Shaping the world around us


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Posted by HSG on April 15, 2005 at 23:22:58:


In the context of our discussions at this forum, we often end up examining the relationship between the various categories of art; to wit, the relationship between fine art (literature, painting, music), the "applied" or design arts (fashion, advertising, interior design and decorating, etc.), and folk art (which partakes of both, while remaining a distinct category).

Historically, one of the greatest strengths of Western culture was the mutually-beneficial links that it fostered between these categories of art.

Artists in the Romantic era grounded themselves in the organic vitality of folk art while they produced lofty masterpieces (e.g., Beethovenís symphonies were often built on folk melodies, and the the Lyrical Ballads used the form and subject matter of folk ballads).

And as the design arts flourished throughout the 19th century, they reflected the developments that were taking place in the world of the fine arts. Consequently, the beauty of the greatest works of art in the most exalted of galleries was transmitted to the public through the popular creations of the design arts, and thus, became a part of the real-life experience of much of the populace.

Tragically, in the 20th century, these bonds were broken. The fine arts quickly degenerated into a form of political journalism, created and appreciated by only a small cadre of like-minded radicals increasingly alienated from the needs and wishes of the general public, while the design arts--divested of the Idealism that they had borrowed from the fine arts--began both to reflect, and to exacerbate, an increasingly vulgar reality.

And as one might expect, the fate of timeless feminine beauty was the bellwether of these changes.

Throughout the 20th century, Classical femininity vanished from the fine arts altogether, while the commercial arts warped that image of beauty into the androgynous, artificial distortion that stares at us from billboards and magazine racks today.

But it was not always so.

A hundred years ago, before the darkness of the modern age descended upon Western culture, the "world around us"--the world not only of fine art, but of commercial art as well--was governed by principles of timeless beauty.

Classical harmony was not just something that men and women could see preserved in museums. They could view it everywhere--in the Historicist designs of their great public buildings, in the graceful femininity of womenís fashions, and even in the common artifacts that decorated their homes.

Here are a few examples of 19th-century artifacts that reflect what "the world around us" looked like, before the androgynous waif was imposed on society as the dominant image of commercial appeal.

This is a plate from the early 1900s, one that could have been used practically, or for decoration. With her abundant tresses, full facial features, flowers in her hair, and "wet drapery," the model whose image graces this item resembles a Venus in an artistic masterwork. But this image of beauty was part of the everyday human experience of men and women of every social stratum:

Here is a beer advertisement (yes, a beer advertisement), also from the early 1900s:

In our own day and age, the television "beer ad" stands out as a particularly notorious expression of the debasement of beauty, usually depicting stick models with synthetic body parts and radioactive tans cavorting with lumbering oafs.

But this equivalent promotion from a better age entices its contemporary audience with the image of a fair damsel possessing a soft, natural figure, with gossamer drapery and flower-adorned tresses, who could represent Terpsichore, the muse of music.

One can almost hear the song that she plays--a sweet, rustic air, rather than the hammering drum-rhythms of similar promotions today.

Here is another turn-of-the-century decorative plate emblazoned with the image of a flaxen-haired goddess. Her loosened tresses flow freely, her fair features exhibit the blush of health and vitality, and banked-down passion:

Does it not speak of the health of the culture that would enshrine her as the most enticing of beauties, rather than one of the artificial waifs that surround us, today?

Here is the cover of a storage box--perhaps a jewellery box--embellished with the image of a raven-haired temptress. Her facial features, like those of every goddess shown here, are soft and very full. Her luxurious tresses are crowned with an ornate tiara, and her red robes and floral surroundings symbolize her passionate nature.

Note also the lovely finish and patterns on the box itself. Remember the beauty of this object, the next time that you withdraw a treasured item from some gaudy plastic packaging, or from a cardboard crate.

Here is one last decorative plate to admire, this time with a beauty more of folklore than of myth. Her enchanting appearance is more demure than that of the previous models, but the viewer still delights in the decadent softness of her facial features, in her peaches-and-cream complexion, and in her cascading tresses.

And finally, here is an image of famed stage siren Lillian Russell gracing--of all things--a package of chewing gum. (There is no item so prosaic that it cannot become an expression of beauty.) The image is rare and significant, in that it is a colour drawing of Ms. Russell (as opposed to the many photographs of the actress, all of which are black and white). It therefore reveals her fair features (blonde hair, blue eyes, pink cheeks), and how her outfit--the pale blue gown, white ruffles, yellow trim, and garland of pink roses--was carefully chosen to accentuate those features.

And note that the highest point of attraction in this image was clearly meant to be her visibly full, soft, rounded arms, which any admirer of her day would have considered utterly breathtaking (as will any individual living today who is not brainwashed by the artificial modern standard).

The artistic world that we create all around us can be an expression of beauty, or of ugliness. It can inspire, or it can debase. Whereas the former was the case throughout the history of the West, the latter became the norm throughout the 20th century, as the link between the fine arts and the commercial arts was sundered, to the detriment of both.

But plus-size models, embodying as they do a Classical ideal of beauty, an ideal drawn from the world of high art, are a living reconciliation of these sundered branches of the art world. The beauty of these models serves the necessities of commercial art, but it also charges those commercial images with the Idealism of the fine arts, and in so doing, heralds the revival of a richer, nobler culture.

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