As a photographer, I look for juried competitions or show entries in order to get my images in front of decision makers. Therefore, I look at the pictures of previous winners and those being in the accepted groups. I have made an observation that is disconcerting to me. In so many situations, the images that placed have to do with documenting social or environmental issues. I rarely find portfolios of just beautiful pictures. For me personally beauty is important and so I asked: What is beauty and how important is it?
First, I want to define what I mean by beauty. I am referring to the beauty in our environment; be it in the home, its decoration; be it in Nature, be it in a person which can mean the person is physically beautiful or there is an inner beauty. I am well aware that different people define different things as beautiful. Yet I would question that someone would want to have a large print of a starving child or a heap of euthanized cats on the wall of their living room or any other image that portrays a social or environmental issue. It can be a well-composed picture and those photos are important. They have their place in a documentary, an article about a relating subject. It seems to me that jurors want to highlight these photographers and not ones that have portfolios of just plain beauty. In my view, a mix of both would be ideal, because it honors the necessity of both types of photography. So I kept coming back to the question: What is beauty and how important is it?
I felt I needed to get a better understanding of what is going on here and began to search for an answer. I came across an article by the Jungian psychologist James Hillman. His perception that in our time beauty is repressed surprised me . He points to the ecological crisis, stating that underneath is a crisis of love, which is a direct result of the repression of beauty. He counters the argument that beautification costs too much with the cost of ‘ugliness’: “.. in absenteeism; in sexual obsession, school drop-out rates, overeating and short attention span; in pharmaceutical remedies and the gigantic escapism industries of wasteful shopping, chemical dependency, sports violence and the disguised colonialism of tourism.”
The subject of beauty is part of news. In the entertainment industry it ranges from what a star wears for a certain occasion to facelifts and other surgical procedures to become more beautiful. In regards to body image, the fashion industry gives clear messages about what is considered beautiful. As a result teenage girls and women develop eating disorders. How many magazines deal with how to make the home beautiful? How many art critics tell us what is supposed to be beautiful? The focus seems to be on beauty, so how can it be suppressed? I feel the unhealthy quest for physical beauty and ‘standardized’ beauty are exactly signs that we don’t have a personal relationship with beauty and as a result it becomes distorted.
To Hillman, a major part of the reason why beauty is suppressed is the fact that we can’t find a rational definition for beauty. As you heard earlier, I was not able to really define beauty. So I pulled out the dictionary. From my perspective, even the definitions Webster gave felt insufficient as an actual definition. Am I doomed, then? James Hillman talks about a different way to describe beauty. If you remember seeing utter beauty, you probably also remember that you gasped. Beauty is said to take your breath away. Hillman proposes that this sharp intake of breath is the response just as certain and ubiquitous as wincing when in pain or moaning when experiencing pleasure.
Hillman’s conclusion of the article is fascinating for me. This gasp “comes from the chest, which in the Kundalini Yoga is the place of the heart. .. Unless this chakra comes to life, unless the heart is opened, …. we remain deaf and blind, repressing despite our best intentions, simply because the organ that perceives beauty has not been stirred.” In other words, in order to see beauty, one has to have an open heart. Other, unrelated articles speak of this being the time when we move from the head to the heart. I am wondering: May be it was necessary for beauty to be repressed so people would begin to long for it. This longing can facilitate the movement from the head into the heart.
It seems that my intuitive sense is correct and that beauty is utterly important for the well being of people. It is the artist’s task to show the unexpected in the ordinary, to make it visible. The eye of an artist does not separate the extraordinary from the ordinary because he can see both within each other, she can see that they are connected. Seeing beauty connects us to our soul and makes us care about it, see the value of our essence.
Anais Nin says: “It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with, we cease to see.” Seeking an answer, I also found much confirmation for my style of photography. Through abstraction I intend to go to the essence of my subjects, because I know how easy it is to look, label and move on. The ability to put a label on something makes it ordinary or familiar and the mystery or extraordinary is missed. I know that those moments of incredible beauty, seeing mystery feed me, inspire me, energize me and I assume they do the same for others.