Art and the Beauty Myth Myth
By Lorette C. Luzajic
Without a doubt, there are idiots with a narrow view of what is beautiful, but the vast majority of men I meet see far more nuances than they are given credit for. The so-called pressure “forced” on women by the beauty industry and the fickle world of fashion is actually quite voluntary. No one is holding a gun to the heads of women to buy millions of fashion magazines or cosmetic products. I for one enjoy makeup and sexy underwear. There is nothing shallow about beauty in relation to sexual attraction, either – looked at from another perspective, sexual attractiveness is the meaning of life itself. Without it, there could be no human race.
Sadie 2011 – Lorette C. Luzajic
True, we can’t all be Marilyn Monroe or Angelina Jolie (or Ryan Gosling), but we are all enriched by their beauty. Every one of us has the power to do as much or as little as we damn well please to express our personal beauty, and to decide to be less obsessive and more accepting of our natural gifts and limitations. And while beauty is not the only important thing in life, attention to our physical package indicates confidence, sexuality, health, mental health, and morale. Regardless of whether we were blessed with unique endowments or sadly skipped over by Aphrodite, another’s beauty is a gift for all of us. Taking this perspective radically changes the obsession and jealousy that might fuel our relationship with the beautiful and with ourselves. In seeing things this way, we can choose to avoid the pursuits of unreasonable perfection to which critics of artifice object.
Far from being a “myth,” beauty is important, edifying, and, well, beautiful. Why should it be one thing to stand in awe before a mountain sunrise, or to be stirred with emotion by the beauty of a sleeping infant, yet considered objectification or superficiality to care about how you look, or to experience desire?
For me, the idea of deconstructing beauty is ludicrous. It is far more important to re-construct and celebrate, to empower people to embrace and discover their own beauty, and to encourage everyone to gain a wider interpretation. Curiously, no matter how much contemporary philosophy harps on about the dangers and immorality inherent in the pursuit of beauty, the populace trumps these academic and sociological assertions by a landslide- the wild popularity of cinema, MAC Cosmetics, fine art, La Senza lingerie, and Playboy are all paeans to the importance and centrality of beauty. Beauty matters, whether we are young or old, celibate or promiscuous, beautiful or ugly.
Some women can and will be argue that the homogenization of beauty is destructive- that simpering celebrities with “no talent” do not deserve public acclaim and accompanying riches. I would argue back that the cutting up of women whom others find sexy is one of women’s ugliest traits.
Whether the Jessica Simpsons or Paris Hiltons of this world deserve their thrones is neither here nor there. Societies and cultures always have shifting standards of what is beautiful. Such thrones will be usurped or exchanged. Furthermore, there are countless interpretations of beauty within each culture, regardless of dominating trends. Beauty has never been less homogenized than it is today. The marvels of international trade and communication have brought a world of beauty to our fingertips. Celebrations of big women, small breasts, older women, Asian hair, African skin, Indian fashion, and Middle Eastern men, to name a few, abound. There are fan clubs for amputees, for the heavily pierced, prison inmates, and bald women.
Beauty is more than skin deep. It is cell deep, and it is soul deep. One most enduring impulses of art is to explore beauty and its meanings.
The concepts in this essay are what I explore in my own series, “Breasts.” As a woman, I am refuting the fashionable rebuttal of objectification by purposefully omitting the arms, legs, and head of my subjects. I do not see this as “dehumanizing.” Rather, I celebrate the ultimate pinnacle of beauty- women’s breasts. These works say that it is no coincidence that the greatest essence of beauty, to men and to women, gay and straight, grown or child, is the female breast. Not only are these inexplicably gorgeous globules of nippled fat stunning, but they are our source of nourishment and comfort as humans.
Julian Mandel – Nude
Erotic beauty was the focus of photographer Julian Mandel’s art in the early twentieth century. Vintage “naughty” French postcards were considered obscene, yet the sheer proliferation of them was once again testament to the human hunger for beauty. Mandel (probably a pseudonym) artfully posed his nudes and played with shadow and light to celebrate the stunning curvature of the female form. Today, women’s curves continue to be central themes in the work of many great photographers, like Robert Farnham.
Marilyn Monroe – Unknown Photographer
The luminous qualities of Marilyn Monroe’s beauty made her a photographer’s dream, and the most enduring and alluring Venus of all time. We can’t all look like Marilyn, but all of us have been blessed by her unique gifts. Few tire of poring over thousands of her photographs, despite a veritable inundation made possible by the culture of mass production. Every time our eyes fall upon her image, we are enchanted anew. Was the price she paid for our adoration too high? Without a doubt. Yet few lives are without tragedy. Beauty has made some lives easier and some more difficult. Either way, we can no more turn our heads away than we can pass up food or water.
We can’t all look like the subjects of beauty photographer Iain Crawford, either. There is no question that these portraits feature unrealistic looks for the everyday woman. Yet contemplating images like these expands our imaginative life. Beauty is about fantasy, too. The fantasies may be about becoming; they may be nostalgia; they may be a form of longing, or of exchanging roles, or cultures. Fantasies in beauty are just as often about exchanging or changing our skin or body or clothes or roles and trying out an array of other identities as they are about mating.
Few men will ever share the rippling musculature highlighted in the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. It doesn’t matter: looking does not negate our exchange with our real partners. As one who has been fortunate to enjoy the splendours of the seriously chiseled, I have to say that erotic pleasure does not rest solely on these thrills. All kinds of bodies can share great pleasure, but that does not diminish the pleasure of looking. Our own or a partner’s “wandering eye” soaks up a variety of beauty, but this is not reductive, it is expansive. Looking at another is simply another form of celebration.
Amedeo Modigliani – Nude Sitting on a Divan 1917
Amadeo Modigliani loved to look. He looked at women constantly, and from this looking he painted his famous elongated, stylized nudes. This did not change his deep love and desire for an art student named Jeanne. While only averagely handsome, and dirt poor, women still found the charismatic artist irresistible. His young wife left her family to bear his child out of wedlock and live in squalor. When the artist died of consumption and addiction, Jeanne leapt out a window to her death. Today his works are considered among the greatest icons of beauty of all time.
Renoir – The Concert
Renoir’s work celebrates the beauty of women and gardens, effusing light throughout rainbows of flowers and dresses His women were notably more portly than current popular tastes. Centuries prior, Peter Paul Ruben’s prolific renderings of Biblical and mythological stories all feature female subjects whose body fat proportions were still more abundant. His work gave rise to the commonly used adjective, “Rubenesque,” used to describe voluptuous, overweight women.
Peter Paul Rubens – The Three Graces
Like Ruben, many artists examine and celebrate the beauty standards of their day and their particular culture. But authenticate beauty is not just a reflection of mores: it is the invention of them. It is one thing to lament falling short of a standard, and another entirely to create your own standard. The heiress, Marchesa di Casati, was a gaunt, gangly creature who nonetheless became one of history’s greatest muses. The only women who have been painted more frequently are Cleopatra and Mother Mary, both whom have thousands of years on the Marchesa. And few women are as beloved as the great Dolly Parton. She has created empires out of her irresistible blend of tacky wigs, stripper shoes, plastic body parts and a genuine down to earth hillbilly charm.
Augustus John – Marchesa di Casati
Perhaps our fear and criticism of beauty is based on its ruthless impermanence.
It is difficult to accept how life’s rich pageant marches endlessly forward, shedding our former flawless firmness for youth’s supple promises. Beauty edifies; it nourishes; and it brings us as close to creation, as close to the mysteries, as we can go.
But it is also terrifying as a metaphor. Beauty, like life itself, is fleeting.