In desolate Ventnor on the south coast of the Isle of Wight, alongside ‘antique’ shops selling yellowed and scratched plastic buckets and broken digital clocks, there is a hairdresser with a fascia board that elegiacally proclaims ‘Beauty’. The world’s largest cosmetics business runs a global campaign with the strapline ‘Defining Beauty’ in pursuit of mascara and depilatory cream sales. Meanwhile, popular culture is deeply conflicted on the matter. Fitness cults and sun fetishes suggest near universal yearning for an idealised — and therefore unattainable — human form and brown coloration, but at the same time street culture, with its confrontational raggedness and disorder, its destructured style, its refusal of the smooth and unthreatening neatness that Edmund Burke claimed to be ‘beautiful’, is in flight from the polite.
It is even happening in industry, where the democratisation of beauty has been the chief sales tool for nearly a century. At Renault in Paris, the chef du design, Patrick Le Quément, has developed an aesthetic signature that he knows consumers find challenging. The ‘imposing’ Renault Vel Satis is one of the strangest-looking cars ever made. But Le Quément argues that ‘Beauty is not to be confused with elegance’. Something similar is happening with BMW, now producing cars that are visually fidgety and compositionally irrational. For the first time in history, major manufacturers are presenting the public with products designed to disturb before they delight.
Whether in people or things, Beauty is the most controversial subject of them all: in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations only ‘death’ has more entries in the index. But while Sir Thomas Browne’s ‘uncomfortable night of nothing’ is an unarguable certainty, there is always a good deal of disputing about aesthetics. The sculptor Auguste Rodin, in conversation in 1903, said, ‘There is no ugliness.’ He admitted that, as a young man, he would only sculpt women he found attractive, but a compensation of maturity, he said, was to realise that beauty was as much a matter of ‘character or passion’ as of physical charms or effects. ‘However ugly a woman may look,’ Rodin declared, not quite managing to dissuade himself from absolute aesthetic judgments, ‘when she is with her lover, she becomes beautiful.’
Beauty has many characteristics and descriptions, but underlying almost all of them is an erotic element, even in cars. When Stendhal wrote in De l’amour that ‘to love is to have pleasure in seeing, touching and feeling by all the senses’, he was describing a total aesthetic experience. But this erotic element is not always explicitly a physical one. Instead, the defining characteristic of beauty is abstract: when we see something beautiful, we want to reproduce it. This applies to people, where sexual love, rather than the machine tool and conveyor belt, is the means of reproduction. Shakespeare wrote, ‘From fairest creatures we desire increase/ That therefore beauty’s rose may never die’. Thus, in humans a perception of beauty has erotic promise.
But the metaphor of reproduction is a test for the presence of beauty in art, design and music, too. If a work of art is beautiful, it will be reproduced so that its qualities might be more widely enjoyed: our knowledge of classical art is based mostly on Roman copies of lost Greek originals. Indeed, the Romans made this form of reproduction an industry. When the mechanical, photographic and phonographic technologies of mass production were developed to a peak in the 19th century, one of the most extraordinary episodes in the history of art occurred. With confident imperial swagger, plaster-cast makers were sent out from London to return with, for instance, a perfect plaster cast of the Portico della Gloria from the east front of the great pilgrimage cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. It sits there now in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s cast courts…perfect in every detail except its authenticity. First, as a representation of heaven, the 12th-century original was one of the greatest glories of Christian art, where Beauty was held to be evidence of divine presence. Second, as a bravura replica, the cast of the Portico demonstrated the bewildering confidence of the Victorians and their moral certainty that Beauty could be captured by secular technology.
But these Victorian reproduction technologies brought aesthetic chaos to the very same and much expanded marketplace they had made economically possible. For this reason, the predecessor of the Victoria & Albert Museum created its ‘Chamber of Horrors’ in South Kensington. Here were put on display examples of ‘false’ principles in design, to educate the public in aesthetic correctitude while admonishing manufacturers responsible for atrocities such as those seen at the Great Exhibition of 1851: a garden seat for Osborne made out of coal, a doctor’s walking stick containing an enema, a knife with 300 blades and a group of stuffed frogs from Wurttemberg, one holding an umbrella.
This conviction about false principles in design fed directly into the Modern Movement, with all its linear and deterministic presumptions about taste. The reduction to absurdity here was the manufacture in 1955 of a record player by Braun whose form was determined by a mathematical grid and whose appearance was so austere it became known as ‘Snow White’s Coffin’. But while Edna St Vincent Millay believed in the possibility of aesthetic perfection via geometry (‘Euclid alone/ has looked on Beauty bare’), all notions of Beauty have to confront the bugbear of relativism.
One thing is absolutely clear: standards of beauty differ in time and space. The pioneer sexologist Havelock Ellis found this very perturbing. Huge passages in his Studies in the Psychology of Sex struggle to come to terms with cultural preferences in erotic beauty: there is one tribe that enjoys breasts like melons, while another prefers tangerines. Ellis develops an entire fruit cocktail of similes. ‘The tightening of the waist girth was little known to the Greeks’, our sexologist writes, but his contemporaries had developed a culture of voluntary bodily deformation in the corset that, in a more technologically advanced, but philosophically similar, form, is with us today.
And the pervasive doctrines of the glamour industries with their scary ‘enhancement technologies’ and a new generation of cosmoceuticals that promise perfection-out-of-a-jar outrage strict-observance feminists, who see commercialised Beauty as a sinister masculine conspiracy against naturally hairy and lumpy women. Their academic counterparts have banned the word ‘beauty’ from discussion of literature on some US campuses. But whatever form it takes, the quest for Beauty is ever present. At the very least, it proves a continuous human need to evaluate sensations or things and attach merit to them.
Do we actually see beauty, or are faculties other than sight involved? Certainly, the great mysteries of the world are visible, not invisible. Following Rodin, Picasso said of Beauty: ‘There is no such thing.’ The surrealist André Breton said it must be ‘convulsive’. But for the rest of us it’s compulsive. And you have to believe in it because if there is no such thing as Beauty there can be no such thing as ugliness. And, despite Rodin, we know that’s not true.
Stephen Bayley has chosen 26 objects from the V&A’s collection for this exhibition, and his tour of an hour and a half covers a number of galleries, from sculpture to photography, with text panels accompanying each object.