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Dec 20, 2017

What is Oppressive About Beauty?

What I hear from some women who are important to me is that my art
"Water Wall", pencil, by Tim Holmes
contributes to the oppression of women because of the beauty I find in young, healthy, nubile women. This springs from the same common appreciation that is used to exploit women for commercial purposes (which is exactly why it works!) and therefore my art comes across as being exploitive in a similar way. I'm sorry if that is the case, but please help me understand why. What is my responsibility as an artist?
It's as if there's no difference between soft porn (where the body is raked clean of personal value to foster easy objectification) and what I do, which is emphasize the whole woman. In my mind I am expressing the delight I feel in beauty and there's nothing oppressive about that. I treat the male figure the same way (emphasizing young healthy, well-developed bodies), but there's apparently no oppression felt in that case, probably because there's little oppression of men in our patriarchal society. I recognize all of that but it leaves me unable to understand my responsibilities in light of it. I feel a little bit like––in a world that is overfished––it's bad for me to find beauty in fish because that only encourages people to eat more fish. But I feel that speaks of a lack of imagination on the other's part rather than a failure of responsibility on my own. 

Yes I understand that we need to expand our vision of beauty to include, for instance, older saggy women because they too are beautiful. But I would say that their beauty is not aesthetic, as in young women. I insist that the reason we find young flesh so captivating is because it is true across nature that young, healthy animals are the pinnacle of beauty for that species. If you disagree with me I would like to challenge you to show us images that support your argument. There is a way in which older people look like overripe fruit; a little bit wrinkly and saggy. I would humbly suggest that's because mature beauty migrates inside. It's nature that designed it that way, not me. I'm just a witness to what nature has provided.

There's no difference in worth between those two instances but we talk about beauty all of a sudden there is a value judgment, for the same reason that ripe food is beautiful and the overripe fruit less so. That does not negate the value of the overwrite fruit. Speaking for myself I'm simply registering beauty as physical in this one narrow regard. (The visual sight of ripe fruit is more esthetically "beautiful" than the overripe. Without that sense we'd soon get sick on bad fruit. Do you not agree?)

Oppression is definitely bad, women have been severely oppressed and the beauty industry, like the porn industry, makes huge profits on that abuse. I find that a terrible shame, but it in no way diminishes a woman's beauty. Is that a fault on my part? It makes me wonder if the female objection to my argument isn't rooted in resistance to oppression rather than in appreciation of beauty. I certainly understand if it's the former, and I hope all people take up that struggle. But if the latter is true I'd like to see examples of old, wrinkly people who are depicted in such away that many viewers would find them physically beautiful. What I imagine is not that such examples don't exist, but that most people would see their beauty as inner, not outer; because of nature. That again is not my fault.

Do I have a responsibility to negate my appreciation of beautiful young flesh? Does diminishing the one help enhance the other? Perhaps the argument goes that if we had 100 years of looking at old wrinkly flesh that would become the standard of beauty. But I humbly suggest that if that's the case it would go against nature. Nature has designed young healthy animals to survive and I think that's why we find them beautiful, because their fitness is visible. Is it preferable to move culture away from nature? If beauty is democratizing, does it have any purpose? Does nature have an answer? Or is the solution we seek one that answers oppression rather than aesthetics? Please add your thoughts here. I think it is very important and especially for artists who care about human dignity!


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I'm a sculptor/filmmaker living in Montana, USA. I am using art to move the evolution of humanity forward into an increasingly responsive, inclusive and interactive culture. As globalization flattens peoples into a capitalist monoculture I hope to use my art to celebrate historical cultural differences and imagine how we can co-create a rich future together.

I see myself as an artist/philosopher laboring deep in the mines of joy. I've had a good long career of exhibiting work around the world and working on international outreach projects, most notably being the first American to be invited to present a one-person exhibit in the Hermitage Museum. Recently I have turned my attention from simply making metal sculpture to creating films and workshops for engaging communities directly, tinkering with the very ideas and mechanisms behind cultural transformation. I feel that as we face tragic world crises, if the human species favors our imaginative and creative capacities we can cultivate a rich world to enjoy.

For me the deepest satisfaction in making art comes in engaging people's real life concerns rather than providing simple entertainment or decoration. Areas of conflict or tension are particularly ripe for the kind of transformative power that art uniquely carries. I invite any kind of challenge that serves people on a deep level.