27 July 2011

On Beauty, A Preface

Images of beauty represent the time; beauty is not an absolute value but a relative judgment.  A cliché, I know. What counts as the beautiful in any age reflects the values of the culture in which that beauty materializes. Or at least, what is deemed beautiful reflects the values of those with the powers and means to enact their sense of the beautiful. Well, another cliché, I think. I don’t know what is beautiful but I do know what it is that I find beautiful, and I can define for myself and for others the criteria I use for that judgment. Too often, of course, I accede to the aesthetic values of the world of Hollywood and the media: I learn what is beautiful when they show it to me. I look at the catalogs and advertisements to discover what I must do and wear to appear well, beautiful. When I try to think outside the box I am not certain if it is me that is in the box out of which I am to look, in which case the world is seen from my position in the box, or if I am meant to consider a world that isn’t boxlike though it must clearly consist of the same lines that formed the box. It’s like Dylan sings, “When I was in Missouri/
They would not let me be
/I had to leave there in a hurry/
I only saw what they let me see.” I cannot imagine what I have never seen. 
One of the contemporary images of beauty these days appears as the scruffy facial hair on men. To my mind, mostly these men look like they are badly in need of a shave, but in fact, in frame after frame and scene after scene they show no evidence of having shaved, nor does it seem that their facial hair growth is intended to eventually grow into a full beard. Their unkempt look is decidedly a groomed one. For almost forty years I have worn a beard, and occasionally I trim it with a successive pair of beard scissors that are constantly disappearing. And when I have my hair styled (!) I have my beard trimmed as well. I have learned to look kempt. 
Screening Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, a rather clichéd look at the anomie of the privileged, about whom I should not care and for whom I have much contempt (read jealousy) and offer no sympathy, I was struck by how unbeautiful I find this look. Steven Dorff, playing the superrich. privileged actor, Johnny Marco, wears this scruffy facial look. And I considered how much great care and attention had to be paid in order to maintain this appearance of messiness. I see that look everywhere in the media and now out in the streets, and it reminds me how the middle and upper classes appropriated dungarees from the working class, and how this appropriation transformed what were essentially work clothes into very expensive fashion that few of the working class could afford. So with the look of manicured grunge: it’s a fake. I think that most working men going out to their jobs find no need or time to daily shave and groom; neither need they attire themselves in expensive and fancy clothing. I think that the majority of workers mostly and tiredly pull themselves together, grab an instant breakfast, and then head out to a full day’s rigorous labor for which they are mostly not well compensated. Most live lives of quiet desperation. These workers wear jeans or inexpensive chinos to their jobs: if they engage in physical labor they probably wear t-shirts during the summer months and flannel during the winters, and if they are office workers they don mostly sport and polo shirts but rarely sport coats. Johnny Marco appropriates the beaten look of the worker to stand out in the world. The fabulously wealthy Marco wears stained and tattered t-shirts in all but one scene; there dressed in a tuxedo he accepts an award for some acting accomplishment that will not be known because the ceremony takes place in Italy and in Italian, a language that neither Marco nor most of the film’s audience understand. Grunge is his fashion statement, though his living arrangements speak the lie to his shabbiness. He appears a mess though he lives a life of remarkable, almost obscene luxury: he never once puts his hand into his pocket to pay for anything in his life of conspicuous consumption: everything seems to come to him gratis; and without ever having to soil his hands in effort and without ever having to touch filthy lucre in payment for anything as he marches shabbily through the world. He looks like a derelict, and he pays for nothing and lives like royalty. He is a fake. He is the opposite of beauty. 
So with the carefully manicured unshaven look on the faces of too many men. It is an attempt at beauty that in fact misrepresents reality and that denies the essential nature of beauty, the latter which will be a topic further considered on this blog.


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