Thursday, March 25, 2010

From Sharron Kramer: Beautiful Communication

The human body is the most universal of symbols, we can all relate to it, and we attach meaning as we see fit, according to cultural context. The female nude body, in particular, has been an accepted subject of art throught history, with the exception of certain religious cultures barring its painting. Jean Dubuffet states, “ …the female body, of all the objects in the world, is the one that has long been associated (for Occidentals) with a very specious notion of beauty…” Yet

Dubuffet adds, “…now it pleases me to protest against this aesthetic, which I find miserable and most depressing. Surely I am for beauty, but not that one.” I would agree with the idea of one standard of beauty, the female body, can feel quite depressing, and limiting, and excluding. I can imagine how depressing a museum full of female nudes would be, and I would want to experience more beauty than just this kind. Barnett Newman takes the idea to the extreme, stating in 1948, “The impulse of modern art is to destroy beauty.”
In “Venius in Exile,” Wendy Steiner explores the idea that a pure beauty is but one form of expression for an artist. She states, “If Conceptualism and Minimalism pushed purity a step further than Dada, Pop Art opened up new vistas by embracing impurity.” I think it is natural that once a trend is decidedly defined, and given the freedom of expression, an artist may move toward challenging a norm, or at least vary it. Steiner says, “ The intrinsic unfairness of the distribution of of beauty among the female population, the entailment of passivity in the role of the “to-be-observed”, and the equation of value with mere surface led feminists to consider beauty a tool to keep women subservient to men and competitive toward eachother.” This idea seems quite apparent when one considers secretaries, subordinates of businessmen, are often young, female, and attractive. During “Celebrity Apprentice”, I noticed Donald Trump’s receptionist did indeed fit that mold, and I can see how this would encourage other successful business men to seek out the same.
Political climates can cause society, and artists, to challenge the prevailing standard of beauty. Steiner states, “…the beauty question became central in race politics. To be beautiful is to be valued, and thus the claim: “Black is beautiful.” African Americans read the tyrrany of white supremacy in the ubiquity of the Caucasian ideal of beauty--blond, blue-eyed, white skinned.” She also notes, “The development of a multiracial approach to female beauty is still very much in process in U.S culture today.” I would expect to see art in general reflect the standards of society, and if an artist were to challenge these standards, they may be considered revolutionary.
It is interesting to consider how one can often date a piece of art based on style and content, and how visual art will often mimic the literature and politics of the day, and vice-versa. Commercialism and media have become dominant themes in American life, and we see this reflected in art. Pop art and iconic images are seen everwhere, they are broadly familiar and tend to unify our cultural experiences. Much of the abstract hints at a feeling, or gives fragmented imagery. It reminds me of flipping through the channels of a television, there is no full story, beginning, middle, and end. Abstract beauty can be felt and appreciated today more so than say 100 years ago, because we can relate to it. Yet a flipside exists. In Venus In Exhile, Steiner discusses how Dubuffet “turned to a whole array of primitivist alternatives: the art of the insane, the prehistoric, and the non-Western. The proliferation of these fetishistic replacements still continues with other artists in our day…” It is interesting that something foreign or non-contemporary is considered fetishistic.
Steiner also states, “As a culture, we still find it hard to dissociate passion and love from beauty…”
A state of mind is implied when deciding what beauty is, and it varies from simple true and pure, to complex, mysterious and taboo. Steiner makes several points in her introduction to Venis in Exile, “…we must stop treating beauty as a thing or quality, and see it instead as a kind of communication. We often speak as if beauty were a property of objects… The judgement of beauty in a person or artwork varies enormously from one person to the next…” She states that these shifts are meaningful, valid, and do not fall away from some “truth” or “higher taste”. An implication of the idea of beauty is a form of communication rather than a property of objects is a liberating one. If the communication is effective, it can be appreciated. It also imples the body is not merely an object, and that the abstract can be beautiful, communicating such concepts as freedom, love, or revolution, for example. It allows for variance in the concept of beauty. It allows for expression in general, self exploration, and appreciation for something other than one’s own ideas, or oneself.

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