Teenagers, beauty, and subjectivity

I work with high school kids, and all of them worry whether beauty is subjective. The question tends to fade later in life, and so older persons might just groan or smile over it, but it is a real crisis for thoughtful young adults.

The question might fade because the supposed clarity of the terms fades. People in the bloom of youth are swimming in beauty and so it’s natural for them to raise questions about it; and they’re modern persons and so it makes sense for them to question the reality of what is everywhere evident and compelling. Young people often tend to remember wondering whether the world existed, or whether it was a dream, or whether “the red I see is the same as the red you see”, but when all of their peers mature and their whole world becomes charged with the urgency of beauty and desire, they tend to wonder whether that world is real.

Seen from this angle, the crisis of beauty might be just the first stage of our questioning whether the dominant note of our environment is real. The next stage of this might happen after we get credentials -become “experts” – and then question whether expertise is real; or get into lasting relationships and question whether lasting relationships are real; or look back on our whole life and wonder whether any of that was real, i.e. whether it meant anything.

One of my first responses to teens asking about the reality or subjectivity of beauty is to point out that, if this were so, we’d have a hard time explaining cosmetics, photo re-touching, our tendency to dress in matching color schemes, the adaptive power of peacock plumage, etc. The response to this is as pre-set and the original question: everyone tries to divide sexual attractiveness from beauty. The first is a trick that nature plays on us to get more children, or something like this.  It’s an illusion of significance- just a pre-programmed response which we could have been just as easily triggered by what we now call “ugliness”.  This leaves us either having to say that beauty really is just this trick, or that, though it is different, it is far too vague and difficult to define since any attempt to do so can no longer appeal to the one thing that is most knowable as beautiful to us. This leaves us, by definition, only with what is more ambiguously beautiful and so the charge of its subjectivity becomes much easier to make.

I’ve been making disputable points all through the last paragraph – the point is more to articulate a dominant mood rather than give an airtight argument. My suspicion is that, though the stages of life, this sort of conflict continues even if the matter under discussion changes. Beauty is just a teenage way of raising a more universal question of the reality of what is significant or meaningful.

1 Comment

  1. curious student said,

    June 2, 2015 at 7:12 pm

    We have to remember that this same reasoning applies to art and nature as well as human beauty. Beauty has to have both objective and subjective aspects. It cannot be said that beauty is entirely objective without also making the claim that we can’t truly see beauty. But, saying it is entirely subjective raises the question as to why nearly everyone sees, for instance, the Sistine Chapel as beautiful. However, the argument could be made that beauty is entirely subjective and humans are just wired similarly. This explanation denies beauty as a transcendental and may deny the beauty of the beatific vision. On the other hand, this explanation could explain why those in hell don’t see the beauty of God. If that’s the case then the reasoning has gone full circle to say that beauty is objective, since God is objective, and humans are flawed and so don’t always see it.

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