Food for thought‘[...] do not think that good design can make a poor product good, whether the product be a machine, a building, a promotional brochure or a business man. But [...] good design can materially help make a good product reach its full potential. In short, [...] good design is good business.’
Thomas J. Watson Jr., IBM CEO

Beauty — how ‘human’ or ‘normal’ should it be?

December 12, 2010, 10:13 PM

Few of the ‘normal’ people don’t feel their soul cringe when they see a disabled person. Whether out of pity, guilt, fear, anger towards fate or just because of the strange gut feeling, you can’t feel comfortable unless you take some time to get used to it. It’s actually quite a natural, biological reaction. We are ‘set’ to search for the genetically-best representative of the opposite sex, more or less. Anyone that looks different gives us a sense of discomfort, usually requiring quite some will power to overcome it. Unlike animals, who let their disabled to die or be eaten, humans do benefit from the “mind over body” thing — or at least try to.

Biological ‘settings’ are not the only ones to blame. Most human societies have outcasted handicapped people for most of our history (in spite of the recent 20th and 21st century ‘enlightenment’, everyday life is still far from easy and ‘normal’ for a disabled person). Also, thousands of years of art are more than enough proof of our cultural & social notions of beauty. Ancient greeks, the Renaissance (to name just a few) tried to portray the perfect human, homo universalis. Even if art from the last two centuries has taken more abstract forms, we still strive for the “greek standard”, more or less. Just take a look through most magazines: 100-m-athletes-like and 90-60-90 models everywhere — no wonder anorexia and bulimia are some of the most common problems these days. Even regular people feel disabled when comparing themselves to ‘society’s standards’.

So it’s no wonder that art (or sports) performed by disabled people seems so strange, almost out of this world, sometimes.

Meet David Toole, a professional dancer — don’t be fooled by the absence of his legs (of which he says the only good thing is that they come in pairs):

David Toole, CandoCo dancer.

And that’s just a hint, watch this promo for “The Cost of Living” film, made by the DV8 Physical Theatre (definitely wait for the second part):

No matter how awkward it first seems, you can’t deny the artistic value. It might look different, you might even find it hard to watch, but by the end, it surely does make you think that beauty might lie outside the comfort zone as well.

And how about Aimee Mullins? Yes, her TED talks are inspiring, to say the least. But you can’t help wondering, would she had come so far if she wasn’t such a hot babe beautiful woman? Of course her looks didn’t help her olympic career or learn walking at the age of two in spite of her handicap, but I doubt Alexander McQueen used her as a model because of her performances. Nevertheless, her story is fascinating and makes you think that it might not be long before the existence of Motoko-Kusanagi-like cyborgs (the Ghost in the Shell series is one of the few franchises that really explore the idea of a technologically-enhanced human society, with its social and psychological implications).

Aimee Mullins (athlete, actress and fashion model)

Come to think of it, would Venus de Milo be just as beautiful if she hadn’t lost her arms? Would she look more ordinary?

Venus / Aphrodite of Milos, (created somewhere between 130, 100 BC).

So what is beauty? How normal or human should it be?
Would we be able to acknowledge ‘alien’ beauty?

Let’s not forget that even for fellow humans, a Zulu for example, beauty might mean something completely different, almost like from another planet for the rest of us. Impressionists had to hold their ground for a some years before they were taken seriously; Pollock‘s paintings might look just like mindless splashes of paint; Christo‘s environmental works of art might seem just like the wrappings of a big child that somehow managed to get the funding for his play. Or even Warhol‘s works — are they actually beautiful? Or just strange enough to be considered art?

There is no final answer. No undeniable truth. Saying the old “beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder” is just politically-correct bullshit — trying to be nice to everybody. Beauty exists, just as ugliness. They just come in so many different shapes that it’s sometimes impossible to tell them apart.

And why should we need answers anyway?
It’s the questions that got us humans so far, haven’t they? We just have to keep our eyes (and minds, of course) wide open — you never know where beauty might come from, least its form.

Credits: David Toole photo taken from his website, Aimee photo taken by Howard Schatz, Venus image taken from The Independent.

Further reading:
— “Racing on carbon fibre legs: How abled should we be“, by Aimee Mullins

Michel Petrucciani, pianist and composer