Friday, August 12, 2011

Beauty and inflated value (15 July 2010)

I'm skeptical about transcendental beauty, if only because the nature of the beautiful seems to change with time. Of course, that itself may just be an illusion. That all I can see is unceasing change in beauty could be the unfortunate effect of my being socialized as a consumer, trained to recognize value primarily in novelty. Beauty descends to the level of fashion, and though timeless is a commonplace in fashion-industry marketing copy, fashion cycles themselves seem much more salient than the specifics of any given trend.

Fashion is no proxy for beauty; it aspires to supplant it. But fashion cycles make explicit the logic that has long underwritten the cultural power of what has gone under the name of beauty. The power to dictate fashion as a series of apparent discoveries is akin to the authority to credibly assign beauty and shape the contours of social perception, to define the aesthetic. The particular usefulness of beauty as a category is that it serves to posit an eternal, elemental value. It connotes a transcendence even when it's nonexistant, so its privileges seem unquestionable.

Ashley Mears, in this essay for 3 Quarks Daily, examines why certain fashion models become ubiquitous and iconic when, for all practical purposes, they are interchangeable. Using Canadian supermodel Coco Rocha as an example, Mears asks, "how, among the thousands of wannabe models worldwide, is any one 14-year-old able to rise from the pack? What makes Coco Rocha more valuable than the thousands of similar contestants?" Mears argues that "there is very little intrinsic value in Coco’s physique that would set her apart from any number of other similarly-built teens," suggesting that her beauty-value is instead "bequeathed" to her by nature of the "unstable market" in which that value is realized.

Does the process of her elevation to fashion-industry fame somehow link beauty and value, allowing each to define the other for the rest of us?

The experts responsible for choosing models "don’t know what makes one model a better choice than another," Mears notes, which means that the process is ruled by the inarticulate whims of fashion's managerial class:
Like dozens of fashion producers I spoke with, Russell doesn’t really know what it is about a kid like Coco Rocha that excites him. He “just knows” if a model is right for him, and further, he “knows it when he sees it.”
But what Russell "just knows" is not some ineffable movement of his own sensitive spirit but a collective understanding of what image his industry has legitimized, something that is not set down explicitly but communicated instead through reciprocal patterns of protective imitation. Mears points out the importance of the social network to this project: "producers talk. They hang out throughout the week at lunches, dinners, parties.... They talk constantly, facebooking, texting, and drinking; they even date each other. They share social and cultural space, and they pick up on the gossip, or 'the buzz,' this way." This particular social network produces a time-specific ideal of beauty, reconstituted as the height of fashion -- an ideal which in turn authenticates the exclusivity of the network, whose members conserve the power of naming the beautiful. [herding and information cascades and the problem of arbitrary value with real social impact]

Beauty seems more an ideological effect than an intrinsic quality of things, a residue of the process of power that decides who should reap beauty's associated benefits. It's an expression of cultural capital, albeit one that strikes us with immediacy, as though it were a natural intuition. Beauty allows to grasp power in a glance as pleasure -- the hard, protracted work that went into establishing a particular hegemonic ideal vanishes into the instant, leaving behind only a sense of compulsory approval and attraction. We feel as though we are glimpsing both what we want to have and want to be, or what we are supposed to, at any rate, but also something far more insidious. In that moment of perceiving beauty, being and having are inseparably blended so that identity can seem a matter of owning things and seeing becomes a mode of possession.

"A finance market, like a fashion market, consists of speculators chasing each other’s tails in disregard for what things are really worth." But there may be no "real worth" to be ascertained, only ideology.

Beauty is our heart volunteering us for the gentlest form of domination.

Terry Eagleton, in The Ideology of the Aesthetic, argues that these cultural beauty myths serve the purpose of persuading us to recognize the premises of the prevailing social order as the spontaneous movement of our hearts

Of course there is a different way to commune with beauty --get metaphysical in conclusion.

No comments:

Post a Comment