Beauty – the last anarchy

Those who devote themselves to beauty were until recently considered to be hopelessly old-fashioned. The technical age saw in the respect accorded to it a relic of the intelligentsia; beauty was too simple and often indistinguishable from Kitsch, its harmonious dimensions could easily be produced en masse by industry and in the media. Even the hedonistic nineties did not warm to it, as the dotcom generation was too preoccupied with its own opportunities to seek beauty, that no longer wants to go anywhere. Anything that promised prestige was desirable – in other words anything that was expensive, showy and loud. In the wake of boundless opportunities the globally networked world looked feverishly to the promises of a new millennium. Since then the mood has changed.

The crisis in the world economy and the emergence of international terrorism prescribed the self-intoxicated West a lesson in transitoriness. Since the disappearance of the delirium, we are faced with the sober realisation that the Earth has not changed into paradise. A great clearance has begun that is putting things to right and creating clarity. It is therefore no coincidence that beauty is again the subject of public debates and large exhibitions. The aesthetic discourse attempts to wrest it from the commercial grip in order to make it fruitful again for art. For, just as in fashion which reacts quickest to changing trends, a new era has also begun in art. While shocks of all kind are the order of the day, artists have lost the desire to be provocative. A growing interest in the decorative has been reported in the New York contemporary art auctions. Even fashion is falling hopelessly in love with decorative details and seams and a flood of accessories.

Those who are creative share the wish to arouse emotions, to move instead of to alienate, to fascinate not to snub. Since German classicists saw the idea embodied in beauty, a certain kind of it has been seen as mysterious and cold. Feelings which might be aroused bounce off it regardless of whether it is Athens’s Adonis in stone, Garbo or the Barcelona Chair. A typical advocate of this austere beauty is the Viennese modernist Adolf Loos, who equated ornament and crime. His colleague Walter Gropius, for whom the form of beauty was identical to its integration into function and anything with function was beautiful, had similar beliefs.

“What would you say if I simply do not like your architecture?”, an American student once asked him after a lecture. “Then you are neurotic”, countered the master, for whom his dictum was over and above questions of taste. The plucky student made himself the advocate of a beauty which was not mathematically perfect and was reduced to the elementary. His was one of the first voices of a postmodernism that in its search for a non-dogmatic beauty produced such varying phenomena as Mark Rothko and Roy Lichtenstein, two artists who obtained the highest prices in this New York autumn. An idealist like Hegel would have denied Rothko’s heady, floating, coloured surfaces and the comic motifs of Lichtenstein any beauty, and would have declared them as much too arbitrary and sentimental. Loos’s modernism treated works, where the subjectivity of the artist was evident, just as rigidly.

Yet today’s scholars of such playful emotional beauty prove that they have once more survived their critics. The vulnerable and biographical detail, the brush stroke, the personal signature are what we now regard as beautiful. In the galleries of New York and Berlin, there are drawings that bring to mind kindergarten attempts or beer mat scribblings. They are lacy, done with a pale coloured pencil, intimate, private and encoded. In their anti-monumentalism they have the charm of pictorial stenogrammes, the freshness of snapshots and the modesty of initial sketches. Only at second glance does the observer realise that experienced hands are at work, which, instead of oil and acrylic, prefer to gently articulate themselves. You have to grant their works a certain premature confidence, bend down for a closer look and try to understand them.

The same phenomenon can be observed in film, such as when a young lady like Sophia Coppola in “Lost in Translation” puts the internal processes of her unspectacular heroes in the limelight instead of all-consuming action material. The sudden worldwide success of the Korean film also speaks in favour of a transition of our cultural needs. The last Berlinale celebrated Im Kwon-Taek with a retrospective and showed poetic films portraying a traditional funeral ceremony or the mourning of a young love lost in the Korean War, to full cinemas. The young Kim Ki-Duk also gained respect by telling the story of a tiny Zen monastery on a remote island or of young lovers living the life of nomads in the cities without exchanging even a word with each other. Here the cosmopolitan world of consumption is challenged by a Zenlike concentration and shamanistic transcendental moments. Also Philip Gröning’s 3-hour long film about the silent monastery La Grande Chartreuse wants to move away from the pull of hectic mobility. The beauty of “The big sleep” lies in the venture to capture the senses of the audience not through stringent action. Instead of being overwhelmed, the observer is reminded of himself by the filming of the everyday life of the Carthusians. The director says he would like to open a “room for resting”, in view of a world full of “panic hubs” and pass on the experience that the real present is “pure luck”. All in all this cinema takes an unrelated look at the specific and at life forms that elude the general standards of value and render themselves vulnerable through their individualism, for part of beauty is the acceptance of limitations. It is not obtrusive but leaves it to its counterpart to discover its hot core. Perhaps it is plastic surgery that first enables us to realise the central role that deviation plays in beauty. Faces given smoothness and symmetry by wrinkle treatment or tightening resemble each other eerily. They often look comical, rather like a parody of beauty. Tom Ford, who helped define the course of the nineties as Gucci’s chef designer recently remarked that we are fascinated by the exaggeration of form, by the large and pumped-up. It is not only our cars that look like squat tanks, but also our lips, cheeks, breasts, and bottoms look like blown-up cushions. The American misses the nuances of manipulated beauty: “We are only used to looking at altered photographs and in doing this, we have turned ourselves into solid forms. We look like comic strip figures. But because for thousands of years we have studied what looks human, artificial faces cannot convince us so easily.”

Meanwhile the natural face is becoming more and more a rarity and is already gaining a certain cult status as a rarity. Yet Ford is not concerned with rarity value but with genetic coding and instinct, which shied away from the empty face, unchallenged. Our feelings are aroused by signs of life and character, they seek reference to history in their counterpart. The impression of depth, fullness and complexity is seen as beautiful, precisely that which is also described as style. The concept of style has absorbed many implications from beauty, particular in its Anglo-Saxon form, as “style” transcending all areas of life. Used thus, it ranges from successful personal appearance, consistent design of films, exhibitions and magazines through to company-specific branding.

For what applies to the human face under the influence of plastic surgery is also of significance for the attractiveness of growing brands putting pressure on global excess supply. The staging of one’s own strengths and traditions and doing without pleasing everyone also serves as protection from the danger of being copied and of the temptation to imitate the strategies of other shortlived victors.
Instead of non-identity and role-play, the solution is authenticity and respectability. Here resorting to spiritual contexts ensures welcome synergy effects. They suggest that the individual bears the ideal in itself, is animated in one way or another and is striving for higher aims than mere sensuality. Here the aspect of aura, very important for the nature of beauty, comes into play. Walter Benjamin defines it as “unique manifestation of a distance, however close it may be”, addressing that distance which makes beauty not necessarily cold but inconsumable. By withdrawing, it transports it beyond the present and awakens dreams, thoughts and memories.

But more than anything else, the essence of beauty lies in the abruptness, with which it enters our consciousness, and it makes a force rise within us like a hound lying too long on the mat. Then, as if refreshed, we are recharged, sometimes for days and always reminded of our hopes and strongest convictions. Beauty could be described as the only form of anarchy needing no political discourse to release us from all that seems old and anxious. Beauty is therefore not a certain proportion, not a polished surface, not a mise-en-scène meeting all the scholarly rules, but the Unknown, which arouses our interest in the world with an electric shock, so that the way of things again has to reckon with us.