In My Vague Memories – Beauty Story

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On January 15, 2015 & posted in Beauty, Editor's picks, Editorial Submissions, Exclusive




 
 
 

The phenomenon of drawing inspiration from previous decades is puzzling. Why and how does a generation become nostalgic about a decade outside of their lifetime? What is the point of resurfacing seemingly outdated aesthetics and ideas? Decades can go by and yet people of the present age still want to fantasize living in another time, despite the advances in knowledge and technology achieved today. What do our fantasies about the past reveal to us about our present?

The Permanent Vagueness of Memory

“What to keep?” is a much more important question when asked by an art historian. There are consequences of misrepresenting a period or genre of art. If history is the only adequate way human beings can remember their past, or know at all that they had a past, then art historians are in this way guardians of the memory of our species.
 
 
 

 
 
 

As the gatekeepers of what goes in and out of history, they have enormous responsibility. “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past,” wrote George Orwell. If our history is different, so are our current values, beliefs, and behavior.

History should not be so alienated from the present. Oftentimes, funny enough, we find new ideas when we explore the past. The same thing appears differently when seen by different people. Two eras can have entirely different notions of what is beautiful from one another.
 
 
 

 
 
 

So perhaps rather than asking “What to keep,” the question people are more interested in is “What has been kept?” But why are people so interested in a memory they had no experience of having? Even learning about the history of her own country is like learning the lives of completely different people. What part of our relationship, between people from the past and us, interests people so much?

Well first, there is value in seeking out the past. “This is your life, not a dress rehearsal,” wrote Milan Kundera. Each person can be seen as living her own experiment of life. No one can ‘practice’ living and most of the time when she figures out the best way to live, it is too late to live that way. To avoid repeating mistakes, the mistake itself needs to be understood and reminded. From each failed experiment of living, there is a new insight.
 
 
 

 
 
 

Think of the experiments of living in history. Think of the fascism that used to reign over Europe, the Civil rights movement in the United States, the French Revolution; only democracy, the form of governance the condones liberty and freedom of the individual, can accommodate so many different ways of living.

Plot builds character. The events that took place in a particular time and place have shaped the values and artistic production of that time and place. When people of the 21st century talk about beauty, they sometimes mention concepts like the ‘golden ratio’, which reduces beauty to proportion and mathematics; beauty is less subjective and personal than you think. Some seem satisfied with a mathematical explanation, but reducing beauty to only mathematical proportions is glossing over an underlying enigma in aesthetics: taste and preference. Attraction might be reducible to mathematics and chemistry, but when beauty is treated conceptually, the definition and content of it differs from person to person, people to people. How can one like classical music over heavy metal, or hip hop over rock and roll? What makes a film ‘better’ for one person than for another?
 
 
 

 
 
 

Aesthetics seems to have a temporal aspect to it. Someone or some thing can look as if part of another time and place. Anachronism is an underappreciated artistic device to that juxtaposes the present with the past to illustrate a point. Consider the flapper dress. In the 1920s, the flapper dress represented the flaunting youth whose behavior imitated jazz, a playful contempt for the standards of acceptable behavior. About a hundred years later, the flapper dress is more of a costume. But it is not an antique. Rather, it is vintage. It is a fantasy that women, who are now more independent than ever, can wear. Youth, vitality, and contempt for authority are not mutually exclusive from being educated, respectful, and hard working.
 
 
 

 
 
 

The flapper dress represents qualities that cannot be found in any other era. Every era certainly has their view on youth and rebellion. The 1990s had grunge and punk. But grunge and punk does not have the luxury, materialism, and high society that the roaring 20s had. Youth became angry and cynical, disappointed and loud. Who knows why.
 
 
 

 
 
 

The point is, people can only do two things to escape the present: escape to the future and starting new trends, or escape to the past by bringing back old ones. Some people say that it is important to stay in the present moment, but personally, there is good reason to think that people are never in the present moment but only fluctuate between past and future, memory and anticipation. The present is merely that fluctuation, and the perception that people have in their present are actually only the synthesis of what just happened and what is going to happen. And when our imaginations go wild, the further back or forward in time we choose to remember or expect.
 
 
 

 
 
 

What if we’re wrong? The aesthetics that represent a decade can be misleading. People often forget the Great Depression that followed after the Roaring 20s. Most of the time, people latch on the romanticized version of history. People relate to a history full of heroes, beauty, truth and love when really ordinary people who often had inaccurate ideas compared to what we know now were the ones who shaped history. This is why in novels there must be a protagonist. The only way people can absorb a story is if there were a character she can try to place in her shoes. An individual, not a group.

In an ideal setting, a person’s own notions of history should be aligned with the history that actually happened. But the distinction between socially constructed reality with truth independent of our perception is made more and more. The knowledge that we are taught and that we learn has a permanent separation with the actual, metaphysical facts of the world.
 
 
 

 
 
 

This isn’t supposed to be some grand statement about society. This can be understood at a more personal, basic, emotional level. Jessica Miller wrote an article for the Atlantic called “Why I can’t Delete a Digital Moment I Don’t Even Remember.” She talks about a voice recording she passively kept of her ex-boyfriend that she has “absolutely no memory” of happening. For her, that event has little, perhaps zero, contribution to her idea of what her relationship was. It’s not the events that happened that matter to us, but rather only the events that we choose to remember.
 
 
 

 
 
 

But can we choose our memory this way? Our experience seem mostly out of our control, and oftentimes we remember the most forgettable things. Like a color. Or a gesture. A mole on her finger or a shade of brown in his eyes. Frank O’Hara wrote, in his poem called Steps,

“oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much”

and he ends the poem with a punctuation as to show the indefiniteness, blurriness, and formlessness of memories of small moments. Though we prefer certain memories to others, we at the same time cannot choose what we remember. The most important thing about love, says Slavoj Zizek, is the fall. The problem with Cupid’s arrow is that it seems to induce a fake, inorganic love. Love is an act of falling, a verb that pulls us away from control and autonomy. The only choice we can make is whether to jump or not.
 
 
 

 
 
 

Remembering previous eras is an appreciation for what other people did before. But there is a sense that eras can be paired with one another. Americans today might appreciate the flapper dress more than people in the 1950s, for people in the 1950s were going through the trauma of WWII (and also did not want to wear what their parents wore) whereas now America seems to be enjoying peace and prosperity never enjoyed before. The memories most vivid to us are the most relevant to us.

What to keep? Whatever still works.

 
 
 

Styling Lisa Jarvis
Makeup Yuki Hayashi,
Hair hair Hiro+ Mari for Salon87,
Model Masha Gutic @ Supreme Management,
Creative direction&Production Artistic Cube inc.

 
 
 

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