In his work, John Baldessari continually challenges notions of beauty and disregards conventional rules of what is “right” and “wrong” when it comes to art –his piece Wrong comes to mind, a photograph in which he purposefully defies the rules of photography and composition. His artwork urges the viewer to question these rules, for example in his series Choosing (A Game for Two Players), where he plays with personal perceptions of beauty (David Salle calls it a “faux exercise of taste”)
The game is simple: one player arranges three samples of the same vegetable in a line (eg. three green beans), the second player is asked to choose the “best” of the three, based on his/her own aesthetic criteria. That lucky bean moves on to the next round where it is placed next to two new beans, and again player two is asked to pick a favourite, and so on. Meanwhile, the exercise is recorded in a series of photographs where we can see the player’s fingertip pointing at the chosen vegetable. The absurd game just goes to show that taste is subjective and there are no universal rules for beauty, be it a turnip, a person, or a work of art, we should not conform to conventional standards.
In this passage from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the beautiful shepherdess, Marcela, gives a captivating speech defending a woman’s right to choose her own lifestyle after she is blamed for the suffering and death of Grisóstomo, who killed himself when she rejected him:
You all say that heaven made me beautiful, so much so that this beauty of mine, with a force you can’t resist, makes you love me; and you say and even demand that, in return for the love you show me, I must love you. By the natural understanding which God has granted me I know that whatever is beautiful is lovable; but I can’t conceive why, for this reason alone, a woman who’s loved for her beauty should be obliged to love whoever loves her. What’s more, it could happen that the lover of beauty is ugly, and since that which is ugly is loathsome, it isn’t very fitting for him to say: “I love you because you’re beautiful; you must love me even though I’m ugly.” And even if they are well-matched as far as beauty goes, that doesn’t mean that the attraction’s going to be mutual, because not all beauty inspires love. Some beauties delight the eye but don’t captivate the heart; just as well, because if all beauty did inspire love and conquer hearts, people’s affections would be forever wandering this way and that without knowing where to come to rest – there’s an infinite number of beautiful people, so the affections would be infinite, too. And, according to what I’ve heard, true love can’t be divided, and must be voluntary, not forced on you. If this is so, as I believe it is, why do you think I should be obliged to give in to you, just because you say you love me dearly? Or else tell me this: if heaven had made me ugly instead of beautiful, would I have been right to complain about you for not loving me?
What’s more, you must remember that I didn’t choose this beauty of mine – heaven gave it to me, exactly as you see it, quite freely, without my asking for it or picking it. And just as the viper doesn’t deserve to be blamed for her poison, even though she kills with it, because nature gave it to her, so I don’t deserve to be blamed for being beautiful; because beauty in a virtuous woman is like a distant fire or sharp sword, which doesn’t burn or cut anyone who doesn’t come too close. Honor and virtue are ornaments of the soul, and without them the body, even if it is beautiful, shouldn’t seem beautiful. Well then, if chastity is one of the virtues that most embellish the soul and the body, why should the woman who’s loved for her beauty lose her chastity by responding to the advances of the man who, merely for his own pleasure, employs all his strength and cunning to make her lose it?
I was born free, and to live free I chose the solitude of the countryside….I am the distant fire and the far-off sword….If I’d encouraged him, I should have been false; if I’d gratified him, I should have been acting against my own intentions, better than his…Because a woman who doesn’t love any man can’t make any man jealous, and disabuse must not be confused with disdain. He who calls me fierce and a basilisk can leave me alone, as something evil and dangerous; he who calls me an ingrate can stop courting me; he who calls me distant can keep his distance; he who calls me cruel can stop following me: because this fierce basilisk, this ingrate, this cruel and distant woman is most certainly not going to seek, court, approach or follow any of them.
Images below are from the Women are Beautiful series by Garry Winogrand, taken in the 1960s and 70s.
From The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera:
“Our day to day life is bombarded with fortuities or, to be more precise, with the accidental meetings of people and events we call coincidences. ‘Co-incidences’ means that two events unexpectedly happen at the same time, they meet: Tomas appears in the hotel restaurant at the same time the radio is playing Beethoven. We do not even notice the great majority of such coincidences. If the seat Tomas occupied had been occupied instead by the local butcher, Tereza never would have noticed that the radio was playing Beethoven (though the meeting of Beethoven and the butcher would also have been an interesting coincidence). But her nascent love inflamed her sense of beauty and she would never forget that music. Whenever she heard it, she would be touched. Everything going on around her at that moment would be haloed by the music and take on its beauty.
… [Human lives] are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven’s music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life… Without realising it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress.
It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences, but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.”
“I have a preference for introverted people because I feel an affinity with them and therefore I can look at them longer than I do at exuberant people, who are very much focused on their surroundings. I like a particular kind of face, very classical and therefore timeless – the girl in the green swim suit in Kolobrzeg, for example. It’s about a particular kind of beauty that other people might find ugly, but it’s a kind of ugliness that I find beautiful.”
(Quoted in Rineke Dijkstra 1997, [p.38].)
Fashion meets circus act in this 1950s Dior shoot by Richard Avedon. Aside from the elegant pose and fantastic elephants, the images have become iconic for their representation of contrasts: youth and age, strength and frailty, grace and awkwardness, freedom and captivity. These images were considered revolutionary when they were first published in 1955, they exceeded the realm of fashion photography and were elevated into fine art.