Can Images of War & Destruction be Beautiful?

RICHARD MOSSE-Of-Lilies-and-Remains
RICHARD MOSSE-Of-Lilies-and-Remains

Follow the news and there’s no shortage of imagery of war and it’s destructive side-effects.  Can these images actually be considered beautiful? The Jack Shainman Gallery’s thinks so.  In it’s exhibit, A Change of Place, this Kinderhook, New York gallery features four artists who share riveting, sometimes shocking, and deeply human images of war.

But how can photos of people suffering, total destruction, and violence be a thing of beauty?  I get that such images can be expertly photographed or painted.  But when the content is so horrifying can we truly deem it beautiful?  It feels, well, amoral.

I’m not the only person raising this question.   After experiencing A Change of Place, Mebrak Tareke ponders this question in his post aptly entitled: The Unsettling Urge to Find Beauty Amid War.  He shares some of the best work from the show, especially from artists like Richard Mosse and Hayv Kahraman, and dissects them with a keen eye.

So how are they works of beauty?

He, along with veteran war photographer, Don McCullin, whom he cites, explain that we have an impulse to find beauty in — not because of but in spite of — the horror of war.   He doesn’t truly explain why but my sense is that we need to find such beauty to help us feel a sense of hope.  He shares another explanation offered by one of the photographers: such work gives dignity to the war-torn people and places captured.   His best explanation is that through these works of art we gain a new perspective.  He writes: This form of art

“also offers an opportunity… for us to reflect on violence in ways that perhaps television and the news may not.  In A Change of Place, there are images that really push me to want to uncover the past of places we may have lost, instead of making me look the other way.”

But I would take it a step further.  Beauty doesn’t necessary imply goodness.  When we appreciate beautiful images we don’t always have to take pleasure in them as much as UNDERSTAND them.  When we visit the MOMA and stare at works of art, we may not be enjoying the experience they evoke.  But we are being moved.  We are learning something.  For beauty to effect us, it needs to provoke a reaction.  It could be a soothing pleasant one or a jarring and startling one.  Of course with any works of art, we expect a degree of craft, talent, technical skill, imagination and originality.  Crap is crap.   But there is no ONE type of beauty.   In fact, sometimes it’s important to witness, even partake in the ugly side of beauty to appreciate the beauty of our everyday and what it takes to create it.

So can imagery of devastation be horrible, painful and frightening?  Yes. Does it mean we are pleased to see pain and destruction? No.  But sometimes we need to experience this form of art.  It not only sheds light on other worlds, it inevitably forces us to appreciate or question our own.

RICHARD MOSSE-Safe-From-Harm
RICHARD MOSSE-Safe-From-Harm
Richard Mosse, “Space Wagon Mosul”
Richard Mosse, “Space Wagon Mosul”

Stand Beautiful on Feminism — For More Reasons Than You Think

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Lots of wonderful buzz this week about female empowerment, especially amongst us nasty women ;).  The election has certainly heightened our awareness, emotions and convictions around this topic.

But there was another piece of news on this topic that had nothing to do with elections.  Instead it had to do with an unlikely new “face” for a beauty brand: Nigerian author and feminist speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie .  She is the new spokesperson for Boots No.7.  According a statement emailed to Mashable, Adichi feels “women use cosmetics to be ready for something: to show up, speak up, and make an impact in their world in their own way.”  For her make-up isn’t a tool to hide women’s power and turn them into sexual objects.  Rather it is a wonderful source of transformation, confidence and power.  What’s better, she gets to the heart of the matter and addresses the seeming conflict of being a feminist who loves make-up.  She reveals that she shied away from make-up at one point so as not to be deemed frivolous.  But this wasn’t her true self.  It was only when she gained a greater sense of confidence that she chose to go back to wearing make-up again. Check it out in this great new video.

While we may have heard similar statements in the past about the powerful role of cosmetics, to have such a powerful voice speak about her appreciation for cosmetics is new.  And then to take such a strong stance by associating herself with a brand in such a way is even more surprising.  I applaud her for fighting against the typical rhetoric that claims enhancing our beauty is wasteful at best or degrading at worst.

But I would interpret the empowering nature of cosmetics and skin care in another important way too.  Beyond how skin care or make-up make us look, think about what the actual process of engaging with it does to ourselves.  Sure, there are the usual mini frustrations of a wobbly eyeliner lid or a spilled nail polish bottle.  But most of time, the ritual of applying these lotions and potions or colors and creams, is deep.  I wrote about this a few years back in a few different posts: Another Powerful Role for Cosmetics & One More Minute Please I explained that the very act of pampering or applying skin care and make-up allows us to gift ourselves a form of, in what my good friend and Anthropologist, Tom Maschio calls, “self-care.”

Here’s how I described it in then:

When we touch, caress, adorn and pamper our bodies, we are connecting with them and, eventually, our spirits too. Caring for our bodies is soothing and uplifting at the same time.

Our bodies aren’t detached objects just to be prepared for public appearance but, rather, are inextricably linked to the self.  And every part of the body — appendage, organ, secretion, etc., function together harmoniously. Beautification, i.e., the act of massaging, applying, fixing, plucking, whatever the actual activity, isn’t just a means to an end but an act of health care and self-love.

So, for all of us women –and men included –who enjoy adding some scent, sparkle, color or plumpness to our appearances, remember that it not only boosts our confidence but it gives us a spiritual high too.  It helps us connect to our bodies — to admire them, care for them, energize or calm them and, ultimately, connect with them.    And if loving and caring for our bodies doesn’t lead to feeling empowered, I don’t know what does!

Pant Suits & Misogyny: Don’t Let Election Ugliness Stop Our Daughters From Feeling Beautiful

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In response to all the conversations about beauty, pant suits and femininity in this election, writer and producer, Alli Joseph, wrote a thought-provoking article about beauty and raising girls.   Joseph doesn’t so much dwell on sensational elections talk, though.  Instead she pushes us, parents, to rethink how we teach our daughters about the importance of valuing beauty.

To raise independent, powerful girls, she explains that we should encourage our daughters to explore and enjoy their beauty.  Now that may seem totally counter to what we are all feeling right now.   After all, look at how women are demeaned by people like Donald Trump who seem to value our appearance over all other traits.   And there’s no question we are all applauding Michelle Obama right now for her speech about our girls being WAY more than just pretty faces, and they need to be protected from beliefs and behaviors of people like Trump.

But Joseph advises us NOT to eschew conversations and behaviors around beauty with our daughters.  In fact, we MUST have them.  And in spite of the climate, I feel the same way.

This story reminded me of a post I wrote a number of years ago after chatting with Sheila Kelly, actress and founder of the S Factor — essentially pole dancing for exercise and feminine awakening.  I was telling Sheila how impressed I was with author and TV personality, Lisa Bloom‘s post from 2011, “How to Talk to Little Girls” and I how I wrote a post about it.  Lisa was urging us all not to fall into the common trap of telling girls how pretty they look when we first meet them — something culture has ingrained into us.  I wrote the following:

…Bloom recognizes the inclination we all have to compliment little girls on how adorable they look. But this act affects them in deep and not always positive ways.

How so?  There are stats showing how young girls are increasingly more concerned with being fat and wearing make-up to make themselves more beautiful than ever before.

Now, I’m not disparaging looking nice, or adults recognizing this, but if our first encounters with girls are all about how they look, of course they are going to think that their appearance is their most critical asset!

Bloom recommends we begin our conversations with little girls not with talking about their clothes but, instead, with questions about what they’re currently reading or their favorite books. Not only does this type of talk get them off the beauty talk but it shows that we value their brains first and foremost.

I was pretty pretty satisfied with my pov until Sheila set me straight.  She said we should celebrate our girls’ beauty otherwise they don’t know how to handle it as they age.  Ignoring this topic  could lead to bad consequences.  In a follow-up post, “What Shelia Taught Me”, I explained Sheila’s words:

Of course we should embrace the many different sides of girls. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ALSO compliment them on their beauty. In fact, we should instill a sense of confidence and ownership of our girls’ beauty. We shouldn’t ignore or downplay it but rather teach them how to live with it with pride and love.

Being beautiful isn’t shameful.  So why should beauty be downplayed versus other characteristics? It’s certainly not MORE important than other aspects of their personalities, but if we ignore their beauty or push it to the side our girls won’t know how to handle it. They may feel it’s not worthwhile. Or, as they age, they may not have the ability deal maturely and confidently with the positive attention they eventually do receive from others.

Like what Joseph realizes, if we DON’T embrace our daughters’ beauty, along with their other traits, we may be leading them down a confusing path later in life.  I’m not saying we should just remind our girls they are beautiful but truly address the topic and how they feel about if.  If we don’t, they may grow up relying solely on the impressions of others, like those of Donald Trump, or determine their beauty in potentially screwy ways because we haven’t set the right attitude.  Think about it, we teach our kids the difference between healthy and unhealthy eating habits, the difference between right and wrong, or to tell the truth vs lie.  Why?  So when they age and encounter challenges on their own, they know the best road to take.  So too, we should do the same with regards to their beauty.  We should make girls feel beautiful and encourage them to explore and express their beauty in safe and encouraging ways EARLY on.  That way they will feel more secure in how they see themselves later in life.

I have a daughter.  And there is no way I want her taken advantage of, degraded or abused in ANY way for her beauty.  But I also want her to cherish ALL the sides of herself. I want her to learn that beauty is just another wonderful way — along with being curious, strong, smart, friendly, etc — of being human.

Garbage Pick-Up, Gaming & Proust: The Ironic Beauty of Dystopia

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I came across a fascinating article by Vice’s website about a rather strange video game: “Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor.”  Unlike every other game that propels you into a fantasy world, “Diaries” is very much real, maybe even too real.  While it takes place in a fictitious world full of weird species and spaceships, the challenges are very relatable.  Maybe even too relatable.   You play out the seemingly mundane, sometimes stressful, practices of everyday life.  Instead of positioning you as a hero or heroine, imbued with superpowers and rewarded for achieving the seemingly impossible, e.g., slaying the dragon, gunning down hordes or bad guys, throwing the longest football pass EVER,  etc., this game celebrates the anti-hero and the “anti-adventure.”  In “Diaries” one must deal with the harshness of a dead end job as a janitor, the desire to escape one’s daily predicament — if only there were enough money saved up to do so, and getting robbed on the way home after a long day.  There are certainly tests and tribulations but they mirror those in so many of our daily lives.

What is the allure you may ask?  Why would someone play this?  I can see why it would begun to try it “it out” for the novelty of it.  But who wants to relive our lives, especially the boring or frustrating parts of it?

But I get it.

And I just spoke about a related notion last week in Milan, Italy  at the If Italians Festival for the creative advertising industry.  Among the various insights I shared, I spoke about why we love to upload, download and share the mundane stuff of everyday life.  When we can have access to so many images of fine artwork via the Internet, why do we spend so much time look at sunsets, our dogs doing something funny or our dinners?  These pictures are not crappy by any means.  Many are often well shot or juxtaposed to offer us a new perspective on these everyday things.  But still, who cares?

WE ALL DO …  and it’s deep.

Throughout history we have always tried to see the beautiful in the mundane.  We crave it.  Marcel Proust talks about this.  And Ancient religions, authors, and playwright have been doing this since the beginning of time.  Turning the everyday into the beautiful allows us to feel like our daily lives aren’t boring, wasteful or downright sad, but rather, beautiful, exciting, and magnificent.  We desperately need this.

This game may not satisfy our hero fantasies but it fulfills something else deeply fundamental: it allows us to see the beauty in the routine.  As the article states so well, this game “find(s) such beauty in the banality of a truly awful job.”  In the ever-changing, dynamic world we live in, so many of us are looking for new new thing — the new job, new house, new mate.  But sometimes there’s beauty in consistency, in the every day trials and tribulations, and being able to know what’s coming next.  We just have to recognize it and appreciate it.

Oh, and for those of us who travel by subway everyday, consistency is the ultimate fantasy come true! LOL 🙂

Beauty, Judgements & Hypocrites: Enough is Enough

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That’s a picture of me when I was about 6 months old.  As you can tell I’m wearing a special shoe on my left foot.  That shoe, along with a cast, straightened (well, for the most part) the crooked leg I was born with.  I’m sure my parents were thinking that having a slightly crooked leg would hamper my movement as I grew up.  But I bet the biggest reason for the correction was that I would just look plain funny with a twisted leg.

So many of us have reconstructed some part of our bodies that we don’t even think twice about it.   Think about how many people have straightened their crooked teeth or in the case of Debora L. Spar, who recently authored “Aging and My Beauty Dilemma” in last week’s New York Times, reduced her breasts via breast reduction surgery.  Such procedures rarely faze us or compel us to judge people harshly because of them.  When a 13 year-old boy walks around with upper and lower braces in his mouth,  we don’t say: “oh, he’s so vain” or “he’s succumbing to social pressures, he should be above that.”  Of course not.

So why do so many of us strong, empowered women feel so damn insecure getting fillers or a boob lift?  Why must we think we are somehow being hypocrites or turning our back on feminism?

I have to hand it to Spar for putting herself out there and sharing her insecurities.  And bravo for the New York Times to take her words seriously enough to print them.  As president of an excellent women’s college, Barnard, Spar is certainly a model of feminism.  And yet, she, like so many of us, are fearful of looking old, and, at the same time, ashamed for feeling that way or doing anything about it.  It wasn’t so much that she was insecure with her changing looks (though she clearly is) but that she feels she is going against her feminist principles that really bothered her.

I get it.  The media or western culture in general can often makes us feel ugly and prey on our insecurities around aging.  And then, to make matters worse, it pressures us not to address those feelings lest we be called frivolous or worse, a hypocrite.

But, c’mon.  Getting a haircut, shaving our legs, and wearing Invisalign are such common behaviors now we don’t think anything of them.  And yet they are all part of our daily regimen to transform how we look.  Should we feel ashamed that we do them, no way!  And men do them too.  They don’t make us less powerful, brilliant or leader-like.

And the same should be true for fillers, botox, breast augmentation, you name it.  They will become so common one day that we will put them in the same bucket as teeth whitening.

So let’s stop wasting our precious energies on judging others for their beauty boosting behaviors.  And even better, lets stop wasting our time and effort feeling ashamed for partaking in them.

I applaud Spar for her article.  Good for her for having the courage to be so vulnerable and talk about something WE ALL feel in some shape or form.  But wouldn’t it be even better if all those “judges” just left her alone so she can feel confident about how she looks and what she does to keep herself feeling beautiful.  And that way she can spend more of her time writing about and sharing her valuable insights on women’s education and leadership instead.