Tuesday, March 21, 2006

"The Arbitrary Power of Beauty"

Wasting time today, I found this comment about Undercover's last fashion show, which had the women wearing masks. They literally stumbled down the runway because they couldn't see out of these woolen things pulled over their faces.

"Sometimes a mask is just a mask. The elaborately pierced and studded hoods by Jun Takahashi of Undercover provoked editorials that ranged from puzzled to pissed off. In Newsweek, Anna Quindlen worried about becoming a faceless society. Confronted with such controversy, the Japanese designer insisted he had no motivation for swaddling his models' heads in leather, gauze, or wool beyond this simple fact: 'I think it's beautiful.'"

I, for one, don't find this beautiful. It seems fetishist and cruel to throw a sack over a woman's head and present her to an audience. It objectifies her in a way that robs her individuality much more than the usual fashion-presents-woman-as-object fare. Maybe masks seem especially terrifying to me because of the way they confine one's features, but this presentation undermined any of the beauty I can usually find in disturbing things. Usually there's a rush of relief at seeing something new, but this feels like the hard line of morality Mary talked about in class today.

But I wonder how hard it is, or perhaps whether I could be made to forget it. If I was bombarded with enough images of women wearing masks from sources I trust and respect, if masks started appearing in stores, if people started wearing them around campus, would I want one, too? I think that Nabokov asks us those kinds of questions in Lolita. If we spend enough time in a world of beauty, do we forget morality?

When I said in class "maybe beauty has its own moral code," I meant that it might exist along with Morals, that beauty's morality and Morals are so different that they exist in different spheres, they have no bearing on one-another. But I think now that beauty does not have its own moral code - that is not to say that it is valueless by any means - rather that it is so free of a moral code and so pleasurable that it allows us to forget morality altogether. It lulls us out of morality.

But there is a paradox here - by pushing us away from morality, does it cause us to snap back all the more quickly? Maybe I can realize my own morals more fully beacuse beauty begins to tug me from them. But I say no to this; we are too easily led by beauty to have it shock us into morality. It takes something as powerful as pedophelia and rape to remind us of Morals against Lolita's achingly beautiful prose. But perhaps that forces us to work for Morality, which causes us to invest in the Morals, which strengthens them on the inside. While this is a stronger argument, I think this varies from situation to situation. The tension in Lolita draws me away from the morality enough so that I can actually look at child-rape. It's something I couldn't abide looking at otherwise. But it might numb me to a less obvious Moral travesty - I would bet that Nabokov could convince me that, say, covering a model's face (and restricting her individuality, as I said above) was alright.

In fact, this is an argument for beauty's numbing qualities in terms of Morals - I only notice the moral outrage of restricting a woman's image and individuality when the moral is much larger than the beauty. In a more normal fashion show that might be said to impinge on the model's individuality, the beauty would make me buy-in to the program, not notice the amorality of clothing women in corsets. Or what about JFK? Though I agree with much of what he did politically, I think that the reverence he still commands has more to do with his youth, early death, and beauty than his policy. People have forgiven him his affairs in a case of beauty subverting Morality. Mary Wollestonecraft called this "the arbitrary power of beauty;" I think that ad campaigns use beautiful people not because it implies "if you buy this, you will look like this," but because we assume that a beautiful person has more authority. Product X must be good because beautiful person Y is telling me so.

But then again, there is the question of whether this morality-free zone might actually be a fertile ground for new morals. Its distance from society might allow us to pick out real Morals from societally conditioned ones (one culture might find nudity morally offensive while another sees it as the natural way of being). A clearer vantage point, if you will. And I think that we do need to rest from Morality at all seconds and just enjoy things. I enjoy many beautiful things that may not be moral, and to hell with it. But I can no longer say for certain that beauty makes us more moral.


Blogger Dolen said...

Fascinating entry, Sarah. I find it interesting that you are suggesting that masking these models is cruel and immoral to them. The picture was disturbing to me too. It reminds me of the mask they used to place over a person who was about to be electrocuted. It definitely has a bondage/fetishistic aura. Yet is it immoral? I'm not quite sure. Your thoughts are definitely giving me pause...

2:47 PM  
Blogger Sarah E. Smith said...

I have been thinking about this a lot - my housemate mentioned that perhaps beauty is delicately balanced - if used wrong, its moral-free space could distract us from Morals, but if cultured rightly, it will provide the kind of insight that makes us more Moral. I think that's a much less rigid contention than mine.

Also, about the models: I think that I react more to the idea of restricting a person's individuality and presenting that as desirable, as good. If one assents that the fashion world at once registers and shapes our aesthetic sensibility, then Undercover's performance does have a tinge of immorality - okay, maybe this is the question: is Undercover's show merely irresponsible, or is it really immoral to advocate restricting women's individuality and pay people to cover them up? Maybe I can't figure out what is so disturbing to me... when I do, I will write more.

6:29 PM  
Blogger Dolen said...

I'm not quite sure why covering her restricts her individuality. Let me go back to your original post and reread.

7:38 PM  
Blogger Dolen said...

Okay, yes yes, now I understand. They all look alike if they are masked in this one person's vision. I feel the same way about trends in general. As humans we have such a herd mentality that I wonder if true individuality isn't a mere myth anyway?

9:20 PM  

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