The extreme version of subjectivism is found in the claim by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, made in the 1950s, that aesthetic judgments have no truth functional significance: They are neither true nor false but rather emotive ejaculations akin to saying “wow.” Marxist and Postmodernist forms of relativism make this subjectivism a function of race, ethnicity, religion (ideology), economic class, political power, or gender, critiquing objectivity claims as attempts to hide their self-serving character.
People often agree about what is beautiful, however, so even if beauty is a subjective feeling it can be argued that it has an objective cause. In the eighteenth century, the philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746), for instance, argued that on the basis of our sense perceptions we discern by a sixth sense a uniformity pervading their variety and call our pleasure in this beauty. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) calls this sixth sense our common sense. As with all our other experiences, the experience of beauty involves both intuition and understanding, both sensations and concepts. But whereas for scientific and practical purposes the concepts are imposed on the sensations, ordering them meaningfully, when we experience something as beautiful we allow the free play of imagination to associate our perceptions with notions of meaning yet without their being imposed. We take what we experience as fraught with meaning but not any specifiable meaning. We take delight in this experience and so appreciate the world as involving more than what we can know about it or achieve by our actions upon it. Because these judgments involve conceptual and intuitive faculties that are the same for all human beings, they can be valid for others as well as ourselves: We have a common sense of beauty and hence our disputes about it can be rationally resolved.
Back to Plato
So Kant opens a way other than through politics, or religion, or scientific or philosophical theorizing for getting at the deeper realities underlying the world as it appears to us—through aesthetic appreciation and through the creation of works of art. Thus in the nineteenth century, Alexander Baumgarten (1714–1762) claimed that beauty is the sensory recognition of a transcendent unifying perfection. In the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) argued that the beauty of a work of art, by disclosing the workly character of things, unconceals the creative source of the world’s beings, their Being. We are back once more with Plato: There is a non-sensuous Reality disclosed by sensuous beauty, toward which we are drawn because of Beauty’s power to break us free from the constraints of scientific understanding and our practical endeavors, to open us to the Good they obscure.