Throughout our history, humans have been obsessed with the idea of beauty. We go to extreme lengths to manipulate ourselves in order to seem beautiful. We faun and try to emulate beautiful people like celebrities. But what is beauty? It seems like such an intangible thing yet at the same time it seems like anyone could instantly come up with examples of beauty. For centuries man has tried to define beauty. The main issue that arises is whether beauty is the objective or subjective. There wouldn’t be any objection to the claim that a breathtaking sunset was beautiful, but at the same time it seems impossible to establish a standard of beauty that encompasses everyone’s perspective (Sartwell). However, if beauty is purely subjective, then wouldn’t that mean that “the word has no meaning [...] except perhaps an approving personal attitude” (Sartwell)? Plato theorized that beauty was objective, that all beauty stemmed from the Ideal-Form. This objective view that beauty was unaffected by the local culture and surroundings of a person was reflective of the Classical time period. For example, Polykleitos’ Canon served as the model of beauty. Its perfect proportions and harmonious features were meant to be emulated by others and in that thinking, beauty could be achieved and reproduced. Although arguably the most influential, the Greeks were not the only ones to tackle the idea of beauty. The Greeks encompassed the fact that for beauty, we must often look to ourselves, the human form. Many cultures have come up with an ideal model of a beautiful man or woman, with what they consider perfect proportions. The feminine figure has been one of the most prominent subjects of art throughout history. The differences in the trends of the depictions of women between cultures and time periods reflect the varying, evolving perspectives of beauty throughout the world.

An isolationist foreign policy led to one of the golden ages of Japan. This period, the Edo period, cultivated a uniquely Japanese culture.One of the main exports of this period was a new type of art called bijing-ga, or portraits of beautiful people. Kitagawa Utamoro, was a prominent artist at the time known for his work in bijing-ga. In Utamoro’s Three Beauties of the Present Day, the
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women exhibit characteristics that correlate to the beauty ideals found in literature and other prints in the Edo period. The long, thin, faces, rounded shoulders, small lips, thick hair in elaborate styles, straight and narrow eyes, and sloping noses seen in the women were thought to be ideal characteristics at the time. Fair skin was also thought to be beautiful and evidence of the obsession for fair skin can be seen in the lead contamination found in the bones of Edo samurai women that was three times that of agricultural women. After Japan abandoned its isolationist policy, Western culture, values and goods were imported in mass into the country. By the 1920s, American influence was so large that Japan developed its own version of America’s Roaring Twenties: the “Taisho Culture.” Much like how flappers were the female symbol of the time, the “modern girl” or “moga” represented the more radical side of the cultural evolution.“Taisho Culture” combined the traditional Japanese values
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with new, Western culture, resulting in mogas that experimented to different extents with combining Western culture. Shuho Yamakawa’s Autumn best exemplifies this balance. Her face is rounder than the traditional long face. Her hair is tied in “radio rolls” (rajio-maki), meant to emulate the headsets of DJs at the time since that was considered a high profession. Her eyes are almond shaped, larger than the usual straight and flat eyelid eyes visible in traditional printings. But although she exhibits these fairly new beauty ideals, she is still largely traditional. Her kimono, small lips, passive and sweet demeanor and the background centered on nature reflects the old Japanese values seen in old prints.


The Renaissance encompassed the humanistic thinking that ideal beauty was achieved through perfect symmetry and proportions of the body. A core idea of the Renaissance was that beauty was physical evidence of spiritual purity and well-being. A Florentine writer, Agnolo Firenzuola, then translated this idea into objective physical standards.

The forehead should be twice as wide as it was high. (Women plucked their
hairlines to achieve smoothness and proportion.) Arched brows, chestnut eyes, golden curls and a pointed (but not upturned) nose were necessary, and ears should be pale pink like roses, except at the edges, which should be the transparent red of a pomegranate seed. High, ivory cheeks should frame a small mouth, which might only occasionally reveal the woman's most potent feature--a smile that would transport the recipient to paradise. Not to be outdone, one poet declared his lover's smile would reveal six paradises. According to this canon of beauty, however, paradise would vanish if the lady showed more than six teeth.

These requirements can be seen in Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Woman, rumoured to be inspired by Simonetta Vespucci. The elaborate styling of the hair and the intertwined jewels signify her wealth and status which contributes to her beauty. Her high forehead, fair skin, long neck and full body reflect Firenzuola’s standards. While Botticelli may have been inspired by Vespucci, the portrait is clearly idealized as Botticelli presents her as a goddess or a nymph. This reference to mythology emphasizes the poetic beauty instead of just the physical. The Renaissance drew from Classical mythology, looking mostly to sculptures for inspiration and modeling. In The Birth of Venus by Botticelli, Botticelli personifies Renaissance beauty in Venus. Venus, the goddess of love, is essentially beauty herself. Botticelli combines the symbolism of Venus and Renaissance beauty standards to portray his idea of a perfect woman.

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Although the idea of the perfect beauty is still prevalent in our culture today, the debate has been widened. Now there is just as much criticism against idealized beauty standards as there is emphasis on it. One of the biggest standards society has set for women are Disney Princesses. Almost every single girl grows up with princesses, so ingrained in them is the idea of this perfect cartoon beauty that many aspire to be like. Dina Goldstein’s series, Fallen Princesses, aims to break down the idealization of the Disney princesses by imagining them in real life scenarios. While they are perfect and beautiful in their own fantasy lands, Goldstein places them in the context of our modern world, forcing the viewer to think about the princesses as if they needed to deal with modern everyday issues. In Belle, Goldstein not only criticizes the impossible beauty standard of modern times set by these princesses, but also depicts the aftermath and effect of this standard by raising the issue of plastic surgery. The photograph itself is gruesome, as “Belle” is injected and cut by two pairs of surgeons’ hands. Belle still has perfectly applied eyeliner even though she has blood and scars all over her face. Her overly exaggerated breasts add to the image of artificiality that dominates the photograph.
external image Belle.jpgDina Goldstein’s criticism of plastic surgery is taken to another level with the artist ORLAN. ORLAN’s medium is literally herself and her best known artworks are her plastic surgery procedures. But her procedures are not simply thoughtless, reworkings of her face instead everything about the procedure has meaning. One of the biggest causes of her art was ORLAN’s discomfort with women’s traditional role in art history: usually being viewed by males and nude. Each procedure is meant to emulate a certain defining characteristic of an iconic, beautiful woman. ORLAN has had procedures for Mona Lisa’s forehead and Botticelli’s Venus’ chin for example. She is the first person to use plastic surgery in a different context. By combining the most defining and iconic features of these beautiful women she is essentially creating what should be the perfect woman. Yet her face is deliberately uneven and clearly artificial, drawing attention to the inconsistency and impossibility of the standards of beauty. ORLAN is literally made up of the best feature of the most beautiful women yet she still does not fit the beauty standard.
The procedures themselves are ORLAN’S art and they are performed with a ritual and exaggerated quality. ORLAN is conscious throughout the procedure and wears costumes along with the surgeons and assistants. She recites poetry and music plays in her operating room. The surgeries are captured on video and then the videos are displayed in galleries as her art.

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