Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Beauty is chiefly understood as a matter of the senses rather than of the intellect. Familiar phrases like “in the eye of the beholder” and “there’s no accounting for taste” stress the role of individual perceptions and gut reactions in arriving at aesthetic conclusions. More than an absolute law, beauty is typically described as a feeling, emotion, passion or sentiment. From one point of view, this removes aesthetic judgments from the plane of rational discourse, essentially eliminating the possibility of an empirical framework for measuring gradients of beauty. However, aesthetics remains an active area of philosophy concerned with principles of attractiveness and taste. Even liberal humanism, that branch of philosophy that champions the dignity of personal values and opinions, has put forward criteria for evaluating beauty.
A particularly lucid formulation comes from Rabbi Daniel Friedman, one of the founders of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. In “Art and Nature: Beauty and Spirituality,” a philosophical sketch originally presented at the 2001 Colloquium of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, Friedman offers some yardsticks for aesthetic determination that approach objectivity (as much as such a thing is possible). Friedman contends that beauty is not a property of nature, but a concept formed in the mind. As human beings, we extract and infuse purpose, meaning and value in our experiences and observations. Judging something as beautiful is fundamentally a conceptualization of feelings evoked inside of us: serenity, wonder, elation, awe, satisfaction, etc. Aesthetics is thus an internal process. It is idiosyncratically derived.
Yet, according to Friedman, this does not relegate beauty to an arbitrary decision or a relativistic whim. While the assessment takes place internally and is ultimately shaped by forces like culture and biography, the object or phenomenon itself remains outside of us. It is in that realm of creation—rather than perception—that objective standards can be applied, however imperfectly. Specifically, Friedman argues that higher and lower worth can be assigned to human artworks based on how much and to what degree they utilize distinctly human qualities.
He gives the example of comparing Mozart to elevator music (presumably meaning easy-listening instrumentals with simple and unobtrusively looped melodies). A Mozart composition is aesthetically superior, Friedman claims, because it uses more and better-refined human capacities, including reason, intellect, imagination, discipline, education and talent. It demands deeper understanding and appreciation from both the composer/performer(s) and the listener. It requires more of our humanity, and is thus more beautiful.
The obvious flaw in this comparison is a confusion of kind: it is improper to apply the same criteria or expectations to two selections from disparate musical spheres. Mozart should be compared to other composers of the Classical period, just as bluegrass should be judged against other bluegrass and yodeling against other yodeling. (It also follows that all elevator music should not be lumped together—some elevator music exhibits more and fuller human qualities.) Nevertheless, Friedman’s proposal—the measurement of beauty by degrees—is consistent with the broader thrust of humanism, which celebrates the exploration of human potential as the highest goal one can strive for. In art or anything else, the more of our potential we use and the further we push ourselves toward that end, the more worthy the outcome.
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