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The human flaw

A festival in Berlin's Haus der Kulturen der Welt examines beauty with exhibitions, discussions and dance. By Arnd Wesemann

Can't we simply find something beautiful for a change? Does everything have to be immediately relegated to the level of the ridiculous and the kitsch? Why do we desire a thing of beauty and yet regard it with suspicion? What methods of seduction are in play when the beautiful woman in the advertisement appears more beautiful than the beautiful woman next to you? And can one regard heroic masculine poses as an expression of biological superiority without making fascist idols of them? Before you know it the beauty has faded. (Photo: Wang Gongxin & Lin Tianmiao: "Here? Or There?" (detail). 2002. Video installation. Photographer: The artists)

Beauty is booming in German universities. After a decade of intensive gender research and practice in equality – sexual, religious and racial – a roll-back is under way. Beauty lost its power because it defected to the side of advertising, computer animation and plastic surgery. And because beauty contradicts the principle of egalitarianism. "Beauty entices", says Winfried Menninghaus, professor of comparative literature at Berlin's Free University, who is currently touring and talking on the subject. According to Menninghaus, Darwinian theory, which like biologism is undergoing a renaissance, states that beauty solely serves biological selection. This is why so many cultures have undermined the power of beauty. Islam covers up its women to prevent inequality from determining the choice of partner. And uniforms are there to lower the pressure of competition.

The level of competition in the globalised world has spawned the new adoration of the beautiful and strong. In fact, Menninghaus tells us, clothing and fashion signalled the end of Darwinian selection. Nakedness necessitated clothing and thus culture. Since then the naked body has been taboo. As a way of concealing the painful memories of the now surmounted natural state, nakedness has always simultaneously stood for obscenity and the ideal of beauty. Art history was the first to idealise the body; later the health and fitness industry and all the other preening and pruning practices built up around nudity adopted the strict dictates of the beauty ideal. 65 percent of US Americans are overweight. The conclusion: the body is bad, it belongs to the forces of evil. The idea of beauty is therefore also bound up with the rediscovery of shame. The real body stands ashamed before the propagated ideal. Everybody knows the body can never be as flawless as it has to be: pure and sinless, healthy and efficient. And yet one searches for it, at least in art. And then one denounces art for this reason. (Photo: Susanne Linke: "Im Bade wannen". Photographer: Klaus Rabien)

The whole of Paris was outraged when choreographer Jan Fabre put a naked, oil-covered dancer on stage and called the piece "Beauty warrior". The oil, the impure element, ran counter to beauty. At the JFK airport in New York two dozen mouth-wateringly gorgeous black models recently posed naked in shackles. America wanted to protest, but by alluding to the legacy of slavery and inflamed desire for beautiful others, Vanessa Beecroft silenced her critics.

Now the celebrated French sinologist, Francois Jullien, currently touring with his new book "Le nu impossible", has suggested looking at beauty through the eyes of other cultures. Berlin's Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures) has taken up the challenge and on March 18 opened its festival "About Beauty", comprising exhibition, dance programme and a series of podium discussions. Jullien views beauty from the Chinese perspective. In his book, he maintains that to the Chinese eye a person cannot be beautiful as such. According to ancient Tao wisdom, it is in movement that a person attains beauty, in Tai-Chi for example. The Chinese syllable "mei" (literally: fat sheep) means beauty. It is used to describe good food, a sense of well-being, a pleasant bodily feeling. And, ironically enough, also the United States (literally: beautiful land). So it is possible to have beauty without burdening it with ideals of physical self-improvement and abstinence. Why not just enjoy life? But Europeans abide by Jacques Lacan, who stated that pleasure is also a dictate. (Photo: Zhuang Hui: "Chashan County · June 25". Sculpture.)

The Berlin choreographers Jutta Hell and Dieter Baumann rehearsed a dance piece in Shanghai titled "Eidos_Tao" with Chinese dancers. Tao, which is generally translated as "the Way" means movement in China, the flowing, unstoppable movement of dance as opposed to our classical ideal of fixed "eidos". Precisely here, says Jullien, lies the difference. Chinese see beauty in flux, while we try to force it to stand still. Good food and letting the daughters dance are still the measure of beauty in remote areas of southern China. Traditional generosity is beautiful too. (Photo: "EIDOS_TAO". Performance. Photographer: Dirk Bleicker)

One might suspect that Europe simply does not want to find the beautiful beautiful. Bertolt Brecht coined the phrase: "Beauty comes from overcoming difficulties". The peak is only beautiful when it has been scaled. Pleasure is beautiful when it has to be paid for in sweat. Perhaps this is why beauty hardly qualifies as an aesthetic category any more. Schiller's sentence "Beauty is freedom in the appearance" has only been dug up again for his bicentennial. He spoke of dignity as a category of beauty. The dignity of the healthy, of the beautiful body? What Schiller really meant - and what the Chinese believe today - has largely been forgotten: superior intellect, wise politics, expert craftmanship, human prowess. For the Chinese, only what is true and good is also beautiful, says Jullien. Essayist Dave Hickey goes a step further. In his book "The Invisible Dragon", he describes how this "classical" stance is about to be driven out of the Chinese. (Photo: "Shanghai Beauty". Performance. Photographer: Dirk Bleicker)

They too are subject to the influence of academies, museums and universities. As in Europe, these institutions search for beauty in constructs and systems. But the Chinese no more believe in concepts than they do in making sacrifices to achieve an end. Their traditional view of beauty is a celebration of change, eternal circulation and transformation. And according to Hickey, this is precisely the opposite of everything rigid and statutory embodied by institutions.

But this culture of the transformative is in retreat, and it is disappearing faster than people are aware of. As Chinese choreographer Jin Xing puts it: "Chinese bodies look weak in comparison with beautiful African bodies. And the Chinese don't have the overriding sense of envy and justice that makes bodies hard and people rich in the West. But the concept of spending money in a fitness studio is still utterly alien in China. The Chinese work hard because true beauty for us is wealth."

"Über Schönheit - About Beauty". 18.3.05 - 15.5.05. Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin


Arnd Wesemann is editor of Ballet-Tanz magazine.

The article was originally published in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, on 17 March, 2005.

Translation: lp. - let's talk european