the original kStyle blog.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


Is beauty a frivolous pursuit?


Blogger Ann said...

The flippant answer: To some people, sure. To others, not so much.

The more serious answer: In and of itself, the pursuit of beauty is not "frivolous," given both the dictionary definition of and our common associations with the word. Historically, it's an endeavor that has been taken extremely seriously. One could even argue that, in making anything, from a spoon to a dress to a house, humans pursue beauty.

Of course, I'm not just talking about beauty as physical appearance, but beauty in everything visual: art and architecture and design and the way we clothe ourselves and the things with which we fill our homes and how we build our workplaces.

I'm also talking about beauty as subjective experience. Supermodels, for example, aren't beautiful; they just fit a particular cultural standard. I tend to believe beauty can be found in any visual artifact -- which, perhaps, is what I mean when I say things like, "There's no such thing as bad art."

You could extend the concept of beauty to the other senses and more abstract pursuits (time management, for example), but I think that's a bit of a stretch.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Ann said...

To go back to the flippant answer for a moment: I think it's perfectly valid to choose not to pursue beauty (on a conscious level).

11:28 AM  
Blogger Larry Jones said...

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

In this sense, it's not only not frivolous, but the quest is mandatory.

1:05 PM  
Blogger Narya said...

I would easily extend the concept of beauty to other senses and more abstract pursuits. I think well-written code is beautiful, for example; I think a well-constructed argument is beautiful. I actually am LESS inclined to go with the visual.

Is the pursuit of beauty frivolous? Yes. That is, I believe it is NOT frivolous--is, as Larry notes, mandated--that we in some sense seek beauty. However, I think that beauty should be an aspect of the thing, not its sole reason for being (or for being admirable). A spoon may be beautiful, but that beauty should, in part, result from its functionality, and its design as a spoon. If you take the spoon and behold it merely as an object of beauty--remove its spoonness, as it were--then, for me, its beauty is diminished. (Can you tell one of my degrees is in philosophy?)

Similarly, my croissants may well be beautiful, but if they tasted like crap, then their beauty is diminished as well.

8:59 PM  
Blogger Ann said...

Narya, does the same hold true for art that's purely decorative, like paintings or jewelry? Because in some cases, I think beauty is the sole reason for something's existence. Do you consider the creation or display of that kind of beauty frivolous?

10:41 PM  
Blogger Narya said...

I think humans like to adorn themselves and their environments, which I don't think is necessarily frivolous (but which can certainly gallop in that direction). In that sense, i think jewelry and paintings are, in fact, functional. That's probably sounding like I'm splitting hairs, and I could elaborate to demonstrate that I'm not, but not right this minute.

6:23 AM  
Blogger kStyle said...

I knew you all would have fascinating answers! Follow-up questions for each of you:

Ann--Why aren't supermodels beautiful? Couldn't they be beautiful and fit a particular cultural standard (that happens to be far too narrow)?

Also--Can you find the beauty in, say, Wal*Mart, or does that fall into the category of creations that have avoided beauty (in pursuit of maximum profit)?

Larry--Do you personally equate beauty 1:1 with truth? Following this quote down its path a ways, does the artifice of cosmetics make the wearer un-beautiful? What about artifice in art? In a sense, sculpture isn't truthful, because the David standing so gracefully before you is not man, but stone. Or can sculpture--and even cosmetics--point at deeper truth?

Narya--Is beauty strictly visual? If we say that beauty applies to all 5 senses, then is the raison d'etre for your croissants beauty, as in delicious flavor, or "taste beauty"? Or are people still eating your creations for some underlying practical function, like nutrition?

7:46 AM  
Blogger kStyle said...

PS Narya--I have some philosophy background too, though not as much as you have. ;)

7:47 AM  
Blogger Ann said...

Why aren't supermodels beautiful? Couldn't they be beautiful and fit a particular cultural standard (that happens to be far too narrow)?

I think I phrased that badly. It isn't so much that supermodels aren't beautiful than that they aren't beauty. They don't represent beauty, per se; they only represent one version of it. And to hold them up as an ideal without recognizing the beauty in all sorts of other things is...probematic.

Can you find the beauty in, say, Wal*Mart, or does that fall into the category of creations that have avoided beauty (in pursuit of maximum profit)?

Funny -- I was actually thinking about Wal*Mart when I wrote that bit! Yes, I think there's a beauty in the utilitarian design of Wal-Mart stores. But it doesn't much matter what I think, because beauty is subjective and context matters. One person might love the literal big-box quality of chain stores, while others may prefer the ornate opulence of, say, Harrods. And Wal*Mart might be beautiful when compared to leftovers you've left in the fridge too long, but not when compared to an art museum.

I'm interested in Narya's idea of beauty defined as "well-functioning." While it makes sense to call a well-constructed argument "beautiful," I'm not exactly sure what that means. Is it only that it fulfills its purpose well, and if so, then can murder be beautiful?

Narya, if you ever have time (yeah, I know: ha!), I'd love to hear more about that, or to get some reading suggestions.

10:48 AM  
Blogger Larry Jones said...

The beauty of David is that it exposes a true, if idealized, human form. The fact that it's stone doesn't make it false -- it makes it immortal.

Do I equate beauty one-to-one with truth? Keats seems to have, but I'm not sure truth is really knowable, and so I'm willing to accept what beauty I find. Sometimes there's a grain of truth in it, as in a novel or a movie or a painting or a woven rug that seems perfect inside it's own frame.

Cosmetics are deception. I appreciate the craft it takes to do it right, but look: healthy young girls (OK, and boys, too) are beautiful. Later, cosmetics are used to suggest that natural youthful beauty -- smooth skin, big eyes, glowing cheeks, pink lips. I don't mean this in a bad way. I really do enjoy the magic show. Moreover, I try ever more desperately and hopelessly to make myself, if not beautiful, at least pleasant to see. Yes, the pursuit of such ephemera is frivolous, but fuck us all if we can't take a joke.

And if we get to ask stuff here, I would ask what led you to your initial question?

4:16 AM  
Blogger Narya said...

Okay, I threw in another two cents over at my place . . .

6:29 AM  
Blogger kStyle said...

Larry, you asked what led to my initial question.

When I was cleansing, I gave myself a mint facial steam as suggested in a cleanse workbook. While steaming, I thought about how the relaxing steam would be even better if I were seated in a massage chair and receiving shiatsu at the same time. So I've been testing a mint steam/shiatsu combo on a few volunteer guinea pigs to determine whether it's a viable treatment to offer my adoring public.

Naturally, being the kStyle that I am, I began to wonder whether the apparent frivolity of skincare would compromise the perception of my clinical acumen with disorders such as IBS and asthma. The skin is so crucially important, the organ that creates individuality even while facilitating all our interaction with the outside world; it both separates and unites self with other. But that's not the common perception; "beauty treatment" is the common perception.

Meanwhile, I checked out every book I could find in the library network on holistic skincare. One book, The Truth about Beauty by Kat James, declared that beauty is not a frivolous pursuit. I took this as an interesting philosophical question rather than a statement of fact and decided to put it to my insightful, witty, and wise blog friends, with great success.

9:31 PM  
Blogger Larry Jones said...

I would have guessed something else entirely, but...

1. If you explain it to your clients as you have here, I don't think it will damage your clinical credibility, and

2. There would be nothing wrong with beautifying your clients, and

3. Your clinical credibility can give permission to your clients to enjoy a beauty treatment (or just a "feel-good" treatment)they might otherwise feel guilty spending money on, so you both win.

2:09 AM  

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