[Paleopsych] Sign and Sight: The human flaw

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The human flaw

A festival in Berlin's Haus der Kulturen der Welt examines beauty with
exhibitions, discussions and dance. By Arnd Wesemann

    Can't we simply find something beautiful for
    a change? Does everything have to be immediately relegated to the
    level of the ridiculous and the kitsch? Why do we desire a thing of
    beauty and yet regard it with suspicion? What methods of seduction are
    in play when the beautiful woman in the advertisement appears more
    beautiful than the beautiful woman next to you? And can one regard
    heroic masculine poses as an expression of biological superiority
    without making fascist idols of them? Before you know it the beauty
    has faded. (Photo: Wang Gongxin & Lin Tianmiao: "Here? Or There?"
    (detail). 2002. Video installation. Photographer: The artists)
    Beauty is booming in German universities. After a decade of intensive
    gender research and practice in equality - sexual, religious and
    racial - a roll-back is under way. Beauty lost its power because it
    defected to the side of advertising, computer animation and plastic
    surgery. And because beauty contradicts the principle of
    egalitarianism. "Beauty entices", says Winfried Menninghaus,
    [1]professor of comparative literature at Berlin's Free University,
    who is currently touring and talking on the subject. According to
    Menninghaus, Darwinian theory, which like biologism is undergoing a
    renaissance, states that beauty solely serves biological selection.
    This is why so many cultures have undermined the power of beauty.
    Islam covers up its women to prevent inequality from determining the
    choice of partner. And uniforms are there to lower the pressure of
    [linke3_300dpi.jpg] The level of competition in the globalised world
    has spawned the new adoration of the beautiful and strong. In fact,
    Menninghaus tells us, clothing and fashion signalled the end of
    Darwinian selection. Nakedness necessitated clothing and thus culture.
    Since then the naked body has been taboo. As a way of concealing the
    painful memories of the now surmounted natural state, nakedness has
    always simultaneously stood for obscenity and the ideal of beauty. Art
    history was the first to idealise the body; later the health and
    fitness industry and all the other preening and pruning practices
    built up around nudity adopted the strict dictates of the beauty
    ideal. 65 percent of US Americans are overweight. The conclusion: the
    body is bad, it belongs to the forces of evil. The idea of beauty is
    therefore also bound up with the rediscovery of shame. The real body
    stands ashamed before the propagated ideal. Everybody knows the body
    can never be as flawless as it has to be: pure and sinless, healthy
    and efficient. And yet one searches for it, at least in art. And then
    one denounces art for this reason. (Photo: Susanne Linke: "Im Bade
    wannen". Photographer: Klaus Rabien)
    The whole of Paris was outraged when [2]choreographer Jan Fabre put a
    naked, oil-covered dancer on stage and called the piece "Beauty
    warrior". The oil, the impure element, ran counter to beauty. At the
    JFK airport in New York two dozen mouth-wateringly gorgeous black
    models recently [3]posed naked in shackles. America wanted to protest,
    but by alluding to the legacy of slavery and inflamed desire for
    beautiful others, Vanessa Beecroft silenced her critics.
    [zhuang_huidetail_300dpi.jpg] Now the celebrated French [4]sinologist,
    Francois Jullien, currently touring with his new book "Le nu
    impossible", has suggested looking at beauty through the eyes of other
    cultures. Berlin's Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World
    Cultures) has taken up the challenge and on March 18 opened its
    festival [5]"About Beauty", comprising exhibition, dance programme and
    a series of podium discussions. Jullien views beauty from the Chinese
    perspective. In his book, he maintains that to the Chinese eye a
    person cannot be beautiful as such. According to ancient Tao wisdom,
    it is in movement that a person attains beauty, in Tai-Chi for
    example. The Chinese syllable "mei" (literally: fat sheep) means
    beauty. It is used to describe good food, a sense of well-being, a
    pleasant bodily feeling. And, ironically enough, also the United
    States (literally: beautiful land). So it is possible to have beauty
    without burdening it with ideals of physical self-improvement and
    abstinence. Why not just enjoy life? But Europeans abide by Jacques
    Lacan, who stated that pleasure is also a dictate. (Photo: Zhuang Hui:
    "Chashan County · June 25". Sculpture.)
    [eidos_tao_300dpineu.jpg] The Berlin choreographers Jutta Hell and
    Dieter Baumann rehearsed a [6]dance piece in Shanghai titled
    "Eidos_Tao" with Chinese dancers. Tao, which is generally translated
    as "the Way" means movement in China, the flowing, unstoppable
    movement of dance as opposed to our classical ideal of fixed "eidos".
    Precisely here, says Jullien, lies the difference. Chinese see beauty
    in flux, while we try to force it to stand still. Good food and
    letting the daughters dance are still the measure of beauty in remote
    areas of southern China. Traditional generosity is beautiful too.
    (Photo: "EIDOS_TAO". Performance. Photographer: Dirk Bleicker)
    [shanghai_beauty9_300.jpg] One might suspect that Europe simply does
    not want to find the beautiful beautiful. Bertolt Brecht coined the
    phrase: "Beauty comes from overcoming difficulties". The peak is only
    beautiful when it has been scaled. Pleasure is beautiful when it has
    to be paid for in sweat. Perhaps this is why beauty hardly qualifies
    as an aesthetic category any more. Schiller's sentence "Beauty is
    freedom in the appearance" has only been dug up again for his
    bicentennial. He spoke of dignity as a category of beauty. The dignity
    of the healthy, of the beautiful body? What Schiller really meant -
    and what the Chinese believe today - has largely been forgotten:
    superior intellect, wise politics, expert craftmanship, human prowess.
    For the Chinese, only what is true and good is also beautiful, says
    Jullien. [7]Essayist Dave Hickey goes a step further. In his book "The
    Invisible Dragon", he describes how this "classical" stance is about
    to be driven out of the Chinese. (Photo: "Shanghai Beauty".
    Performance. Photographer: Dirk Bleicker)
    They too are subject to the influence of academies, museums and
    universities. As in Europe, these institutions search for beauty in
    constructs and systems. But the Chinese no more believe in concepts
    than they do in making sacrifices to achieve an end. Their traditional
    view of beauty is a celebration of change, eternal circulation and
    transformation. And according to Hickey, this is precisely the
    opposite of everything rigid and statutory embodied by institutions.
    But this culture of the transformative is in retreat, and it is
    disappearing faster than people are aware of. As Chinese
    [8]choreographer Jin Xing puts it: "Chinese bodies look weak in
    comparison with beautiful African bodies. And the Chinese don't have
    the overriding sense of envy and justice that makes bodies hard and
    people rich in the West. But the concept of spending money in a
    fitness studio is still utterly alien in China. The Chinese work hard
    because true beauty for us is wealth."
    "Über Schönheit - About Beauty". 18.3.05 - 15.5.05. [9]Haus der
    Kulturen der Welt, Berlin
    Arnd Wesemann is editor of [10]Ballet-Tanz magazine.
    The article was originally published in German in the [11]Süddeutsche
    Zeitung, on 17 March, 2005.
    Translation: [12]lp.

    sign and sight funded by Bundeskulturstiftung


    1. http://www.complit.fu-berlin.de/institut/lehrpersonal/menninghaus.html
    2. http://csw.art.pl/new/99/fabre_e.html
    3. http://newsgrist.typepad.com/underbelly/2004/10/terminal_5_exhi.html
    4. http://www.upsy.net/spip/article.php3?id_article=30
    6. http://www.hkw.de/en/programm/tagesprogramm/Eidos_Tao/c_index.html
    7. http://www.archibot.com/stories/st_davehickey.html
    8. http://www.hkw.de/en/programm/tagesprogramm/shanghaibeauty/c_index.html
    9. http://www.hkw.de/index_en.html
   10. http://www.ballet-tanz.de/
   11. http://www.sueddeutsche.de/
   12. http://www.signandsight.com/service/37.html

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