What is Beauty?

What is Beauty?

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
- — John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

You’re likely thinking, quite rightly, “Oh, how typical for Katie to be given a brief on beauty and to employ poetry...” However, before you condemn my predictably semantic-based stance, let’s take a moment to appreciate Keats’ influence on our contemporary notions of beauty. His transcendental depiction of beauty represents timeless ideals of pure aesthetics. Perhaps more so than any other English Romantic-era poetry, these lines have lived on in contemporary quotations since their creation in 1819.

Why is this? Well, I’m still a significant portion of a dissertation away from figuring that out, but what’s immediately obvious is that humans have a seemingly innate attraction to beautiful things. Empirical studies show that infants as young as two months in age prefer to look at faces that adults find attractive. How is this related to poetry? Well, no poet of the Western World is more connected to notions of beauty than Keats: “His sense of beauty has been well called a disease.” Somehow, this combination of beauties – the Romantic poet, the sensuous poem, the beauty-truth maxim – has provided the lines with enough allure to ensure their relevance well
into the twenty-first century.

The earliest uses of the word beauty in written English date back to the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, and almost exclusively refer to women. This isn’t as sexist or as surprising as it sounds. Remember that most of the writers back then were men who liked women, and the women they called beautiful were objects of their most intense desire. For almost as long as the word has existed, beauty has been associated with females, and particularly with the female form.
Throughout the history of Western art, the female nude is the most frequent subject, with the exceptions of Jesus and Mary. An examination of the nude in art reveals a constant, if sometimes subtle, shift in the ideal of bodily beauty. As art historian Kenneth Clark defined it, “The nude is the naked body clothed in culture.”

Cultural mechanisms have transformed perceptions of body perfection, dictating shape and proportion by artificially changing the body’s silhouette, and sometimes physically altering its natural structure: “Fashion’s great seduction is its mutability,” wrote Harold Koda, Curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Through the artifice of apparel, characteristics can be altered to adhere to the accepted ideals, according to trends of the time.

If Keats thought that beauty is truth, then the cosmetic industry surely disagrees. Beauty in the sense of cosmetics and coiffure devotes itself to the art of concealment, disguise, manufacture. From catwalks and celebrities, through filtered lenses of the media, to the impressionable public… the so-called beauty industry is marketed to compel desire. Still, although our vanity may have reached new heights, outstanding physical attractiveness is no new societal advantage. Historians have argued that had Cleopatra’s nose been half an inch longer neither Julius Caesar nor Mark Anthony would have fallen in love with her. Physical beauty has long been treated as an advantageous quality or possession comparable to power, intelligence, strength, education, or family. Commercialisation, therefore,
is inevitable.

Entire historical eras were shaped and are remembered by their interpretations of beauty. Perceptions of longed-for looks have changed throughout time and across cultures. Indeed, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the preference for a long neck is “perhaps the only corporeal aesthetic that is universally shared”. The history of the chest is “as much about its suppression as it is about its augmentation”, and no zone of a woman’s (or in fact a man’s – google “Mr Pearl, Corset Portrait”) body has been “more subject to visual and physical adjustment than the waist”. Fashion clearly reveals our human impulse to bring the body closer to some artistic, Keatsian ideal.

In the first decade of the 1900s, mannequins were rendered with fleshy shoulders and arms, not too different in effect from an Ingres odalisque (those Romantic-era portraits of curvy concubines). However, the 1920s were attended by an emerging cult of slenderness. The sudden shift to thinness alarmed even French fashion designer Paul Poiret, who famously declared: “Formerly women were architectural, like the prows of ships, and very beautiful. Now they resemble little under-nourished telegraph clerks.” Even throughout the predominant “flapper” fashions of linear silhouettes, collarbones and knobbly knees were still features of malnourishment and pre-pubescence rather than female attractiveness. For that attitudinal transition, the 1930s are to blame. That decade squared shoulders and articulated ribcages. The subsequent post-war female ideal had a fuller bust, but a more pinched-in waist. Bottoms were flat, but hips were emphasised and padded. By the 1960s, androgyny was in, as were aspirations of youth and thinness. More than ever before, contemporary fashion focussed on body-shape as well as adorning clothing.

Unfortunately, this means that present day trends are not only emptying the wallets of impressionable young girls, but also persuading them to empty their stomachs. A recent article in the Otago Daily Times referred to the education conference address of Dr Helen Wright, head of a private girls’ school in Wiltshire. Wright said the cover of Zoo magazine, featuring US reality TV star Kim Kardashian beneath the title “Officially your hottest women in the world”, represented “almost everything that is wrong with Western society”. Due to the mainstream media “diet of empty celebrity and superficiality… [teenagers] are under a huge amount of pressure, buffeted by these images and messages.” To mitigate the problem, schools are encouraging parents to “place emphasis on personal attributes such as personality, achievements, skills and outlook on life,” and to refrain from “placing emphasis on physical aspects such as prettiness, likeness to celebrities, or thinness.” Wright’s argument addresses what is evidently a massive problem for today’s younger generations, according to statistics on eating disorders, body dissatisfaction, and social pressures. However, this issue too often becomes an attack on the phenomenon of beauty, rather than superficiality, shallowness, and over-sexualisation, which are the real perpetrators. To say that beauty encapsulates emptiness, and that it’s involved in the decline of Western civilisation, is to neglect the real meaning of the word. So what is it?

In The Beauty Trap by Nancy C. Baker, we’re encouraged to “redefine beauty for ourselves so that it includes far more than perfect features, artfully enhanced make-up, hairstyling and clothing… a truly beautiful woman makes the best of her physical assets but, more importantly, she also radiates a personal quality that is attractive. Unlike the woman with a gorgeous face and body who is obsessed with herself, [the] ideally beautiful woman exudes concern for others, as well as intelligence, enthusiasm, humor, and self-confidence. There are all qualities we can cultivate in ourselves, and they’re qualities that will last a lifetime.” Baker’s notion is indeed a sensible solution for promoting women’s confidence (and men’s, of course).
However, it’s riddled with semantic subterfuge. She’s confusing and combining different definitions of beauty, and the complex-fuelled judgment of “self-obsessed” girls is a major feminist faux pas.

The idea of beauty is too often muddled by our failure to distinguish it from fashion and aspects of personality. “Clothing maketh the man”, and so on. Of all human attributes, the one over which there is most dishonesty and manipulation is physical appearance. Is this because it’s a sensitive topic, or simply because it’s an indefinable concept? Grooming and self-presentation, simulations of beauty, are often incorrectly interpreted as true beauty. Then again, people like Baker harp on about some kind of “internal beauty”, thus propounding the idea that beauty must be associated with some kind of goodness. Moral beauty is passed off as physical beauty, or a physically beautiful but unlikeable person is denied the attributes of beauty. “Personality beauty”, as popularised by Plato and the Christian Church, is very different to aesthetic-based notions of “physical beauty”, yet both terms are commonly confused and used interchangeably.

It’s all part of that classic triad — the values of truth, goodness, and beauty. To mix beauty with goodness, or even with truth (all eyes on Keats), is to mess with the angles of the primordial triangle. Beauty as an aesthetic experience is not always derived from positivity and pleasure. Beauty has an insane side, an unclean side, as perhaps one would expect, since it is something that people make with the world. It is created in the cooperation between a beholder and an object. Beauty is skin-deep, internal, lasts forever, fleeting, intrinsic, extrinsic, average, deviation, embellishment, economy, ontology: Ockham’s Razor. Don’t ask what it is because nobody really knows. Get a better vocabulary, and blame something else for the world’s problems.

*For an exceptionally exquisite definition, consult the works of Oscar Wilde (a self-confessed and universally acclaimed aestheticist):
This article first appeared in Issue 17, 2012.
Posted 10:46am Sunday 22nd July 2012 by Katie Kenny.