Tuesday 22 March 2011

What is beauty ?

On the subject of beauty, one immediately refers to the usual clichés: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” or “Beauty is only skin-deep.” In recent years, beauty has become a hugely lucrative industry. Every day, we are bombarded by adverts selling hair shampoos and anti-aging creams with images of sexagenarian or even octogenarian celebrities who reclaim their lost youth with their perfect skin, glossy hair, and super-trimmed figure. Sitting by swimming pools, long hair bouncing over their shoulder, tanned legs shimmering under scorching sunlight, as if they never aged one day over 25. There is an endless supply of cosmetic beauty products, as well as botox, and plastic surgery for every man or woman, as long as they are willing to go under the knife to be sculptured like a Hollywood star. We should question why our culture defines beauty in terms of Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt.

Beauty is an illusion if judged at face value. Beauty is transient and ephemeral. What you saw as beautiful yesterday could be unattractive today. According to W C Fields, « Beauty is in the eye of the beerholder ». When intoxicated, your eyes play tricks with images, like the caterpillar changing to the butterfly; like sunsets fading on the horizon; or sand-castles washed away; or ice-sculptures melting.

In a machismo society, beauty can be classed as an asset or a curse for some women. Celebrated sculptor Auguste Rodin once said to American dancer Isadora Duncan, "if we have children, our offspring will have your beauty and my brain" - a remark at once flattering and insulting – does beauty therefore insinuate vacuity? Albeit every woman likes to be praised for her appearance, does she really want to be coined as the “dumb blonde”? Marilyn Monroe’s tragic ending exemplified the nefarious effect of beauty.

Where does the concept of beauty originate? Gabi thinks that human beings developed the ideal of beauty through the survival instinct. Animal attraction is based on natural desire for a healthy partner to produce better offspring. As a result, the perception of beauty started with looking for signs of good health and strong vitality. Undeniably beauty has a strong erotic connotation immersed in the realm of human senses.

If sex appeal means beauty, perhaps porn stars qualify as the most beautiful people? The judgement of beauty is subjective. If all beauty was standardised, the world would be deprived of individuality and personality. There is vulgar beauty as there is classic beauty. Vulgarity equates beauty with basic sex appeal, chintzy garish colours, ostentatious displays of wealth, or anything that has immediate appeal to our five senses. The opposite of vulgarity is the sublime, which has often been mistakenly termed as “high-brow”. In contrast to pornography which aims at arousing sexual desires, Greco-Roman statues of gods and goddesses often represent sublime human forms evocative of spiritual beauty.

“Artist is the creator of beautiful things”, said Oscar Wilde. But not all artists agree with this. In Roger Fry’s opinion, “art is a significant deformity”. Picasso happily admitted that his art is “a lie that makes us realise the truth”. Andy Warhol blatantly claimed that “good art is good business” – in other words, “art” is something that sells for a price. Art in this age is no longer the “creation of beautiful things” as our ancestors believed. Rodin once declared “All those so-called ugly things in nature can become admirable in art.”

What you think is ugly could well be beautiful in the eye of some experts or artists. When you see something visually ugly, it might be intrinsically beautiful. Some beauty can be termed as « horrible beauty », or « grotesque beauty ». If a Christian martyr nailed on a crucifix is considered beautiful, why can’t a carcass of a cow in formaldehyde be equally admirable? With art, the bidding process starts in the auction rooms; the price of art has thus altered the value of beauty.

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