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The Commodification of Beauty

astract artwork depicting acrobats in the world lcircle

Prodigal Daughters is a panoramic book about the arts. Here I can focus on the particular and like most people I respond to immediate events around me. The stimulus for this musing was a statement by the arts minister in the Australian government. His implied message was about the commodification of beauty as revelaed in the arts.

A commodity is something that can be bought and sold, which can be applied to just about everything. Today we’re told this is good because a commodity has economic value, which is enormously important. After all, isn’t economic growth what will save humanity as it lurches from crisis to crisis?

With this kind of thinking, along comes the arts minister declaring that film finance should be redirected to entice big overseas investors to come to our studios. This would increase employment for Australian actors and technicians (and grow our wealth). We have developed great movie studios and we must bring in the money moguls to fill them. Sound idea? In a commercial sense maybe, but Hollywood is the minister’s target market. And that means formulaic rehashes of what has worked before – guaranteed money-making blockbusters, again and again.

‘Never!’ Australian filmmakers protest. ‘Such commodification will kill the Australian home-grown industry.’ Film finance has traditionally assisted smaller ventures that explore the Australian land, history and psyche. Some outcomes have become known widely – Picnic at Hanging Rock, Muriel’s Wedding, Crocodile Dundee and most of the work of George Miller, who made the delightful Academy Award-winning Happy Feet and the wild rides of the Mad Max movies. Sheila Florance, subject of my biography On the Inside (and my former mother-in-law) performed as grandma May Swaisey, waving a double-barrelled shotgun in the original Mad Max. She thought it was the most dreadful film, and hated the violence. She sniped, ‘as a film director George is a not a bad doctor.’ It seems that she was wrong. Dr Miller continued to bring in the dollars with his Mad Maxes and number four, Fury Road, won a bag of Academy Awards.

But other films have needed the government funding set up back in the 1970s to support Australian culture. Globally respected (but not mogul material) auteur Paul Cox has always produced his work on shoestring budgets. Notable films on local themes such as Newsfront, or based on Australian literature like Romulus my Father never become Hollywood hits. Then there are stories about indigenous Australia, from Ten Canoes to Samson and Delilah − wonderful but unlikely to attract the moguls.

Is that why the film-makers add a desperate cry? ‘Worse, much worse, quality will fly out the window.’

Quality isn’t guaranteed by funding. But some of those concerned people will understand that quality emerges from timeless values, from truth, goodness and beauty. These values appear abstract although they are grounded in real life. Without them what we create is meaningless. There’s a general consensus that something true does not fudge or gloss over what exists; and something good comes about through moral integrity. The application can be very slippery. More so with beauty. We slip this word into our conversations with careless abandon.

I think beauty is very easily commodified. That’s because it is misunderstood. Beauty is usually related to something we find attractive. This isn’t wrong. But it is often conditioned by commercial pressures that dictate the fashion of the moment. We are persuaded to form opinions according to many insidious, demanding voices. Who are the latest trendsetters? What are they buying, wearing, promoting, singing or joining today? Sometimes we can barely recognize our experience of beauty amidst all the chatter, the yackety-yak selling things we must see, hear or possess.

But beauty is not transient. Nor is it based on our opinions, our likes and dislikes. It certainly isn’t based on how much we pay for something, how much it is worth ‘on the market’ or what return it will bring in. That’s definitely commodification. When I look around me at so much of what we give value to in our culture I know for sure that we still haven't learnt the ancient task of valuing beauty. Or if we have learnt, many of us have forgotten.

So what is beauty? Consider this: an artist friend said to me that there can be beauty in ugliness, but never in prettiness, which I thought was intriguing. He meant that prettiness is superficial, external. But beauty is more than the physical form. That’s why we can experience a person we label as ugly, as ‘having a beautiful soul’. The façade isn’t enough to reveal beauty. Appearances can even delude us because we are not yet perceptive enough to grasp the truth. The numerous cinema versions of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast draw on this idea, from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 French surrealist fantasy to the 1991 animated Disney film, and beyond.

beauty and the beast still from movie

Still from the 1947 La Belle et la Bête by poet and artist Jean Cocteau To be able to perceive beauty we need to be able to go beyond the physical, to seek beyond the senses, but not to deny them. Art of all kinds makes use of sensory impressions, whether seen, heard, touched or covering a full sensual smorgasbord. We need the senses as a conduit. They are our soul’s means of connecting with the outer world. They can also connect us with its spiritual aspect if we allow it, if we remain open and responsive.

I’ll stay with the movies. Have you seen a movie where you are so moved you have to sit in the theatre until the credits have rolled, when for a while after you emerge from the theatre you are too immersed in the feeling to speak? But then over coffee you relive it and share your experience with a companion, and with the obliging waiter too – it’s that good. I had this kind of experience in 2010 after watching Never Let Me Go based on Kazuo Ishiguro's novel of the same name. Through the art of film this vision of a dystopian future, not so different to the present, quietly and heartbreakingly addresses deep ethical issues and explores the very nature of what makes us human.

Everyone will discover a different experience of powerful beauty. But always there is a need to integrate what has impacted so directly and powerfully. The theme may be dark but in its truth and integrity it is beautiful. Beauty is honest and uncompromising and it may fill you with pain or joy, because you are actually encountering an extra dimension, the essence of something, the spirit. This is the source of beauty that touches us deeply.

The movie-makers I have in mind are the ones who are artists. I believe their process can offer insights. The genuine artist asks the question, what spirit is at work here and how, and lets the answer resound in their soul. Such an artist seeks truth behind the veil of illusion. Whatever the form chosen, this artist has the ability engage on every level, to perceive and then portray what is real, and in doing so reveal the beauty that is more than physical yet weaves through the physical. That’s the essence of art. We are touched to the depths of our souls when we experience such creations. We say they are good − that is, of real value, quality works engaging, enlivening and enriching us.

When we encounter genuine art we can learn from our experience because we are awakened. The deep learning we’ve gained carries over into our lives, inspiring us to be more of the artist in whatever we do − making a garden, preparing a meal, in work, conversation or forming a relationship. We can go on with our lives un-imaginatively, in a mindless, self-serving or commodifying way. But our actions rise above commodification if we imbue them with love and care for the delicate web of life.

Beauty lives in that space. Here our soul meets spirit − the spirit that lives in a movie story, an extraordinary painting, soul-stirring music, in nature, or in another human being. Without this meeting, beauty doesn’t exist. If this meeting occurs we encounter the truth and goodness behind the surface. And that’s the secret of beauty.

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