Correspondence on Beauty

Dear Dr. Gardner,

I was very interested in your book “Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed.”  

I propose for your consideration another way of looking at Beauty. I believe that we look at art simultaneously in two ways: the Eye explores it, and the Brain assesses it.  Your book seems to be concerned with the Brain, but I think that the role of the Eye is just as important and perhaps more fundamental. In this letter I will confine myself to considering how we see a painting, and will present my argument in a way which is totally unscientific but, I hope, easy to follow.

The Brain is smart. It can compare things, it can theorize about what it sees, it can bring forth a wide range of knowledge from its memory, it can learn. On the negative side, it can be influenced by likes and dislikes not relevant to the assessment at hand, and it can yield to real or imagined pressures to come up with a “correct” outcome of its assessment.

The Eye can’t think, it can only feel. Its actions can only be subconscious. It feels happy if it finds comfortable pathways to wander about in the painting, if it finds interesting patterns to explore, and if it can easily get to wherever it wants to go. It becomes unhappy if it gets confused as to where it should go next, or if it finds obstacles on its course, and so forth. It gets bored if the painting doesn’t offer interesting pathways to roam.

Whether or not a painting is beautiful does not matter to the Eye. (In any case, the beauty or lack thereof of a painting is not the same as the beauty or lack thereof of the subject—a picture of an ugly subject may be a beautiful painting.)

Likewise, it does not matter to the Eye whether a painting is abstract or representational. My father and grandfather were amateur landscape painters and I love that kind of stuff, but my eye was perfectly happy roaming about the map of internet traffic in your book.

Personally, I find that my judgment of art is almost entirely intuitive and based on how my Eye likes it. I may admire a painting or be impressed by it if my Brain tells me so, but unless my Eye approves of it, I cannot accept it as being good art.  Whether this puts me in the majority of people or in the minority, I don’t know.

What I think is significant about this all is that I believe the Eye’s way of assessing Beauty is more primitive and more basic than that of the Brain’s. Therefore I expect that it should remain more constant between cultures, through ages, and through the development of each individual.

This should be easy enough to test experimentally. Only, one would have to be careful that the data collected expressed the opinions of the Eye, untainted by the opinions or prejudices of the Brain or by the desire of some questionees to give “correct” answers.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading this. 


An Inquisitive Artist


Dear Inquisitive Artist,

Thank you for your thoughtful note. As a technical matter, the eye is part of the brain. But I assume that your point is meant metaphorically as it seems closer to what Daniel Kahneman calls ‘thinking fast’ and ‘thinking slow,’ or ‘system 1’ and ‘system 2.’ In my view of beauty, what makes something interesting and worth revisiting is ‘thinking fast.’ But the ability to demonstrate, in some fashion, why one prefers one experience to another, involves the other system. I don’t agree that judgments of beauty will be similar across cultures, except in cases of outdoor scenes or other very generic presentations. As you say, this can be tested empirically.

With best wishes,

Howard Gardner


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