Thursday, December 16, 2010

Beast? Beauty? Bewildering.

Somehow, I simply can’t bring myself to watch Bridalplasty. In television’s latest bastardization of Pygmalion, women compete for the opportunity to have plastic surgery prior to their wedding. They receive this benefit after a series of competitions, they form alliances, and we watch as our culture slides further and further into the realms of the ridiculous.

Almost fifteen years ago I wrote an essay entitled “Rewritten on the Body” in which I explored the sudden expansion of progressive advertising targeting both men and women, encouraging body alterations and ‘improvements’ through plastic surgery.

The notion of this process isn’t anything new. It has been represented, artistically, through works such as Andy Warhol’s ‘Nose Job’, or, as I mentioned previously, through the ongoing body alterations that mark Orlan’s entire practice.

In a sense this transition from ugly to beautiful is classically American. Ours is a culture marked as much by the notion of the instant fix – think here of the Jordan Chase character in the just completed season of Showtime’s Dexter – as it is by a complex belief that outer beauty is identical with inner beauty. This is not to suggest that in certain instances there is a correlation between the two, both for physical and psychological reasons. But somehow, somewhere, when a group of women compete for surgery as part of a reality series, taking the process steps further from both its many predecessors (The Swan, Extreme Makeover, Dr. 90210), the process itself seems somehow more tawdry, more meaningless, and more unnecessary.

Somehow, culturally we are so far removed from Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships, that we can barely imagine a face that would make us walk across the street. Instead, we are trapped in the cultural freakshow that gives us the genius of Diane Arbus at the same time that it gives us the shallowness of Bridalplasty.

Perhaps for 2011 a resolution should be that we move away from the constant aggrandizement of the equation ugly duckling to swan, and towards something that is altogether more complex, more valuable, and more meaningful.

Visit a museum. If you want to see a moving image, try “The Artist’s Museum” on display through January 31 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. For a more contemporary New York approach, try John Currin’s takes on beauty until December 23rd.

Whatever you do, remember that the ongoing mass media reconfiguration of the ideals of beauty hinges on a willingness to give it value. Imagine the discussion that is taking place – Wife: “I’m going on Bridalplasty to make my boobs bigger.” Husband: “Great, and at least we won’t have to pay for it.” Oh wait, you’ll pay, we’ll all pay, for the ongoing visual trauma as we lose our abilities to make any discerning decisions about beauty or value with out the intermediacy of the TV.

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