I recently finished reading Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext. The last section deals with the near-extinction of the description of characters’ appearances in literature. Baxter points out, astutely, that part of the reason for this is due to our long history of racial and disability discrimination. These are ugly and shameful behaviors that have been institutionalized and ingrained in American society. But why throw out the baby with the bathwater? Why neglect The Aesthetic?
One of our best cultural critics and public intellectuals, Camille Paglia, has frequently pointed this out in the context of feminism. A chief complaint of Paglia’s is that American feminists have dismissed and even destroyed the presence of art in their quest for female equality and empowerment. As an artist, I cannot help but agree that this is often the case. One such example from my undergraduate days was in an English literature class, where the professor presented an image of a Victorian-era painting in a round shape of a mother holding her baby, sitting next to a window. The professor asked for our comments. Moved by the tenderness and delicacy of the painting, I responded, “It’s beautiful.” However, what followed from my other classmates was a slew of answers that only commented on the repression of women, etc. Certainly women have been repressed and perceived solely as baby-making machines throughout the centuries. But this does not invalidate the sheer beauty of a beautiful image.
This is but a symptom of the lack of a genuine appreciation of art and beauty in American education. It was not until studying abroad at Oxford University that I was able to see that literature was an art, much to my delight. Oscar Wilde himself had lived, literally, across the street! Wilde is a perfect example of the English tradition of the dandy, something that does not exist in American culture, whose roots are in Puritanism and hard-line Protestantism. For a straight male in our culture to dress himself well would subject him to suspicion that he is homosexual or a metrosexual. But our modern metrosexual feels disingenuous: it revolves around a collection of products, usually appeals to men of a high SES, and is, as the name indicates, metropolitan/urban. Perhaps our only sincere dandy cultures exist within lower SES Latino and black cultures, where many men revel in decorating themselves and it is not socially shunned.
The problem is that beauty is highly commoditized in America, and therefore we lack a true sense of the aesthetic, the attractive, the beautiful. Countless magazines (usually based in New York) promote a Madison Avenue image of women each season, as does the billion-dollar fashion industry with a token “overweight” woman (read: the truly normal American-size woman) here or there. The cosmetics industry, also a billion-dollar industry, develops myriad products to make women look and feel young and “better.” And therein lies the legitimate criticism by feminists against the beauty industry and why many of them reject beauty: the American beauty aesthetic relies on perfectionism. It is too normative, based on white Barbie doll or socialite standards. That said, it is hard to resist a gorgeous spread shot on a desert island in a fashion magazine with beautiful lighting, flowing dresses, and glorious colors on the model’s face. It is a natural impulse to admire that which is beautiful. But like everything in America, things go to extremes.
We do not have deep roots in a folk art culture, as do many countries in the world. A Central American woman would have beautiful embroidery on her dress, a South Indian woman would wear a sari with stunning contrasting colors, an Eastern European would have a handpainted floral motif on a piece of furniture. Nor do we have a Scandinavian democratic philosophy of “form and function,” with everyday objects that look appealing. Nor do we have an aristocracy; though this is a very undemocratic institution, if we were to evaluate it strictly from an artistic perspective, it is something that leads to the development of a profound arts culture in any country. There is a reason why English Royalty has such great appeal to the practical Yankees. America is too practical. It thrives on business, efficiency, speed. We do not waste time with our words; those who have spent time in Britain will notice a more flowery prose than ours here across the pond. Our books do not describe people, how they look, what they are wearing – an opening like “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich…” does not belong to an American writer, although this may not be a fair comparison, given that Jane Austen wrote this line a couple of centuries ago.
Arts education is always in danger in America, be it in primary schooling or in academia, where it is considered “impractical” to major in anything creative or art history. Decision-makers and policymakers should be aware of this, and how ironic it is that our best innovators such as Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs were tremendously creative people. The late Maxine Greene, a philosophy professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, was one wonderful example of the sort of educator we need more of. Jacqueline Kennedy was also a seminal figure in promoting and developing arts in America, and we need more high profile women like her. But we also need parents who tell their kids to put down their electronic toys and pick up a sketchpad and simply draw–draw a bird, draw a tree, draw themselves. We need more of those coffeehouse folkies who write songs to their girlfriend’s beautiful hair. In short–we need more art and beauty.