In art or design, why do certain combinations of color, shape, contrast, font, etc., strike more visual impact and/or seem more appealing than others? There are certain standbys or principles of design that seem to be successful (e.g., appropriate white space, complementary colors, etc.), yet it also seems entirely subjective as to what we find beautiful in artistic realms. Is there any generalizability to the quality of visual appeal?

I don't think there's much reason to think that what we find beautiful in artistic realms is entirelysubjective . Our judgments of beauty do not seem to be pure matters ofpersonal preference (e.g., like whether you prefer sushi to fish andchips). There's at least the appearance of reason-giving and/orjustification when we talk about beautiful art. For example, we oftencan say something when we are asked why we judge something tobe beautiful. And we often treat disagreement about judgements ofbeauty as, well, real disagreement. We may find ourselves surprisedwhen we run across someone who disagrees with our judgment that a workof art is beautiful. We are often tempted--at least initially--to tryto explain away disagreement about artistic beauty by appeal to somefailing in one of the parties (e.g., a failure of attention, a lack ofsensitivity). We sometimes offer explanations in terms of the beauty ofcertain objects. All of these features make it seem as if the domain isnot one which is purely subjective.

On the other hand, manyphilosophers have argued that there are no plausible rules, principlesor generalizations regarding what makes things--works of art inparticular-- beautiful. Are they right? It's hard to say. I don't thinkthe arguments against the possibility of such rules, principles orgeneralizations are very good ones. And there are some reasons to thinkthat when it comes to the visual appeal of environments or prospectivemates, there are some discoverable generalizations. But this doesn'treally get at the issue of generalizations about the beauty of art.

I have to run, but I'll say a bit more in another post (and maybe offer some suggestions for readings).

I want to emphasize that the question of the subjectivity of beautyis distinct from the question of whether there are rules or principlesabout beauty. Many aestheticians are particularists. They believe thatthere are no general rules or principles governing what makes thingsbeautiful, and that what may count towards beauty or aesthetic merit inone context may be aesthetically irrelevant in another context (or mayeven count against overall beauty or merit). But this is consistentwith such a view that judgments of beauty are more than merelysubjective.

Kant is famous for having arguing that there can be no rules or principles of taste in his Critique of Judgment.Interesting contemporary discussion of the possibility ofgeneralizations regarding beauty and artistic merit can be found inMary Mothersill's book Beauty Restored. Mothersill isskeptical of there being any interesting generalizations here, but I'mnot convinced by her arguments.

What about the principles of design that are mentioned in the question? Particularists will think these are just rules of thumb--useful but ultimately inaccurate generalizations. I'd be interested in finding out whether there was evidence that they are accepted cross-culturally. If they were, there might be some reason to think that there was some broadly evolutionary explanation for them. In the end, the question of why certain generalizations about beauty and our visual preferences are true--if they are true--seems to me to be an empirical question. That is, the answer to it would await serious scientific investigation.

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