(P098)
Beauty and its Dilemmas
Location Brunei Gallery - B204
Date and Start Time 02 Jun, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 2

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Short abstract

A perennial methodological issue in anthropological research concerns the relationship between internal and external landscapes. The notion of beauty mediates between the two. This panel seeks to respond to a critically important idea that is surprisingly understudied.

Long abstract

Rubens' (1636) painting, The Judgement of Paris and Monteverdi's (1645) opera, L'incoronazione di Poppea are taken as starting points in a discussion of the ways visual and musical representations of male and female beauty have classically been used to provoke debates about relations between beauty, power, and morality. As judge in the competition to decide who should be recognized as the most beautiful goddess, Paris chose Aphrodite, thus seeming to equate her qualities (freedom, spontaneity, sexual availability) above those of her rival Hera, goddess of marriage and fidelity. In a rather comparable way the opera tells the story of the time in his life when the emperor Nero clearly considered his concubine, Poppea, to be more beautiful than his faithful wife Ottavia. In both painting and opera, feelings of injustice are manifest in the expressions of those rejected by their male counterparts and viewers/audiences are drawn to sympathise with them at precisely the same time as they are themselves enchanted by the heroine. Such narratives, and the enduring hold they have over contemporary audiences and viewers, are fruitful subjects for anthropological discussion. These examples invite reflections on the way in which understandings of beauty are used to mediate between internal and external landscapes and thus what beauty represents. This panel seeks to discuss the anthropology of beauty. Themes may include, but are not restricted to:

Beauty and power

Beauty and morality

The relationship between beauty and myth

Beauty and desire/longing

Culturally situated understandings of beauty

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Beauty and its Dilemmas

Author: Tom Selwyn (SOAS) email

Short abstract

A perennial methodological issue in anthropological research, presently increasingly salient, concerns the relationship between internal and external landscapes. The notion of beauty has the capacity to mediate between the two. It is thus a critically important idea whilst, at the same time, being understudied. This paper seeks to respond.

Long abstract

Rubens' (1636) painting, The Judgement of Paris and two of Monteverdi's (1645) operas – The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland and The Coronation of Poppea - are taken as starting points in a discussion of the ways visual and musical representations of male and female beauty have classically been used to provoke debates about relations between beauty, power, and morality. As judge in the competition to decide who should be recognized as the most beautiful goddess, the god Paris chose Aphrodite, thus seeming to equate her qualities (freedom, spontaneity, sexual availability) above those of her rivals Hera, goddess of marriage and fidelity, and Athena, goddess of cities and heroes. In a rather comparable way Poppea tells the story of the time in his life when the emperor Nero clearly considered his concubine to be more beautiful than his faithful wife Ottavia. In Ulysses much is made of Penelope’s 20 year long faithfulness while waiting for her husband to return home from the Trojan War, yet (the goddess) Love sings of Penelope’s “Marble Heart” which she (Love) finds almost less than human. Rubens records the feelings of injustice in the expressions of those rejected by Paris seemingly inviting viewers to sympathise with their characters and qualities at the same time that they are likely to be enchanted by Aphrodite’s appearance and sexual warmth. In Monteverdi Poppea enchants whilst Ottavia evokes the highest respect and regret. Such narratives, and the enduring hold they have over contemporary audiences and viewers, are fruitful subjects for anthropological discussion.

Reflections on the [im]possibilities of Beauty.

Author: David Crouch (University of Derby) email

Short abstract

This presentation suggests considerations of the term/ word, idea/notion/ conception, necessarily questioning its conceptual validity, if not also its purpose.

Long abstract

Like the term landscape, we each know what beauty means in passing. In a reflection of landscape, we make landscape. Conflating beauty and landscape, we may find it in the curve of a body of a hill and valley - as a felt expression we may (or may not) share. The artist Peter Lanyon expressed this as feeling that took him in imagination from a partner’s armpit to the countryside. Perhaps we simply feel beauty; or make it up, make it what we want it to be. This may happen in an everyday way: not universally agreed, but to oneself and perhaps others it is known; perhaps only shared in a rather hazy way. Trying to set a conceptualisation of beauty tends to produce nausea; one feels blocked. Pursuing this line of thought we may readily agree that beauty can be culturally asserted, categorized. Colouring, styling, eating etiquettes, learnt ‘skills’ to use beauty as a commodity set to serve the interests of a particular group, culture, or practice. Social hierarchies: even in admired artwork beauty divides, constructs status, positions human beings in a scalar hierarchy. Perhaps beauty turns out to be a very third-order term/word etc. it is used to assert superiority, when there may be much deeper essentials through which that status is imagined, pursued. The discussion may counterpose authors such as Mikel Dufrenne, who approaches beauty through phenomenology and Kenneth Clarke (partly thanks to John Berger’s critical exposures) who saw in artwork marks of a particular hierarchical categorisation of civilisations, of cultures, of societies, of human beings. Following the work of the former writers such as Ben Anderson and Yves Lomax - who works this feeling in her autobiographical accounts of doing artwork. Pursuing Deleuze, O’Sullivan moves to ignore the established claim of ‘the right way to see a painting’ and instead opens the space to what and in what way the individual who encounters an artwork brings her or his life into it. Maybe at best, beauty, like many other terms that have been seen as set categories, criteria, inherent character emerge at best as a very ‘smudged’ category, denying labelling. Since antiquity imagined, or constructed, as of being, existence organised, perhaps beauty is more of becoming. The spoken part of the presentation is accompanied by or accompanies a collection of visual images. These are some 30 images simply chosen from my own artwork on jpegs. These are Not declared as beautiful to anyone, perhaps not even to me as artist. They may resonate beauty; the one who encounters them may resonate beauty on them, even just one. They are not dogmatic. The sequence of images, of which there could be dozens, could (hypothetically at this stage) be shown on a steady sequence as given without any need to ensure direct association of any particular part of the presentation: the two, text and images, mutually inform.

Beauty as a Strange Tool: Fascination with Beauty and a the Knowledge in Arts

Author: Barbora Kundracikova (Olomouc Museum of Art) email

Short abstract

Work of art is one of the instruments of dealing with the world. Complex concept of beauty is one of the possible tools of understanding its mechanism. Our aim is to follow the phases of the creative process and to measure it with the principles of dualistic theory and recognition theory.

Long abstract

Beauty is one of the complex concepts. Her understanding depends on whether or not it is associated with the attitude of the perceiver towards the thing or the thing itself: Hence its position in the context of the theory of recognition - and the development of subjectivity, but also in the context of dualist philosophy, especially the argumentation of Martin Buber. Fascination with beauty is a natural initiative moment of interest in knowing - the identification of a thing as a thing gifted with a specific enumeration of features and qualities, but with the notion of ideal. What is beautiful is beautiful because of the inner, the transcendental, and the ideal. Moving on the boundaries of identity, inter-subjectivity, and objectivity is remarkable in particular in fine arts. Especially in the European context where the art still has a high expressive quality which means it is a subject to the author. As an example, exploring the limits of beauty as a motivation for cognition, the present realistic and highly illusive painting is used. It is understood as a way of understanding things, as a kind of special tool (Alva Nöe) approaching the world and its systemicism. Regarding an example of the work by Zdeněk Trs and other Central European painters there is also the question of the relationship between the science and the art in their approaches to the knowledge.

Art as a Theoretical Source for Social Theory: Paul Klee and the Notion of Crowd and Protest

Author: Reza Masoudi Nejad (SOAS, University of London) email

Short abstract

This paper calls for visiting works of great artists not merely for aesthetic pleasure, rather for conceptual inspiration in social science.

Long abstract

This paper particularly discusses Paul Klee's 'Revolution of the Viaduct', which was his reaction to the opening of Nazis' 'Degenerate Art' in Munich (1937) that defamed modern art. I will gaze at this masterpiece throughout my investigation into the idea of crowds and protests. Interestingly, while some of the classic crowd theories, e.g. Le Bon's, and even late twentieth century theories such as Tilly's WUNC (2006), would be found not effective enough to articulate the recent crowd behaviour (Masoudi Nejad 2013), the Modernist artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) and his protest depiction remains very relevant today. This should encourage academics to revisit the question of crowd from a different perspective and avoid an overly restricted disciplinary approach. Paul Klee taught at the Bauhaus and is known as one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. 'Revolution of the Viaduct' (1937) rejects the Third Reich propaganda that promoted a uniform mass society in which individuality had no place. In reaction, Klee depicted viaduct arcs that can be simultaneously conceived as humans. Heavy masonry viaduct arcs are supposed to be settled and bounded to each other, serving and functioning as a part of a solid system. However, Klee's arcs are like people who have rediscovered their individuality, challenging the Third Reich totalitarian social propaganda. Moreover, the crowd is not characterized by the lack of individuality, as suggested by conventional crowd theories; rather Klee depicted a leaderless crowd of diverse individuals, that well describes the recent protests in the twenty-first century.

Dilemmas of Beauty in equatorial Africa: Representations of Power, Sexuality, and Bodily Aesthetics

Author: John Cinnamon (Miami University (Ohio, USA)) email

Short abstract

This paper explores interconnections between power, violence, sexuality and bodily aesthetics in representations of equatorial Africans, including oral literature, fiction, European explorers' and missionary accounts, ethnography, photography, the religious imagination and modern dance music.

Long abstract

This paper explores interconnections between power, violence, sexuality and representations of beauty in several moments of Gabonese and Cameroonian cultural production: the Mvet epic, nineteenth-century explorers' accounts, colonial and missionary ethnography, ethnographic fiction, imaginations of women spirits, and a popular genre of Cameroonian dance music, Bikutsi. On the one hand, the Mvet, spirit imaginaries, and Bikutsi might be said to said to express "African" formulations of power, violence, beauty, and what Joseph Tonda has called the "sex-body" (corps-sexe). On the other, European explorers' accounts, colonial and missionary ethnography, and French anthropologist Philippe Laburthe-Tolra's 1986 novel, Le tombeau du soleil, set in the nineteenth-century southern Cameroon rain forest, convey a range of contradictory, racialized understandings of beauty, sex, violence, and power—ranging from portraits of African women as lascivious reprobates to sanctified 19th-century Presbyterian and 21st-century Pentecostal converts. At the same time, this dichotomy is far too neat as Africans, both males and females, have drawn on the beauty and power of potentially violent white female spirits, while Euro-American (male) authors have also converted African women into obscure objects of desire. My analysis draws on Elaine Scarry (sublime beauty and justice), James Fernandez (arguments of images), Simon Gikandi (western taste vs. the abjection of African bodies), Sévérin-Cécile Abega (sexual violence and the state), and what Tonda calls the colonization and seduction, not only of Africans but of le blanc, through violent, fetishized, bedazzled imaginaries.

The (Im)possible Quest of the Ideal: Studying Women's Body Transformations in Contemporary India

Author: Avilasha Ghosh (Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta) email

Short abstract

The paper examines the complex interplay between body, culture and technology in contemporary India with a focus on the sexual politics that underlies cosmetic body transformations and if women's decisions to undergo them can be read as symbolic acts of resistance against perceived oppression.

Long abstract

In a visually oriented culture that is obsessed with physical beauty and slenderness, obese/overweight bodies are negatively constituted as the Other, as undesirable and ugly. Beauty with its ever-increasing networks of technology and communication in the wake of consumer capitalism, offers innumerable "choices" for individuals to transform their bodies as per the ideal beauty norms to the extent that today in place of the material body we now have a "cultural plastic."

In post-colonial countries like India, women occupy an ambivalent position between tradition and modernity; they must not only produce themselves as beautiful bodies in conformity to western standards but must also be rooted in traditional, patriarchal notions of womanhood. The experiences of oppression are double-edged for postcolonial women: while being implicated in positions of disadvantage they are further oppressed by dominant beauty norms.

This paper deals with the embodied ways in which women through the use of technological and surgical body modifications (gyms, liposuction, weight-loss surgeries) attempt to strategically alter their oppressive conditions in both private and public domains. As women's experiences are historically and socially specific, this paper will focus on their subjective interpretations for analysis. The paper deals with two primary aspects: a) correlation between symbolic violence and women's decisions to undergo surgeries b) whether these decisions can be interpreted as symbolic acts of compliance or resistance against unequal power structures.

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'Lean' into power: globalization, new media and changing female 'beauty regimes' in Bhutan

Author: Shivani Kaul (University College London) email

Short abstract

This paper explores the psychological, physiological, political and ethical implications of changing 'beauty regimes' in a time of neoliberal globalization through a case study of college women's body ideals and new media ecologies in Eastern Bhutan.

Long abstract

Anthropologists have recently explored changes in ideal body size among young American women, confirming what psychologists suggest is an influential 'thinness schema' of female beauty internalized through images of women in film, TV and print media. But is the causal relationship between mass media representations and female beauty exaggerated as these images circulate far away from their culture of origin?

In 1999, the Kingdom of Bhutan became one of the last countries in the world to broadcast television. Information and communication technology (ICT) use has jumped since then: 58% of all households owned a TV and 92% a mobile telephone in 2013. How has the recent explosion in global mass media flows affected young Bhutanese women's beauty ideals? What is the impact of these images on their notions of self, on their material bodies? Is the 'thinness schema' spreading? If so, how does it interact with existing cultural models of female beauty, labor and status in a still-largely agrarian society? What are the political and ethical implications of these new 'beauty regimes' in the land of Gross National Happiness?

In this paper I address these questions through ethnographic and survey data on the socialization of beauty ideals, body image and self-concept among undergraduate women in Bhutan. Though my initial findings suggest that thin body ideation is high, rising, and correlated specifically to media socialization, I explore its relationship to wider structural transformations in class and gender in Bhutanese society as well as deeper unconscious dynamics of discipline and morality.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.