Skip to main content

Beauty and Ugliness


Beauty is a vital and central element of human experience. It is associated with pleasure, which influences personal choices and cultural developments. Poets praise it, artists strive to capture it in their works, moralists warn against its deceiving influence, scientists seek to uncover its secrets, and philosophers reflect on its illusive nature. Expressions of the vitality of beauty in its role in everyday life are found in any culture. The attraction of beauty, the desire to be beautiful and obtain beautiful objects, is universal, although the manifestations of this desire vary across cultures and ages. Classical Western philosophy has regarded beauty as one of the three fundamental concepts of human understanding: truth (and falsehood), good (and evil), beauty (and ugliness). However, in the seventeenth century beauty was considered a marginal concept, while in the twentieth century it came to be regarded as dispensable altogether.

Beauty is typically related to the visual field, but is not limited to it. The Hebrew Bible attributes beauty mainly to human appearance and natural scenery, but also to the voice (Ezekiel, 33:32), to wisdom (Ezekiel, 28:7), and to God (Psalms, 50:2). The ancient Greeks ascribed beauty to things that are morally good, appropriate, and pleasing, be they natural objects or artifacts, tangible and concrete or abstract, personal deeds, or social institutions. In China beauty refers to wealth, longevity, talent, good reputation, and behavior. There appears to be a cross-cultural agreement that beauty is relevant to all aspects of life, but the nature of the concept and its actual applications are a matter of constant dispute. The variety of tastes and their suppleness, the difficulties in justifying judgments of beauty (and in determining their common ground) indicate that the idea of beauty is far more complicated than the way it appears in everyday experience.

Theories of beauty typically focus on two aspects: defining beauty, and determining its function and significance.

Definitions of Beauty

In the Greater Hippias, Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.) ascribes to Socrates the viewpoint that knowledge of beauty is a prerequisite for actual applications: one cannot properly distinguish between beautiful and ugly objects without knowing what beauty is. On the other hand, in the Symposium, Plato has Diotima argue that knowledge of beauty begins with direct experience of particular cases and knowledge of the abstract form of beauty is the highest and final stage, distilled from everyday experience.

Direct experience, Socrates claims, is unreliable. It reveals a complex of contradicting qualities that cohabit in the same object: any beautiful object is at the same time not beautiful when compared with a higher beauty. Appearance can be misleading. A person may appear beautiful when wearing suitable clothes, although he is not truly beautiful. Socrates in fact dismisses all expressions of physical beauty as untrustworthy. The ultimate beauty that contains no contradicting elements is beyond earthly experience. Plato portrays such absolute beauty in the Phaedo, where Socrates sees its heavenly form. Socrates rejects further the idea that beauty is that which functions properly: an object may function well, but if its purpose is evil, the object is not beautiful. He also disagrees that beauty should be defined as a cause of delight. The good, Socrates argues, also causes delight, and the two should be kept distinct.

Socrates concludes in the Greater Hippias that beauty is difficult to define. Voltaire (16941778) goes further to argue that beauty, due to its relativist nature, is not just difficult but impossible to define. In his Philosophical Dictionary (1764) Voltaire writes that the toad sees beauty in large round eyes and a flat snout, and the devil sees beauty in a pair of horns and four claws. Epicharmus (c. 530c. 440 b.c.e.), the comic dramatist, similarly remarks that a dog considers a dog the most beautiful creature, and equally an ox prefers an ox, a donkey a donkey, and a pig a pig. Realizing that beauty has no common core, Voltaire believes that one had better save oneself the trouble of attempting to study its nature.

Neither the difficulties presented by Socrates nor Voltaire's reservations have discouraged philosophers, artists, critics, and scientists from reflecting upon the nature of beauty throughout the centuries. Attempts to define beauty can be divided into two main groups: theories that regard beauty as a form of order and theories that regard beauty as a kind of pleasure. Theories of beauty may be divided further according to the logical status assigned to beauty: objective, subjective, relative, and relational. The objective approach asserts that beauty inheres in the object, and that judgments of beauty have objective validity. The subjective approach maintains that beauty is not a quality of the object but rather a creation of the mind. Relativism tends to associate beauty with cultural values, and the relational approach regards beauty as a product of both the object and the contemplative mind.

Beauty as a form of order.

The Pythagoreans believed that beauty is a manifestation of harmonious, mathematical relations such as the golden section. In this proportion a straight line, c, is divided by two unequal parts, a and b, in such a way that the ratio of the smaller, a, to the greater part, b, is the same as that of the greater part, b, to the whole, c. Ugliness is the expression of disorder and a lack of rational proportions. Beauty was thus considered an objective expression of cosmic truth. The ancient Egyptians were probably the first to use the golden section in the design of the Pyramids, but it was Pythagoras of Samos (c. 580c. 500 b.c.e.) who first presented its mathematical formulation.

Many have followed the Pythagorean notion of order. Plato writes that proportions constitute beauty (Philebus ). Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) associates beauty with order and size in Poetics, and with symmetry and definiteness in Metaphysics. St. Augustine of Hippo (354430) holds that beauty is based on numbers (De libero arbitrio ). St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 12241274) mentions proportion and harmony among the three requirements of beauty (Summa theologica ). Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (16461716) describes beauty as an obscure, sensual perception of mathematical configurations (Principles of Nature and Grace Based on Reason, 1714), and the painter William Hogarth (16971764) formulates principles of beauty applicable to art (The Analysis of Beauty, 1753). Many other authors expressed similar views.

Plotinus (205270) is an exception. In Enneades (I, 6) he rejects the idea that beauty consists of order and proportion. His main points are: (1) Proportions, order, symmetry, and harmony apply to compound objects, while beauty is also found in simple elements like sunlight or gold. (2) The parts of a beautiful object must be beautiful, too, because beauty cannot consist of ugly elements. However, the parts themselves are simple and cannot convey order. (3) A beautiful face may look ugly when it expresses anger or wickedness, yet its proportions are the same. (4) Physical beauty is a reflection of the divine beauty, which unifies the formless multiplicity of matter. Thus, unity, not complexity, is essential to beauty.

Notwithstanding Plotinus's criticism, the Pythagorean notion of beauty became influential in Western philosophy for two principal reasons: The association of beauty with order was appealing to the rational mind, and experience suggests that the parts of a beautiful object are well situated, complement each other, and create a unified whole. This understanding generated the notion of unity in variety: Beauty resides in complexity that is unified by order. Accepting the fact that order is the key concept for understanding beauty, the question arises whether there are unifying laws of beauty that apply to all cases of beautiful objects, in the same way that the laws of nature apply to all physical phenomena.

Alexander Baumgarten (17141762) believed that the laws of beauty, like the laws of nature, could be uncovered by systematic, empirical investigations. He called for the establishment of a new science, which he named aesthetics. This science was intended to investigate direct perception in which particular representations are combined into a whole. Baumgarten was not influential among philosophers, but psychologists and mathematicians from the nineteenth century onward pursued his vision, seeking to translate the traditional formulaunity in varietyinto measurable variables. In the field of psychology, the investigation of beauty is associated mainly with Gestalt theory and experimental aesthetics. Ernst H. Weber (17951878) and Gustav T. Fechner (18011887) investigated sensual perceptions and the relation between the intensity of the stimulus and the responsive sensation it causes. Fechner founded experimental aesthetics and made it a branch of psychology. Max Wertheimer (18801943), Wolfgang Köhler (18871967), and Kurt Koffka (18861941) defined the principles of the "good gestalt" (Prägnanz ) and examined its application in various fields. A good gestalt expresses order, regularity, simplicity, stability, and continuity. According to Hans J. Eysenck (19161997), the fundamental law of aesthetics derives from the law of the good gestalt while, conversely, the law of aesthetics determines the properties of the good gestalt (1942).

In the mathematical realm we find George D. Birkhoff (18841944), who analyzed polygons and vases in order to formulate a concept of beauty. Birkhoff's conclusion is that the pleasure derived from any work of art or object of beauty depends on two variables: order (O), which expresses the unity of the object, and complexity (C), or the diversity exhibited by the object. The resulting measure of the aesthetic pleasure (M) derived from an object is then expressed mathematically: M = O/Cthat is, aesthetic pleasure is equal to the ratio of order to complexity (Aesthetic Measure, 1933).

From a different perspective, information theory inspired the idea that beauty is a measurable informative value. This theory offers a mathematical apparatus that describes, analyzes, and measures the transmission of information in communication systems. A clear messagenamely, a highly ordered messageis a message of low informative value, high redundancy, and high predictability. Since the elements of a beautiful object are obviously neither redundant nor predictable, beauty in this context is regarded not as a form of high order, but rather as a happy medium, a balance between high order and disorder. Sir Francis Galton (18221911) demonstrates this idea of averages by superimposing photographs of convicted murderers and distilling a single photograph out of the many images. According to the viewers who examined the photos, this composite photograph was the best-looking face of all the original ones. Galton concluded that the average (composite) face is free from the irregularities that variously blemish each of the individual faces (1878).

Daniel E. Berlyne (19241976), one of the leading figures of experimental aesthetics in the twentieth century, sets the idea of happy medium in a psychological perspective. He describes the pleasure derived from beauty and good art as a reduction of arousal. The complexity of the object generates arousal in tension, and subsequently, when the unified whole is perceived, tension is reduced. According to Berlyne, experiments tend to confirm that some intermediate degree of complexity produces the most pleasing effect and that extremes of simplicity or complexity are distasteful (Conflict, Arousal, and Curiosity, 1960).

Monroe C. Beardsley (19151985), one of the most influential aestheticians of the last century, criticizes attempts to render beauty or good art in terms of a happy medium or an average. He maintains that the identification of complexity with disorder fails to explain the fact that complexity is a relevant ground for praise, and that the degree of informative value is not high enough to establish the aesthetic worth of an object. Beardsley agrees that beauty is a form of order, but argues that the beauty formula inspired by information theory leads to absurdities. Aesthetic order, according to Beardsley, escapes mechanical patterns and is marked by freedom, diversity, and uniqueness (1968). Abraham Moles (19201992) similarly acknowledges the limitations of information theory. He distinguishes between semantic information and aesthetic information. Semantic information has a universal logic and can be expressed in different languages. Aesthetic information cannot be translated into any other language or system of logic; it refers to particular objects apprehended by particular spectators (1966).

The notion of organic form or an organic whole suggests that beauty expresses a nonmechanical order consisting of inner forces or structures. In an organic form the whole precedes the differentiation of the parts, and the various parts are interdependent. Plato is the first to offer a formulation of art as an organic form (Phaedrus ) in relation to literary works of art. Samuel T. Coleridge (17721834) turns to organic form in his defense of Shakespeare's works against the claim that they are formless. He emphasizes the harmony required in such works, not only between parts but also between matter and form. George E. Moore (18731958) adds that the value of an organic whole is different from the sum of its parts (Principia Ethica, 1903). Harold Osborne (19051987) defines aesthetic order in terms of an organic whole that cannot be reduced to its parts and is, therefore, directly apprehended as a whole. Beauty is an emergent property of a whole that reflects upon the parts, although each of the parts on its own is aesthetically neutral (1982). Heinrich Wölfflin (18641945), an influential art historian, describes good art as an organism in which nothing could be changed or moved from its place, but in which all must be as it is (Principles of Art History, 1915). Ruth Lorand, however, argues that the concept of an organic whole ignores, in most of its variants, the quantitative aspect of beauty. Some objects are more beautiful than others, and absolute beauty of the kind described by Wölfflin and others is hardly ever found. Aesthetic order, according to Lorand, is quantitative, highly informative, unpredictable, and, paradoxically, an order without laws (2000).

Beauty as a kind of pleasure.

The immediate connection between beauty and feeling, and the difficulties inherent in defining beauty as a quality of the object, have given rise to the idea that beauty is not a quality of the object, but rather an emotion evoked by the object. St. Augustine asks whether an object is beautiful because it pleases or pleases because it is beautiful, and answers that the object pleases because it is beautiful. That is, beauty is the cause of pleasure and not identical with it (De vera religione ). By contrast, Thomas Aquinas does not separate beauty from pleasure; he calls that beautiful whose apprehension pleases us. The definition of beauty as an expression of emotion usually renders judgments of beauty individual and subjective. René Descartes (15961650) regards beauty as totally subjective and dependent on individual conditions (letter to Marin Mersenne, 1630). Baruch Spinoza (16321677) dismisses beauty as mere sensual content. He mocks those who believe that beauty is objective, and that God, too, finds delight in beautiful things. (Ethics, I, appendix, 1667).

Empiricists of the eighteenth century, however, regarded this subjective aspect of beauty as an informative indication of human nature. Taste, the capacity for appreciating beauty, became a key concept. Francis Hutcheson (16941746) defines beauty as a source of pleasure that indicates not only qualities found in the object, but also the character of the spectator's sense of beauty (Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, 1725). Joseph Addison (16721719) writes that perhaps there is no real beauty, only certain modifications of matter that the mind pronounces beautiful (The Spectator, 1712). In his Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785), Thomas Reid (17101796) describes beauty as an occult quality: we know how it affects our senses, but not what it is in itself. According to Edmund Burke (17291797), beauty is the quality that causes love or passion and is not an objective quality like proportion (A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful, 1757). Archibald Alison (17571839) goes further, arguing that it is impossible to imagine an object of taste that is not an object of emotion (Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste, 1790).

David Hume (17111776) writes in the same spirit that Euclid did not mention the beauty of the circle in any of the relevant propositions because beauty belongs to the sentiment of the spectator and is not a quality of the circle (Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1751). He defines beauty as an expression of a subjective order that reflects our nature, customs, or capricious inclinations (A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739). In his influential essay Of the Standard of Taste (1757), Hume observes that different spectators equally praising the beauty of the same object does not necessarily indicate that they refer to the same features, or that they find delight for the same reasons.

Immanuel Kant (17241804), regarded as the most influential figure in modern philosophy, sought to bridge the gap between rationalism and empiricism. His account of beauty in Critique of Judgment (1790) is the first systematic analysis of the aesthetic phenomenon in modern philosophy. Kant rejects Baumgarten's vision of aesthetics as a science and holds that genuine judgments of beauty do not convey knowledge; they are individual judgments that cannot be generalized. Like Burke, he distinguishes between the beautiful and the sublime: Beauty pleases through the free play of imagination and understanding and sustains the mind in restful contemplation. The sublime presents a disharmony between sensual capacities and reason. Thus, the feeling of the sublime carries with it a mental agitation: it is a pleasure compounded with displeasure. Kant defines beauty in terms of a peculiar kind of pleasure that consists in paradoxical features. He formulates four elements of the pleasure evoked by beauty: (1) Unlike the pleasures of the good and the pleasant, the pleasure of the beautiful is devoid of all interest. It is a disinterested pleasure. (2) Unlike other pleasures, the pleasure of the beautiful is not based on concepts. It is a non-conceptual pleasure. (3) The pleasure of the beautiful is a form of purposiveness without the presentation of a purpose. That is, the beautiful object demonstrates an inner order that is not subordinated to any external purpose. (4) The pleasure of the beautiful raises expectations for universal agreement. It is cognized as the object of a necessary liking. The necessity of universal assent that we associate with judgment of taste is a subjective necessity that we present as objective by presupposing a common sense. Kant, therefore, defines beauty as subjective-objective.

Many authors after Kant, however, preferred to deny the objective aspect of beauty and defined it as essentially subjective. Edgar Allan Poe (18091849) writes in The Philosophy of Composition (1846) that when men speak of beauty, they do not mean a quality but an affectan intense and pure elevation of the soul. George Santayana (18631952) follows Hume by stating that beauty is not a property of an object. It is an emotion, a pleasure that is erroneously regarded as a quality of the object, such as color, proportion, or size. In this view, beauty is a value that reflects the beholder's position, and therefore is entirely subjective. The tendency to relate beauty to objects and expect other people to experience the same beauty is, according to Santayana, a strange psychological phenomenon that calls for psychological investigation (The Sense of Beauty, 1896).

However, not all of those who explain beauty in terms of pleasure consider it subjective. Clarence I. Lewis (18831964), for instance, regards all evaluations, including aesthetic evaluation, as forms of empirical knowledge. In An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation (1946), he states that all forms of empirical knowledge are relationalthat is, they depend equally on both the qualities of the object in question and the contribution of the contemplating mind. Viewing beauty as a relational quality bypasses the subjective-objective conflict and draws similarities between perception of beauty and relational perception of other qualities. Samuel Alexander (18591938) maintains that beauty is a kind of illusion that depends on the viewer's perspective. The perceived beauty is a result of a mutual contribution of the genuine qualities of the object as well as the mind that apprehends it (Space, Time and Deity, 1920).

John Locke (16321704) differentiates between objective and relational qualities. The former are primary qualities independent of the spectator's apprehension; the latter are secondary and tertiary qualities that reflect sensual perceptions and emotional reactions (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690). Following this understanding, David W. Prall (18861940) maintains that beauty is constituted in pleasurable apprehension and is therefore a tertiary quality that reflects the spectator's reaction to the object's qualities (Aesthetic Judgment, 1929). Beauty, as a tertiary quality, is most sensitive to individual differences among spectators. Individuality is also central in Mary Mothersill's definition of beauty. According to Mothersill, an object is beautiful if it causes pleasure by virtue of its aesthetic properties. Aesthetic properties are the properties that define the individuality of the object and distinguish it from others. The measure of beauty, so Mothersill holds, demands a reliable affect theory, since the measure of beauty is in fact the measure of the emotion it causes (1983).

Opposites of beauty.

Examining the opposites of beauty illuminates the nature of beauty from a different angle. Although ugliness seems to be the immediate opposite of beauty, the complexity and peculiarity of the concept generates more than one opposite, each contrasting beauty in a different way.

The ugly.

George E. Moore defines beauty in terms of the goodthat of which the admiring contemplation is good in itselfand, accordingly, ugliness in terms of evilthat of which the admiring contemplation is evil in itself (1903). Understanding beauty in terms of order renders ugliness as a form of disorder. Rudolf Arnheim defines it as a struggle of conflicting, uncoordinated orders (1966). Conflicts express trends and values and therefore ugliness, like beauty, is a matter of cultural conceptions. For example, in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind, hair dyed shocking red is associated with prostitution and is thus considered ugly; it created a conflict with the prevailing standards of decency. Contemporary Western notions of decency are different; as a result, the sight of colored hair is no longer shocking or perceived as irregular, as it used to be.

The boring.

Boredom indicates a failure to maintain a sufficient degree of novelty or a failure to deal with materials that interest the observer. This may partly explain the phenomenon of fashion: an oft-repeated style gradually loses its charm and fails to evoke the pleasure it generated before. When set in opposition to beauty, boredom indicates that beauty is stimulating as long as it maintains some degree of novelty.

The insignificant.

An insignificant object, even if well-crafted, may be cute, pretty, lovely, or decorative, but not startlingly beautiful. The boring is not equivalent to the insignificant. We may be bored by something we hold significant and be attracted by trivial, insignificant objects.

The meaningless.

A meaningless object is neither beautiful nor ugly. A meaningless object cannot be beautiful, since one cannot grasp any integration of its parts or be moved by it. A person who is unable to recognize the category within which the particular object falls (and is unable to make sense of it) is unable to appreciate its beauty.


Kitsch consists of beautiful elements, but it is not beautiful in a strict sense. Thomas Kulka holds that a prerequisite of kitsch is that it should employ familiar and well-tested elements that evoke positive responses (1988). Kitsch uses imagessuch as a bouquet of red roses or a red-roofed hut on the edge of a breathtaking lakethat appeal to many in order to manipulate sentiments and desires for commercial or political purposes. Kitsch is not a failure to create good art; it is, rather, a form of deception that requires "know-how." Seeing kitsch in opposition to beauty suggests that the genuine experience of beauty is sincere, and that it is not constituted by well-tested effective formulae.

The Function of Beauty

According to Kant, beauty has no function beyond the pleasure it generates. As much as this view influenced philosophical discourse, it did not satisfy natural scientists and social and cultural researchers.

Beauty and sexual selection.

Charles Darwin (18091882) sought to answer the question: how has natural beauty been acquired and what is its purpose? He rejects the idea that beauty in nature is a merely arbitrary outcome of physical forces. Darwin believed that the beautiful colors and diversified patterns we see in butterflies, moths, fish, birds, and other creatures must be beneficial in some way. In The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), he presents the theory that beauty is a result of accumulative sexual selection. Studying mating rituals among various species, Darwin concludes that the animals' splendid decorations, their pomp and display, could not be inconsequential, and that it is impossible to doubt that the female admires the beauty of her male partner. This contrasts with the traditional view expressed by Burke (1767) that beauty is feminine, while the sublime is masculine.

Kant states that only humans are capable of appreciating beauty. Darwin insists that the origin of the ability to notice beauty (and appreciate it as such) is the same for animals and humans. Yet he agrees that humans' perception of beauty is far more complex than that of animals and involves cultural values and traditions. He examined courting customs in different cultures and confirmed that beauty plays an equally central role in choosing mates, in spite of cultural differences.

Sigmund Freud (18561939) concurs with Darwin as to the origin and role of beauty in human life. In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud asserts that there is no doubt that beauty originates in sexual feelings, and that all forms of pleasure are related to sexual love. According to Darwin and Freud, the function of beauty is universal, but the variety of its manifestations coheres with cultural relativism. Tattoos serve as a beautifying means in one culture and are condemned in another. The Makalalo women used to pierce their upper lips and place a ring in it. Piercing, until recently regarded as esoteric in Western culture, is now commonplace in Western society. Facial hair (beard or mustache) is thought to enhance masculine beauty in Western culture. While the American Indians considered facial hair vulgar, they appreciated long hair for men. However, the passion for beauty and the readiness to suffer to achieve it are similar in all cultures.

Naomi Wolf, an active feminist, denies that this is true. She rejects the idea that beauty answers genuine, universal needs. Beauty, according to Wolf, is a myth created during the industrial revolution and used ever since by men to manipulate women for their own interest. Beauty, she holds, is not universal and is not a function of evolution. The readiness of women to suffer in order to achieve the false ideal of beauty indicates the dominance of men and confirms male manipulation. Thus, according to Wolf, the female suffering for beauty is not a genuine product of evolutionary forces (1991). Camille Paglia criticizes this kind of feminist approach for concentrating on images of beauty of the last century and for failing to encompass a broad historical view. Paglia places the origin of beauty in ancient Egypt (1991).

In contrast to Wolf's position, Nancy Etcoff argues that beauty is a powerful and genuine element in everyday life. She agrees with Darwin that beauty influences sexual choice, but she goes on to argue that it influences all aspects of life from early childhood on. Beauty is not the result of political or economical manipulation, but rather the other way around: due to its strong impact, beauty is used as a means of achieving political and economic ends. Beauty, according to Etcoff, is not a product of a certain period in history; its origin, rather, lies in human nature itself (1999).

Beauty and art.

Art was traditionally considered a source of beauty; some even argued that natural beauty is subordinated to artistic beauty. Plato, however, separated art and beauty into two independent concepts: real beauty reflects truth, while art is a deceiving imitation of nature. Aristotle, by contrast, held that good art is beautiful and that, therefore, the two are inseparable: a good work of art is a beautiful work. The Aristotelian aesthetic tradition prevailed for centuries, but it was the eighteenth century that gave rise to the idea that creating beauty is the essential purpose of art.

Kant holds that good art is beautiful, although it differs significantly from natural beauty: a good work of art is a beautiful representation. A representation can be beautiful even if its subject matter is not beautiful. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831) argues that beauty is the essential feature of art, and natural beauty is a reflection of artistic beauty (Aesthetics, 1835). In this view, beauty reflects intentional creation, not incidental results of blind, natural forces. The poet Friedrich von Schiller (17591805) associates art with freedom and beauty: we arrive at freedom through artistic beauty, since it is a product of intentional, free choice (Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, 1795). The comparison between artistic and natural beauty led Oscar Wilde (18541900) to the observation that life and nature imitate art far more than art imitates life or nature. Art is the creation of beauty; life and nature constitute its raw materials (The Decay of Lying, 1894). Benedetto Croce (18661952) similarly states that the sense of natural beauty is a derivative of artistic beauty. Beauty of nature cannot be explained unless one regards it as the work of a divine creator. Beauty, according to Croce, is a synonym of intuition and expression, and these refer to the artistic form. The content of the work is beautiful only when wrought into form.

Robin G. Collingwood (18891943) defines art as an attempt to achieve beauty (Outlines of a Philosophy of Art, 1925). However, his viewpoint did not gain influence in the twentieth century. The prevailing analytical trend preferred, it would seem, clear-cut, definable notions and has not been conducive to the study of the paradoxical nature of beauty, its ambiguous logical status, and the endless disputes over matters of taste. Thus, beauty has been dismissed as a vague and insignificant concept and considered irrelevant to art. Ludwig Wittgenstein (18891951) remarks in this analytical vein that beauty is an odd word that is hardly ever used (Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, 1938). John A. Passmore states that there is something suspicious about the notion of beauty, and that artists seem to get along quite well without it. He associates beauty with kitsch and bourgeois art (1954).

The association of beauty with superficiality and tranquil bourgeois life stood in contrast to the revolutionary spirit of modern art and the general atmosphere between the two world wars and after. Detaching beauty from art became common practice. According to Curt J. Ducasse (18811969), there is no essential connection between art and beauty. Art is an attempt to express feelings, and artists may intend to create or express ugliness in their work (The Philosophy of Art, 1966). Nelson Goodman (19061998) argued that many of the best paintings are, in the most obvious sense, ugly. Beauty, according to Goodman, is a vague and deceptive concept, while art is a kind of language that has no essential bond with beauty (Languages of Art, 1968). The influential and much-discussed institutional definition of art presented by George Dickie (1974) similarly bypasses the notion of beauty.

Mary Mothersill strongly criticizes the wide neglect of beauty and its detachment from art. She argues that the idea of beauty is indispensable and taken for granted in art criticism, because although critics do not explicitly refer to beauty, the idea is implicit in their criticism (1984). Mothersill's analysis of beauty reflects a change in approach. By the turn of the century we witness the growth of a renewed interest in various aspects of beauty. Wilfried Van Damme examines the anthropological perspective of beauty (1996). Eddy M. Zemach defends the objectivity of aesthetic properties and their empirical testability (1997). James Kirwan studies the history of the concept in order to illuminate the experience of beauty (1999). Peg Zeglin Brand examines the role and significance of beauty in social life and in relation to gender (2000). Lorand offers a theory of aesthetic order that revives the connection between beauty and art (2000), and Nick Zangwill rethinks the metaphysics of beauty (2001). These and other contemporary studies confirm that beauty is central to human experience in spite of its neglect in the discourse of the last century. The genuine vitality of beauty is bound to intrigue the reflective mind and inspire further investigations of its nature.

See also Aesthetics ; Arts ; Emotions ; Evolution ; Feminism ; Imagination ; Platonism ; Taste ; Truth .


Arnheim, Rudolf. Toward a Psychology of Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

Beardsley, Monroe C. "Order and Disorder." In The Concept of Order, edited by Paul G. Kuntz. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1968.

Dickie, George. Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1974.

. The Century of Taste: The Philosophical Odyssey of Taste in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Etcoff, Nancy. Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty. New York: Doubleday, 1999.

Eysenck, Hans J. "The Experimental Study of the 'Good Gestalt,' a New Approach." Psychological Review 49 (1942): 344364.

Galton, Francis. "Composite Portraits." Nature 18 (1878): 97100.

Lorand, Ruth. Aesthetic Order: A Philosophy of Order, Beauty, and Art. London: Routledge, 2000.

Moles, Abraham. Information Theory and Esthetic Perception. Translated by Joel E. Cohen. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1966.

Mothersill, Mary. Beauty Restored. Oxford: Clarendon, 1984.

Osborne, Harold. "Aesthetics and Other Forms of Order." British Journal of Aesthetics 22 (1982): 316.

Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New York: Vintage, 1991.

Passmore, John A. "The Dreariness of Aesthetics." In Aesthetics and Language, edited by William Elton, 3655. Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1954.

Stolnitz, Jerome. "'Beauty': Some Stages in the History of an Idea." Journal of the History of Ideas 22 (1961): 185204.

Tatarkiewicz, Wladyslaw. History of Aesthetics. The Hague: Mouton, 197074.

Van Damme, Wilfried. Beauty in Context. Leiden, Netherlands, and New York: Brill, 1996.

Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth. New York: Anchor, 1992.

Zangwill, Nick. The Metaphysics of Beauty. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Zeglin Brand, Peg, ed. Beauty Matters. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Zemach, Eddy M. Real Beauty. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

Ruth Lorand

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Beauty and Ugliness." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 18 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Beauty and Ugliness." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (August 18, 2018).

"Beauty and Ugliness." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved August 18, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.