PRINT May 1990


ONE OF THE MORE IRONIC quirks of recent discourse on visual art is how seldom the word “beauty” crops up. A once seemingly natural thing has become cause for embarrassment, left to grudging asides and awkward hesitations. But of the many artists and critics who apparently spurn it, few would forfeit beauty’s enhancements in their own lovers, surroundings, or personal adornments without feeling a deep pang of regret. This attachment registers the nice disparity between the spontaneous generation of values and the sometimes duplicitous way in which these values are represented and perpetuated; because beauty’s necessarily subjective element exceeds the personal, ideology, too, proves to lie in the eye of the beholder.

Baudelaire attributed to beauty a twofold character: one part “eternal” and “invariable,” the other “relative” and “circumstantial.” He was concerned with how the cultivation of beauty began with the natural, that is, instinctual, body and ended in artifice. Insofar as both aspects of beauty have arisen historically and continually qualify each other, Baudelaire’s dichotomy remains compelling.

As an ideal, beauty has never reflected an ideal world. Although it might suggest the transcendence of everyday life, it assumes its paradigmatic form only by sublimating, even suppressing, the fundamental processes of production and reproduction. Stripping away beauty’s animal ebullience (which Freud equated with sexual stimulation)1 may not render it any more or less benign, but it does free it to be ascribed, potentially, to any entity. As such, it approaches the linguistic arbitrariness of the Saussurian signifier. Yet even as a legitimated sign of culture, beauty preserves an uncanny sense of the acquisitive aggression endemic to sexual and economic drives. As a prestige marker, this is its underlying logic. In terms of the patriarchy, women find being considered beautiful (or not) a mixed blessing, if not a curse. In terms of class conflict, beauty is invidious, demarcating the boundary between those condemned to live out a more or less utilitarian existence and those whose option to idle is sustained by the former’s toil.

An Economy of Beauty

By treating beauty as a particular manifestation of conspicuous consumption, Thorstein Veblen laid the foundation for a materialistic theory of esthetics that dispels orthodox bourgeois subjectivism, a materialism that need not imply literalism. According to Saussure’s concept of arbitrariness, it is not the literal materiality of the signifier that counts, but rather how such a signifier is brought into play within a linguistic system. Esthetics, for Veblen, not only could signify class conflict but also constituted a nexus of ideological struggle in and of itself.2 Veblen asserted that what so often passes for beauty is simply demonstrable wealth; our sense of an article’s superiority corresponds to its honorific wastefulness. Extravagance, the capacity to waste, signifies power. To the extent that waste implies a superabundance of wealth, and because power is measured in material acquisitions, the beauty of an article confirms the prepotency of its owner.

After late capital became a retardative force, the standard of beauty, according to Veblen, served to inhibit technical, social, and artistic progress by driving a wedge between the useful and the desirable: “The principle in question is, in a certain sense, a negative rather than a positive law. It is a regulative rather than a creative principle.”3 This accords with Walter Benjamin’s definition of taste as a compensatory sensibility arising from ignorance of the social and technical conditions of production, a sensibility that serves to stimulate an intensified level of consumption.

The Heresy of Male Beauty

Into this equation enters the dandy, who turned the simple (barbaric) pursuit of beauty into an artful psychic jousting. Although Baudelaire argued that dandyism runs throughout history, appearing “like a declining daystar” at the end of an era, it was George Bryan Brummell (1778-1840), better known as Beau Brummell, who defined it as a novel cult of beauty for the burgeoning consumer culture of the 19th century. What Brummell sought was not the flamboyant hedonism that has become the stuff of popular myth, but rather an ethos of subtle restraint and perfection that raised attire and deportment to the status of moral issues. By subjecting himself to such exacting standards, this truly self-made man aimed to turn the tables on an aristocracy that clad itself in gaudy robes and bathed only infrequently.

Strongest during the antiaristocratic Regency period, Brummell’s influence nonetheless derived from his remarkable ability to charm the Prince of Wales. By carefully weighing the effect of his every gesture, Brummell found he could captivate the prince and, in so doing, usurp what would otherwise be the prince’s esthetic prerogative, setting an example that the public could admire, if not exactly follow.

A challenge like this, though “merely” an esthete’s challenge, can arise only when an old regime begins to give way, presupposing, as it does, a public already aligned against the powers that be. Whereas the feudal lord upheld strict protocol in courtly life, demanding an outright display of public service, the dandy’s rituals revolved around a new ideal of selfhood. The dandy was bound to the rising tide of democracy (which, in his exclusivity, he seemingly opposed) because his personification of beauty relied on taste. Where beauty, according to both classical ideals and medieval canons, denoted a rigid class hierarchy, its strictures buckled under capital’s demand for free exchange—a demand not only for unlimited choice in the marketplace, but also for a wholly interchangeable work force. By democratizing values that had been restrictively hierarchical, individualist taste began to serve as a lubricant for the consumption phase of the production cycle. Here, the dandy’s discrimination, internalized but rigorously codified, reflected a heightened desire for free subjectivity, which in turn entailed a radical overhaul of the premises of beauty. Yet as a startling projection of both religious order and warrior cult (to paraphrase Baudelaire), his will to power nonetheless invoked the privileged ranks of feudal society. Of the nobility (those who fight), the clergy (those who pray), and the peasantry (those who work), it is labor that is occluded by this symbolic formulation, an exclusion that coincides with the (non)representation of labor in the surplus value of the commodity. But the commodity’s universality, by steadily eroding the atavistic sanctity of luxury, proved inhospitable to the dandy’s elitism. Against the onslaught of bourgeois hegemony, the initial rivalry between aristocrat and dandy consequently turned into an alliance. Later, mass culture became the final target of the dandy’s ire.

Brummell once remarked that a man was only well dressed if he could walk down the street without attracting attention; in this, the dandy’s one-upmanship mandated ostentation, but of an emphatically inconspicuous sort, as a particular social competence. With an almost heroic effort, this “out-of-work Hercules,” in Baudelaire’s phrase, seized upon the nuances and refinements of social intercourse in order to lift himself up by the bootstraps. The better-tailored coat, the better-turned phrase, a finer attention to detail could all put a rival, that is, one’s fellow, to shame. The dandy manipulated a code so deeply ingrained as to seem elusive; he functioned not so much as an exception to the rule as he did a point of its utmost concentration and intensification. In its pronounced formalization of attire and deportment, the dandy’s regimen qualifies as hyperconformist or hypercorrect.4

The Looking Glass Self

Because the dandy opposed not so much exploitation as authority, his stance was less revolutionary than rebellious. Yet his resistance to the dominant cultural mode of his day amounted to no less than the attempt to raise the pleasure principle above the reality principle by pitting the heresy of masculine beauty against patriarchal conventions. Consequently, the looking glass became the symbol of his dissent, governing both his outward appearance and his interior life. As Max Beerbohm, last of the great dandies, put it, “The aesthetic vision of a dandy should be bounded by his own mirror.”5 If desire is that which must ceaselessly travel from one representation to the next, exhausted only by satiation, then the unattainable distance of the mirror holds out, for the one poised before it, the promise of resurrecting the cosmos within cosmetics.6 The dandy envisioned himself both as a supreme individual and as a legible, if arcane, text; he thus embodied a boundless “universe” that harbored the sublime within an idealized self. Because this vastness continually postpones release, the tension builds—like the latent fire Baudelaire spoke of. Because the final sublimation of beauty demands the complete suppression of animal instinct, perpetual tightening and constriction were the mechanics of the dandy self. In a schoolboy poem, Oscar Wilde even maintained that “la beauté est la seule chose au monde qui n’excite pas le désir” (beauty is the only thing in the world which does not excite desire),7 the exact antithesis of Freud’s eros-based theory of beauty.

The dandy, as literary critic Robert Viscusi put it, came into being as a projection of the feminine, receptive surface of the mirror—its mobile member, a male ideogram, a numinous figure in black. Like the child in Lacan’s mirror stage, he “attempts to be the speech of the mother’s desire for him” but “it is only his own desire, experienced as loss, that he knows.”8 Illusion of autonomy triggered the keenly painful perception of his ego as absence. Two pronounced dandy traits stem from this condition: “a lucid (mirrorlike) grasp of subtleties and refinements and unconscious motives” and “an incurable sense of self-division.”9

The dandy was seduced by the image of himself-as-other. A vicious circle ensued where his yearning for integration always led back to the mirror’s ever-more-harrowing image of separation. While there have been mirrors since antiquity, this particular kind of alienation is specific to a comparatively recent stage in the organization of property relations. How an object, as property, is conceived and configured, and the kind of libidinal investments such a construction can sustain, together shape how one might then objectify oneself. Marx has postulated that under capitalism, people and things trade places. If, as congealed labor, the commodity is tantamount to the prostitution of the human body to the inorganic, then it is clearly underwritten by the “oldest profession.” Vis-à-vis the commodity, dandyism represents a logic of effacement, “an assault upon the life of the male body by means of . . . its narcissistic gratifications. It is the great tradition of masculine misandry.”10 Insofar as such misandry bespeaks a more pervasive misogyny, dandyism fails to make its break with the patriarchal order complete.

A Life in Art

In giving himself fully over to beauty (the one constant in his refractory elitism), the dandy enacted an impulse ordinarily repressed in others. As such, his example brings to the principle of beauty a unique but telling focus. To the extent that the dandy considered his physical self as a kind of artwork, a dialectic obtains where the artwork reflects the condition of the dandy—a legacy most clearly borne out by Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and the artists influenced by them. Here, it is the reciprocity between libidinal economy, on the one hand, and commodity fetishism, on the other, that makes the persistence of dandyism significant.

When Duchamp declared himself to be an enemy of taste, he apparently renounced everything the dandy ever stood for. Yet his entire oeuvre is rife with dandified motifs: the star tonsure, transvestism in the suite of “Rrose Sélavy” works, narcissism in the numerous pieces that bear his likeness and the Through the Looking Glass aspect of the Large Glass, 1915-23. What Duchamp did, in fact, do was to fortify the tradition by eliminating the 19th-century emphasis on craftsmanship, which was not only incompatible with the dandy’s disdain for manual labor but also technologically outmoded. The readymade especially shifted emphasis from production to consumption—to choice, the consumer’s prerogative. Duchamp similarly abjured the too sensual (read “animalistic”) appeal of “retinal art.” Stephen Koch has described how this combination of ploys, through the alienation effect of inverse taste, could turn one’s gaze back on oneself: “If you look at any object through the . . . Duchampian prism, you are likely to be made peculiarly aware of the process of looking itself, conscious not merely of the object, but also the feel, the nature, the very matrix and interplay of your perceptions.”11 This resembles the calculated effect the dandy’s attire was to have on the unsuspecting passerby; the readymades gave taste a new lease on life by sublating it.

Warhol’s Coke bottles, Campbell’s Soup cans, and Brillo boxes are all lineal descendents of the readymade. These works marked the beginning of Warhol’s transformation into a mirror not only for the “Beautiful People” who clustered around him but also for the public at large. His wholesale embrace of mass culture might at first seem to militate against the dandy’s vaunted powers of discrimination, but now, following his death, the extent to which this blanket acceptance of the banality of everyday life was patterned upon the dandy’s characteristic sangfroid is strikingly apparent. Again, taste resurfaces in an updated guise. Just as the notorious arch-dandy and esthete Comte Robert de Montesquiou (1855-1921) once appointed himself “sovereign of the transitory,” so Warhol deigned to grant everyone 15 minutes of fame—while he himself reached a larger audience than any artist in history. The spring 1988 Sotheby’s auction of his collections, a surprising revelation to many, showed his townhouse to be the latter-day equivalent of des Esseintes’ elaborate retreat at Fontenay, the decadent setting of J. K. Huysmans’ 1884 novel A Rebours (Against the grain). Like Baudelaire, Warhol aimed at the construction of a supreme cliché. Of his later films, Koch maintains that “the endless scrutiny of the naked male body” constitutes the central concern, with the homosexual hustler and the transvestite at opposite poles of a common paradox. While the “more masculine” hustler renders himself essentially pliant, “just a body,” the transvestite attempts to enact a rigid self-“feminization” through sheer willpower.12 Like all of Warhol’s best work, these films succeed in raising the tension between the objectified body and the animated commodity to an excruciating pitch.

A range of artistic postures—some quite clichéd, others subtly nuanced—marks the more recent interpenetration of the dandy’s studied dilettantism and the artwork’s involuted facture in the age of mechanical reproduction. Richard Merkin, for one, prides himself as much on his occasional column in Vanity Fair, his esoteric pornography collection, and his friendship with Tom Wolfe as he does on his stylized paintings. Here, in the close intermingling of the personal and the artistic, what matters is the artist’s presentation of self, not so much his private life per se. The upshot of a James Lee Byars performance may be to catch a fleeting glimpse of the artist clad in a golden suit. The audience immediately grasps this gesture without having to think it through because prevailing notions of celebrity status are so thoroughly predicated on dandyism. Gilbert and George, as opposed to Byars, subvert the clichés of elegance, making their celebration of beauty less direct and not without provisos. They have never stepped out of character since the outset of their “Living Sculpture” series in 1967, never shed the ill-fitting suits that facetiously recall the proletarian garb of Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson movies, much as the Village People’s costumes once undercut the overdetermined macho of the construction worker and the cowboy. In all of these cases, the artwork may or may not serve merely as an accoutrement, just as a pose may or may not register merely an esthetic conceit.

Richard Prince further blurs the line between real life and artistic projection by making his pose resolutely minimal. Just as his “gang” photos fixate on the stylistic fine points of various subcults—highly mannered codes of beauty that the artist as an outsider might aspire to master—so his textual presence within his art as an auteur is indebted to ideas Oscar Wilde espoused in his essay “The Decay of Lying,” especially to the precept that Life imitates Art:

People have a careless way of talking about a “born liar,” just as they talk about a “born poet.” But in both cases they are wrong. Lying and poetry are arts—arts, as Plato saw, not unconnected with each other—and they require the most careful study, the most disinterested devotion.13

Featured on Prince’s résumé, for instance, is the item “Born: 1954, Panama Canal Zone”—which, true or not, at least raises an eyebrow. Conversely, he lets drop as fiction a somewhat plausible story:

Before I left the house, I sent FTD 5802 flower arrangements to several people . . . . I had no “reason.” It seemed as if I knew what I was doing. The people who received the 5802 were: Pat Hearn, Keith Hernandez, Richard Marshall, Jay Gorney, Anita Colero, Michael Clegg, Ann Kennedy, Amos Poe, Nicolas Cage, Stephen Meisel, and Richard Lewis.14

More pointed is the way (human) nature is supposed to imitate art in the advertisements and magazine photos Prince rephotographs. The “documentary” realism of these images is engineered to shape the desires and behavior of their beholders as a demographic mass of consumers. Prince returns these pictures to their rightful fictional wellspring, affirming not so much the beauty of this biker chick or that Marlboro man, but rather the beauty of their codification as objects of desire. Like the classic dandy, Prince is enamored of artifice; he has become so adept at lying that for many viewers it goes unnoticed.

Implicit in the dandy’s self-objectification was a call for public attention or celebrity status, which helped to set the now-familiar mass-cultural canons of glamour and stardom. Even in an art world jaded by sensationalism, images like Jean-Michel Basquiat painting in an expensive Armani suit or David Salle’s collection of ’50s furniture never fail to captivate journalists. But this is hardly new. On his lecture tour of 1882, Oscar Wilde set out to conquer America by conquering the American press—in part by donning an 18th-century costume as an outlandish promotional gimmick. Just as Wilde’s elaborate getup once scandalized the public, so word of McDermott and McGough’s fin-de-siècle dress now precedes them. Dennis Cooper’s joke that the two would make better Hollywood Squares personalities than artists represents, within the ethos of dandyism, an attack on affectation that his own more Baudelairean stance would proscribe. It also recalls how the Modernist dandies of the 1920s, rallying under Jean Cocteau, pointedly jettisoned 1890s mannerisms.

Not the least of Cocteau’s many roles was as entrepreneur. His spirit haunts Jeff Koons’ ad campaign of last year. Like Salvador Dali’s cameo appearance on the Batman TV series, it taunted art-world puritans by showing Koons not just basking, but frankly reveling, in his own publicity. The campaign was obviously designed as a thing in itself; the shows it advertised were secondary. In one ad Koons perches on a folding chair in a grotto of lush tropical foliage. Behind him is a striped cabana. Flanking him are stuffed seals bedecked with leis. He looks serene in their midst, confident that his pose, coupled with this ludicrous mise-en-scène, bespeaks a certain mastery. Here, Koons’ placid excessiveness is the very reverse of Barnett Newman’s insistence that the group posing for the 1951 Irascibles photo wear sober business suits. Yet both facades are dandified in their attempt to set a clear, unassailable image for the public.

The dandy’s presentation of self was nothing if not conscientious. If numerous male artists cultivate a persona infused with artifice in order to project an aura of exceptionality, their female counterparts tend to concentrate on selfhood itself as artifice, foregoing Romantic pretensions of genius. Not surprisingly, some of the staunchest—and most sophisticated—feminist art reflects Wilde’s dictum that “it is only the unimaginative who ever invents. The true artist is known by the use he makes of what he annexes, and he annexes everything.”15 Elaine Sturtevant, for one, bases her art on the impeccable and exact reduplication of works by Duchamp, Warhol, Frank Stella, and others. By raising the challenge of an artistry divorced from the production of new imagery, she calls closer attention to art as discourse than before, making it, rather than the art object per se, the subject of connoisseurship.

Beginning with her rephotographed Walker Evans works, Sherrie Levine’s appropriations have operated upon distinct displacements of meaning, pointing up the fissure between the meaning an artist intends and what the resulting artwork may come to represent at any given time. Because she appropriates only from men, this gesture recasts the supposedly protean male creator in a role usually delegated to women: unconscious to some degree, subject to the interpretations of others. With this reversal, Levine methodically factors out the depiction of the female as the quintessential subject of traditional art, and reinstates her behind the camera viewfinder. Ironically, her “sourceless” appropriations mimic that trope. The uterine forms of Levine’s more recent cast malic (bachelor) molds foreground a telling sexual subtext of Duchamp’s original: that as babies, men have been biologically shaped by their mothers. Levine’s carefully orchestrated gestures have made her one of the most written-about contemporary artists; here, criticism serves, at least in part, as a kind of publicity for her “nonself.”

That it was Echo, not Narcissus, who became an archetype of femininity underscores the anomalousness of the female narcissist, who, beautiful by and for herself, approximates the dandy’s perfect aloofness. As such, while Colette’s extravagant costumes and environments might at first be dismissed as no more than a shallow infatuation with frills, their exaggerated artifice protests reductive definitions of femininity.

Barbara Bloom takes this one step further. She closely traces the transfer of feeling for personal beauty onto such mutely hieratic accoutrements as place settings, stemware, monogrammed shirts, even watermarks. By simultaneously parodying and reenacting acts of connoisseurship, she asserts, in most genteel terms to be sure, women’s authority to determine or to undermine prevailing standards of beauty. At times, she bares the fallacy of substitute gratification without remorse. In her installation The Reign of Narcissism, 1989, a cloistered roomful of furniture and curios reverberates with ghostly images of their maker. And yet, in their promise to somehow embody her, these commemorative objects exude a morbid pathos. For they only point up Bloom’s absence. The virtual epitaph for the installation is literally inscribed on a small tombstone: “She travelled the world to seek beauty.”

The Butterfly’s Funeral

As Huysmans warned in A Rebours,16 mass culture has inexorably diluted, popularized, and assimilated dandyism’s original impulse. To wit, if Baudelaire once custom-buffed his suits with sandpaper to keep them from looking too new, today manufacturers routinely stone-wash jeans at the factory for everyone. Likewise, Brummell’s most lasting contributions have proved to be neither his elegance nor his éclat, but rather a higher standard of cleanliness for men and the invention of stretch pants.17 This waning of elitism indicates how thoroughly industrialization has democratized luxury, affording all classes a modicum of disposable income. Now, marginalized groups especially turn to style when they want to voice their difference, be it through dreadlocks or fades, key chains or safety pins. As both an expression and mediation of class solidarity, this kind of stylization has come to obliterate the dandy’s singularity.

The hope of liberation in superior taste turned the dandy’s quest into a quixotic venture. In contrast, the post-Modern tropes of irony, quotation, and pastiche represent an attempt to reclaim beauty by negating its usual invidiousness. Yet this reclamation, like the dandy’s insolence, admits a painful gap between intentions and results, utopian longing and what ideology actually delivers. And so the promise of a better life lingers on in a highly mannered guise. Here the melancholic portents are unmistakable to anyone who cares to give them a closer look: it is the suppressed rage of those for whom beauty has been tainted forever.

John Miller is an artist and critic who lives in New York.



1. In, Max Beerbohm or the Dandy Dante: Rereading with Mirrors, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1986, Robert Viscusi cites the connection Freud makes in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality between the concept of beauty and sexual stimulation.

2. See Domna C. Stanton’s The Aristocrat as Art: A Study of the Hônnete Homme and the Dandy in Seventeenth- and Nineteenth-Century French Literature, New York: Columbia University Press, 1986, for an analysis of dandyism according to Veblen’s and Saussure’s precepts.

3. Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, New York: Mentor, 1953, p. 118. Veblen cited the Arts and Crafts Movement (blaming John Ruskin and William Morris in particular) as inaugurating a new stage in the degradation of design: the valorization of obsolete technology.

4. For a study of hypercorrection as a linguistic phenomenon see William Labov, “The Social Stratification of (r) in New York City Department Stores,” Sociolinguistic Patterns, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972, pp. 43-69. In this study, Labov investigates the concept as it relates to a quintessential consumer institution.

5. Viscusi. p. 234.

6. Ibid., p. 9.

7 Richard Ellman, Oscar Wilde, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987, p. 44.

8. Viscusi, p. 28.

9. Ibid., p. 30.

10. Stephen Koch, Stargazer: Andy Warhol’s World and His Films, New York: Praeger, 1973, p. 128.

11. Ibid., p. 22.

12. Ibid., p. 122.

13. Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying,” The Artist as Critic: The Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, ed. Richard Ellman, Chicago: at the University Press, 1982, p. 294.

14. Richard Prince, ed. Brian Wallis, catalogue, New York: Barbara Gladstone Gallery and Eastern Press, 1988, n.p.

15. Ellman, p.135.

16. In her book Dreamworlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth-Century France, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982, consumer historian Rosalind Williams interprets Huysmans’ novel as an allegory of flight from mass culture. The protagonist des Esseintes walls himself up within a mansion at Fontenay to pursue a solitary program of recherché diversions, but his efforts to resist mass culture are ultimately shaped by it; scorn and mimicry intermingle in his thoroughly overdetermined rituals; the commodity enjoys a surplus fetishization. Despite—or because of —this inexorability, the conclusion des Essientes draws is fatalistic: “From end to end of Paris . . . it was one unbroken chain of petty trickeries, a series of organized thefts continually repeated one after another” (J. K. Huysmans, Against the Grain, New York: Illustrated Editions, 1931, p. 84). Taken as a description of the circulation of capital, Huysmans’ observations are insightful if unforgiving.

17. Quentin Crisp, preface to Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, Dandyism, New York: PAJ Publications, 1988, p. 10.