The Cultural Value Of Beauty: What Now?

Below are some reflections from The Beauty Project team – Rox, Lucy, and Quarantine (Sarah, Kate, Richard), thinking about where we’ve arrived at, what we’ve learnt, and what possibilities we see for this research going forward. 

What have you learnt about the cultural value of beauty?

SARAH: That beauty is fundamentally and undeniably of cultural value and it does, or at least can, remain for and with people after an event or experience is over. This was particularly interesting in relation to live performance, which is often considered in relation to its ephemeral nature. I already had a felt sense of this from my own experience as an audience member, but it was fascinating to see this come through so strongly in the responses from the research participants, who were filling in the beauty lab books in anywhere from 3 months to a year later.  

The range of ‘where’ and ‘in what’ people experienced beauty – in performance and in science, highlights how reductive it would be to attempt to pin down what beauty is, and in turn what its value is, and it was  much richer to instead embrace the complexity and multiplicity of the responses. I was delighted to learn that there is no ‘formula’ for beauty. As artists and scientists we can’t dictate or predict where people will find it. While this lends itself to the old cliche that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, our research suggests artists and scientists have a role to play in creating circumstances and frames within which beauty can unfold. Both disciplines seem to invite particular qualities of paying attention and of looking (and looking again) that allow space for people to experience and explore beauty in ways that they may not otherwise in everyday life. It’s here that I believe there is a case to be made for the cultural value of beauty. 


LUCY: If the question is – did I learn beauty is valuable then, no because I think we all already know that! If it is why it is valuable then perhaps maybe a little more so, but even then, it’s a difficult question to answer. We were quite sure we didn’t want to answer that question in terms of things like the amount of money beauty brings to the economy, or positive benefits to health and wellbeing. All of these instrumentalise beauty and we all felt instinctively that this had already been done and was not the approach for us. Instead of wanting to know how valuable beauty was in terms of other things, we just wanted to know how people would talk about its value to them and how we could see the impact of it without necessarily quantifying it. We started playing with the ideas of data and measurement inspired by Rox’s work on structural colour.


KATE: Beauty is invaluable but also immeasurable which means it gets forgotten about. For me beauty has something of serendipity/synchronicity/epic and unassuming/fleeting and eternal. Beauty is full of risk, hopeful, a crescendo of things. Beauty will be totally different for someone else, its variables never the same. A scientific nightmare. Unable to measure but vital for humans making meaning in their world. We need to talk about it more, not try and distill it, but take more notice of it and create a chance for it to appear.  

RICHARD: I think that I’ve learned – or perhaps affirmed – that for me beauty is a useful word to express the intangible, maybe ineffable quality, indeed even “impact” (terrible how that word has been tainted by the evaluation industries) that art can have.  I guess by that I mean that it’s really not necessarily attached to any notion of aesthetics, nor strictly the emotions, but somehow a very useful word (I don’t know a better one) to describe the totality of the affect of the totality of a piece of work which, at the risk of sounding Wagnerian, is maybe more present for me in performance than other forms.  (Which is maybe why, sometimes despite myself, performance still interests me).


ROX:  There are very clear and explicit ‘uses’ of beauty in cultural work, where people are currently engaging with it, even though they don’t have particularly clear or thorough definitions of the idea of beauty itself.

Beauty experiences involve an external input, as well as a ‘beholder’ who’s subjective experience of beauty may be made up of emotional and sensory experiences, memories, beliefs and thoughts. Both the external and the internal are therefore relevant and important. Most importantly, there is an incredibly rich range of these sources, as well as ‘a constellation of emotions’ associated with the experience of beauty.

Experiences of beauty appear in life as well as in interactions with cultural work, and are clearly articulable, or at least to some extent can be described both as events and in terms of how they affected the person. Beauty experiences do not have just one source, or one affect, and people can experience many different sources of beauty in life, or even in quick succession.

Beauty seems to be a way of capturing deeply enriching experiences of all kinds, and the vast extent of different possible enrichment affects feels like it should be taken seriously when understanding the access that every person has to full human experience. Cultural work, and access to that work, can be an important part of that. The ability to appreciate the value of work in terms of its enrichment for people that interact with it is captured by beauty. A better understanding of which has the potential to transform how we see cultural experience.

What surprised you about working on The Beauty Project?

LUCY: From the research, it has surprised and fascinated me that people seem so intertwined with other people when they experience beauty. The philosophical literature is usually centred around the experience of an individual, often in relation to an artwork or sometimes nature. Think of an ideal perceiver stood alone gazing at a sunset or a Fragonard. But our research indicates that connection with people, whether in the present tense of a performance, or in the form of memories, is of enormous significance. 

I’m not sure I would say I was surprised by this, or just completely unsure of what we would find, but people’s ability to articulate their experiences of beauty was encouraging, and of course, extremely useful to the project. It was a self-selecting group but even so, we gathered so much qualitative data from our fairly small sample and that is thanks to a group of participants who put a lot of time and thought into responding, for which we feel thankful and very happy.

The material has invited me to respond in a very different way than my usual discipline suggests and working in a different paradigm has been both enormously freeing and a little bit troubling. In some ways, I am only just starting to relax into the writing around this project and I can still feel the constraints of my other way of working closing in occasionally. To feel freer and more intuitive and not so rigorously argumentative has been such an interesting experience and one that I value highly. That I would change my approach so much was as much of a shock as anything.


RICHARD: The way that the various lenses of approach to research (crudely: science, art, philosophy) found some common territories – kind of touched each other at the edges (or maybe it’s the core?) and yet hung on to their singularity/integrity.  I guess I imagined in advance that they’d somehow meld or maybe that the vaguery of how I (we?) tend to think about art and its value, would dominate.  I’m glad that – it seems – it didn’t.

KATE: That people did come up with axis for the graphs to measure beauty and value. And that people relished in talking about it.



I thought that the cultural value of beauty would be intangible and ephemeral, that we would find some non-conclusions and that it would prove not to be of practical value. Although I was concerned about how problematic this belief was, I thought we would find that it simply couldn’t be evaluated. I had a sneaking suspicion that it would make me reject evaluation altogether. I even thought it might not be something that you could discuss with any clearheadedness, or get any real insight into, beyond ‘it’s subjective’.

In fact, this turned out not to be true at all. It is subjective, in that each person can have wildly different experiences, coming from different places. But at the same time we realised by asking people to describe their experiences and beliefs, we found we could get significant insight into their experience of life, of science, of being an audience in the piece of theatre. Just because it is a personal experience it doesn’t mean that it can’t be something that you share, that you can discuss, and that can lead to greater insight, both through understanding one’s own experience better, but also through engaging with the ways that others experience the world


SARAH: I was surprised by how much beauty I found in reading other people’s moments of beauty. Even where language failed to capture the fullness of the experience, there was always something that felt both tangible and urgent in the responses. I came away with a sense that beauty really does matter. 


How would you like to see this research taken forward?

ROX: This feels like the first step in a story about evaluation, about value and about a more open and clear conversation about people’s motivations to take part in cultural work, both as practitioners and as ‘audiences’ or ‘participants’.

There are so many ways that I would love to see this work develop. I’d like to see an engagement with practitioners (especially those involved in training, outreach and education) about the experience of beauty that they have, and perhaps a development of the vocabulary they use when engaging and communicating with people coming into the field. I think that could take the form of pedagogical experiments, or the development of exercises that allow people to hone in on their own personal experience and share them with others. I’d be interested in a broader look at the historical context for that, and at subcultures where this sort of expression is commonplace.

I’d love to see a broader study of evaluation that builds on the work that we did here but in a more practical way (cutting down some of the questions, working out when interventions are most appropriate and successful, understanding what the impact of this evaluation is on participants, identifying simpler and more broadly applicable methods of analysis). I’d like to have a conversation with people that work in funding assessment about how qualitative analysis like this could be used in reporting on projects.

I’d be really interested in an expansion of the mapping work we did with experiences of beauty to reach more people and more instances of cultural engagement. It would be fascinating to reach a bit further into the methodology of Patrick Gunkel and develop a way for people to explore their own experiences. I really want to know more about how people will respond to the work we’ve done here, and how it makes them think next about beauty.

I’d like to extend the approach beyond beauty to other ‘intangibles’ – things that we might value, and not be able to evaluate.


RICHARD: I’d like it to continue – to somehow involve more voices, to maybe look at very different kinds of work in relation to Beauty, to find ways to be discursively public, for the research and discussion to sit visibly/tangibly within/alongside a project or a piece of work without unbalancing it towards some kind of apparently rarefied academic justification (which is, unfortunately, what so much “serious” art – particularly Live Art – seems to need to do to justify its value….)

SARAH: I would like for this research to act as the beginnings of a manifesto for the cultural value of beauty and as a protest to the way that arts and sciences are increasingly being reduced to their functional effects. 

This was a small-scale research project, and I’d love to see it grow, collecting and collating more moments of beauty, and adding more and a wider diversity of voices into the mix. I loved how the ‘experts’ on this project weren’t defined by their academic qualifications, but simply by whether they had experienced beauty – as defined by their own perspective on what this means. This feels like a vital thing to maintain. Perhaps there is democracy to be found in beauty. 

It’s clear from the responses to the question ‘what would a scale to measure beauty look like?’ that it’s impossible to make beauty into something quantitative, and it’s unsurprising but also joyful to see this play out. There is a risk that this feeds into narratives about beauty being too intangible to talk about or too subjective to learn anything from, but we found that this wasn’t the case – given the space to do so, all of our research participants were able to articulate in words or drawings their experiences of beauty and the ‘impacts’ of these. However, on an average project evaluation form, there is rarely space for this kind of nuanced reflection. 

The Beauty Project shows that there is scope for different approaches to evaluation that allow space for the more affective values of the arts and sciences. I’d love for this research to feed into a sector-wide conversation about how we consider and ‘quantify’ cultural value, why it’s this way and who’s agenda it serves, and to support imaginings for how it could be instead. 



KATE: I would like to open up a conversation about beauty to younger people. So they don’t see it as a purely aesthetic thing, a body thing, or a landscape. That it can be human interaction, cultural exchange, critical thinking, it can be accessed by anyone, in nature, in an action, a question, and in change, at a football match, in the street, in your relationships as well as in a ‘beautifully’ crafted piece of art. Beauty is purely what moves you. Alters something. Creates a change.



LUCY: There are so many ways to build on this research, from doing more interviews with policy makers to running workshops and looking at beauty’s impact on education. There are some thoughts about colour and beauty that I would like to develop further. Another path I would be really interested in exploring would be how the experience of beauty is valuable to people who have serious illness or disability. These are all ways to keep twisting the kaleidoscope.

In terms of my own approach to research, I think I will be most impacted by the style of working together we have developed together: working with ideas but in a way that is translucent and pliable rather than strictly analytical. I’d like to work more in this style and find a way of working that is 

I feel like we have only just begun with this research. It certainly could be a lifelong project to return to again and again. That idea, to look again and to keep looking, would certainly be in the spirit of everything we have learned so far.