The Role of the Artist defining beauty in Contemporary art. By Marcus Encel

Ideas of beauty have changed over time and through the cultures that the
concept has travelled through. The values that are associated with beauty
change also. It is an idea that is similar to the concept of art in that one
can ask ten people what it is and get ten answers. What is beauty? What is
art? One can often find more agreement about their absence than about
their presence. In this paper I will look at the Role of the Artist in defining
Beauty in Contemporary Art and I will attempt to define some of the styles
of beauty and what it may be in an empirical form as well its subjective
form. I will also look at how these factors influence my art practice.
The concept of beauty can be a way of systematizing and conceptualizing
the world around us. Over the years beauty ideals change. In pre-historic
times art emerged as a synthesis of artistic thought, written communication
and spirituality in which humanity explored and made sense of their
environment. It was often associated with religion. Different cultures
had/have varied ideas of beauty. Artistically beauty can and is explored
while simultaneously looking at any number of themes. For instance a
political artwork could simultaneously explore concepts of form and
physical or natural beauty. The possibilities are endless. Many examples
exist throughout the artistic record. The concept of beauty is huge. It
encompasses physical beauty, environmental and natural beauty and can
be extended to almost anything such as architecture or more vague
concepts such as pathos and kawaii.
Early western ideas of beauty were very different from todays ideas on the
subject. Sculptures such as the Venus of Willendorf c.24,000-22,000 BC
depict extremely large hipped women with prominent vagina’s. Perhaps the
reasons for finding something beautiful in part depend upon the level of
abundance in the society. For example in the stone age when the Venus of
Willendorf was created beauty in females may have been in part tied to
their ability to bear children. The wide hips would facilitate this more than
slender ones. These sculptures may in fact be fertility symbols and that
may have contributed to the idea of what was beautiful. In a society
struggling to find food, weightiness may have become a desirable trait
visually. In our current society slenderness is favored. We have an
abundance of food and bearing children is not such a priority. Therefore we
don’t aspire to large hippedness and weightiness. Slenderness is harder to
obtain in a world of over indulgence. These are merely possibilities but
serve to illustrate how these ideas may have evolved in part. In any case
early art is not so much a movement as an awakening of consciousness. It
served to carry concepts much as writing does today, it is period of
humanities artistic development. Ideas of beauty vary radically in divergent
environments and over time and culture.
Different cultures have favored varied beauty ideals. Their art reflects
these. So what kinds of beauty are there in the broadest sense? It is a
question that can only be glanced over but I will elucidate a few. We have
physical and aspirational beauty. There is also the idea of natural beauty
such as a landscape or sunset, masculine and feminine beauty and
androgyny. The idea starts to become more diffuse with concepts like
handsome, pretty, cute, striking, elegant. In Japan the concept of kawaii
illustrates the complexity of a beauty ideal in a cross cultural sense.
Kawaii is a uniquely Japanese concept. In its most general form it is
epitomized by characters like “Hello Kitty” created by the company Sanrio
for its line of school products. It became a figure that epitomizes kawaii.
Kawaii has many forms or categories that refer to the way in which
something is kawaii. In the west cuteness is most close to the concept of
kawaii but in Japan kawaii has become a strange kind of beauty ideal that
extends over huge areas of the Japanese psyche from sexuality to
industrial design. Below is a brief list of these properties.
Kawaii- cute, cuddly, babyish
Kowa kawaii- scary kawaii
Kimo kawaii- grotesque but cute
Ero Kawaii erotic kawaii see (Kouda Niku)
Kire kawaii– beautiful, friendly, approachable beauty
Busu Kawaii- Ugly Kawaii (like a Bulldog)
Kawaii illustrates is the exponential complexity of the expansion of one
beauty concept. The many varied beauty concepts multiply rapidly. It also
shows how cultural ideals can change in a relatively short space of time.
One could pose the question “is kawaii supplanting the traditional
Japanese visual art values of minimalism?”
In the west one of the methods used to gauge and manage form and
beauty in the renaissance was the so called Golden mean or Fibonacci
numbers. This was a method of understanding proportion. it grew into
many different expressions such as ‘the rule of thirds’ these concepts
dominated art in the west for a long time. They were arbitrary measures.
Beauty in a genetic sense is easier to explain. Mathematical ideas like the
“Golden Mean” espoused by Fibonacci and extensions of this kind of
concept such as “The rule of Thirds” relate to a classical beauty ideal or a
mathematical one. There is a link between symmetry and what people find
attractive at a base or genetic level. These ideas may be the closest we
can get to a single idea of what beauty is. Eventually the classical beauty
concept collapsed and the idea of beauty being tied to spirituality and
religion also started to crumble. New definitions were required and
advertising gladly stepped into the void. Consumerism standardized beauty
post WW1. The concept of beauty was usurped by advertising and
consumerism, displacing 19th century ideas of “beauty being in the eye of
the beholder”. Fordism and mass production took over. To sell what was
inessential you needed a seduction. Beauty was used for that task. In any
case who would want this single beauty ideal? The orthodoxy that is
present the more “otherness” becomes attractive.
Is there any objective beauty as advertising would have us believe?
Should the concept of beauty be left in the hands of a consumer society?
Artists are not interested in main stream ideas of beauty. It has increasingly
become the province of art to redefine beauty in its own image and
broaden the scope of our discernment. When capitalism took control of
beauty artists set themselves against it. We as artists often exist in
opposition. Artists are interested in deconstructing beauty. Art critiques
beauty in the so called ‘makeover society’. Art democratizes beauty and
puts it in the hands of the public to define or redefine as they choose. How
does beauty in art differ from beauty in the marketplace? How do artists
deal with it? Artists redefine it in a contemporary sense, and explore new
meanings of the ideas, they also explore the relationship between the
marketplace and the dominant culture. Does the marketplace create it or
vice versa? Beauty that was seen in an unquestioning and uncritical way in
the past can only be seen as an illusion in the present. Different artists
confront these issues in varied ways, Ben Frost questions the life portrayed
in advertising and on TV in his great work ‘Fantastic Life: As Seen On TV
2005. Bill Henson is looking at ideas of ideal beauty and youth expressed
as innocence? Andres Serrano is interested in abject beauty When we
contrast works like Ansell Adams Dunes, Oceano, California, 1963 with
Andres Serrano Blood Scape IX we contrast Adams almost spiritual purity,
beauty landscape ideals with Serrano’s abject beauty. Serrano’s is a vastly
more complex idea of the way beauty can be seen. Serrano is faithful to
his origins as a tableau artist while exploring different concepts of beauty
as seen in his portraits of Cloe Sevigny, Budapest and The Bodybuilder.
Art does not need to be socially conscious or concerned with beauty to be
valid, but they are legitimate concerns for artistic enquiry.
Art like beauty is evolving. Works that involve abject beauty like Serrano’s
Bloodscapes often lose a portion of their impact quite quickly. In ten years
after several imitations of the work the shock value will dilute.
Contemporary art practice is about pushing the beauty ideal and finding
new areas for it to reside. Todays abject and current art is tomorrows
outdated art. It no longer seems enough to simply put something up as
beautiful, and the abject can become banal over time. Beauty in art for
beauties sake seems vacuous, as does the abject, although being art
nothing can be ruled out completely. Todays art needs to be more heavily
loaded with concepts whatever they may be. It seems this ideal needs to
be researched, to evolve, to be explored through different means and
applied in different ways.
What are some of the methods used to understand and explore the idea of
beauty in varied artworks that include subject matter may not involve a
beauty ideal? How do we as artists research it?
• Refining form/line (simplifying, reducing the excess)
• increasing abstraction
• increasing entropy
• increasing minimalism or complexity
• upside down world view
• contrast
• intellectual refinement (study, reference, research enquiry)
• fusion of styles and hybridization (bringing outside aesthetics in, see
Takato Yamamoto)
• materiality
These methods can be used to gain alternate views of the artwork. Beauty
becomes not so much a religious view loaded with concepts of physical
beauty and purity but a more intellectual one that seeks to look at the world
around us in ever more varied ways. There is always tension between the
opposing forces of beauty, aesthetic beauty in artwork and physical beauty.
What is its balance and what are its interactions in a given artwork?
Answers are not what is needed in this enquiry, it is the enquiry that is the
In my own own work beauty of itself is not really an investigation I pursue
per se. I do however reference various beauty ideals and often seek to
contrast the possibilities. I pursue ideas and slowly minimalise the concept.
To me this is a process of refinement akin to functional beauty as seen in
the lines of a Japanese sword. The Japanese sword developed over the
years from a heavily curved weapon for cutting to a one that had the
precise curve to enable thrusting and cutting. Conceptually it moved on to
become an ideal of perfect line and proportion. It reduced all excess to
arrive at minimal line. From functional object it evolved into venerated art
object. Similar to that idea, regardless of the concept I am investigating in a
given artwork, this beauty aesthetic of content reduction and refinement is
a process I attempt to engage in. I seek to minimize the line and
conceptual excess in the work I do. It is a process of elimination. There
may be some functional elements in the work. While any given work may
be complex, chaotic or very minimal, the idea is to refine whatever the
kernel of that ideas is to its essence and throw out the excess.
This process can take on many strange forms. For example when
exploring abject ideas and subject matter in a complex image or 3D work,
beauty may be involved in terms of reducing the concept to its most
elemental level. The beauty becomes intellectual and not tied to the
subjective nature of the actual work, but somehow resounds through it.
Within a given work there may be many aspects that are beautiful while the
idea or subject matter is not. For instance in a sculpture or drawing the
texture, line or form may be beautiful but the subject matter may be abject.
Physically beautiful people may be imaged doing not so beautiful things.
For instance in my work El Professor 2010 I use images of boxers and
Santeria priestesses (Santera) to explore ideas of vanishing culture and
cultural imperialism. The artwork is beautiful visually but serves in a sense
as a lament and includes complex political and sociological ideas.
I am constantly looking for new themes as well as re examining old ones. I
do feel there can be timelessness in art as well significance in the moment.
An artworks meaning can evolve and change through time. Re examining
and interpreting archetypes is one way I engage with the evolution of
Ideas of beauty do figure prominently in the work I do in terms of
responding to issues as I see them. Often I seek to extract a sense of
beauty from the abject, or expose beauty where one may not have
previously seen it.
Currently I am examining the idea of beauty in anime and comics. I am
interested in fetishes and beauty ideals that are derived from comics,
advertising and fashion. For example in fashion circles certain physical
proportions are used for the practical purpose of displaying cloths to their
greatest advantage. Skinny people with small heads and long legs are
preferred because cloths hang well on them. It is not the value of the
human that is considered but rather the human is a display rack for the
cloths. This is a questionable but very practical concern with
merchandising, however this is transferred as an ideal to the people who
buy or want the fashion. This unrealistic and generally unrealizable
proportion has become the most desirable one even though it is almost
impossible for most people to achieve. Consumerism uses beauty to
seduce customers into buying non essential items but strangely ideals of
beauty are dictated in part by practical concerns in displaying clothing
fashion items that are thereby transferred to the customers as an
aspirational ideal even though it comes from the factory floor to the public
by way of advertisements in magazines and displays on mannequins in
shops. The ideal gets transferred to plastic (mannequins) which becomes a
burden to those that are attempting to imitate these “looks” in person.
Is the expression of fashion an artistic sensibility in terms of self
expression? What is the line between design, art and fashion and what is
the relationship of visual and performing art to the display of self
expression through fashion? How, where and do we, draw boundaries with
the concept of what art is?
There is some strange connection between these ideas and those of the
physical proportions of characters from anime, manga and western comics.
Both eastern and western comics have beauty ideals that are completely
unnatural yet they have become the object of desire in the real world.
make believe images are superimposed on human bodies with bizarre
In Marvel comics the proportion of the head to body is completely wrong in
human terms. No one has a proportion of nine heads in hight in the real
world yet it is the most attractive in the Marvel universe. What is the
connection between this proportion and that desirous in fashion with its
long limbs and small head?
In Japanese anime there is a term called Moe. It roughly translates as “a
turn on” but in a very specific context. There are certain things that are
essential in anime and all anime must comply to Moe mores. There are
specific proportions that are preferred and signifiers that must be visible. In
anime all girls must have extremely short dresses with long sox. The
exposed flesh on the thigh has been fetishised and is considered
quintessential Moe. Girls with these signifiers and large glasses are also
considered Moe. It could be argued that no anime would be a success if it
did not adhere to these ideals.
The danger is that small groups of enthusiasts conglomerate around a
fetishised idea of beauty in a genre and impose this ideal on the general
public. In a weird juxtaposition of the dilemma comic enthusiasts can often
find they have an unrealizable beauty ideal taken from the pages of a
comic. It is similar to consumers desiring bodies that are most useful for
mannequins and fashion models. In a bizarre twist some enthusiasts have
taken it further. There are a group of cartoon enthusiasts called Furries.
They have a fetish for cartoons and feel that they relate to cartoons in a
way most would find impossible. Longing to embody cartoon and animal
qualities they dress up in furry costumes and create alternate characters
for themselves based on animals and cartoon characters. They can usually
only indulge this hobby with like minded people as it is not generally well
received. People are now attempting to divest themselves entirely of their
human qualities. Is this the post human human?
So what is the role of the contemporary artist in defining beauty? I feel it is
to examine and inquire and redefine beauty ideals or at least to explore
and open up new possibilities and critique and review emerging ideas. It is
both a running commentary and exploration. If people can respond to
beauty images as diverse and unnatural as comics, anime, and Furries
where can we as artists push the exploration of beauty in the future? How
can we investigate what is happening now and what may happen in the
As artists it is no longer enough to just make pretty images. viewers are
much more educated visually as people engage with greater and greater
amounts of images than at any previous time in history. Content in the form
of concept is essential. Viewers are not looking for some idyllic paradigm
but are seeking new sensation and comment. As artists it is up to us to
provide counterpoint to traditional and established culture. Artists also
provide counterpoint to commonly held beauty ideals opening up the
conversation in a cultural sense.
edited by Beckley Bill with Schapiro David
Uncontrollable Beauty (toward a new aesthetics)
New York
Publisher- Allworth press
Donaghue Dennis
Speaking of Beauty
New Haven and London
Yale University Press
Marwick Arthur
Beauty in History
German Democratic Republic
published by Thames and Hudson
Sakurai Takamasa and Sekai Kawaii Kumei
世界カワイイ革命 新書 新書] 櫻井 孝昌 著
International Kawaii Revolution
Serrano Andres
America (and other work)
published by Taschen
Shihouda Inuhiko”Kawaii” Ron
かわいい」論 ちま新書 新書 四方田 犬彦 著
Theory of ” Kawaii”
Publisher 筑摩書房 Chikuma Shobou