think, gets to the heart of the question that titles this post. You example is perfect. Who IS to say what is beauty to one person and what is beauty to another? If a study relates to the narrative message of Batman better than that of Don Quixote, who is to say whether each work is a work of beauty or not?

          And yet, your comment raises further thought: if we simply label something as beauty (to us) does that make it an object of beauty? Then what does the word beauty mean?

          • Christopher says:

            “……Who IS to say what is beauty to one person and what is beauty to another?…….”

            I don’t think anyone seeing your photos of the pelican in the water, and your other photos of the ocean, could seriously say they weren’t beautiful. The beauty of what you photographed may be as close to unarguable beauty as is possible. I mean, who could say in all seriousness that these photos are ugly?

            That said, someone else might take photos of these same objects, but photograph them very differently (and maybe even more beautifully) than you.

            The difference in beauty (or photographic artistry) between your photos and someone else’s might equal the difference in literary artistry between the Batman comics and Don Quixote!!!

  6. Richard says:

    Would you say, then Christopher ( to borrow Diotima’s questioning of Socrates) that your love of beauty resides in the beauty of your eye?

    According to Diotima, Love is not good or beautiful, for it desires the good and beautiful. Love cannot on that account be said to be ugly and bad but instead something in between – a spirit, an intermediary.

    What speaks is the spirit of Cheri’s photograph of beauty. Since I agree, do we share an eye or is beauty instead independent of the beholder?

  7. Richard says:

    Is this beautiful?

    • Richard says:

      If the video is beautiful, its beauty is beyond our comprehension. We are part of the world, a world obsessed with life and death. If, as Christopher asserts, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then the action of the pelican in devouring the pigeon has, for me, no beauty.

      Since we are part of the world, we are of its creation, and so innovation, the essence of free will, is also beyond our comprehension. Innovation instantly becomes part of the world. That is undeniable because innovation instantly becomes manifest in the physiology of the brain. This does not, however, offer any explanation for its existence.

      Mathematics and science offer the closest approach to beauty that humans are capable of. Other works celebrate innovation and beauty in a way that mathematics and science are incapable of because of an insistence on proof according to the standards mathematicians and scientists set for themselves. This does not prevent them from celebrating the beauty they uncover, it is just that the celebration is not part of their discipline.

      So let us celebrate beauty, however we may view it, without quarrelling, without too many questions and in a spirit if forgiveness and tolerance.

      • Cheri says:

        Mathematics and science offer us empirical evidence as a way of explaining existence. In attempting to qualify the arts, it seems plausible that some elements ( unity, form, proportion) may be the guide by which Beauty is judged.

    • Cheri says:

      No, it’s not. I don’t believe Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This is survival of the fittest. When I visit London, perhaps I should travel to St. James’ Park for an up close and personal look at pigeon hunting. By the way, do your pelicans take on wild turkeys?

      • Richard says:

        As a mere lawyer, I can only speak of the law – and not terribly well at that. All the rest is just chatter.

        As I understand it, the process of evolution by natural selection or, as Darwin sometimes referred to it (it was not his phrase), “The survival of the fittest” is a struggle of species with the environment.

        The problem with “survival of the fittest” is that it is ambiguous. Depending on the shade of meaning, the word “fittest” can extend to a struggle purely between individuals. That is not how Darwin used it.

        Struggle to the death between two individuals is normally of detriment to both, as it is between nations. Is it not generally accepted that civil war, too, threatens the survival of the nation? Natural selection involves individuals, of course, but the struggle is between species for survival within the environment.

        Art, science and mathematics are predominately a struggle of the individual with himself. This allows that it may be carried out with the cooperation of others, some passive, some active, but freedom is its keynote, not survival. This principle can be applied to other activities such as trade – competition and rivalry fostered by cooperation and peace.

        War is not a struggle between species and so, while art and science themselves may be employed to further the purposes of war, war is not art per se and its pursuance cannot be justified on the ground of survival of individuals. There may be other justifications, such as the survival of the human species or of civilisation or culture – global considerations- those justifications are the origins of formulations for a “just war”.

        Thus, whilst the pelican in St James’s Park may be a demonstration of beauty in Nature, you would have to ask Her Majesty, whose predecessor made over the Royal Park for use by the Nation, and Herself a relic of the struggle between individuals, whether you may test its effectiveness with turkeys. When Queen Victoria asked the Duke of Wellington how to deal with a plague of sparrows in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in 1851 he said: “Sparrow Hawks Ma’am.” He was dead by October 1852, so I shall be making no similar recommendation. The pelican might prefer owls.

        • Cheri says:

          Thank you for your correction. You are correct: watching a pelican devour a pigeon is not survival of the fittest which, indeed, was an evolutionary observation.

          What I am referring to in this post is a matter of taste. Is there such thing as good taste and bad taste? Christopher would say no.

  8. shoreacres says:

    I think your photo of the ice plant is lovely — perhaps even beautiful. Others, particularly those who concern themselves with invasive plants, might find it less so. At minimum, they might draw a distinction between the aesthetic beauty of the plant, and the distinctly unbeautiful way it affects the environment.

    On the other hand, I’d say that Jackson Pollock’s painting is not beautiful. It might be an interesting chapter in the history of art, or a remarkable example of irrational forces in the art market, but beautiful? Not so much.

    Of course these discussions are useful, and even important. Still, I can’t help thinking about Billy Collins wonderful poem titled “Introduction to Poetry.” I suppose you could substitute “literature,” “art,” or “music.”

    I ask them to take a poem
    and hold it up to the light
    like a color slide

    or press an ear against its hive.

    I say drop a mouse into a poem
    and watch him probe his way out,

    or walk inside the poem’s room
    and feel the walls for a light switch.

    I want them to waterski
    across the surface of a poem
    waving at the author’s name on the shore.

    But all they want to do
    is tie the poem to a chair with rope
    and torture a confession out of it.

    They begin beating it with a hose
    to find out what it really means.

    • Cheri says:

      Thank you, Linda, for joining this discussion. I am blessed to have some keen minds with beautiful critical thinking abilities who take their precious time to comment so thoughtfully. You are one of those people.

      Billy Collins is my favorite modern poet. I was fortunate to hear him recite this poem in San Francisco about 5 years ago. I have used this poem (and Archibald MacLeish’s Ars Poetica) to introduce poetry to eleventh grade honors students. Thank you for copying it to my blog.

      In my own teaching, I would bring a small rock that I picked up outside of my classroom and ask my students to discuss what it symbolized. They enjoyed this creative exercise so much that the practice became a monthly one.

      But really.

      Is their poetic beauty and sort of poetic beauty?
      Is the Sistine Chapel’s beauty comparable to aboriginal art in caves?

  9. bogard says:

    Hi Cheri,
    One of your best posts, IMHO. And I agree that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Our ability to see beauty is affected by multiple factors, both intrinsic and extrinsic,or nature/nurture if you will. Most certainly we can learn to see art/art forms differently as our perspectives change over time and if keep taking the opportunity to really view things from multiple perspectives/contexts. As I rekindle my artistic/creative interests, I am amazed at how vastly different my appreciation for “art” has changed as I take the time to view, think, re-view, and re-think what I see/have seen. Photography has been immensely helpful in this process. Pollack’s Lucifer, as posted, reminds me of rock surfaces I’ve observed, with small crevices and colored surfaces affected by how the light strikes. The seascapes photos are quite tonal with varied values throughout, and remind how quickly they change from minute to minute as the light changes (and a suggestion: don’t forget to fix your horizon). So, yes, beauty is quite subjective. I will take elegant every time, but sometimes messy really works for me. Thanks for this post. And Go Cardinal!! (I will see two of my alma maters face off in the RB, but there’s no doubt where my allegiances lie). Happy Holidays to you and the Judge from the Butterfly Lady and me. Hope we get to see you in 2016.

  10. Cheri says:

    Thank you, Bogard for adding to this exciting conversation about aesthetics. Your thoughts about how our senses change as we change lends support to your believe that beauty is in the eyes of those who see, experience, and judge art, literature, music and the like. I particularly loved your sentence that “sometimes messy really works for me.” But is messy beautiful? Is Lucifer an example of beauty or is it, as Shoreacres suggested, an example of ” an interesting chapter in the history of art “?

    Let’s take a Grecian urn, perfect in its proportion and unified in its design.
    Let’s take a pot I threw on a wheel 50 years to which I applied too much water, so much so that it began to wobble and collapse as as my little hands tried to stabilize it on the whirling circular tray. It fell off in an asymmetrical adobe blob-pot. I fired it anyway.

    Can we compare their beauty?

    • bogard says:

      So chapters get re-written all the time, right? Evolution in art, a new chapter, re-thinking the unthinkable? I do think some of Pollack’s work is beautiful, perhaps in an odd sense, but hey, art is often odd. Some perfect examples of it at the Anderson Family Gallery, along with much more next door. I’ve gained a very strong liking for folk art here in the South, influenced strongly by the Butterfly Lady’s interests. And the stories behind the art add beauty. Our trip to Santa Fe kindled a new interest in Southwestern landscapes. Love it all. (reminds me I need to order some chocolate from Kakawa in Santa Fe…have you been to that place? Pure beauty in chocolate!!)
      Glad to hear you guys are coming South for a visit, and I will be retired! So come on!! We will be planning a September Central Coast Wine trip with our friends here, so maybe you and the Judge can come down and join in. That would be fabulous.

      • Cheri says:

        Congrats on your upcoming retirement and yes, is there better light for photography than in New Mexico? Let us know when you are coming to the Central Coast. Our South road trip will be in early October.

  11. Cheri says:

    Oh yes, Bogard. We hope to see you next October if you and Butterfly Lady are home. We are taking a road trip in the South.

    Merry Christmas to you and your whole family. Please give your parents my love.
    And yes, Go Stanford!!! I’ll be here in Arizona watching that game. Even Ron is now rooting for Stanford. He’s come a long way, I’d say.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s