Who’s Defining Your Version of Beauty?
The other night I sat sipping red wine across from a painfully beautiful young woman. Out of the blue she asked me who I considered to be “the most beautiful woman ever.” I suggested Angela, the iconic object of desire played by Mena Suvari in the film American Beauty. It was a feeble attempt at humor, I admit it. From there on our conversation waned, and ten minutes later I was stepping into a cab, mumpishly giving the driver directions to my neighborhood. But with the sting of rejection also lingered that question. I considered it again from the suspiciously damp back seat of the taxi:
“Who is the most beautiful woman ever?”
What an inane question! Broad and subjective to be sure, with nothing but indefinite answers. Immaterial… unsupportable… cryptic… conjecture! The cab cut through the darkness, the meter climbing with my temper. I stared up at the moon. It hung full on the night sky like a silver locket on a black satin gown. A memory. A vestige. A picture worthy of an ornate frame. Beauty.
“[Beauty is] everywhere. You just have to be open to it.” -Alan Ball, author of American Beauty
What Happened to Beautiful?
In 1999, American Beauty quickly became one of the most popular and controversial films of the decade, stupefying critics and casual moviegoers alike. While the film’s cinematic merits may be up for debate, the genius of its narrative is indisputable. From several different perspectives, it explores man’s desperate struggle to revive beauty in the face of all the ugliness he’s created in generic Western suburbia.
It’s an ugliness we see every day: in the front pages of our newspapers and the hallways of our schools; in our streets and in the burdened features of the homeless who inhabit them; on the train and in the subway, stamped on the anxious faces of morning commuters.
But while ugliness abounds, beauty persists. The problem is, modern society’s lost the ability to recognize it. We’re woefully illiterate when it comes to true beauty, hampered by hypnotic multi-media imagery. We passively accept the ersatz interpretations of beauty spoon fed to us by various sponsors and organizations. We’ve enclosed ourselves inside a bubble of ambivalence, denying the beauty that is everywhere. And we wonder why we can’t perceive a looming sadness beneath a beautiful August sun, or why we get so outraged in line at Starbucks, even when there’s no real hurry. We’ve forgotten how to recognize what’s beautiful.
“We fly to beauty as an asylum from the terrors of finite nature.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
The idea of beauty as waggish or whimsical is a delusion. Beauty has very real, very perceivable effects, as mood altering as any drug. It’s not just a “quality” or a “feature”: beauty far surpasses that. And it’s not “only skin-deep.” Beauty only begins to exist in the mind. It’s our ability to perceive, to discern one image or instance from the next, that allows beauty to exist at all. Beauty is interpretation chiseled to a point – the very apex of subjective appreciation.
It’s said the “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But the individual opinion is frail compared to the moment of the collective. The reluctance of humans to explore their individual tastes – to exclaim, “I have discovered something beautiful,” to wear a potato sack in place of a Gap ensemble – is all too powerful. Beauty does not lie so much in the eye of the beholder as it does in the collective eye of the society to which that beholder belongs. Indeed, we fly to what society tells us is beautiful and shun what it tells us is ugly.
“Green arsenic smeared on an egg-white cloth, Crushed strawberries!
Come, let us feast our eyes.” -Ezra Pound, L’Art, 1910
Leave it to the Artist
Art, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary is “the conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty, specifically the production of the beautiful…”
In North America, we do not lend enough respect to this definition, nor do we give our artists the grave consideration they deserve. Granted, once an artist has proven his or herself and attained some amount of critical acclaim, we grant them this label, this grand descriptor: “Artist.” And sometimes, if an artist achieves enough fame, we even aspire to be like them, both in philosophy and dress. Yet, as is the case with beauty, we don’t recognize our artists as artists until someone informs us they’re such. The artist’s role in the rediscovery of beauty is tremendously important. The artist is possessed of both a gift and a curse: the sensibility to recognize the beautiful and the restless need to explore it and display it to its potential.
The artist as portrayed in American Beauty, is a roaming videographer, seeking to discover all things beautiful. But when he attempts to explain how he has found beauty in a dead and decomposing bird, he is ridiculed and labeled a “freak.” As was Beethoven, taunted and disparaged in the streets of Vienna. As was Cézanne when they allegedly attacked his canvasses with umbrellas. As was Picasso, Beckett, Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs, and Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg. Our society hesitates to accept any advance in the arts, and our culture is too comfortable with the existing definition of what’s beautiful.
“At the very core of fashionable society exists a monstrous vulgarity; the habit of judging human beings by standards having no necessary relation to their character. To be found dwelling on this vulgarity, absorbed in it, is like being found watching a suck ‘n’ fuck movie.” -Tom Wolfe
Recognizing beauty and defining it are separate tasks. “Beauty resides in proper measure and proper size of parts that fit,” said Plato. According to Emerson, beauty is “a pleasure arising from outline, color, motion, and grouping.” But throughout the years, beauty has found itself restricted to a rigid paradigm – a fixed “concept of beauty.” This concept, or what Plato calls “the beautiful itself,” provides us with a standard against which we may measure objects for their individual degree of beauty.
There is an unwritten (yet oft-spoken) law that shelters, by means of euphemism, those things that exist with parts that don’t fit into Plato’s category of “proper measure” and “proper form.” We’re talking about the taboo – things embedded in the cultural no-no zone that by silent agreement never qualify as “beautiful” (think corpses, genitals, the hairs on your big toe, etcetera). The paradox? Violate this law and risk being pronounced morbid, dull-witted or socially unrefined; live within it and limit yourself to notions of beauty that are preconceived and ill-defined.
“Society expunges the significance of beauty; the artists bring it back.” -Jonas Legoni
Modern society has developed a tendency to suppress our predilection towards things beautiful. We might label something as ugly: a dead tree, a unique face or even a portion of our own body. But that element is ugly only because we compare it to what we consider to be “ideal.” And in our culture, the ideal is not only preconceived (by us), but also contrived (by someone else). In other words, we don’t even allow ourselves the opportunity to define our own “ideal.” The point here is not to deny the existence of the ideal, but to challenge how our culture defines and consequently perceives it. I extend a plea to show appreciation for those who constantly seek, challenge and redefine the conventionally “beautiful” – the Artists.