Art & Beauty

When artists abandon beauty and the human figure as worthy subjects, the advertising industry fills the vacuum with glee. This article explores why the creation of figurative art matters.

Detail of Rubens’ Venus At a Mirror, 1616

When artists turned from figurative art representation and towards Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism and all the other “isms” that followed, it left a societal vacuum for curating concepts of human beauty. If artists were no longer expressing ideas about the beauty of the human figure, those suggestions would come from another source.

In this case, the advertising industry took up the human figure with gusto. Unfortunately, their incentives were not beauty, but rather unattainable beauty. Marketers used their monopoly on the human figure to distort it and then assert that only xyz product could possibly make their targeted audiences “beautiful” by their impossible visual definitions.

I teach art to high school students who often struggle with body image issues, who try to meet a beauty standard controlled by an industry which is incentivized to profit off of the cognitive dissonance between fiction and reality of the human figure.

The advertising industry’s ability to control narratives of beauty is impressive. Photoshop isn’t just being used to thin models down – often their floating twelfth ribs are removed. It’s physically impossible to look like many of these photoshopped models unless you remove some of your ribs.

And yet without mainstream artists working with concepts of beauty or the human figure, who is to gainsay these unhealthy narratives?

For many centuries, artists used the beauty of the human figure as inspiration, and many different types of beauty were admired. Figures of many shapes and sizes were held up as beautiful in artists’ works. Reubens’ figures are just one obvious example.

Because so many artists today have neglected the human figure and even the very concept of beauty, society has no context to realize it is being bamboozled by an industry selling us products based on models with missing ribs.

The vast majority of realistic depictions of humans for the last century have come from an industry trying to sell us something. They use imagery to shape unrealistic and unattainable ambitions in our mind’s eye about what humans should look like and what is attractive.

When access to visual literacy is widespread, however, the definition of beauty expands well beyond the incentives of for-profit industries. Learning how to draw the human figure helps people see the beauty in their own figures.

My hope is that you, too, will try drawing from the human figure in order to expand your ideas of beauty beyond for-profit definitions. With careful study, anyone cane increase their visual sensitivity to the beauty that surrounds us. Especially the beauty of our own figures.

What do you think about beauty and the human figure as art subjects? Let me know in the comments below.

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