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A Brief Comparison of Aesthetic Objectivism, Relativism and Subjectivism

Providing a standard for appreciating art and beauty


I was recently asked to define aesthetic relativism, objectivism and subjectivism and to offer pros and cons for each school of thought.  Anyone struggling to understand art wonders why there are no exact, clear-cut rules for defining what art might be.  The breadth and scope of this question is quite large, however, and many scholars have devoted considerable time and thought to aesthetic classifications.  I am many years removed from any academic study of art and its systematic categorization.  Subsequently, I will address this question only in the broadest possible sense.

In the most basic terms, these classifications each attempt to provide a standard for the classification of beauty, ostensibly to assist in its appreciation.  The very existence of multiple standards suggests the difficulty in establishing a criterion validated through consensus, and the discussion takes on a philosophical rather than functional tone.  The question as asked seeks pros and cons of each aesthetic “camp,” but this proves problematic.  Suggesting what is good or bad about a specific school of thought is subjective and perhaps out of my league.  I will offer my opinion instead and hope this will suffice, noting that my own views might differ from art historians or philosophical scholars.



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Classifying art is a difficult undertaking

Aesthetic objectivism can best be seen in nature

Aesthetic objectivism can best be seen in nature

This statue's beauty and elegance is defined by its time and context

This statue's beauty and elegance is defined by its time and context

Could Michelangelo's David someday be considered "bad" art?

Could Michelangelo's David someday be considered "bad" art?

Relativism allows us to admire the beauty in children's drawings

Relativism allows us to admire the beauty in children's drawings

Subjectivism offers us the opportunity to appreciate this as art

Subjectivism offers us the opportunity to appreciate this as art

Categorizing art


Inherent in this discussion of beauty, of course, is an analysis of art.  Categorizing art sometimes blurs the distinction between two separate activities:  deciding what art is and evaluating art.  If we had an absolute method for distinguishing art from non-art, we would not necessarily have the means to measure its quality.  When a viewer sees a calendar with car wax applied to it and asks, “Why is this considered art?” are they asking why it is thought to be art or why it is considered good?  The difficulty in distinguishing between these two questions is not satisfactorily resolved through establishing aesthetic categorizations, but it might serve as a starting point.    


Aesthetic objectivism asserts that standards for the appreciation and evaluation of art must hold true across time and cultures.  Art that was considered beautiful 100 years ago is beautiful now and will continue to be beautiful 100 years from now.  This type of classification is meaningful in articulating an aesthetic standard, but only time can validate it.  Michelangelo’s “David” might be considered beautiful for centuries to come, but a day might arrive when the human body is considered vulgar or obscene.  Would “David” still be considered art under these circumstances?  From a cultural perspective, it conceivably would not be viewed with the same appreciation it now earns, so perhaps it would merely be considered bad art. 

My personal view on objective standards is that they are defined by nature, not man.  We can apply aesthetic objectivism to beauty but not art.  The universe is beautiful and will always be; a rainbow, flower, bird or mountain range is and will be beautiful, as well.  Nature’s beauty is not dependent upon human perception and interaction, making it (in my opinion) the only true example of aesthetic objectivism.


Aesthetic relativism is a judgment of beauty relative to individuals, cultures, a particular time period or context.  It allows for changing sensibilities and norms.  We are allowed to appreciate art without applying a uniform or modern-day standard, recognizing it as a product of its times and culture.  For example, a marble statue from 600 B.C. of a youth would be considered primitive by contemporary standards, but it is appreciated as art when placed in the context of its time period.  What if a Salvador Dali painting was taken back through time to be viewed by the ancient Greeks?  The symbols would be unidentifiable and likely transcend their ability to appreciate it, even though their culture placed a premium on the appreciation of beauty.  Placing each in a historical context allows us to consider both true art and aesthetically pleasing.  Relativism permits us to appreciate the crude drawings of a small child, understanding that its appreciation does not diminish the works of Van Gogh or Monet.  This seems an aware, logical application of aesthetic “standards” and can be applied to art as well as the more generic category of beauty.


Aesthetic subjectivism is a judgment not affected by standards or norms through which art or beauty is typically judged.  “I know what I like” is the battle cry for aesthetic subjectivism.  This category can include beauty, art and virtually anything else on earth, and is the broadest aesthetic classification.  No one must justify their singular appreciation of beauty to anyone, and there is no compulsion to define it within a larger context.  This broad appreciation of art and beauty simultaneously allows for both the most and fewest philosophical arguments, but also offers room for everyone to be an expert in their own mind.  I do not fault anyone for appreciating art in a subjective way.  Relying only minimally on shared meaning and perceptions, however, I do find fault with an artist using aesthetic subjectivism to call anything he or she wishes art.    

From a personal standpoint, aesthetic relativism seems the most practical means of evaluating aesthetic beauty.  Objectivism is too difficult to validate and subjectivism seems too broad in scope.  In terms of “pros and cons,” I would judge relativism to have the fewest “cons,” but that is a personal opinion only.  In fact I see them not as competing categorizations, but rather as parts of a whole.

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A scale of classification


Objectivism defines aesthetics narrowly, subjectivism broadly, and relativism sits between the other two.  Based upon such loose definitions of each term, it becomes possible to view them collectively as something more.  When summarizing aesthetic objectivism, relativism and subjectivism, one can see them combining to form a type of scale.  Perhaps all three categories are part of a greater whole, and it isn’t necessary to embrace one aesthetic standard at the expense of another.  This could serve as a means to categorize our judgment of art, if not to actually define it.  We can acknowledge objective beauty.  We can also understand the cultural context making an appreciation of other works of art relative to time, place or circumstance.  We can enjoy that calendar with car wax smeared on it without the need to justify the pleasure we derive from viewing it.  Viewing all three philosophical perspectives as a single whole allows us to embrace art and beauty in an all-encompassing manner. 

This should be the ultimate goal in appreciating art and, on a larger scale, beauty.  It should not be our task to define or categorize it, but rather to embrace it.  Irrespective of the era and cultural milieu, we should allow ourselves the freedom to appreciate the magnificent perfection that surrounds us.  That seems like what art and beauty should be about.


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Mike Lickteig (author) from Lawrence KS USA on November 19, 2011:

Thanks for the kind words, iacsam. I appreciate your stopping by.


iacsam from Pune, India on November 18, 2011:

I really enjoyed this great hub. Congrats for 100 Hubs :)

Mike Lickteig (author) from Lawrence KS USA on March 10, 2011:

Thanks, David. I appreciate your taking the time to read. Take care.


David99999 on March 06, 2011:

Great essay!

Mike Lickteig (author) from Lawrence KS USA on July 31, 2010:

Thanks for stopping by, Justin.


JUSTIN on July 31, 2010:


Mike Lickteig (author) from Lawrence KS USA on June 22, 2010:

Blue Parrot, I just went to your profile page and saw there are indeed three of you. Blue Parrot #2, I considered my discussion with blue parrot #1 concluded but you or he are, of course, always welcome to return and comment.


blue parrot from Madrid, Spain on June 22, 2010:

To Mike Lickteig:

There are of us signing "blue parrot" and the one that wrote here is right now packing his suitcase to leave for Valencia with an American friend, and he is in one hell of a mood, running out of time as people who pack their suitcase always are.

I will tell him about this when he comes back on Friday.

Mike Lickteig (author) from Lawrence KS USA on June 13, 2010:

Dallas, thanks for reading. You raise some interesting points. The idea of finding a universal beauty or truth is, in fact, quite unlikely. I suggested that nature offers the best shot at creating something of true and universal beauty--but it still might be seen as subjective or based upon personal experience. Will we see a flower as beautiful if it makes us sneeze? Perhaps not.... The birth of our own children will be seen as beautiful, but perhaps the birth of someone else's child would be seen as far less. Without an emotional attachment, would we see a small, bloody creature emerging from a woman as something horrible? Perhaps....

There are no answers, but I thank you for the most interesting points you have raised. Take care.


Dallas W Thompson from Bakersfield, CA on June 13, 2010:

Thought provoking.. Perhaps beauty is in the "eye of the beholder." Given, our reality is filtered thru our life's experiences, art must be defined by the one experiencing it... As you noted, it is a challenge to define ones "feeling" about art, because we all "feel" differently.... An anology would be to define an "unversal truth." "Truth" is relative... There is nothing that is always true, under/in all circumstances, or environments... Art is an impression experienced by us mortals... Great hub. I challenge anyone to give a universal example of "beauty." a birth of a child would "NORMALLY" be described as a beautiful thing/ocurance. However, a birth in a consentration camp, where the baby would be destroyed is a painful, "UGLY" thing/ocurrance.

Mike Lickteig (author) from Lawrence KS USA on June 09, 2010:

Blue Parrot, thanks for coming back. I will gladly skip labeling my opinions for what they are. Just wanted anyone who read this to understand that a HubPages request prompted me to write about aesthetic categories, and that my opinion is only that.

I would reiterate that throughout I have attempted to make a distinction between art and beauty, even though both may find themselves similarly categorized aesthetically. I have loosely labeled art as something man-made, for lack of a description more appropriate.

I never asserted that nature creates art, but I did say it creates beauty, and it created beauty before man responded to it. That sunset existed before man was there to name it. All we did was slap a label on it. A rose by any other name will smell as sweet, right? My entire point with mentioning nature was that it was the only source likely for an objective standard for beauty to originate.

Man may have climbed a mountain and viewed a sunset to satisfy his curiosity, but I suspect when he saw the sunset, there was more to it than man saying to himself, "okay, I've seen a sunset now--my curiosity has been satisfied." He more likely said, "That was really pretty" (or awesome or whatever). That response would not have been cultivated, at least not the first time it happened. If man "created" beauty, was it created in a vacuum? Or, was beauty recognized on an innate level in response to an external stimulus, and we named what we responded to? Man built shelters and clothed himself in response to the elements. Was this a construct of the mind, as well? Did heat and cold not exist until man created a name for it, and only then did clothing and shelter became necessary? Was that response cultivated as well or did man say, "Hey! It's cold out here, and I need to do something about it!" It is more likely that heat and cold were present long before we were--and so was beauty.

Why indeed do some men stand in awe of colors and other features of nature? If it is (as you say) a manifestation of feeling at home in their world and nature made man that way, then why can't we extrapolate that nature created our same innate response to beauty? Why can nature offer us a sense of awe, but beauty must be cultivated or is created by man? If curiosity is the origin of beauty (noticing and watching the sunset or), that is still a response to an external stimulus. Curiosity might also prompt us to shake a bee hive, but we wouldn’t likely call the ensuing sensation awe—it would be pain, with perhaps some fear thrown in for good measure. Our response wouldn’t be cultivated, either--we don't need to be taught that bee stings hurt--all we have to do is shake that hive enough. Curiosity can lead us to natural beauty in the same way it can lead us to pain.

I am afraid I'm still not convinced that beauty is an invention of man, even if the word is. Art? Okay. Beauty? I find myself remaining unconvinced.

Thanks again for your response, I've enjoyed thinking about this.

blue parrot from Madrid, Spain on June 09, 2010:

The cat finds that flower attractive too, and the bee. Ah, you might say, but they are after food and the baby isn't. Well, yes, Man is naturally curious. He is after meaning. But nature is no artist. It throws a lot of colors around the sun at dusk but that's not an abstract painting. It is a Rorschach blot for Man to work on.

Then why do (some) men (sometimes) stand in awe of colors and other features of nature?

It is a manifestation of their feeling at home in their world (at that moment). Nature made them that way. The “higher” they are, the better the world looks. As you say, art comes with leisure and well-being. Art is decoration, wishful thinking, a need for joy (Stendhal called it the “promise of happiness”), a pleasant ordering of the chaos. By the way, isn't there just as good a case for calling nature ugly as beautiful?

Can't we just skip the IMHOs? None of us are experts, heck. I know readers are going to ask what I mean by beauty and I have to admit that my inability to reach some kind of definition vitiates this whole exposition. Have to keep trying.


Mike Lickteig (author) from Lawrence KS USA on June 08, 2010:

Blue Parrot, thanks for reading and offering your comments. Your reaction is quite interesting, and I appreciate your taking the time to offer your insights. I hope you noted that I prefaced aspects of my discussion as my opinion, including the part you referenced regarding the beauty of nature. I am not claiming to be a scholar. Having said that, I will attempt to defend my statements and not leave it as an “I’m entitled to my opinion” argument.

I would suggest that if beauty is the creation of man, aesthetic objectivism categorically doesn’t exist. Beauty defined by perception appears to eliminate the very idea that an objective standard can exist. But, I’m willing to dig a little deeper than that.

I do believe that beauty can be cultivated, but I do not believe it must be. Why is a small child attracted to a flower in bloom? Is it because the child was taught it was beautiful, or is it because the flower is, in fact, beautiful in a way the child responds to on an instinctive level? If it took centuries for man to notice the sunset, it might be because man was busy fighting for his survival. Food, shelter, and safety came first, and when those needs were met, man looked at the sunset and found it beautiful. I am not convinced a sunset only became beautiful when someone labeled it such—it was beautiful before he noticed it also—hence the idea that the beauty of nature is a good example of aesthetic objectivism. I believe it is indeed natural to climb a mountain for the pleasure of watching a sunset, and someone did that very thing for the first time in order to realize it was beautiful to watch.

Without an innate appreciation of beauty, how can we cultivate it? Is beauty simply a philosophical construct to be agreed upon, without referencing anything from man or nature? Is beauty found simply by naming something as such and teaching others to call it beautiful, as well? This would suggest that man’s response to beauty is on an intellectual level only. My opinion is that man responds to beauty intellectually and emotionally. If we could define what it means to respond to something on a spiritual level, I would guess man responds to beauty in spiritual ways, as well.

Holding nature to a standard of aesthetic objectivism and art (art loosely defined as man-made) to a relative or subjective standard is indeed (as you assert the need for) a way to differentiate between natural beauty and artistic beauty and was to some degree my entire point—nature establishes a standard that can be categorized objectively while man does not. It also raises the issue of why art would mimic nature if it held no innate beauty and, on a more basic level, why man would bother to create art at all. Why would we feel awe and be compelled to draw the human figure or a landscape if we did not see a fundamental beauty there? Why did man choose a flower to call beautiful? If beauty is an invention of man, why not excrement, or something else we consider unpleasant?

I’m not an expert but in my opinion, beauty is not an invention of man. I believe it exists in some way and man responds to it. Art itself is a reflection of this response. These are only my personal beliefs, of course, and I respect and value your own opinions very much. Thanks again for your comments, they are greatly appreciated.


blue parrot from Madrid, Spain on June 08, 2010:

Nature defines beauty? Really? Are you such a Platonist that you believe in the existence of concepts outside man's perception? Surely beauty is an invention of Man's. Jakob Burckhardt in his History of the Renaissance even believes that the perception of beauty has to be cultivated, that it isn't natural, for example, to climb a mountain only for the pleasure of watching a sunset; and that for most of Man's existence on earth he never gave the sunset a second look. In any case, you must distinguish between natural beauty (a naked woman, a sunset) and artistic beauty (the nude, a landscape). The one is what the artist does in imitation or awe of the other. He renders it (or used to) according to inborn (a priori) laws such as symmetry and proportion and other harmony.

Mike Lickteig (author) from Lawrence KS USA on June 06, 2010:

Arthur, thanks for weighing in. I agree with what you say in that the potential for misuse among anyone wanting to label something (anything) art is there. That is my primary beef, as well. As an art student, I had numerous debates with other students and faculty on what is and what is not art, and I thought my peers embraced far too broad a definition. (The calendar was a real example...) Some things should categorically not be called art, and you mentioned several in your comments.

If pinned down, I would probably straddle the middle ground and call myself a relativist. If someone wants to label something art and I can accept it as a product of its times and environment, I can call it art while claiming it isn't relevant to my own era or social context.

My struggle with objectivism is the tendency to move toward absolutes. I realize it isn't completely as clear-cut as that, but I feel it strives to be. Hence, my preference to view the beauty of nature in an objective manner, but little that is man-made. A cave was probably beautiful to a caveman but wouldn't do much for someone in Beverly Hills.

I agree that we have an intuitive sense of beauty and, as a species, we likely share at least a basic common ground. I believe all men and women have the ability to agree that some things are beautiful, even if we cannot agree on a definition of beauty. Trusting that sense hopefully eliminates both rationalizations and con jobs.

Well, I was responding to your comments without actually leading to any point in particular, so I will end this and say thanks again for your thoughts and insights. They are, as always, greatly appreciated. Take care.


Arthur Windermere on June 06, 2010:

Hi Mike,

This was an enjoyable read. I'm not sure where I fall in the scheme, really. Because objectivism can take a lot of different forms. I tend to think of myself as an objectivist, but I don't for that reason think I can intellectualize it. I think intuitively we do tend to know what good art is and how it affects us: it makes us think and feel differently than we would have without it. What properties go to make that so, I don't know. Sometimes intellectualizing only gets in the way (e.g. accepting the calendar with car wax) of more honest intuition. Intuitively, it's just a calendar with car wax. haha

My worries about relativism is that it's often misused. For instance, Feminists often dig up forgotten novels and paintings that are clearly not very good (e.g. Aphra Behn's works) and declare the only reason we thin it's not good is that we have an appreciation of art that's relative to the Patriarchal order. Other critics have done the same for African-American works of art, and pretty much anything from any minority. I think that's more dishonest intellectualizing on their part. If it was good art, someone would have noticed, I think. We just know it intuitively.

There. That was my little defense of objectivism. hehe


Mike Lickteig (author) from Lawrence KS USA on June 05, 2010:

CS, thanks for your comments. You raise a good point--it's possible that categorizing art (and beauty) really helps some folks to appreciate it. In that sense, it is all worthwhile. Most of my friends fall into the "I know what I like" category, and the honesty of appreciating something without the need for labels has an appeal. I would not dispute the notion that if the labels help, go with them.

Thanks so much for your insights, they are greatly appreciated. And--welcome back.


Mike Lickteig (author) from Lawrence KS USA on June 05, 2010:

Jill, thanks as well for noticing the 100/100--I didn't think anyone would actually notice. I am gratified that you did. I also appreciate the kind words about this hub--it had been a long time since I had written anything like this, and I'm glad you found it clear. I was afraid it would read as gibberish, frankly. (Whew!)

Thanks so much, I truly appreciate your gracious comments.


Mike Lickteig (author) from Lawrence KS USA on June 05, 2010:

Maita, thanks for the kind words about both the 100 score and 100 hubs. Never thought I would get there on either one. We do all see beauty differently, but the ability to appreciate it exists in all of us.

Thanks again for noticing the 100/100.


coffeesnob on June 05, 2010:


I sure do prefer to embrace art, but this is just how my brain works. I can see the big picture in things and don't need the details of how I got to the appreciation I have for a particular artistic piece. But, then I wonder is not the mind of one who defines it and categorizes it perhaps sinply showing another way to embrace it. Some folks can't see the big picture so they have to go by details.

Enjoyed this hub and looking forward to more.

Loving life, God and Family - in a big picture sort of way :-)


jill of alltrades from Philippines on June 05, 2010:

WOW! CONGRATULATIONS! 100 hubs and 100 score! This calls for a double celebration Mike!

I love this hub Mike. You explained everything so clearly. I like especially your last lines - "This should be the ultimate goal in appreciating art and, on a larger scale, beauty. It should not be our task to define or categorize it, but rather to embrace it...." I simply have to say "Amen" to that. Rated this up!

God bless!

prettydarkhorse from US on June 05, 2010:

Hi, Congrats for 100 HUBS, you ROCK< all your hubs are great! Sir Mike, I agree with you about your definitions, appreciation is inherent in us although we see beauty differently. I rated this up,


Mike Lickteig (author) from Lawrence KS USA on June 05, 2010:

HC, thanks for stopping by. I realize the title (and the hub itself) is a little dry, and I appreciate your taking the time to walk through it. Thanks again.


Mike Lickteig (author) from Lawrence KS USA on June 05, 2010:

drbj, thanks for reading. I think we get too caught up in identifying how we're viewing something rather than why--the why being, usually, to enjoy what we see. It isn't necessarily important to categorize what we're looking at, although I realize it can add a historical and philosophical perspective.

Thanks again for stopping by and reading. I appreciate it.


Holly from Lone Star State on June 04, 2010:

It took me reading the title of this Hub 3 times before I read it slow enough to actually see the words, lol...This was well done-great classifications and definitions-Thanks for sharing and educating :)

drbj and sherry from south Florida on June 04, 2010:

Intelligent observations, Mike, about appreciating art. I agree with you wholeheartedly that we need not attempt to classify what we believe is art, but simply enjoy it. If we believe something is beautiful and we are touched by it, then it is art ... no matter what anyone else says.

Mike Lickteig (author) from Lawrence KS USA on June 03, 2010:

Truth, thanks for stopping by. I know you just got finished watching the game. I appreciate your kind words, both about my knowledge and about this hub. Your are most kind, my friend. Thanks again.


Truth From Truth from Michigan on June 03, 2010:

Thanks Mike, you are on point again. Your knowledge covers a large scope. I learned much, thanks for educating me on art.

Mike Lickteig (author) from Lawrence KS USA on June 03, 2010:

Uninvited Writer, thank you for your kind words. I respect your opinions a great deal, and your comments were nice to see. Thanks again.


Susan Keeping from Kitchener, Ontario on June 03, 2010:

Excellent hub, it definitely is a nice, concise explanation of these terms. Well done.

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