There has been much debate about whether the aesthetic qualities of a work of art--in some formulations, its "beauty"--can be considered intrinsic to the work or whether these are qualities imputed to the work according to our own individual, subjective experience of it.
John Dewey, in Chapter XI of Art as Experience, offers his own resolution of this dilemma. He quotes the literary critic I. A. Richards, who contended that "We are accustomed to say that the picture is beautiful instead of saying that it causes an experience in us which is valuable in certain ways." What we should say, asserts Richards, is that "they (certain objects) cause effects in us of one kind or another," rather than "projecting the effect and making it a part of the cause." Dewey responds:
What is overlooked is that it is not the painting as a picture (that is, the object in esthetic experience) that causes certain effects "in us." The painting as a picture is itself a total effect brought about by the interaction of external and organic causes. The external factor is vibrations of light from pigments on canvas variously reflected and refracted. It is ultimately that which physical science discovers--atoms, electrons, protons. The picture is the integral outcome of their interaction with what the mind through the organism contributes. Its "beauty," which, I agree with Mr. Richards, is simply a short form for certain valued qualities, belongs to the picture just as much as do the rest of its properties.
The picture is an intentional object, created to convery those "certain valued qualities" that are fully realized in the viewer's encounter with them in the perceived object. It is not simply the "vibrations of light" that in Richards's scheme would account for our experience of beauty. It is an "object in esthetic experience," not just the provocation to such experience.
Dewey continues: "The reference to "in us" is as much an abstraction from the total experience, as on the other side it would be to resolve the picture into mere aggregations of molecules and atoms." The "total experience" includes both the viewer's subjective apprehension of the object and the "qualities" of the object itself. It is not merely a subjective response. Although even Richards doesn't suggest that aesthetic response is essentially subjective: "certain objects cause effects in us of one kind or another." This account actually strips the subject of its agency, casting its role in aesthetic experience as passive and mechanical. Indeed, aesthetic experience itself is described by Richards entirely in mechanical terms, as the incidental phenomenon produced by the laws of cause and effect. For Dewey it is an "integral outcome" of a mutually dynamic interaction, something subjectively felt but not simply a matter of "projecting the effect and making it part of the cause," in Richards's words.
It is thus possible through Dewey's conception of aesthetic experience to affirm that "appreciation" of a work of art arises in subjective experience but is also directed toward an object of which it can be said that such qualities as "form" and "style" and even "meaning" objectively exist, although no particular aesthetic experience is likely to fully encompass all of the relevant elements of each. Still, one could point to these qualities as a way of judging the soundness of a description or intepretation of the work. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but our eyes must register the assertion of beauty in the first place.