TOWARD A GENERAL AMBIVALENCE ABOUT BEAUTY
Beauty is not responsible for our problems with beauty and today, beauty is everywhere.
In the early 1990s, cultural writer and art critic Dave Hickey was asked during a conference what “the issue of the nineties” would be. He recalls his reply was impulsive but honest: the issue of the nineties would be “beauty.” Beauty, he said, is the “agency that causes visual pleasure in the beholder,” and the efficacy of art fully relies on its ability to kindle this pleasure. Hickey thought his comment would be provocative but no one seemed provoked. Confounded after the conference, he began to ask artists and cultural workers what they thought about beauty in contemporary art, but those conversations would always shift from beauty to the market. It was different, though, when the conversations were about beauty historically. When the conversations were about beauty within the history of art, beauty could be critically examined, but when Hickey tried to broach a conversation about beauty in contemporary art, it was not beauty that was the issue but rather the market’s concern with beauty.
The moral indignation of the 1990s, according to philosopher of art Arthur C. Danto, summoned a wave of intently political and conceptual artworks that looked patronizingly on beauty through a considered denial of aesthetics. This aesthetic denial came after the renewed political and social critiques of beauty from writers like Pierre Bourdieu, Naomi Wolf, and John Berger that emerged in the postwar landscape of cultural theory. While Bourdieu argued that beauty ideals and “legitimized” aesthetic taste are just another form of ruling class power, Berger and Wolf focused their commentary on the effects of beauty ideals within patriarchal consumer society, including the weaponization of beauty standards against women. Today, after the asceticism of the 1990s and the critiques of the mid-late 20th century, the conversations I have about beauty remind me a bit of Hickey’s: the fashion industry is readily critiqued for promoting eating disorders, and fine arts education is criticized for its exclusivity, but beauty is not really an issue. Beauty is not responsible for our problems with beauty and today, beauty is everywhere.
Beauty in its aesthetic (and Western) sense is abundant in the dominant trends of contemporary art and fashion. Craft is back and surfaces are elaborate: ruffles, harps, models-cum-performers, cathedral soundscapes, Botticelli curls, and couture details are everywhere. These idyllic elements are replicated, reused, and repurposed. Plucked out of their canonized contexts, they respond to the historical critiques of beauty with inclusive twists: diverse casts of models-cum-performers or juxtapositions of the traditionally beautiful with the traditionally grotesque (but doing so in a harmonious way). The works are beautiful, even if sometimes with a wink; they sing; and some are considered politically radical. With these twists, beauty, that sentiment that is viscera and judgment, is not what is questioned; its history is. These works acknowledge beauty’s social and historical construction while affirming that sense of beauty as something to be replicated through their replication of it. They carry forward critiques of beauty as an exclusive and oppressive force by focusing on inclusivity, but they remain committed to beauty as an ideal.
Two recent books that often come up in conversations I have about beauty are Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just (1999) and Byung-Chul Han’s Saving Beauty (2015). They express, in their own ways, that Western contemporary society (Scarry and Han are writing from the US and Germany) is in an acute crisis of beauty. They say that “beauty” has been used as a misnomer. Other descriptors, categories, and emotional responses — such as liking something, trendiness, ease — are being mislabeled as beauty, and these wrongful identifications have lead to a double crisis: 1) beauty is not correctly identified when it’s there, and 2) there is less beauty around because of these misidentifications. They nod to some of the critiques of taste and beauty, but to them, it’s not beauty doing those things. Han and Scarry defend beauty through theorizing a correct definition of it because, they argue, when beauty is correctly recognized, defined, and valued, it does some political, moral, and emotional things that we want. For them, beauty teaches us about justice, it challenges us, and it commits us to one another.
This irreproachable beauty, as argued by Han and Scarry and reified in contemporary art and fashion, seems like it could breed more problems — even with, or precisely because of, the attempts at redefining what beauty is. It might just be that beauty is both pleasurable and the problem, and maybe the attempts to maintain its consecrated status actually keep it from being able to do anything that is wanted of it. It might be that our sense of beauty is inseparable from the structures in which we exist and that it can be a powerful moral agent and political tool — but this requires beauty to be responsible as well. A beauty that is responsible, fallible, and complicated allows for a different type of aesthetic discourse; it allows for viscera to be political, moral, distorted, and nuanced; it allows for our aesthetic worlds to be ordered differently; it allows for other viscera to matter.