I have heard the phrase "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" my entire life. It reminds me a lot of that other saying "One man's trash is another man's treasure." Each person develops an opinion of what they deem to be beautiful.
I am reminded of a recent study where psychologists showed children different drawings of dolls. One doll was Caucasian with blonde hair and blue eyes, the other was Hispanic with darker skin, and the last was African American with the darkest skin tone. The children were asked which doll they thought was the most beautiful. All children, no matter what race they were, chose the Caucasian doll. Not only did this study show how prevalent and influential racism biases still are in this country, it showed how our culture might still be fueling the formation of ideas about beauty.
"The Eye of the Beholder" was the name of an episode in the Twilight Zone where a woman is forced into surgery by authorities to look like everyone else. In horrific resistance to the nurses and doctors calling her abnormal, she tries to escape. The viewer then learns that everyone else is hideously deformed with pig snout noses and other strange facial features. She is finally exiled from this so-called normal looking society to live with a man who has the same "condition" as her. The episode ends as he says to her that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." This early sixties television was making a social comment on what is still very relevant today.
As disturbing as this sounds, it is not at all surprising why these ideas of beauty have been so deeply ingrained in our minds. Our society comes from a Western heritage. The forefathers of this country were from Europe, a civilization and society evolved from the philosophies of Ancient Greece. The Divine sculptures of the Italian Renaissance were carved in the images of Greek Classicism, exemplifying a refined revision of their ancestor gods, rebirthing and retelling art with the spirit of the same virtue of Aristotle's beauty, truth, and goodness.
Analyzing the ideas about beauty from the West and the East, is as complicated as analyzing the cultures themselves. Each culture dictates to us what images and behaviors are beautiful and ideal. Within each culture, are subcultures such as class, which may have subtle or extreme versions about these same ideals in images and behavior.
Which institutions and political agendas drive our ideas of beauty today? There seems to be a whole potpourri of conflicting ideologies and agendas influencing what our cultures believes to be virtuous and beautiful. There is the left, the right, or the middle in politics which our society clings to. We associate with Fox News, the NPR, or independent media. Our artistic tastes closely follow. Or do they? Might it be more accurate to say that our intertwined web of practices and preferences are unpredictable, incongruent, inconclusive, and schizophrenic in accordance to our political and moral views? Does contemporary art accurately reflect this chaos and contradiction?
Popular culture and tastes although convoluted, might seem narrow and limited to the educated. A minority of the elite or impoverished may or may not share in these popular tastes. I have always thought of myself having champagne taste on a shoestring budget. Money does not buy class, which I then think brings me back to what is unavoidable and omnipresent by various degrees: culture.
I think the motives for humanity seeking beauty are varied, sometimes shallow and sometimes more profound. Yet, all human beings seek pleasure. It would be my argument that we need pleasure in order to survive. A cat purrs when it feels pleasure. It is in our nature, and art nourishes and enhances this intrinsic need.
It might be more productive at this point to ask what kind of art could universally provide the nourishment of pleasure to humanity in all cultures. Is this possible? We all breathe air, need to eat, and bleed blood. Food is a matter of taste, but we all need it. A beautiful meal leaves us content and satisfied, as art appeals to and permeates through our visual and audible senses.
Ron Fricke's non-narrative film, Baraka, miraculously captures what is beautiful in the world's landscapes, cultures, and religious practices through cinematography. The viewer can feel the unity of humanity as he/she is taken on a visual journey to many different places and situations within minutes. While one may not think every place or practice is beautiful, the filmmaker succeeds in his intent to make the viewer appreciate another culture's visual and audible aesthetic. When we can see someone's else's idea of beauty, our own ideas expand. If we are willing to open our eyes to other perspectives, we may discover a beauty we have never known before, even if our initial intent is pure pleasure. We are all the beholders of beauty.