The Exemptions of Beauty
The Exemptions of Beauty
William Smith Wilson builds on his earlier ebr essay, “The End of Exemptions of Beauty,” with this companion piece.
Beauty implies that the beautiful person is, or should be, exempt from the usual sadnesses and deprivations. Beauty is granted privileges and exemptions which feel like an entitlement.
Beauty is a quality, not a quantity, yet some of its effects are measurable. A person can hold a door open for someone who is approaching. The length of time the person will wait, holding the door, can be determined by the appearance of the person who is approaching. The impatient master is unlikely to hold the door for the straggling servant. But among strangers, the quantity of dispensations, the amount of patience, and the tolerance of error are likely to be measured in proportion to the appearance of the person. That appearance, if it is a high degree of beauty, implies that the person is, or should be, exempt from ordinary effort.
In countries where people do not queue, the effect is visible in people getting on a bus, as in who steps aside for whom. If concessions can be quantified and compared, then even if beauty is a quality that can’t be measured, its effects can be measured. That person riding the bicycle on the crowded sidewalk - in a fraction of a second people decide whether to yell in outrage, or to step aside indulgently.
A face is a field of themes, one of which is beauty. Because beauty in a face conveys the probability of exemptions, one plot of a movie is foreshadowed in the casting of actors whose faces carry themes of exemptions and privileges. In a complex film, the unspoken visual plot, the adventures of a beautiful face, twists in and out of other plots. Aesthetic justice conflicts with legal justice, economic justice, even emotional justice.
A face which by its beauty would be granted exemptions in ordinary life in a visual narrative gets exposed to guns and car chases which endanger the face, and which don’t respect the exemptions and privileges. A large part of acting in films is not so much the expression of thoughts and feelings as it is the art of being photographed as a significant form. The photography conveys precisely the degree of exemption the character should be granted on the evidence of the face. The suspense in a visual narrative links with questions of just how and why this person with this particular face enjoys precisely these exemptions. Will aesthetic justice prevail?
Watching a movie, people are allowed to gaze at other people, actors, who seem privileged and exempted and entitled. The script is the story told by the writer, but the visual story that carries people along is shown by photographers, make-up technicians, lighting designers, and scenographers.
Most films are precisely calibrated, with the appearance of lead actors setting a standard. The most beautiful can expect to find grace in the plot. Any other actors are measured by that standard as too tall or too short, too beautiful or too ugly, hence might not receive grace, but must receive favors precisely proportioned to their visual merit. An actor who is more beautiful than the lead actor disturbs the themes in the plot as themes are carried by faces. If a character is represented as beautiful, but is not rewarded for that beauty, the effect is gritty realism.
A face that is weatherbeaten, with evidence of surviving difficulties without using privileges and exemptions, can be reassuring. A man who has endured may help a woman whose beauty is not receiving the exemptions she looks as though she should be entitled to. The woman who is the victim of injustice from the police tells the private detective her problems, while not trying to coast on her exemptions, yet suggesting that her surplus energy is available to him. Then of course he is attracted to her, and will see that justice is done under the laws of government, of economics and of aesthetics.
In the movie theater, the light projected onto the screen dissolves the screen. A spectator sees the physical screen disappear, overpowered by an illusion of movement in time and space. The walls of the movie theater seem to withdraw, as irrelevant to the event as the ceiling. But the floor remains securely underfoot, with the powerful impulses from the film reaching through the spectator to the point at which feet touch the floor. When the film is over, the touch of the gritty and sticky floor in some theaters returns the audience to life in familiar shoes.
Movies and theater give permission to men to gaze at other men without blinking or turning away for relief, and allow women to look at a woman unnoticed, without questions of etiquette. Of course in some societies with other customs people stare at each other, so that mixing ethnicities is mixing modes of visual etiquette. In Euro-American societies, most men do not look at, or look into, the eyes of other men for more than a few seconds, they glance and look off. One source of conflict among men is that those from one group look away when asking a question, then turn to watch the eyes of the man answering the question, to see if he is honestly looking him in the eye. But those from the long-suffering group look into the eyes of the man being questioned, and then look away, letting him answer without having his face comment on his words.
The man who looks at the ceiling when answering an invasive question differs from the man who looks at the floor. In that scene, the mother looked off in the distance and then turned to watch the answer being spoken: Look me in the eye when you say that.
The father glanced for a few seconds, then turned away.
The art of acting is the art of making the generalized eyes as specific as possible. A model uses eyes unspecifiably, undefinably, while the actor, whose eyeballs are just as generic, brings them to bear upon a definite moment. The actor shows abstract eyes becoming particular upon the arrival of a thought or feeling. While eyes are used like the idea of eyes in ritual or masked acting, eyes are used specifiably in constructivist acting which invents or discovers reciprocities between faces and feelings, including the feeling of a thought.
Actors and models give permission to stare at them, so that a pleasure of movies and theater is not needing to conceal visual curiosity, even visual aggression. However, insofar as they are people, actors and models do not have permission to gaze back, or to stare. They have to go somewhere they are allowed to look, preferably a place with mirrors, or with other actors who are either inured to being looked at, or who invite it. Even the beautiful look at other people to see if they are beautiful, pretty, plain or ugly, less for romance than as a method of comparing immunity, grace and privilege.
A photograph from a still-camera renders a scene philosophically. The moment a photograph is taken, concepts surface in perceptions. The photograph causes what it records: the advent of an abstract concept into concrete ephemeral processes. An opaque event in ordinary perception becomes translucent in the photograph because the actual becomes an image, and images convey ideas. Then the viewer, looking at the image, sees through it toward the concepts. In the photograph, as the concepts surface in images of persons, places and things, the wall bespeaks wallness, the floor manifests floorness. The particular woman in the photograph is an individual who might be called upon to represent womanliness. The photograph puts the actual subject on trial as an image of an idea which is more abstract than the subject.
With a movie, also, the concepts surface in the particulars, so that in the movie, an ordinary studio yields studio-ness, which is a studio plus the idea of a studio. Photography does not need to exaggerate, because the process of recording in a photograph opens the concrete to more meaningfulness than inheres in everyday events. In watching movies, people are able to identify with a character because that particular character seems to body forth a universal concept.
Newscasters confronted with a group of people after a disaster pick the beautiful or most beautiful available person to interview. In the classroom when the supervisor enters, the teacher calls on the beautiful student. In the military funeral, the honor guard consists of the handsome, not the ugly. In some circumstances, Ugly can add pain to pain, while Beauty can subtract horror from horror. In ugly events, Beauty is the promise of the excess energy for which Beauty will be the conduit.
The tragedy of situations like that of the beautiful prisoner is that Beauty, which should have been granted privileges, has not been spared. Even in mild events, a beautiful person waiting tables in a restaurant disturbs the aesthetic economy, for Beauty, catering to the ordinary people, suffers an aesthetic injustice with a smile. Of course aesthetic justice or injustice is out of alignment with economic justice. Aesthetic justice is not admitted as a legal problem, but does get a hearing in the court of emotional justice, where love and other emotional energies are distributed. That court is where plain people sue for the love of the beautiful, hoping for a share of the energy made available because the beautiful does not have to labor to overcome so much resistance. Beauty which economizes on energy is experienced as an increase in the available energy. Erotic desire occurs when another person hopes to share that energy.
Falling in love is a process of granting exemptions to another person, with neither person wasting energy on resistances and refusals. Love is the surplus energy that is not wasted putting up obstacles, averting eyes, and withholding privileges. The moment after the resistance ends and obstacles are set aside is when the sublime begins, an experience of resistancelessness. Then mutual exemptions increase the available energy, which manifests as beautiful feelings.
People who are not beautiful, yet who can buy privileges and exemptions, feel entitled to feel beautiful. The rich can enjoy the equivalence of beauty when they are granted licenses, concessions and immunities. In a clothing store, the people working in the store are not exempted in ways that the people buying in the store are. The rich, actually almost anyone with some money, can go to stores both to buy and to be reminded of what they have been spared. The rich are shocked when exemptions are withdrawn, but thrilled when a lost privilege is restored, as who among us wouldn’t be? In that expensive optometrist’s shop, an exception was made for that Widow by getting the factory to locate a pair of her favorite red reading glasses in a discontinued style. She asked to use the toilet immediately.
Pretty hates Beauty, because Beauty gets away with murder, yet still associates with truth and with goodness, while if Pretty exempts itself from the rules, it gets arrested. When Pretty sees that Beauty does not have to overcome as many obstacles as Pretty, and enviously tries to spend less effort gaining privileges, Pretty can get lost to drugs and minor crimes, bringing a touch of glamour while receiving no dividends. A bewildered, embittered and angry Pretty can become quite petty, something like Cute, but not like Beautiful. Should Pretty really ask for justice? Pretty is better off asking for mercy. Yet when Pretty works hard to earn exemptions, nothing can be prettier.
The truth, which is no consolation to Pretty, is that neither beauty nor exemptions or any scarce resources are evenly distributed. Aesthetic justice, which continually has economic, legal, cosmic and even divine justice on trial, is itself always on trial, sometimes winning, sometimes losing. Pretty really doesn’t care, it merely wants to be given whatever Beauty gets. But the differences make a difference: Pretty at best presents a problem and its solution, while Beauty offers a mystery for continuing astonished meditation.
In complex art, aesthetic justice is itself on trial along with economic, legal, cosmic and even divine justice. In visual narratives, the question is not why bad things happen to good people, but why bad things happen to beautiful people. In complex plots, bad things happen to people whose beauty has some strangeness or improbability, preferably a wildness and a domesticity overlaying each other. When the quality of the beauty is undecidable, the plot works out the justice, reaching judgments which are open to appeal, in effect previewing another episode. The word thing, as in good things, means that a trial of what something is has yet to be held, and then a retrial. Pretty, Cute and even Ugly can receive judgments from which no appeal is possible, but Beauty’s appeal is heard, inspiring continual retrials.
The beauty that saves energy by making less effort in overcoming resistances is experienced as an increase in the available energy. Actual erotic desire, and/or just as important, the idea of erotic desire, occur when another person hopes to share that energy. Vague love of beauty is accompanied by an economics of energy. A photograph in a magazine of a beautiful woman offers advice about how to save energy. The beautiful model in beautiful clothes models the idea that the person who wears those clothes will enjoy an increase in the available energy. The argument is that beautiful clothes are worth their price because they conserve energy otherwise dissipated in overcoming resistance. Bliss arrives with the realization that a person can’t afford not to buy beautiful expensive clothes which more than pay for themselves in units of energy. Beauty may never be on sale, but is always a bargain
An exercise for students of photography would be to pose a model as a model modeling clothes or jewelry, and then to pose that model for a photograph as a portrait of the person who sometimes models. The concepts that surface in the photograph of the model differ from the concepts that surface in the portrait. If a photograph made for fashion is also a portrait, it both rises above the lip of the cup, and effervesces.
Pretty exceeds itself sometimes with a face of marzipan, tempting to the eye, but not stimulating the appetites. These minor attractions like Pretty and Cute think that they have valid claims against Beauty because of the injustice that they don’t receive the immunities granted to the beautiful. Marzipan has a valid case in some courts, but their claims are rarely satisfied because few people who are judging will give the weight to sweetness that they give to beauty on the scales of justice.
The Beautiful can afford to play with nihilism, sighing Nada at 1 a.m., while the Pretty may go toward the edge or limit of Nothing, yet find themselves with something worse, the Almost Nothing.
Pretty can be more difficult than the Ugly, because the Almost Beautiful, the merely Pretty, suffer a feeling of deprivation, as though something has been stolen, but the evidence with which to make a case can’t be found. The need for grace, for unearned exemptions, is insatiable. Yet if Pretty can wait, and not try to get something effortlessly the way Beauty does, Pretty might in time see Beauty crack and fade. And if Pretty is reasonable enough to become resigned to the effects of passing years, Pretty still has time to become handsome. However Pretty is in danger of becoming coy. Years later, Pretty can be seen nursing a drink at a bar, keeping a watchful eye on the mirror, trying to forget that squinting while smoking cigarettes causes wrinkles around the eyes. While such eyes look like world-weary wisdom on the face of ageing Beauty, the wrinkles on the eyes of Pretty assault the eyes of the bartender.
Plain, given decades to ripen, can get to watch both Beauty and Pretty deteriorate. Later, Plain can emerge as handsome, with an expression of prudence, common sense and foresight prevailing over Pretty and Cute, even youthful Beauty. Having survived conflicts, Plain comes to represent the virtues that endure because they have helped people to endure. The credit that Plain gets for enduring into Handsome may be unearned, yet another judgment in the court of aesthetic justice that seems unjust elsewhere, but such unmerited energy contributes to the grace of life. Legal justice has nothing to say about relations between beauty and long life, yet sometimes aesthetic justice puts its thumb on the scales of the other justices.
Clothes both soften the harshness of nature, and reopen culture to the grace of physical forces. A scarf which will blow in the wind downtown makes one point, a scarf tucked around the throat makes another. A photograph of a model in front of a billowing curtain makes one statement about freedom of movement, while a model in front of a curtain stiffly tied in place makes a different point. Anyone arranging a scene needs to calibrate precisely the elasticity of materials in the scene, for the elasticity of materials is a model for the elasticity of thought that is being urged by the photograph. A hand-held camera catching clothes set in motion by the breeze proposes a different intellectual style from the still camera on a tripod. A question to put to a photograph is, Who is this photograph summoning me to become?
Hair comes between our heads and the sun. Any object which protects our brains and minds from the raw reality of the sun is an image of the imagination. The imagination is not a faculty like an area of the brain, it is an activity, imagining, with which we protect ourselves from reality. The shape of a hair-do can be the shape of the imagination, a picture of the personality that one interposes between the mind and pitiless impersonal truth.
Hair above, on a head, offers information, often misinformation about an area of hair on a crotch. The hair often signals the condition of concealed sexual parts, offering clues to erotic receptivity at the groin. Approaching a rendezvous, the person strokes hair into place, or pulls a few loose strands out of a tight formation, providing clues to erotic preparedness, even as quickening lipstick indicates the receptivity of nether lips.
All materials are elastic to some degree, while some are elastic and dry, others are elastic and wet. Hair is elastic, and as a material with a quality, takes positions in a philosophy of the qualities of materials. A person chooses among such material qualities, which actually is that person choosing who to become, emerging in effect as the sum of such choices. Because hair is so flexible, setting itself in motion as it grows independently of the will of the person, in his philosophy of hair, Plato teaches that no pure form or archetype of ideal hair is possible. Thus a person who dies, arriving in a transcendental continuum of immutable forms, will never touch hair again, and will not even see the idea of hair. Therefore one of the last acts of Socrates before killing himself with poisonous hemlock, wary that his argument may die before he does, is to play with the hair on the neck of Phaedo. A lucky point is that the very absence of a platonic criterion-idea of good, true or beautiful hair encourages tolerance in multicultural societies.
Allow that the shape of hair suggests the shape of the erotic imagination, that is, the style in which the sexual is to be protected from raw brutal instincts. Then hairlessness is frightening if it is inexpressive. People are familiar with reading hair on the head as a welcome into or a refusal of other hairy places, but at first are frustrated by the hairless head because it is illegible. Such a head is seen as a cranium, rather than as a preview of sexual attitudes. However any image needs to be looked at least twice, once to check to see if it is still there, and then to see if the image yields more to a second glance.
A bald-headed woman seems to be showing that she needs no imagination to shelter her from truth, that she wants raw erotic experiences, or at least sex without falsifying fantasies. She does not want to give more tenderness to sex than natural evolution has given it.
These men with shaved heads, isn’t it difficult to know what they are thinking or feeling, or to imagine what they are imagining? On one level the men seem to be facing facts, reasonably resigning themselves to hairlessness, but on another level, they offer no clues to the erotic imagination, yet do suggest that the person is prepared for love and/or sex without enchantments.
The false note in the truth of an apparently bald head is that many men shave their heads to appear completely bald. Like Madame Pompadour, they are composing a picture, which as an image is a vehicle of ideas. The implications of shaved baldness are in tension with total natural baldness, the two competing to represent the idea of raw naked truth. Is a shaved head as undecidable as a wig? Or do the shaved head and the wig mean what they say, true to the ideas to be communicated by the images, even if false to the verifiable actual condition of the hair? Reading a person like a text entails interpreting above as a displacement of below, and below as a displacement of upward. Because truth above is a clue to truth below, both the shaved bald head and the natural bald head report on the condition of energies below the waist.
Hair has implications which fold into the implications of hats. In war and in peace, hats are the outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual commitments, or the lack thereof. The shape of the hat protecting the head from the sun is the shape of the imagination which protects the mind from reality. Hats are worn indoors, where protection is not needed physically, but spiritually.
Jewelry, ornaments and the tattoo, in their primal and tribal origins, are like clothes or armor for the soul. Jewelry is worn to protect the spirit by bringing a power from a distance into the foreground. Therefore among the implications of jewelry is the suggestion that a person has a soul, and that it is under protection. A lack of ornament might not suggest that the person is soulless, but that soul is securely protected.
Because the soul can be a spark or a flame, jewelry like diamonds can be used to demonstrate the lively light within the soul. A sparkling jewel holds open the cold dry system that would close down over a person. A person wearing ornaments at home may be self-deceived, or attempting to deceive forces active in shadowy corners. But jewelry is less likely to be worn in a cozy home, or teepee, than it is to be put on before going out into a dangerous world. If a French woman, dressing to go out in the evening, removes one piece of jewelry when she inspects herself in the mirror near the door, she is reducing her protective armor. Less jewelry is more protective because more armor grants too much power to the enemy forces, and because too much armor implies a self-importance inconsistent with modesty.
To be chic or neo-classical is to wear perfectly calibrated clothes and jewels, with just enough power to protect, and even actively to resist, oppressions. To be chic is not to wear too much armor. A woman of Paris lost her chic for a fraction of a second when she saw that her carefully matched outfit would not protect her from simple, wild, improbable beauty.
A jewel summons a power in the spiritual background to act from a distance in the foreground, like an ikon with candles in an otherwise dark corner.
Nudity unadorned puts up no resistance or defense. When a naked body is beautiful, it can pass for an image of the soul. Jewelry on a nude woman is used to protect her naked soul. If the soul is already protected with tattoos and scarifications, then various meanings interfere with each other by overlapping into complexity. The effect of such interference with the simplicity of each separate part is sophistication, but it is not chic. One large pearl or one large diamond, not suffering sophisticated interference from other pearls or diamonds, rises to the sublime, although Chic is too modest to say so.
A baby’s first shoes mark the beginning of a human life in a specific style of life, as the baby moves from infant passivity to actively walking out into a social world. At their brightest, shoes suggest not only life, but new life, making possible the experience of what women really want, as well as men: more new life. Life is always in danger of becoming worn-out and down-at-heel. An old life can be as oppressive as old shoes on old feet. She says, Don’t judge me until you have walked a mile in my shoes. To walk a mile in a new pair of shoes is to walk in the possibility of reopening a life that feels like it might close down.
Imagine the meeting at the airport between the American woman who wears comfortable sports shoes on the street, but higher heels in the office, and the French woman who wears higher heels on the street, but comfortable shoes in the office.
If construction shoes, combat and cowboy boots enhance mobility, allowing one to walk in places which are dangerous or difficult to walk in, then they come to imply freedom of vigorous movement which anyone might want. Anyone who is entering a new life must change the style of shoes, perhaps wearing cowboy boots in Washington D.C., or Hawaiian flipflops in Manhattan. To buy new shoes that promise good new possibilities can be a wise investment. Yet here are two happy days: the day a person buys the new shoes for the new life, and the day that person throws them into the trash.
A continent like North America can be said to have been beautiful, if only because unchartered and unmarked by so much of Euro-Asian history. The original people left few permanent scars. The fact that World Wars I and II were not fought on its land among its civilians could be seen as proof that America must be beautiful, because it was granted so many exemptions. Even after the beauty was wasted, the land could still be alleged to be beautiful because exemptions were proof of beauty. If in literature Americans keep losing their innocence, what are they losing except their notion that they are entitled by the unintentional beauty of their land to be spared destruction? But if the United States was beautiful and therefore exempted, and then exempted and therefore beautiful, as of September 11th, 2001, the exemptions have expired. Part of the terror is the discovery that the nation has been ugly for a long time.
The thrill of a disaster is that after destruction no rules or laws automatically apply, so that survivors must be spontaneous. While the moment before a horror seems governed by rules inherited from prior moments, the moment after the horror can seem more real, because some old laws can be seen never to have been adequate to the facts. After a disaster, even laws are given a retrial, to judge if they are just or not. Thus the freedom to revise after an accident or disaster is more palpable than before. After the war, after the disaster, beyond the effects of hurricanes and volcanoes and avalanches, the valid questions reemerge: How shall I wear my hair? What do I mean by this scarf? What clothes should I wear to that funeral, since I wear black to work? And at this wedding, sparkling highlights over somber undertones, what shall I wear to dance with a partner, which shoes should I wear to glide on the dance-floor?
- January 14 2002
Note: this is a companion piece to Wilson’s “The End of the Exemptions of Beauty” available here. The “Exemptions of Beauty” was previously published as a section of “Ten” by Jonathan Cramer in EXIT, issue 4 (Spring/Summer 2002): p. 233-236.