Taste: Universal and Cultural

Beauty is the eye of the beholder. Regardless of what truth is contained in that statement, it is far too simple. The most common argument (not necessarily the best) is the a version of the following: people disagree about which objects are beautiful; therefore, beauty must be wholly subjective. And one’s taste is subjective by default.

El Capitan, Yosemite National Park

Statements, like “beauty is the in the eye of the beholder,” are rarely seriously questioned. They’ve become so embedded in our automatic responses that people think it’s absurd to think otherwise. It might be useful to at least push back on this assumption because people evaluate environment, situations, and people aesthetically. We may find that we still believe it is correct (or mostly correct), but we may also find out that there is a lot more to the situation or that you’re incorrect. (I’m using ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ very loosely here.)

A recent study exploring aesthetic taste was published in Cognition, titled “Stronger Shared Taste for Natural Aesthetic Domains than for Artifacts of Human Culture.” The results from this study show that people agree very much in their aesthetic evaluation of natural objects, but they disagree more about artifacts, or human-made objects. For the details about how they conducted the study, please find the full article HERE.

The study found that shared taste was most common for faces and natural landscapes. They found the lowest shared taste among works of architecture and art. They note that this study was not designed to pinpoint specifically which features please people. But, based on some other studies, they posit that the commonly pleasing features, like proportion or symmetry, are at work.

J.M.W. Turner, Slave Ship, or Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Coming On (1840)

What can we conclude (or infer) from this study? The authors make the following conclusions:

  1. Preferences for natural scenes might be learned through life experience. Factors like habitability, safety, and openness might be preferred as people develop. Some of the details of landscapes change, but the basics are more common, e.g., water, open spaces, and signs of care.
  2. Art and architecture, unlike natural spaces, do not have the same level of exposure. So, people do not have the same level of shared taste.
  3. Natural aesthetic domains might have more “direct and universal relevance” for human behavior than cultural artifacts.
  4. It’s possible that the lower amount of agreement in the shared taste of artifacts has to do more with elements of style, rather than ‘behavioral consequences.’
Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1829-1833)

All of the consequences above seem reasonable (or at least possible), but I think there might be an interesting philosophical conclusion that they did not draw. It seems that there is an objective ground to our aesthetic preferences or evaluations. I am not saying this would mean beauty is completely objective, just that there could possibly be general objective principles at work, i.e., beauty is not simply in the eye of the beholder.

Nature exhibits some of the universal aesthetic features, such as radiance, in a common way throughout the world. It’s not exactly the same everywhere, but it is common. For example, a sunset is similar enough in different places to warrant almost universal appeal.

Possible universal principles of beauty—such as proportion, fittingness, radiance, and others—are general categories, which allow for a wide array of instantiations. When people get involved in making artifacts in architecture or art, they apply these very general concepts in unique ways. But the way they applied the principle may not have universal appeal. Or, at least, it might not have immediate universal appeal. This is seen in the two paintings of the sea that are shown above. They both exhibit the power of the sea (among other things) with very different styles that not all people will be able to appreciate.

This is why it’s important to experience diverse cultures and their artifacts because it opens us up to different ways of approaching or constructing beauty. Anyway, this is one other possible conclusion from this study. And it is always good to question our assumptions.


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