"David von Michaelangelo" by LeaW licensed under CC by 3.0 via Wikipedia adapted by [unknown] and Nick Byrd

Representative Art vs. The Real Thing: Which is more beautiful?

“…we think that the world would be improved if we could substitute for the best works of representative art real objects equally beautiful.”

G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica (§117,¶ 2)


I don’t buy it. 

Consider the statue of David. Now ask yourself, “Would this be more or less beautiful if it were an actual man standing on the pedestal?”

Of course not. After all, part of what makes the statue beautiful is the sculptor’s feat of realistic detail. So if the statue was replaced with the real David, then part of the artistic beauty would be lost. And a significant part no less. After all, people don’t travel across the world just to gaze at men who look like the statue of David. They only do that to see the statue itself. 

Real Stuff More Generally

But maybe Moore wasn’t talking about the real versions of what is represented by a particular piece of art. Maybe he meant something more general. For example, maybe Moore meant that, in general, any real thing will be more beautiful than any piece of representative art.

That seems to be consistent with the quote. Moore says that it is “real objects equally beautiful” that should replace representative art, not the real version of the particular thing being represented by a particular piece of art. So, continuing with our example, we need not compare statue of David with the real David. We could compare the statue with any real thing.

So what real thing would be “equally beautiful” when compared to the statue of David?

Geez. I don’t know. The statue of David is pretty darn beautiful. And people come from all over to see it. What competes with that? Ooo! What about one of the wonders of the world? What about the Grand Canyon? If the Grand Canyon is as beautiful as the statue of David, then replacing the statue with the canyon might make the world more beautiful.

But that also seems false. I have no desire to replace the Statue of David with a Grand Canyon.

Fabricated Stuff

Here’s another way to construe Moore’s thought: We prefer the real experience to a fabricated version of it. 

Think about theme parks. Theme parks often recreate fake versions of real places. And when you visit the theme park’s representations of these real places, you might find yourself wishing that you were experiencing the real thing — I do. But why is that? Is it because we think the real experience is necessarily more beautiful? 

I don’t think so. 

What we find disappointing about theme park fixtures is not merely that they are fabrications. What is disappointing about the theme park fabrications is that we can see that they’re fabrications. And we can see it is a fabrication because its not as impressive as the genuine article. 

So ask yourself: what if we couldn’t tell the difference between the real version and the artist’s version of a beautiful thing? Would the real version be more beautiful than the other?

I don’t think so. After all, if we cannot even discern which version is real and which version is fabricated, then I don’t think we could discern a difference in beauty.

So What Was Moore Thinking?

Whatever Moore meant, it is not obvious. And it is certainly not obviously true. Real things don’t necessarily seem to be more beautiful than representative art. 


Image credit: “David von Michaelangelo” by LeaW licensed under CC by 3.0 adapted by [Unknown] and Nick Byrd.

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog