Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 17, 2001
Peg Zeglin Brand, ed. Beauty Matters Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000. 329 pp.; 52 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0253337267)
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A cold, wintry, and grey afternoon in London might not be the best environment to begin thinking about whether and how beauty matters, or about what are the matters that form our definitions of Beauty. However, the eerie bleakness of the weather around me coincided with the need initially to consider one form of reaction to beauty: namely, our differing responses and reactions to nature. This question was considered in Marcia M. Eaton’s discussion of “Kantian and Contextual Beauty.” When she considers her own admiration for a flower growing on the banks of a lake, its purple form against the green banks, she rehearses the problem that this flower, however visually beautiful for her, represents for another spectator of the same scene, an ecologist, a nightmarish imported weed that threatens to destroy other species of wild flowers. One person’s concept of beauty may represent another person’s natural disaster, she reflects. Should a theory of appreciating beauty based on purely visual pleasure—without the application of knowledge—give way to a theory based on moral and contextual judgments about beauty? This becomes the purpose of her essay. The doubleplay of the title begins to indicate the depth of questioning and the multiplicity of angles from which these questions are explored within this book.

Re-reading Kant and developing the implications of several key theses acts as the starting point for most of the essays in the book’s first part. Here, the contributions move from Kant’s consideration of whether beauty is free or dependent—an instant or an absolute judgment—to questions about social consensus and social norms, to whether beauty is morally “better” as a product of pure nature or of artistic effort, even artifice. Noel Carroll’s essay on racist judgments from Kant onward, and his unpicking of the moral judgments involved in the attribution of certain facial and physical characteristics on a scale of the most beautiful to the most ugly as moral absolutes, raises further questions about the social-political context in which Beauty matters. Throughout the book, a dialogue emerges about how and why standards of beauty are increasingly questioned in cultural studies and aesthetics. In addition, some essays carefully reassess how different categories of beauty receive more attention in aesthetics (as a branch of philosophy) and in cultural life than others. Arthur C. Danto’s discussion of the significance of Hegel’s Third Realm—decoration, adornment, and physical improvement—is a good example of the former, while Paul C. Taylor’s discussion of the social significance of Malcolm X’s choice, as a young man, to dye and straighten his hair in a 1950s “conk,” an example of the latter.

However, as a result of reading these essays, I began to question whether the gap between the work that cultural studies does on ideologies—social stereotypes, political and cultural norms, and questions of agency and intervention—does not fit with philosophy’s seeming desire for viable and fixed categories that can be questioned by randomly chosen examples of human behavior. In other words, that these two disciplines may really be noncommensurable in terms of their ultimate effects upon the reader. They neither use equivalent terms nor do they share the same discourse, in spite of being linked by the word beauty. It is the ambition of the book, that the concept of beauty can embrace this wide-ranging interdisciplinary dialogue but the attempt raises many questions that need to be developed. The strongest essays in Part 2 are offered principally as case studies of beauty in relation to the cultural studies paradigm, and they offer five different analyses of the “body beautiful,” both male and female. The over-emphasis traditionally found on a singular concept of Beauty, often exclusively focused on the female body, is in this volume expanded by attention to race and to racism, by analyses of masculinity and trans-sexualism and by attention to different cultural traditions (here, in China, Japan, South Sea Islands, and in black American culture) as well as by discussion of physical disability. Kathleen M. Higgins asks whether the qualities associated with kitsch are more adequate to describe what we might call beauty today, when discussing art and the appeal of advertising in relation to notions of flawlessness and glamour. Susan Bordo explores, in a witty and enjoyable essay, the male body in advertising focusing on the appeal of Calvin Klein’s male models in terms of shifting models of masculinity in contemporary culture and the active desire of a female subject. Dawn Perlmutter examines the ideal of the beauty pageant, Miss America in particular, contrasting its ‘cultural norms’ against both Miss World and child beauty pageants and debating the relationship between the display of the beauty queen and the female porn star. Eva Kit Wah Man considers the differing construction of feminine ideals of beauty in Taoist and Confucian philosophical traditions in Chinese culture and sets this discussion, often of the courtesan, all too briefly at the end, against the importation of Western standards of female models in contemporary fashion advertising. Anita Silvers, with reference to Plato’s ideas of beauty, sets judgments about Picasso’s cubist images as “beautiful” in its artistic use of distortion against a social understanding of disabled people as visually imperfect and lacking in beauty. Setting her argument in the context of disability rights, she implies, it is not just a question of representation, in terms of positive or negative representations of individuals set against cultural norms, but the effects of art upon us, especially its production of beauty and beautiful representations, which merits attention.

Part 3 of the book switches the debate towards contemporary art (in the 1990s) more directly. Does the concept or use of Beauty in contemporary art and art criticism possess a dangerous, transgressive, subversive or even grotesque edge, as Peg Brand asks in the introduction, or is it just confused with notions of the sublime, as understood in philosophy? Or do we arrive at these implications because of the free-flowing redefinitions of postmodernism putting fixed and definite meanings perpetually into question? Peg Brand’s own contribution is a dialogue about the impact of the French contemporary artist, Orlan’s work, upon the canon of beauty because of her deployment of cosmetic surgery intercut with quotes by the artist explaining her work. She succeeds in shifting the terrain of the debate to analysis of pain and suffering provoked by the work as well as highlighting the contrast between Orlan’s project and cosmetic surgery for self-improvement by emphasising the process and contextual character of the performance and photography. This section also contains two very interesting case studies that stress a gendered analysis. Kaori Chino discusses the reception of Yasumasa Morimura’s “Actresses” series, firstly in a male magazine in Japan and then as ‘Art’ in the gallery context. Sally Banes analyses Karole Armitage’s development of “A New Kind of Beauty” and departs from the classicism of traditional ballet to a new set of forms for contemporary dance. It is the first essay in this section, by Hilary Robinson, that raises the most direct challenge to a male-defined canon of Beauty—which many of the essayists see as the only cultural dominant—by her discussion of Luce Irigaray’s thesis about claiming/developing a “sexualised subjective identity” for women, linking together a corporeal, spiritual, artistic, ethical and political ontology. This is one of the few essays that challenges the very categories by which beauty is all too frequently discussed in philosophy—and from a feminist perspective—considers that the boundary lines of subjectivity for women and inter-subjectivity could be redrawn, not just for women, but in consideration of the practices of women artists. Given the breadth of issues addressed, this thought-provoking book will be of great interest to artists as much as to philosophers and art critics in redefining the territory in which we consider beauty.

Katy Deepwell
Research Fellow in Fine Art, University of Ulster, and Editor of n.paradoxa: international feminist art journal

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.