Demoting Beauty

I’m skeptical about transcendental beauty, if only because what is held to be beautiful seems to drift with time. Of course, that itself may just be an illusion. That all I can see is unceasing change in beauty could be the consequence of having been 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 usually seem much more salient than the specifics of anything they happen to celebrate. 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 announce beauty, thereby shape the contours of social perception and define the aesthetic. Beauty is 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. In The Ideology of the Aesthetic Terry Eagleton, extrapolating from Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, claims that for the capitalist society that was then just taking shape,

the beautiful is just political order lived out on the body, the way it strikes the eye and stirs the heart. If it is inexplicable, beyond all rational debate, it is because our fellowship with others is likewise beyond all reason, as gloriously pointless as a poem. The socially disruptive, by contrast, is as instantly offensive as a foul smell. The unity of social life sustains itself, requiring no further legitimation.

The particular usefulness of beauty lies in its positing an eternal, elemental value. It connotes transcendence and veils its own practical advantages, so its privileges and the social hierarchy it stabilizes seem unquestionable. It expresses a fixed distribution of cultural capital with immediacy, as though it were a natural intuition. Our response to beauty is our heart volunteering us for the gentlest form of domination.

But what happens when the beautiful is compelled to continually change, as in a consumer economy which requires a steady stream of new desires? Does the social order itself become fundamentally speculative? Ashley Mears, in this essay for 3 Quarks Daily, suggests as much. She begins by examining 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.

The experts responsible for elevating models to elite status “don’t know what makes one model a better choice than another,” Mears notes; 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.”

Here again we see the legitimizing force of the inexplicable played out as aesthetics. What Russell “just knows” is not some ineffable movement of his own sensitive spirit but a collective understanding of what image his industry has authenticated, something not set down explicitly but communicated 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 social network produces an ideal of beauty for a particular moment that is reconstituted as the height of fashion. Its efficacy in turn authenticates the exclusivity of the network, whose members conserve the power of naming the beautiful. Within the network, the data regarding what is suspected to be beautiful circulates, and that urgent process of circulation, the cultural stakes it presupposes, constitutes those suspicions of beauty as manifest reality.

As Mears explains, this sort of information cascade generates value in finance as well as fashion, and the parallels allow each to become a metaphor for the other. Fashion is the financialization of the aesthetic; finance is the quest to create fashionable assets. But Mears is troubled by the void at the heart of both practices: “A finance market, like a fashion market, consists of speculators chasing each other’s tails in disregard for what things are really worth.”

This presumes that the “real worth” of things can be deduced in some other way that we irrationally choose to neglect. But it may indicate instead that “real value” — transcendent beauty — is inherently mysterious, unknowable. In its place is ideology, seeking to explain the void, bridge us across that gap to the transcendent, to value, to the thing itself.

Because it is ideological, because it refers to no eternal verities, beauty us allows to grasp power in a glance as pleasure. The hard, protracted work — the information hoarding; the craven herding; the endless rounds of promotion 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 consumerist beauty, being and having are inseparably blended so that identity can seem a matter of owning things and seeing becomes a mode of possession. Lost is a different way to commune with the beautiful, the mode of surrender, of giving ourselves away for good.