5 What Makes an Artwork Beautiful?

Xiao Ouyang


At least two concepts are immediately involved in any attempt at answering the question “What Makes an Artwork Beautiful?” Namely, the notion of beauty—a keyword in Western aesthetics—and the notion of art—one of the most debated topics in contemporary philosophical aesthetics. Given the still ongoing discussion of these two notions, and the synthetic nature of our inquiry regarding both topics, it is reasonable to think that, in principle, there can be various possible answers to these questions. What follows below is more a tentative reflection than anything conclusive. Since Chapter 2 is devoted to the definition of artwork and Chapter 6 to natural beauty, for the sake of avoiding overlap, this chapter suspends the discussion of the notion of “artwork” in general and does not majorly concern itself with the discussion of “beauty in nature/natural beauty.” Finally, for the sake of clarity, it may be plausible to shift the focus of the question “what makes an artwork beautiful?” to an investigation of “artistic beauty.”

Before embarking upon this investigation of “artistic beauty,” an immediate axiological challenge comes to our attention—how much does “the beautiful” still matter to art and artworks after the modern and contemporary art movements (especially the avant-garde) have transformed not only our conception of art, but also its reality? If being beautiful or not is no longer an essential concern for artistic creation, why do we still care about “what makes an artwork beautiful?” Moreover, in philosophical aesthetics, there has also been the so-called “anti-aesthetics movement” since the 1980s, which heavily criticises the traditional Western discourse of aesthetics and its upholding of beauty as a fundamental issue. None of the recent influential trends in the studies of philosophical aesthetics focus on “artistic beauty”[1]—even though revived interest in beauty has indeed been witnessed lately.[2] I find that there is no satisfying answer to this challenge. However, historically speaking, many influential philosophers and artists have regarded aesthetics as the same as philosophy of art and viewed art as the highest embodiment of beauty. I think that, despite the fact that artistic beauty is no longer the most important topic in aesthetics and philosophy of art, it nonetheless plays a significant role in our everyday experiences.

Looking at the Taj Mahal in the distance at sunset; walking through the Stourhead Gardens on a clear autumn day; gazing at Johanne Vermeer’s portrait Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665); slowly unfolding the scroll A Thousand Lis of Rivers and Mountains painted by Wang Ximeng;[3] listening to the Flowing Water played on Guqin; watching a performance of the ballet Swan Lake; reading through the calligraphy Lantingji xu by Wang Xizhi;[4] reciting the poetry of Yeats; or gazing upon the relic of The Venus de Milo at Louvre—we frequently hear people describe these as “beautiful.” Why do we find these human-created objects—buildings, gardens, paintings, music, dances, poetry, sculptures, etc. (things we regard as artworks)—beautiful? What contributes to artistic beauty? In what follows, I will review several influential thoughts regarding artistic beauty from both the Eastern and Western aesthetic traditions.

Influential Philosophers and Theories

Similar to the Greek term mousikê (the art of the Muses), the ancient Chinese notion yue 乐 also refers to a consortium of musico-poetic arts. The so-called “song culture”—“a culture in which poetry, music, and dance were a major means of expressing religious, political, ethical, and erotic values” (Halliwell 2009)—occurred in both ancient civilizations. It is perhaps of little surprise that some of the earliest reflections on artistic beauty come from music.

In the West, the discovery of the correspondence between the central musical chords and certain whole number ratios is attributed to Pythagoras of Samos (c. 570–495 BCE). The Pythagorean school believed that beauty comes from the numeric harmony exemplified by music, which also manifests pervasively in the universe. Particular mathematical proportions, ratios (e.g., the Golden Ratio)[5] and shapes (e.g., the circle) bring about aesthetic excellence and make things—natural objects or artefacts alike—beautiful. It is said that the ancient Greek sculptor Polykleitos (c. 480/475–415 BCE), an alleged follower of the Pythagorean school, created the famous Doryphoros on the basis of a secret mathematical formula. Art historians often interpret this sculpture in terms of the so-called chiastic principle—a method of counterbalancing the parts in contrast, to form a proportioned symmetrical whole—and regard it as perfectly illustrating a paradigm of male beauty. In architecture, the famous Roman architect Vitruvius (80–15 BCE) in his De Architectura (The Ten Books on Architecture) a few centuries later claimed, in a similar Pythagorean spirit, that the beauty (venustas) of a building is produced “by the dimensions of all the parts being duly proportioned to each other,” forming a whole with a pleasing appearance (Vitruvius 1984, 13).

In China, similar to the Pythagorean investigation, the ancient thought of music emphasised cosmic harmony and the unification of diversity—“music is the harmony of heaven and earth,” “music promotes the same feeling of love via diverse patterns.”[6] However, the Chinese tradition defined music clearly in terms of human feelings. The Book of Music argues that sound, the element of music, arises from the movement of the human susceptible heart-mind (xin) when it is affected by external things,[7] and music is thus essentially determined by a relational reaction of the heart-mind towards external things.[8] Therefore, one may consequently infer that the aesthetic excellency of music from the ancient Chinese perspective does not merely lie in its formalistic quality.

In his Hippias Major, despite “[appealing] to artworks as examples of beautiful things …  generally Plato (c. 428–328 BCE) conducts his inquiry into beauty at a distance from his discussion of art” (Pappas 2020). But in light of Plato’s Theory of Forms—beauty is regarded as a canonical example of the eternal and unchanging Forms that cause corresponding characteristics in the concrete things in the phenomenal world—what makes something beautiful (be it artwork or not) is then the Form of Beauty or the Beautiful Itself.[9] Moreover, because artworks are considered as the imitation of the concrete things in the word, artistic beauty is then two times removed from the ideal and original Form of Beauty or the Beautiful itself. The Neoplatonist Plotinus (c. 204–270) further states that all things are beautiful due to the presence of beautiful Forms in the intelligible world. These beautiful Forms are intelligible in the sense that they are understood only by intellectual means.[10]

Aristotle (384–322 BCE) inherited the notion of art as mimesis, but, unlike Plato, Aristotle not only regards beauty as a real property of things—as he thinks that the beautiful and the essence of beauty, be it Form or not, are “one and the same in no merely accidental way”[11]—but also that art, such as poetry, represents something more universal (thus to some extent more real in the Platonic sense) than the actual world we experience.[12] Moreover, in viewing beauty “as in some sense a cause,” Aristotle laid out the groundwork for the later Kantian teleological conception of beauty in terms of the notion of purposiveness.[13] Still, Aristotle is not too different from the Pythagorean tradition in attributing artistic beauty to proper magnitude, order and proportion. He writes, “beauty is a matter of size and order” (Poetics, 1450b22); “beauty is realized in number and magnitude, and the state which combines magnitude with good order must necessarily be the most beautiful” (Politics, 1326b3–5); “The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness, which the mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree” (Metaphysics, 1078b6–1705).[14]

In addition, Aristotle thinks that in the “works of art … the scattered elements are combined” in an organic whole which allow the otherwise less fair parts to appear beautiful together.[15] This emphasis on the intrinsic tie between artistic beauty and integrity was promoted and cherished widely as a characteristic of classicism. It can be seen, for example, in the leading Roman poet Horace’s (65–8 BCE) Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry). Cassius Longinus (c. 213–273) in his famous On the Sublime holds that there are passages that are not “noticeable in [themselves], yet all in combination produce a perfect structure,” and that this well-organised unity then contributes to the grandeur of poetry.[16] Despite their differences, for the ancient Greeks and Romans, what makes an artwork beautiful are objective and real qualities of the artwork itself. In addition, the ancient root of the discussion of artistic beauty in the West shows a dimension of aesthetic formalism, which remains particularly active in the Western aesthetic tradition since Plato.

In the Western tradition, one can hardly ignore the significant input of Christian religion in shaping the understanding of artistic beauty. St. Augustine (354–430), in his Confessions, recalled his early writings “on the fair and fit”—what he now called the “lower beauties” that were demonstrated by “corporeal examples” ([397] 2002). Similar to Aristotle and his Roman predecessors, St. Augustine thinks this sort of beauty comes from a harmonised organic whole formed by corresponding parts.[17] In his City of God ([413–426] 1871, bk. XXII), Augustine writes, “for all bodily beauty consists in the proportion of the parts, together with a certain agreeableness of colour.” In this view we see the confluence of the classical proportion theory of beauty (related notions: unity, integrity, harmony, order, wholeness, etc.) with the colour-light theory of beauty that became increasingly influential in Medieval aesthetics.

Arguably, the great synthesis of the age came with St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). In the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas writes, “for beauty includes three conditions, integrity or perfection (integritas sive perfectio), since those things which are impaired are by the very fact ugly; due proportion or harmony (proportio sive consonantia); and lastly, brightness, or clarity (claritas), whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color” (1920, I.39.8).[18] It can be argued that, in identifying the three formal constituents of beauty, namely, integrity, proportion, and clarity (proportio, claritas, and integritas), Aquinas not only further developed the aesthetic formalist dimension from Ancient Greek tradition, but also provided an objectivist account of artistic beauty. However, there is another essential aspect in both Augustine’s and Aquinas’ understanding of beauty. In the Christian worldview, God is the cause for light, order, and harmony, and God is the most virtuous artist, who created the world and human beings. Aquinas discusses each of the three constitutive elements of beauty in relation to a property of the Son, while the confessing Augustine reminds us, the ultimate cause of all things beautiful—natural objects and artefacts alike—is God: “beauty of all things beautiful” ([397-400] 2002, bk. III), whose “own fairness makest all things fair” (bk. I).

One of the earliest ancient Chinese notions of beauty can be reconstructed on the materials from the Book of Changes.[19] This ancient text records a puzzling proposition, “you mei han zhi (有美含之),” literally, “containing in this there is mei.”[20] Mei 美 is the Chinese word regarded as a counterpart of beauty. However, mei can also be used as an adjective and a verb, thus meaning “beautiful” or “to beautify.” This early proposition about beauty in the Chinese tradition is interpreted as referring to the formation of the decorative pattern(s) (wen 文), such as the shapes, colours and grains seen in plants and animals.[21] One may argue that, in light of the ancient Chinese tradition, what makes an artwork beautiful is its exhibition of a certain decorative pattern—if one ignores the possible chicken-and-egg dilemma. In Ernst Grosse’s The Beginning of Art (2014), it is argued that early decorative art comes from the patterns of natural things.

Mei in the Book of Changes, as well as in other ancient Chinese texts,[22] is related to the notion of fine/fineness (or good/goodness). Paleographic studies provide us with further evidence. The 2nd century Chinese dictionary Shuowen Jiezi, complied by Xu Shen 许慎 (58–148), states that “[mei] means delicious or sweet [gan 甘]. Its character is composed of the characters for Sheep/Goat (yang 羊) and Big (da 大). Among the six kinds of domestic animals, Sheep/Goat is a major source of food. Beauty and Fine/Good (hao 好) have the same meaning.”[23] It is worth noting here that some argue that Plato’s word kalon—often translated as “beautiful”—is also closer to the notion of “fine” in many contexts (Janaway 2000).[24] St. Thomas Aquinas draws another clear equivalence between beauty and goodness (“beauty and goodness in a thing are identical fundamentally”), but instead of giving a somewhat pragmatic explanation like the Chinese source, Aquinas believed that beauty and goodness “are based on the same thing, namely, the form” (1920, I.5.4 ad 1).[25]

Generally speaking, ancient Greek and Chinese thinkers seem to have no interest in (or perhaps no need for) distinguishing what makes an artwork beautiful and what makes it useful or good, as we do. Moreover, seeking moral values in beauty (a topic largely omitted in this chapter) consistently constitutes a dominant approach in both traditions. In the Chinese art tradition, propositions such as “literature for the sake of carrying on the Dao” (文以载道), “poetry for the sake of expressing aspiration” (诗以言志), “music for the sake of resonating with the Dao” (以音应道), “seeking [spiritual] tranquillity in sound-music” (声中求静) are mainstream throughout Chinese history. According to this tradition, the aesthetic excellence of art is intertwined with its practical and, especially, moral values. In a sense, what makes an artwork beautiful has to be something morally good as well. Art became a method of moral self-cultivation.[26] The modern conception that what makes an artwork beautiful should be something sui generis and different from what makes it cognitively, morally, religiously or politically valuable came to prominence at a rather late stage of the history of aesthetics. Surely, one would say, when we look at a Song dynasty vessel made in Ruyao and feel it is elegant and beautiful, it is not because of it being suitable for flower-arranging or its value in auction, but simply that its colour and shape, as well as the light and shadow playing around it delight us. In this transition of the understanding of beauty to the so-called disinterested theory of beauty (with a famous slogan “l’art pour l’art”), a great contribution comes from Immanuel Kant (1724–1804).

Despite the fact that Alexander Baumgarten (1714–1762) is widely regarded as the one who established aesthetics as a modern philosophical discipline and defined it as “the science of sensible cognition” (actually largely as “the theory of the liberal arts”),[27] it is Kant’s seminal work Critique of Judgment (1790) that realised a genuine breakthrough.[28] In this work, Kant engages an important 18th century topic, namely taste, by means of a unique investigation on the power of reflective judgment. Art is only one of multiple concerns in the Critique of Judgment. In sections 42 and 43 of the book, Kant provides a clarification of the relevant notions of art, such as “art in general,” “free art,” “mercenary art” (or craft), “aesthetic art” (including “agreeable art,” “fine art”), among which it is arguably only fine art (schöne Kunst, literally, “beautiful art”) that can be considered the art proper which plays a significant role in the notion of beauty in Kantian aesthetics. According to Kant, both kinds of aesthetic art entail the feeling of pleasure, while for fine art, “the pleasure should accompany presentations that are ways of cognizing” instead of “presentations that are mere sensations” ([1790] 1987, 5:305). Fine art is the embodiment of beauty, and it entails “a pleasure of reflection rather than one of enjoyment arising from mere sensation” (5:306). For instance, Kant regards table-music played at banquets as merely agreeable art instead of fine art, for it is “only an agreeable noise serving to keep the minds in a cheerful mood … foster[ing] the free flow of conversation between each person and his neighbour, without anyone’s paying the slightest attention to the music’s composition” (5:306).

Also, “fine art must have the look of nature even though we are conscious of it as art” (Kant [1790] 1987, 5:307). Because this naturalness comes from the purposiveness in its form that seems to be “free from all constraint of chosen rules” and is linked to a “feeling of freedom in the play of our cognitive power,” Kant argues that the “beautiful is what we like in merely judging [the purposive form of] it (rather than either in sensation proper or through a concept)” (5:306). In brief, Kant thinks when we judge an artwork as beautiful, that is because the purposive form it exhibits arouses a harmonious free play of our cognitive powers (such as imagination and understanding). For instance, in an aesthetic appreciation of a flower painting by van Gogh, we are very likely to be delighted by its various formal characteristics such as its vibrant colours and expressive brushstrokes, and therefore call it as beautiful. Kant would argue that in this experience, our aroused “imagination in its freedom harmonizes with the understanding in its lawfulness” (5:287). That is, for collaboratively realising the presentation involved in such an aesthetic experience, our power of understanding cannot be directed to any determinate concepts (such as the species and genus of the flowers, their proper anatomy and other botanical features), but to the so-called cognition in general.[29] Kant thinks that aesthetic judgment concerns merely the form of the object and does not involve any concept (either cognitive or moral), nor does it require the real existence of the object.

One may be forgiven for thinking that Kant is a radical formalist, who finds aesthetic value only in the form of an artwork, and not in its content or meaning. However, it would be wrong to boil his thinking down to this one notion. In his discussion of free beauty, Kant argues, “when we judge free beauty (according to mere form) … we presuppose no concept of any purpose for which the manifold is to serve the given object, and hence no concept [as to] what the object is [meant] to represent” ([1790] 1987, 5:229). For Kant, many natural things such as flowers and trees, or human-created things such as “the foliage on borders or on wallpaper,” “fantasias in music … indeed all music not set to words” fall into the category of free beauty. By contrast, the beauty of a building, human beauty, etc., presupposing “the concept of the purpose that determines what the thing is [meant] to be, and hence a concept of its perfection,” is only adherent beauty. In other words, artistic beauty (or the beauty of fine arts) can be either free beauty or adherent beauty (a.k.a., “conditioned beauty”), depending on whether the focus of the actual judging presupposes a concept or not. In addition, comparable to the Chinese tradition, Kant thinks that there is a relation between the beautiful and the morally good, although he thinks the relation is an analogical one, and “the beautiful is the symbol of the morally good.” For instance, the beautiful can “arouse sensations in us that are somehow analogous to the consciousness we have in a mental state produced by moral judgments” (5:353–354). In this sense, by maintaining a symbolic relation and a sound analogy between the moral and the beautiful, it is hard to say that Kant fully breaks with the ancient tradition.

G.W.F. Hegel (1770–1831) explicitly uses the term aesthetics as “philosophy of fine art.”[30] Therefore, unlike Kant, whose account of the beautiful primarily considered natural beauty, Hegel places artistic beauty as the main subject in his aesthetics. For Hegel, inherent in the concept of beauty there are the ideas of freedom and infinity,[31] as beauty is the sensuous manifestation of the freedom of spirit, and “the Idea as the immediate unity of the Concept with its reality … [which] is present immediately in sensuous and real appearance” ([1835] 1988, 116). Hegel believes that “everything spiritual is better than any product of nature … no natural being is able, as art is, to present the divine Ideal” (29), and therefore, he claims that “the beauty of art is higher than nature. The beauty of art is beauty born of the spirit and born again … [while] the beauty of nature appears only as a reflection of the beauty that belongs to spirit, as an imperfect incomplete mode [of beauty], a mode which in its substance is contained in the spirit itself” (2). In brief, underneath all the formal qualities of beautiful artworks (unity, harmony, organic wholeness, etc.) is the free spirit that makes artwork beautiful, “everything beautiful is truly beautiful only as sharing in this higher sphere and generated by [spirit]” which is “alone the true, comprehending everything in itself” (2).

Generally speaking, Hegel’s notion of “beauty itself” as “the Idea made real in the sensuous and actual world” ([1835] 1988, 284) bears strong traits of essentialism. In the Chinese tradition, the essentialist approach of understanding artistic beauty was never full-fledged by itself. This might have something to do with the aforementioned “interested” tendency in the Chinese art tradition which fuses practical concerns with aesthetic pursuits, but also might be a linguistic issue. It is argued that grammar and metaphysical thinking have an intrinsic relation. According to this view, the fact that there is no counterpart of the copula “be” in the classical Chinese language has contributed to its lack of the notion of “being” and therefore the possibility of an Aristotelian argument for “being qua being,” which then leads Chinese metaphysical thinking to a different path from substance ontology. In aesthetics, the fusion of the functions of verb, noun, and adjective in the same word mei seems to reduce the possibility of an essentialist approach in the Chinese tradition. In the modern Chinese language, despite the fact that mei has been gradually read into the philosophical qualities of its Western counterpart, terms such “mei benshen (美本身, beauty itself)” had to be coined in order to properly translate the essentialist notion of beauty.

However, in the Chinese tradition, there seems to be a prima facie Hegelian thesis related to artistic beauty. As Li Deyu 李德裕 (787–850) states in his Wenzhang Lun (文章论, On Literature), “Writing as such [comes from] the inspiring qi (vital energy) of ziran (the self-so). It comes in [a state of] uncertainty, it arrives without any articulation.”[32] Ouyang Xiu 欧阳修 (1007–1072), arguably the most distinguished man of letters of the time, echoes Li’s point and says, “he who would like to author something immortal, [or] whatever inside manifests externally, [must] achieve it via the self-so.”[33] About a century later, another great poet Lu You 陆游 (1125–1210) expresses in his poem Wenzhang (文章 Literature) that “literature is originally a heavenly accomplishment, and the exquisite writers discovered it by accident.”[34] This line of thought went on and enjoyed a prominence in the 17th and 18th centuries. Influential figures such as Gu Yanwu 顾炎武 (1613–1682) and Yao Nai 姚鼐 (1731–1815) were recorded to say respectively, “like a breeze travelling on the water, patterns/writings (wen) are formed naturally”;[35] “the source of literature roots in the heaven and earth.”[36] Throughout history, despite its many variations, this influential line of thought is witnessed in literary criticism and reflections on other forms of art. It can be summarised into a thesis: artistic excellency comes from ziran (the self-so).[37] Ziran or self-so is a central idea in Chinese philosophy. A comparative study between it and the Hegelian absolute spirit would be enlightening, but it is not the task of the current chapter. In a nutshell, the self-so is hardly a transcendental or non-material entity.

A relevant question to our concern might be, would this artistic excellence in the Chinese tradition be the same as beauty? Arguably, beauty is regarded as the keyword in Western art tradition since antiquity. If we browse Chinese classical writings on art criticism, a striking difference manifests—there the category of mei or beauty does not have a dominant presence. For instance, among the 24 aesthetic categories of poetry listed by Sikong Tu 司空图 (837–908) in his celebrated treatise (Sikong n.d.), only three or four categories can be regarded as related to the Western notion of beauty. Moreover, according to Xu Hong’s (c. 1580–1660) Xishan Qinkuang 谿山琴况 (c. 1640), the most influential treatise on the aesthetics of guqin (Chinese zither) music, the category of li (pretty, beautiful) is merely the 10th of the 24 aesthetic categories, and the top six were harmony, tranquillity, clarity, profundity, antiquity, subtlety.[38] In Chinese paintings, prominence was given to the categories such as shen (spiritual) and miao (subtle) before mei. Overall, one also finds that the comparison between the beautiful and the sublime—which defined the influential aesthetics of Edmund Burke (1729–1797) and Immanuel Kant, and consequently became an iconic discourse in Western aesthetics—is also missing in the Chinese history of aesthetics. To conclude, in a cross-cultural comparative context, it is fair to say that an inquiry on what makes an artwork beautiful may turn out to be even less productive than in the contemporary artworld.

Contemporary Discourse: Brief Remark

The Hegelian definition of aesthetics as the philosophy of art that considers the issue of artistic beauty as its core concern is no more enchanting in our time. Many would agree that the question “what makes an artwork beautiful” plays a minor role in contemporary aesthetics and philosophy of art, where the question has been updated to “what makes an artwork meaningful or valuable?”

Two factors might contribute to this situation. Firstly, it is not a coincidence that the loss of interest in the inquiry into artistic beauty coincides with a sea change in the artworld, transformed by new art movements as well as struggles in defining art. Being beautiful is no longer a defining feature of art. Also, when the representationalism, the expression theories, formalism, neoformalism, aesthetic theories in defining art all fail to offer an account that is capable of coping with the dynamic scenes of the artworld, and when the anti-essentialist movement in philosophical aesthetics then paves a way to functionalism, institutionalism and various versions of historicism, the question of artistic beauty as such not only loses its limelight, but also is, to some extent, abandoned for its strong Hegelian colour. Now if “art” itself becomes an open concept or a socially, historically, culturally sensitive notion, then whatever makes an artwork beautiful is unlikely to be something homogeneous and unitary.

Secondly, the inquiry into “beauty” experienced a shift of focus from the emphasis on aesthetic properties of the objects to the subjective experience involved in aesthetic appreciation. In other words, a shift from an inquiry about “the beauty of object” to the issue of “the pleasure of beauty.” The contemporary inquiry into beauty in general is often classified in light of the framework of realism vs non-realism. Realism regards artistic beauty as a property of artworks which is independent of the subject, while non-realism holds that artistic beauty is not an independent property of artworks. This shift has a long historical preparation, contributed especially by the British empiricists such as Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) and David Hume (1711–1776). Hutcheson thinks that beauty lies in both the object and the subject, and artistic beauty comes from the quality of “uniformity amidst variety” in the object and the involvement of an “internal sense” in the subject.[39] Hume argues that “beauty is no quality in things themselves,” but a “sentiment” in “the mind that contemplates them” and “to seek the real beauty … is … fruitless.”[40] In contemporary aesthetics, from the study of empathy to Freud’s libido, to the evolutionary theory of beauty, to the focus on perception in aesthetic experience, more and more philosophers seek to answer the question of what makes an artwork beautiful in light of human physiology and psychology. For instance, the evolutionary theory regards artistic beauty as “fitness signal” that displays desirable personal qualities that strengthen reproductive advantage, and our pleasant feeling caused by something beautiful, like sexual pleasure, is engraved in our minds by the process of evolution, assisting us to make the “the most adaptive decisions for survival and reproduction.”[41]


At the beginning of this chapter, I mentioned that this investigation is nothing more than a tentative reflection on artistic beauty, because of the still ongoing discussions involving the notions of art and beauty in general. We then learned a great deal from many intelligent minds in human history, but still we seem to feel even less certain about an answer to our inquiry. I would also argue that a full inquiry into beauty is hardly separable from the issues such as the ugly and the odd (or the deformity) which we have not engaged. In Chinese aesthetics, the ugly or the odd has long been a remarkable subject in aesthetic appreciation. Furthermore, some may question our inquiry based on linguistic insight. What do we really mean by using the word “beautiful” to describe things? It seems that, in both Chinese and English languages, the word beautiful or mei is often generally used as a positive comment (like “nice!” “wonderful!”) that refers to things that share nothing in common. Shall we accept that (even if reluctantly) artistic beauty or beauty in general is Je ne sais quoi, and sigh, “what is beautiful is difficult?”[42] It seems this is not our way out either. However elusive and undefinable the beautiful is, many of us still agree that it is something desirable, and something that sheds light on a deeper understanding of humanity, “what is beautiful is not beautiful by itself, it manifests through the human beings”[43]—those who create it and those who appreciate it. Now perhaps we may strategically shift our question again for some clarity. Let’s instead ask, who makes an artwork beautiful? I think the answer to this question would not be too difficult.


Aristotle (1991). The Complete Works of Aristotle, edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Augustine (397–400). 2002. Confessions. Translated by Edward Bouverie Pusey. Salt Lake City: Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3296/3296-h/3296-h.htm.

Augustine (413–426) 1871. The City of God. Vol. 1 of The Works of Aurelius Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, edited by Marcus Dodds. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Aquinas, St. Thomas. 1920. Summa Theologiae. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. https://www.newadvent.org/summa/.

Baumgarten, Alexander Gottlieb. (1750–58) 1983. Theoretische Ästhetik: Die grundlegenden Abschnitte aus der “Aesthetica.” Translated and edited by Hans Rudolf Schweizer. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag.

Chen Guying. 2020. The Annotated Critical Laozi: With Contemporary Explication and Traditional Commentary. Edited by Paul J. D’Ambrosio and Xiao Ouyang. Translated by Paul J. D’Ambrosio, Xiao Ouyang, Ady van Den Stock, R.A. Carleo III, Joanna Guzowska, Lidia Tammaro, and Dimitra Amarantidou. Leiden: Brill Press.

Dutton, Denis. 2010. “Denis Dutton: A Darwinian Theory of Beauty.” TED Talk video. https://www.ted.com/talks/denis_dutton_a_darwinian_theory_of_beauty.

Grosse, Ernst. 1914. The Beginning of Art. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

Gu Yanwu 顾炎武. 2011. Gu Yanwu Quanji 顾炎武全集: Vol 19 Ri Zhi Lu日知. Edited by Yan Wenru 严文儒 and Dai Yangben 戴扬本. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe.

Guyer, Paul. 2004. “The Origins of Modern Aesthetics: 1711–35.” In The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics, edited by Peter Kivy, 15–45. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Halliwell, Stephen. 2009. “Aesthetics in Antiquity.” In A Companion to Aesthetics, edited by S. Davies, K. Higgins, R. Hopkins, R. Stecker, and D. Cooper, 2nd ed., 10–21. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. (1835) 1988. Hegel’s Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. Vol. 1. Translated by T. M. Knox. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hume, David. 1998. David Hume: Selected Essays. Edited by Stephen Copley and Andrew Edgar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hutcheson, Francis. (1725) 2004. An Inquiry Into The Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue. Edited by Wolfgang Leidhold. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Janaway, Christopher. 2000. “Plato.” In The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, edited by Berys Gaut and Dominic Mclver Lopes, 3–14. London: Routledge.

Kant, Immanuel. (1790) 1987. Critique of Judgment. Translated by W.S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Li Xiangfeng 黎翔凤. 2004. Guanzi Jiaozhu 管子校注. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju.

Liji Zhengyi 记正义. PKU 2000 Edition. Annotated by Zheng Xuan 郑玄 (127–200). Commentaries written by Kong Yingda 孔穎達 (574–648). Beijing: Peking University Press.

Liu Gangji 刘纲纪. 2006. Zhouyi Meixue (The Aesthetics of the Book of Changes). Wuhan: Wuhan University Press.

Liu Zongyuan 柳宗元. 1936. Liu Liuzhou Quanji 柳柳州全集. Shanghai: Dadong shuju.

Longinus. 1906. Longinus on the Sublime. Translated by A. O. Prickard. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lu You 陆游. 2011. Lu You Quanji Jiaozhu 陆游诗全集校注. Vol. 8, Jian-nan Shigao Jiaozhu 剑南诗稿校注. Edited by Qian Zhonglian 钱忠联. Hangzhou: Zhejiang jiaoyu chubanshe.

Ouyang Xiao. 2018. “众乐之统 — 论古琴的‘超越性’进化” (The Way to Supremacy: A Historical Study on the Formation of the Supra-musicology of Guqin). 乐探索 Explorations In Music: Journal of the Sichuan Conservatory of Music, no. 4: 64–75.

Ouyang Xiao. 2019. “Towards Moral Teleology—a Comparative Study of Kant and Zhu Xi.” Rivista di Estetica, no. 72 (March): 123–148.

Ouyang Xiu 欧阳修. 2001. Ouyang Xiu Quanji 阳修全集. Edited by Li Yi-an 李逸安. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju.

Pappas, Nickolas. 2020. “Plato’s Aesthetics.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-aesthetics/.

Plotinus. 2018. The Enneads. Edited by Lloyd P. Gerson. Translated by George Boys-Stones, John M. Dillon, Lloyd P. Gerson, R.A.H. King, Andrew Smith and James Wilberding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Research Institute of Music at the Chinese National Academy of Arts and Beijing Guqin Research Association, eds. 2010. Qinqu Jicheng 琴曲集成. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju.

Dong, Gao 董诰, Ruan Yuan 阮元, Xu Song 徐松, eds. n.d. Quan Tang Wen 全唐文. Wikisource edition. https://zh.wikisource.org/zh/全唐文.

Saito, Yuriko. 2015. “Aesthetics of the Everyday.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aesthetics-of-everyday/.

Sevier, Christopher Scott. 2015. Aquinas on Beauty. London: Lexington Books.

Sikong Tu 司空图. n.d. Ershisi Shipin 二十四诗品. Wikisource edition. https://zh.wikisource.org/wiki/二十四詩品.

Vitruvius. 1874. The Architecture of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio. Translated by Joseph Gwilt. London: Lockwood & Co.

Wu Cheng 吴澄. 1781. Yi Zuan Yan 易纂言. Wikisource edition. https://zh.wikisource.org/wiki/易纂言_(四庫全書本).

Xu Shen 许慎. 1981. Shuowen Jiezi Zhu 说文解字注. Annotated by Duan Yucai 段玉裁. Shanghai: Shaihai guji chubanshe.

Yao Nai 姚鼐. 1936. Xibaoxuan Quanji 惜抱轩全集. Shanghai: Shijie shuju.

Zhu Xi 朱熹. 2002. Zhuzi Quanshu 朱子全. Edited by Zhu Jieren 朱杰人, Yan Zuozhi 严佐之 and Liu Yongxiang 刘永翔. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe.

  1. For instance, “Environmental Aesthetics” directs our attention away from a narrowly defined artworld; to some extent, from the artistic to the natural. “Everyday Aesthetics” extends our aesthetic appreciation to the mundane, the ordinary, the so-called “minor league aesthetic qualities” that are pervasive in daily life and “can be experienced without the same kind and degree of aesthetic sensibility [for appreciating ‘beauty and sublimity’] or sophistication required for art appreciation,” such as the “pretty, nice, interesting, cute, sweet, adorable, boring, plain, drab, dowdy, shabby, gaudy, ostentatious, and the like” (Saito 2015).
  2. In the past two decades, the issue of beauty has been revisited from various perspectives by the works of Mary Mothersill, Li Zehou, James Kirwan, Umberto Eco, Marcia Eaton, Jennifer McMahon, Alexander Nehamas, Roger Scruton, Denis Dutton, John Dadosky, so on and so forth. Conferences, symposiums, and seminars are frequently devoted to the study of beauty—just to name a few, “The Place of Beauty in The Contemporary World” (2019, Finland), “Philosophy and Beauty” (2019, Japan), “Beauty and Tradition” (2018, Australia), “Beauty and Why It Matters” (2018, Canada).
  3. This legendary painting, preserved in The Palace Museum in Beijing, is called Qian li Jiangshan juan 千里江山卷 in Chinese, alleged to be painted by then 18-year old painter Wang Ximeng 王希孟 (1096–1119) in 1113. (See the online collection: https://www.dpm.org.cn/collection/paint/228354.html)
  4. A legendary work by Wang Xizhi 王羲之 (303–361). A copy of it attributed to the Tang dynasty calligrapher Feng Chengsu 冯承素 (617–672) is preserved at The Palace Museum in Beijing. (See the online collection: https://www.dpm.org.cn/collection/handwriting/228279.html)
  5. It has been debated that the attachment of importance to the Golden Ratio in visual arts has something to do with the Pythagorean tradition.
  6. “乐者, 天地之和也,” (Liji Zhengyi, 1270). “乐者异文合爱者” (1267).
  7. “凡音之起, 由人心生也. 人心之动, 物使之然也. 感于物而动, 故形于声. 声相应, 故生变, 变成方, 谓之音; 比音而乐之, 及干戚羽旄, 谓之乐” (Liji Zhengyi, 1251).
  8. “乐者, 音之所由生也. 其本在人心之感于物也” (Liji Zhengyi, 1253).
  9. “The Beautiful itself–as Plato calls the eternal, unchanging and divine Form of Beauty, accessible not to the senses, but only to the intellect (Symposium, 211d). Instances of beauty in the sensible world exhibit variability or relativity: something is beautiful at one time, not at another; in one respect or relation, not in another; to one observer, not to another. The Beautiful itself lacks all such variability, it ‘always is and neither comes to be nor passes away, neither waxes nor wanes …’ (ibid., 211a)” (Janaway 2000).
  10. “In the intelligible world it will see all the beautiful Forms and will declare that these Ideas are what Beauty is. For all things are beautiful due to these; they are the offsprings of Intellect and Substantiality … the ‘place’ of the Forms is intelligible Beauty, whereas the Good transcends that and is the ‘source and principle’ of Beauty. … In any case, Beauty is in the intelligible world” (Plotinus 2018, The Enneads, 1.6.9).
  11. Here is Aristotle’s argument for this point: “the good, then, must be one with the essence of good, and the beautiful with the essence of beauty, and so with all things which do not depend on something else but are self-subsistent and primary. For it is enough if they are this, even if there are no Forms; and perhaps all the more if there are Forms.—At the same time it is clear that if there are Ideas such as some people say there are, the substratum of them will not be substance; for these must be substances, and not predicable of a substratum; for if they were they would exist only by being participated in.—Each thing then and its essence are one and the same in no merely accidental way, as is evident both from the preceding arguments and because to know each thing, at least, is to know its essence, so that even by the exhibition of instances it becomes clear that both must be one” (Aristotle 1991, Metaphysics, 1031b11–1031b21).
  12. “The distinction between historian and poet … consists really in this, that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars. By a universal statement I mean one as to what such or such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do—which is the aim of poetry” (Aristotle 1991, Poetics, 1451a37–1451b26).
  13. “And since these (e.g. order and definiteness) are obviously causes of many things, evidently these sciences must treat this sort of cause also (i.e., the beautiful) as in some sense a cause” (Aristotle 1991, Metaphysics, 1078b6–1705). “Those who thought thus stated that there is a principle of things which is at the same time the cause of beauty, and that sort of cause from which things acquire movement” (Metaphysics, 984b8–984b22). Kant defines beauty in terms of purposiveness without a purpose, or subjective formal purposiveness. For a detailed discussion of Kant’s concept of purposiveness, its relation to aesthetic judgment and Kant’s teleological thought in general, see Xiao Ouyang (2019, 100–109).
  14. I think Sun and Immortal Bird Gold Foil (c. 13th century BCE, unearthed in Jinsha site of the city Chengdu in 2001) can illustrate the Aristotelian notion of beauty. This gold ornament was chosen to be the symbol of Chinese Cultural Heritage.
  15. “There is a similar combination of qualities in good men, who differ from any individual of the many, as the beautiful are said to differ from those who are not beautiful, and works of art from realities, because in them the scattered elements are combined, although, if taken separately, the eye of one person or some other feature in another person would be fairer than in the picture. Whether this principle can apply to every democracy, and to all bodies of men, is not clear” (Aristotle 1991, Politics, 1281a40–1282a23).
  16. “Language is made grand in the highest degree by that which corresponds to the collocation of limbs in the body, of which no one, if cut off from another, has anything noticeable in itself, yet all in combination produce a perfect structure. So great passages … if they are formed by partnership into a body, and also enclosed by the bond of rhythm … contribute to a common fund of grandeur” (Longinus 1906, sect. XL).
  17. “‘What then is the beautiful? And what is beauty? ... ’And I marked and perceived that in bodies themselves, there was a beauty, from their forming a sort of whole, and again another from apt and mutual correspondence, as of a part of the body with its whole, or a shoe with a foot, and the like” (Augustine [397–400] 2002, bk. IV).
  18. Cited from Sevier (2015, 104).
  19. A.k.a., Yijing 易经, an ancient book originally used for divination. It contains a text formed around the mid-Western Zhou dynasty (around 10th or 9th Century BCE) and 10 appendices, the latest of which was formed before the mid-Warring States period (around 4th century BCE).
  20. Chinese classical texts are not punctuated. The possibility of abstracting such a proposition lies in the leading Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi’s 朱熹 (1130–1200) textual study and his division of the text. Some other ways of dividing the text do not allow such a proposition.
  21. As the Book of Changes is known for being extremely succinct and obscure, this point is a summary of a long history of exegesis and debates. In Wu Cheng’s 吴澄 (1249–1333) commentary on the Book of Changes, he argues that “‘han zhang’ refers to image … when the yin and yang intersect and mix, they form a decorative pattern called ‘zhang’ (‘含章,’ 象也…阴阳相间杂而成文曰章” (Wu 1781, vol. 1). Liu Gangji 刘纲纪 interprets the proposition “you mei han zhi 有美含之 (containing in it there is beauty)” as the same as the notion of “han zhang,” and thereby relates mei to the notion of “cheng wen 成文 (forming patterns)” (Liu G. 2006, 18). It is worth noting that zhang and wen together form the name for the Chinese term for writing or literature, “wen zhang.” Liu’s further argument: “《周易》坤卦中所言“含章”之美, “文”之美,指的是山川, 动植物的形状, 花纹, 色彩等的美 …《周易》的美的观念同“好”, “善”的观念是紧密联系在一起,还没有从“好”, “善”中完全独立和分化出来” (36).
  22. In the Laozi, mei is paired with e 恶 (evil) to form an antithesis, for instance, “all under heaven know beautiful [mei] as beautiful, then [there is] … e 恶 [ugly, evil, bad]. 天下皆知 美之为美, 斯恶矣” (Chen 2020, 56). Also, in the Guanzi, “e 恶 is the chong 充 [growth, filling, supply] of mei 恶者美之充也” (Li 2004, vol.4, 250).
  23. “甘也. 从羊, 大. 羊在六畜主给膳也. 美与善同意” (Xu 1981, 146).
  24. “Plato’s concept of beauty is arguably quite different from the modern aesthetic concept, whatever exactly that is. We translate Plato’s word kalon as ‘beautiful,’ but a preferable translation in many contexts is ‘fine.’ Definitions and examples from the Platonic dialogue Hippias Major illuminate the broad application of kalon: a fine girl is fine, so is anything made of gold, so is living a rich and healthy life and giving your parents a decent burial” (Janaway 2000).
  25. Cited from Sevier (2015, 13).
  26. I have analysed how this ideology had driven the evolution of the aesthetic standards of Chinese literati music; see Xiao Ouyang (2018). In Zhu Xi’s poem devoted to his Chinese zither styled Ziyang (i.e., the Ziyang Qinming 紫阳琴铭), we find a paradigm of this ideology: “养君中和之正性, 禁尔忿欲之邪心. 乾坤无言物有则, 我独与子钩其深 ("cultivate one’s upright propensity towards the balanced and the harmonious, exterminate one’s evil mind regarding anger and desire. The universe says nothing while everything has its principle to follow, and I shall explore with you [my Ziyang zither] the profoundness in this”) (Zhu 2002, vol. 24, 3994).
  27. “Die Ästhetik (als Theorie der freien Künste, als untere Erkenntnislehre, als Kunst des schönen Denkens und als Kunst des der Vernunft analogen Denkens) ist die Wissenschaft der sinnlichen Erkenntnis” (Aesthetics, [as the theory of the liberal arts, the logic of the lower capacities of cognition, the art of thinking beautifully, and the art of reasoning analogous to thinking] is the science of sensible cognition”)(Baumgarten [1750-58] 1983, §1).
  28. “Kant’s complex and delicate interpretation of the freedom of the imagination in the experience of beauty can be seen as the summation and synthesis of ideas set forth at the outset of the flowering of modern aesthetics in the first decades of the eighteenth century” (Guyer 2004).
  29. “Cognition in general” is not a specific cognition, but the a priori pattern or structure of the cognitive powers in a “proportioned attunement” (Kant [1790] 1987, 5: 217–219).
  30. “Because of the unsatisfactoriness, or more accurately, the superficiality of this word [Aesthetics], attempts were made after all to frame others, e.g. 'Callistics'. … As a name then it [Aesthetics] may be retained, but the proper expression for our science is Philosophy of Art and, more definitely, Philosophy of Fine Art” (Hegel [1835] 1988, 1).
  31. “Owing to this freedom and infinity, which are inherent in the Concept of beauty, as well as in the beautiful object and its subjective contemplation, the sphere of the beautiful is withdrawn from the relativity of finite affairs and raised into the absolute realm of the Idea and its truth” (Hegel [1835] 1988, 115).
  32. 文之为物, 自然灵气. 恍惚而来, 不思而至 (Dong et al. n.d., vol. 709).
  33. 君子之欲著于不朽者, 有诸其内而见于外者, 必得于自然 (Ouyang Xiu 2001, vol. 140, 2239).
  34. 文章本天成, 妙手偶得之 (Lu 2011, vol. 8, 228).
  35. 风行水上, 自然成文 (Lu 2011, vol. 19, 752).
  36. 文章之原, 本乎天地 (Yao 1935, vol. 4, 35).
  37. This thesis is dominant in literature but also celebrated in other arts. It may sound like Plato’s theory of inspiration, but ziran or the self-so is not personified god or goddess such as the Muse. There is no such state of involuntary “possession” or madness in the process of artistic creation.
  38. 和, 静, 清, 远, 古, 澹 (Research Institute of Music 2010, vol.14, 316–321).
  39. “The Figures which excite in us the Ideas of Beauty, seem to be those in which there is Uniformity amidst Variety” (§ II, p. 28). “The internal Sense is, a passive Power of receiving Ideas of Beauty from all Objects in which there is Uniformity amidst Variety” (§ VI, 67).
  40. “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty … every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others. To seek the real beauty, or real deformity, is as fruitless an inquiry, as to pretend to ascertain the real sweet or real bitter” (Hume 1998, 136–137).
  41. Denis Dutton (2010) provides such an account in his TED talk, “A Darwinian Theory of Beauty.”
  42. The quote is from Plato’s Hippias Major, and “beautiful” is the translation of kalon, which would be closer to the word “fine.” I use this quote in a more rhetorical sense.
  43. “美不自美, 因人而彰” (Liu Z. 1936, vol.27, 84). This is a famous proposition in Chinese aesthetics proposed by Liu Zongyuan (773–819). It can be interpreted in several ways.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

What Makes an Artwork Beautiful? by Xiao Ouyang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.