Beauty standards have been narrowed by advertisers and media companies. Can the Olympics heal our broken eyes?
The Art of the Flower of Peerless Charm
There is something not quite right about the modern world, beyond all the injustice and suffering, the arms races and political power struggles. Something is missing.
We all feel it, to one extent or another, this nameless affliction, this absence. In many ways we have it better than 99.9% of human beings who have ever lived- most of whom didn’t live half as long as we will.
Yet, we feel unfulfilled, lost.
For all our modern conveniences and endless entertainment options we still feel narrowed, blinkered, and cloistered. We have a near-universal fear of missing out because we are missing out, on something we can’t even define.
What is missing is beauty. More specifically, a wider framework for the concept of beauty- beyond our navel-gazing preoccupation with human beauty. (Though that needs work, too.)
There is no shortage of beauty- it’s everywhere. We are drowning in an ocean of it. We are dying of thirst in a pure wellspring of fulfillment and joy. Why?
There is nothing wrong with our bodies, in their infinite variations on the same, brilliant human theme. Nothing wrong with the spectrum of human artistic expression. Nothing wrong with nature.
Something is wrong with our eyes. We need to retrain ourselves to really seebeauty; to see through the veneers and social conditioning.
It isn’t our fault: A steady stream of homogenized beauty ideals has been drummed into our dear little ears and eyes since infancy. We are the first generations to grow up in near-universal thrall to advertisers.
These advertisers have grown in reach and influence over the past decades. Now they cover the entire industrialized world, and beyond. Advertisers aren’t a monolith, some of them are perfectly fine. But if they were, the sins of advertisers would fill a million Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Where do we begin? Even identifying the top ten worst offenders would be a serious undertaking. The tobacco companies would undoubtably make the list, vying for the top spots against marketing campaigns designed to hook impressionable young kids on unhealthy junk food engineered to be addictive.
On one hand, tobacco companies promised women they could lose weight by smoking Virginia Slims. On the other, junk food marketing campaigns targeted to children zeroed in on minority kids.
Virginia Slims was a double-whammy. In addition to being a tobacco marketing campaign, it used another strategy beloved by marketers the world over: Using people’s insecurities to sell them things.
Clever advertisers have used everything from fear of crime, to fear of underarm sweat to sell us things. If a collective insecurity didn’t exist for something, they created it.
Then again, junk food companies created cartoon shows just to hawk their sugar and chemical laden frankenfood to poor kids in food deserts. That is, they came up with the products first, and designed cartoons as a Trojan Horse-like delivery system.
It worked, too. As poorer parents, skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity, and a mountain of single-use plastic junk toys still rotting away in landfills and waterways everywhere can attest.
Advertisers and media companies: They have pushed products, including dangerous drugs, that have killed people. They have reinforced and perpetuated every harmful stereotype and form of racism, sexism, classism, and bigotry to which humankind is heir to.
They created a system of conspicuous consumption that continues to pay dividends to this day, to the detriment of the planet and most everyone on it, including those who have too much and those who don’t have enough.
The Really Bad News: These same advertisers, along with media companies, have also given us our standards for beauty, which are, as a result, about as deep as a Happy Meal (TM).
As a result, we are missing appreciation for many different types of beauty, and our experiences are the poorer for it. The definition of beauty has become narrow. The super model, the fashion magazine, the glossy photoshoot, the tasteful layout. Our gaze has become inured to the understated, the deeper levels of beauty.
Serious art students don’t first learn to sketch or the basics of design or anything else like that. First, they have to learn to see.
In that vein, Japanese Aesthetics is the philosophical study of beauty. According to this ancient system of beliefs, there are different types of beauty, just like there are different types of feelings for the one word we use “love”.
For instance, “Wabi” refers to simple, understated beauty; the beauty of intransigence, impermanence, imperfection. It is this principle which makes the flower still-life paintings of the great Dutch masters so evocative.
Notice the flowers are not in full bloom, but just after their peak, when their beauty might be said to be waning.
Yet, these waning beauties adorn the finest art museums in the world while tasteful paintings of perfect blossoms adorn Holiday Inns instead.
“Sabi” refers to desolateness and the patina of aging. Sometimes a building, a bridge, or a person, can be beautiful because of the patina of age.
“Kawaii” is a modern addition to Japanese Aesthetics, and not everyone agrees it belongs in the cannon. Kawaii means “cute” or “cute beauty”. Kawaii refers to something beautiful because it is so adorably cute- think Hello Kitty.
“Yugen” means, among other things, “dark, mysterious grace”. It is often called the most ineffable of the Aesthetics, for good reason.
Yugen plays a key role in the beauty of art and artistic expression. It refers to, “something rare, that is attained only by the greatest actors in the tradition, and only after decades of dedicated practice of the art,” according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
In Zeami Motokiyo’s (1363–1443) “Notes on the Nine Levels of Artistic Attainment in Nō”, the highest expression of an art form is called “The Art of the Flower of Peerless Charm”.
To reach this sublime state- which is akin to a Buddhist monk achieving unltimate transcendence through deep, prolonged meditation- the student must study and practice for decades.
“The idea is that one practices for years a ‘form’ (kata) that goes counter to the movements of the body and thus requires tremendous discipline — to the point of a breakthrough to a ‘higher naturalness’ that is exhibited when the form has been consummately incorporated,” Stanford tells us. “This kind of spontaneity gives the impression, as in the case of Grace, of something ‘supernatural’.”
Giving a graduation address in 2018, jazz bassist phenom, composer and musician Esperanza Spalding summed it up this way for her fellow musicians: “You are vessels now, to go out into the world and transmit this spirit- that none of us in this room understands.”
“We don’t know what happens when we play!” Spalding said. “The one thing that makes it matter, is the one thing we don’t understand. Cause you can practice, and you know it’s true; you can practice for 8 hours a day for 25 years and not move a damn soul.”
The Art of the Flower of Peerless charm is achieved during transcendental moments, and it’s rare. This flower doesn’t grow on trees. But it does grow from human excellence, in all its many splendored forms.
Spotting it in the wild is easy, if you know where to look. Believe Esperanza Spalding, though: You may not be able to define it, but you’ll know it when you see it. Your eyes will be dazzled, changed, attuned to beauty in new ways.
One place you can be almost certain to see it is during the Olympic Games. Not every elite athlete will get there, of course. Even all the gold medalists won’t reach the Art of the Flower of Peerless Charm.
But some few will. Feast your eyes when they do.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)