I have been unable to bring myself to describe something as beautiful for a very long time. Those three syllables rarely leave my mouth and when they do it’s more often than not because I have been prompted to utter them after succumbing to the peer pressures of certain social normative contexts rather than willingly and sincerely bestowing the phrase upon something I’ve felt was worthy of the description. Is there something wrong with me or is there something wrong with the world? Needless to say the answer is both. Am I sick? Maybe; although this is an ailment that I’m not sure I wish to be cured of. By consciously restraining myself from labelling everything that crosses my path as simply beautiful I feel like I have imbued the word (well my personal perception of it anyway) with a revitalized meaning that allows space for an expanded conversation to take place in a world that seems to be overflowing, oversaturated and overstated in regards to popular preconceptions surrounding beauty. As with all new medicine, however, side effects may manifest themselves in undesirable ways.
For a while now I have been dissatisfied (at least within my own echo chamber of peers outside the ‘art world’) with the portrayal of beauty and how haphazardly the term seems to be thrown around as if it’s some mystical Band-Aid, a trending buzzword; perfectly appropriate for any and all situations (not unlike a box of Cadbury Favourites purged of such niche flavours as Turkish delight and Cherry Ripe, left only with the circumspect Dairy Milk due to one’s heinous assumptions). It saddens me to admit that the word beautiful has lost nearly all semblance of truth that it once held and now verges precariously upon cliché; caught up in the clutches of capitalism and destined to be requisitioned in order to sell commodities, to sell dreams, to sell emotions. It goes without saying that these are only my own subjective sentiments; however it can be easy to forget the privileged position in which academia offers us and to lose touch with the realities perpetuated within public life on which one philosophises.
The word beautiful tends to discourage earnest conversation, almost halting discourse in its tracks, rather than encourage any form of critical reflection or difference in opinions. It’s as if the word signals the coming of a climax lacking the required amount of foreplay necessary for the experience to bear any real significance, in turn leading to an addiction: instant gratification. First reactions often elicit only a surface level response and understanding, giving way to a pre-conditioned exclamation of awe at how beautiful an object, person or situation is based purely upon its expected aesthetical properties in relation to the viewer. I once counted how many times the word beautiful occurred throughout the proceedings of one day and to my utter horror I was discouraged to discover that I heard the word crop up more than disingenuous greetings and awkward conversations about the weather combined (and I took a lot of Ubers that day). A threshold didn’t seem to exist among what people perceived as beautiful and the only thing that apparently ties these perceptions together was an overwhelming compulsion to involve the self in the presence of beauty; as if in the process we ourselves become beautified.
Maybe I sound like a sentimental snob, an auspicious autocrat even, or maybe this is just what being exposed to toxic positivity for prolonged periods of time does to a man. Whenever I am in the presence of supposed beauty alongside a friend (not within the context of a university crit) and I attempt to open up the conversation by prompting them to ‘go a bit deeper’ regarding their opinion, I am always met with one of two things: perplexing silence or a defensive retort. I understand that beauty can be interpreted as ineffable and shouldn’t need to be analysed, defined and systematised in order to be understood universally, however labelling something as beautiful somehow quarantines it to a realm unassailable by the tainted opinions of those not affected by its so called majesty. It demands reverence and respect; to refuse such a stance only convicts one of heresy. Saying something or someone looks, sounds and feels beautiful holds a certain amount of weight; denoting gravitas, prestige and aesthetic value. I fear that with the advent of romanticised relativist ideologies prevalent throughout popular sociocultural beliefs, the word is gradually being bled of all substance, crawling wistfully further and further away from ‘truth’.
Perhaps a phenomenon that exasperates this condition is our seemingly innate obsession with capturing, documenting and reproducing beauty whenever or wherever we witness it. In doing so, we invite beauty into our arsenal of self-expression as a tool that enables us to bend wills, depict reality how we see fit and to offer this for consumption in order to mould personal identities. I remember seeing the first film that gave me an unprecedented and peculiar reaction: I hated the fact that I enjoyed it. When watching a film with fresh eyes, I have a habit of suspending my disbelief in order to give it a fair chance at enticing me with promises of immersion so that I can concentrate on the temporal experience and then proceed to reflect and deliberate upon the film at a later time. This particular time, however, I became acutely aware of just how subtly my emotions were being manipulated by a scene that was presumably orchestrated to provoke a perception of beauty and arouse a desired emotional response from the audience.
Through an amalgamation of cinematography, scriptwriting, acting and music the director was able to literally construct (perhaps manufacture is more accurate) a beautiful situation using well-worn tropes that had previously proven their efficacy; almost as if following a recipe from the back of a Betty Crocker’s chocolate mud cake box, a scrumptious treat that is sure to please nearly anybody. Oh, you want tear-inducing sadness with a tinge of hope? Here’s a chord progression played by instruments of an appropriate timbre while the camera pans lazily to foreground silhouettes of character exchanging relatable dialogue. I now find myself wary and suspicious whenever I watch films or listen to music; even though I attempt to experience these mediums from the perspective of the layman and regain some form of naïve innocence, I can’t ignore the brutal truth that knowing the secrets of their inner workings has dulled the beautiful and culled the magic that once enthralled me.
Emotive expressivity persists unchallenged as the quintessential element of creativity and may, as some theorists have suggested, have the ability to bypass our systems of rational thinking in order to inconspicuously hijack our potential emotional capacity and sensibility. I don’t believe for a second that, contrary to popular belief, beauty simply exists for us to ‘feel’ something outside of ourselves; it is more self-aware than that and asks us to engage critically through interactions with it and begs not to be pursued blindly. For me, true beauty subsists as its own autonomous entity; it cannot be owned or reproduced lest it lose any semblance of its original state. Instead of searching for it in an unending cycle, as if chasing shadows, one must be patient and allow it to envelop them of its own accord while remaining conscious of states that only mimic beauty. If a truth exists within the beautiful, it is that beauty is truth; truth is an informed knowledge of imperfection that grants a deeper awareness and understanding of oneself in the presence of beauty that in turn allows one to witness beauty embodied within that which previously garnered little attention or love. In other words: sacrifice, movement, life.