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Beauty in Art

excerpt from Natural Design: Image Design for Nature Photographers

We’ve all heard responses to our work by friends and relations as beautiful, pretty or stunning, meaning, of course, that the observer finds the image visually satisfying or harmonious; that it meets or exceeds his or her personal perception of beauty. This is all well and good – and the accolades feel great. There is, after all, not a thing wrong with making pretty pictures.

But is it beautiful to the unbiased observer? Would someone on the other side of the world think it beautiful, or an artist of another genre? What is beauty? And who sets the standards for and makes judgments about beauty in art?

These questions have been asked for hundreds of years and there is no generally accepted consensus. That is to say, there is no single definition because there can be none. It is thought however, that regardless of what we personally believe qualifies an art object as beautiful, all beauty originates in one of the two following ways:

1. Beauty lies in the response of the viewer. In this definition something outside ourselves can make us feel a sense of beauty on the inside. This definition is more about the viewer and the personal experiences, cultures, memories and life education he or she brings to the viewing experience. It is about feeling. For example, a scene with God Beams streaming onto an unremarkable landscape may not be the prettiest scene, but it may instill an overwhelming sense of beauty within a person of faith, or lead to a moment of personal reflection that can be considered beautiful.

2. It is thought that there are qualities in subject matter that are inherently beautiful. For example, a pink rosebud and a fiery red sunset are both considered beautiful by more people than not. In this definition it is the outside object that is perceived as beautiful by the observer. This is also subjective and can change with cultures and over time. What one region, state or neighborhood perceives to be beautiful, the next could perceive as ugly.

In the first definition, beauty is found within the observer as a reaction of the communication between artist and observer: it’s beautiful if I can feel the beauty. In the second, the viewer looks to the subject matter to find beauty: it’s beautiful if I deem it visually appealing. Each definition has its own qualifying attributes and there are as many of those for each person as there are individual observers. This is why there can be no universally accepted definition of beauty, and why it is important to understand that to produce something perceived as visually appealing, attractive or beautiful is not always the goal of the artist.

Given this, the artist who strives to produce beauty that pleases everyone places unrealistic demands on his- or herself. It would be impossible for every observer to find either the object or the experience as one they would qualify as beautiful. It is equally unfair of an observer to bring to the viewing experience the expectation of beauty as beauty may not have been the intent of the artist. When this link of communication between artist and observer is broken it is unlikely that a complete and fully satisfying visual communication will be had.

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excerpt from Natural Design: Image Design for Nature Photographers

Text and images copyright Gloria Hopkins