In Dushko Petrovich’s “Art Journal” in n+1 he remarks about Elizabeth Peyton’s soft paintings of pretty young hipsters that looking at them, “we start to feel that it’s unimportant to paint beautiful people, and that’s an awful feeling.” His point may be that beauty, in Peyton’s hands, is trivialized, but I think the point could be extended. Peyton’s treatment of beauty is symptomatic of how our culture generally handles beauty, transforming it into useful capital, making it an object of envy, jealousy, and contempt.
Full disclosure: I’m not one of the “beautiful people.” No one would ever think to take my picture and use it to sell some products or capture the spirit of the times or connect it to something else to make that thing seem glamorous and exclusive and acutely desirable. What Petrovich’s comment brought to my mind was that the beauty of those hipsters Peyton records so well, insoucient and self-absorbed, isn’t unimportant, it’s just important for lurid, dismal reasons, important for the jealousy it can inspire. What’s so terrible about Peyton’s work is that it make me feel like I hate beauty, because of the competitive advantage it gives to those who have it. It obviates the kind of sublime beauty that is open to all, that inspires wonder at its munificence, its uselessness. But the ubiquity of capitalist comeptition leaves no spaces for unexploited beauty, no place for something to be simply beautiful. The smugness projected in Peyton’s paintings shows a concentrated awareness of that kind of beauty, allowing the people she paints to serve as its epitome. These are the people who will populate ads, who will stoke envious desire, who will supplant natural beauty with glamor. Beauty is always transformed into desire, which spawns jealousy, which fuels the systems of emulative consumption and compensatory consumption that keep our economy growing. But even things like the Grand Canyon have their beauty commodified. Beauty must always be capitalized upon, measured for what it can afford, given a value in dollars. We don’t respect beauty as an ineffable, nearly unfathomable, indescribable gift because money has convinced us we can simply purchase it if not graced with it — through plastic surgery, pretty prostitutes, art collecting, porn catologuing, etc. It’s something we own and treasure rather than appreciate in ite ephemeral moment.
No wonder twentieth-century art assailed beauty, burning the village in a desperate attempt to save it.