Changing Perceptions of Beauty


The Guardian recently posted a commentary on new work being displayed by Anna Utopia Giordano. The Guardian commentary declares that art’s great nudes have gone skinny.

I chose this as a follow-up t the last post where we looked at the history of beauty, because I think it’s an interesting example of how our concepts of beauty change over time. Utopia’s renderings attempt to recreate some of the great nude paintings of the past based on a more modern aesthetic ideal for women.

Two very interesting things stand out for me here.

Competing Ideals of Beauty

The Guardian commentary makes the claim that these renderings by Utopia show how grotesque our modern conception of beauty really is. First, if you explore her site, you can see in photographs that Utopia herself approaches the more “modern” version of beauty she’s representing in the edited nudes, so I don’t imagine her point was to show how grotesque modern beauty is.

Comments on the article bring out some interesting points. Many of them come from women (and some men) claiming they are sick of skinny women being labeled grotesque, and that this is just as bad as calling fat women grotesque. These comments are clearly backing up the modern conception of beauty. 

Reading between the lines just a bit, the theme is that all women are beautiful regardless of size or (presumably) their looks. Rather than their being any concept of modern beauty, there’s a shock and outrage that anyone might make claims about what is actually beautiful or not. To me, that’s shocking.

Along those lines, several people also claim that no one ever makes similar claims about male beauty, which, I believe is patently false. Although it took longer to get started, male beauty as the toned and muscular guy with six pack abs has taken off and makes men around the world feel inadequate these days.

Looking at it from my own male perspective, I’m boggled. If I’m overweight and have a beer gut, I’m not going to be outraged if I’m not deemed beautiful.  Actually, I would most likely feel very uncomfortable if someone told me that I was beautiful. Yet, I would still hope that some people, especially my significant other, find me attractive. And I think this is an important distinction.

Beauty vs. Attractiveness

I think attraction is possibly a much deeper word than beauty. We can be attracted to another person in a lot of ways ranging from sexually to intellectually. And all of those get bound up together and determine if we find someone attractive. Although the two terms commonly get used synonymously, I think it could make sense to say that you are attracted to someone that you don’t necessarily find beautiful.

And I think that’s ok.

It’s not necessary that every single person be beautiful, is it?

I’ve heard a lot of people say that true beauty is what’s on the inside, but I’m not sure that even makes sense. Beauty is most popularly defined as what is pleasing to us visually. If beauty is on the inside, what then, would make a painting beautiful?

If nothing else, I think there’s a lot of confusion about what we mean when we call something beautiful, and that could be at the root of a lot of the debate over works such as this one. But isn’t that what great art is supposed to do – get us to ask questions about ourselves and the world around us?

As it turns out, answering the question “What is beauty” is really quite difficult. How would you answer the question? And which version of the paintings do you find most beautiful?

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