Face the Face: The Lost Art of Beauty

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.

Lilly Ledbetter, Mika Brzezinski, and American Astronauts: True American Feminists

This week’s post is more of a reflection on a general theme that seems to have arisen in my mind in the past couple of weeks—-I have been reflecting on the strength of and challenges faced by American women.  A number of things have led me to reflect on this:  hearing Lilly Ledbetter give a talk on her remarkable courage in fighting for the equal pay she deserved from Goodyear, reading Mika Brzezinski’s book Knowing Your Value (perhaps a precursor to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which I have yet to read), seeing Alfonso Cuaron’s brilliant film “Gravity,” and reading about women astronauts.  What struck me as a common thread among these seemingly disparate women and fictitious versus non-fictitious settings was that these women were, in a sense, ordinary.  Now, before the reader begins to raise a fuss, let me define “ordinary” as I perceive it.  These women are not radical, radical feminists, man haters, overly politicized, child haters, or even, perhaps, willing to label themselves as feminists.  They have accomplished their goals by being who they are and facing the same challenges that women face across all socioeconomic statuses and value systems.  They were trying to find their own way to achieve their goals in a culture that did not necessarily support them.  But in doing so, they have as role models for all of us.

Take the example of Lilly Ledbetter.  Her graceful tenacity and belief in doing what was right—-fighting for equal pay—-is an inspiration to everyone, women AND men.  A working wife and mother who was tipped off anonymously by a colleague that she was making less than her male counterparts, she began a fight that lasted over many years in order to get what was her due.  She had to fight a corporation (Goodyear), and even a legal system that was supposed to support but then denied her case.  What struck me as central to Ledbetter’s fight was simply her desire to help her family and to retire comfortably, and to be treated fairly as a woman.  Certainly, Ledbetter was well aware of the challenges that women and minorities face (she hails from rural Alabama), and knows the data.  But her goals were both so personal yet universal, and for this reason, I find that she was truly a success and an inspiration.  President Obama did right by naming the fair pay act after her.

Mika Brzezinski represents another type of role model for women.  Highly educated, savvy, and moving in elite circles, she has faced a set of challenges that highly ambitious, career driven women often encounter from men and the norms of American corporate culture.  America.  But what is perhaps more extraordinary is Mika’s courage and willingness to share her own mistakes as a woman in navigating the workplace and trying to get ahead.  In Knowing Your Value, she reflects on these mistakes and discusses them with other women such as Suze Orman, Sheryl Sandberg, and Tina Brown as well as a few men like Donald Trump, and Donny Deutsch.  She shares her struggles as a working wife and mother, as a woman in the media for whom appearance is important, and as a journalist.  Brzezinski discusses gender differences and how they affect one’s negotiating style.  Also of note is her acknowledgment of the men that have helped her with her career, and the women who have not; this is often a very sensitive issue for career women, but again, Brzezinski launches into a discussion about the complexities of this. Despite her arguably elite position in society and career, she still faces the same dilemmas as any working wife and mother faces—-how to juggle it all and to get ahead in a man’s world. Again, this is another example of a woman touching on universals that affect women everywhere.

America has long held the top position in space exploration, and a number of women have been part of that.  One must, of course, praise the contributions of women astronauts from other countries, such as Russia/the former Soviet Union (who sent the first woman into space), South Korea, and France.  But the list of American women who have gone into outer space, often risking their lives, is extraordinary.  The loss of the pioneering Dr. Judith Resnik in the 1986 Challenger disaster was tragic, but this tragedy is tempered when one sees what a passion she had for both science and for her own womanhood (she let her abundant hair flow when she wasn’t wearing her helmet and proudly carried a picture of TV star Tom Selleck on board!)  Sally Ride, the first American woman in space was actively involved in her later years in encouraging women in the sciences and running science programs for young people while remaining quietly lesbian in her personal life.  Mae Jemison was another pioneer, as she was the first African-American woman in space.  She was also quite a pioneer, in that she was a female engineering student at Stanford University, and an African-American female engineering student at that. The multi-talented Jamison has also had a lifelong interest in dance, both in performing and choreographing it, as well as acting.  Most importantly, she is a humanitarian who became a doctor and served in the Peace Corps.  Who could be a better role model for young women and men?

As human beings, we must have concrete role models, but we also have an innate yearning for hero stories.  The film “Gravity” is one such example.  It taps into our primal need for a hero, and we are given one in Dr. Ryan Stone.  She is estranged from (presumably) her husband, her late daughter, and her fellow astronauts with whom she embarked on this space mission.  It is her intelligence and courage that sustain her as she is cut off from her spacecraft and the others, but in the end, it is her emotions that guide her to rekindle her desire to live, her heart that guides her to do what is right in choosing life over her brooding misery over her daughter’s death.  Dr. Stone meets one misfortune after the other throughout the course of the movie, and is determined to untangle herself from every difficult situation.  Cuaron’s choice of a female scientist as heroine is a very interesting and necessary one, especially in an age of trashy tramps and Miley Cyrus and Kardashian Kulture.  His rendering of a female character as a strong heroine, and yet also a woman, is shown beautifully as Dr. Stone’s lithe figure floats through the spacecraft—-a tribute to the female form.  Dr. Ryan Stone is that rare film character who is intelligent, strong, successful in a typically male field, maternal, and embracing of her femininity.

We still have a long way to go in American culture in allowing women to feel that they can be complete and multifaceted, that they can embrace traditional roles (such as motherhood and marriage), the miracles of their bodies, their intelligence, and their ambition.  Ladies, don’t give up!