Beauty in an ugly World

My frustration with current fine art photography is the insistence on ugliness when depicting human subjects. There is a clear mistrust when it comes to beauty, with the simple implication that the use of beauty is a form of pandering to a broad audience. I was in Hong Kong for Art Fair in May, and David LaChapelle was accused of the same thing. The person who spoke was genuinely pissed that LaChapelle had used Naomi Campbell in his piece “The Rape of Africa” in which he recreates Botticelli’s “Venus and Mars” but pushes the narrative toward a contemporary topic. The critics argument was that an ugly, broken, thin woman should have depicted Africa, not Naomi Campbell…. that by using a fashion model, it can’t possibly be art. The argument was unrelated to Miss Campbell’s penchant for dictator’s diamond gifts.

LaChapelle is re-positioning himself as an artist, having permanently abandoned commercial photography. He owes no one an excuse, but he was happy to offer an explanation. His argument was that beauty offers a gateway into the work, that people are more inclined to spend time with an image, and to consider its purpose. Is that pandering? Seems to me that pandering would be simply creating a beautiful image with no consideration for content, which makes his next argument even more pertinent: Art needs Concept. Without Concept, the work is simply Decoration. I think he is right. There are wonderful, interesting pieces available at Lumas and a number of other photo galleries, but the vast majority is simply decorative art… stuff you could hang in the office or on hotel room walls. Art needs an underlying reason, it can’t just be pretty. And LaChapelle’s new work is steeped in Concept.

I admire LaChapelle greatly, he is one of the three photographic artists I constantly cite as creative role models. The other two, Gregory Crewdson and Izima Kauro, also use beauty as part of their visual language. Though Crewdson does not use fashion models, he certainly creates beautiful images.

So I am taking a stand for beauty, for concept, for elegance, and I refuse to create work that doesn’t hew to my little manifesto. It is possible – even necessary – to create work that has some magic in it, that isn’t simply a distortion of reality. Photographic art does not need a funhouse mirror filter to achieve authenticity. In an ugly world, it is an artist’s opportunity to reflect beauty back into the darkness.

David Foster Wallace said it better, and I’m happy to read that we feel the same way about BEE.

If what’s always distinguished bad writing— flat characters, a narrative world that’s clichéd and not recognizably human, etc.— is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then [Bret Easton] Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.

Go find beauty. But mind you… the Pursuit of Beauty is not for the Faint-of-Heart.

One comment

  1. Story Teller | YR said:

    […] you can bet that they will use Beauty as a key weapon in its visual arsenal. I have written about ugliness in contemporary photography before. I find it to be an admission of creative […]

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