Therefore, excellent parts should all be selected from the most beautiful
bodies, and every effort should be made to perceive, understand and express
beauty. Although this is the most difficult thing of all, because the merits
of beauty are not all to be found in one place, but are dispersed here and
there in many, every endeavour should nonetheless be made to investigate
and understand it thoroughly. (1)
The concept of an ideal beauty has haunted the Western imagination since the ancient Greeks. As the Renaissance writer Leon Battista Alberti recounts in his advice to painters, the Greek painter Zeuxis. ‘chose from all the youth of the city five outstandingly beautiful girls, so that he might represent in his painting whatever feature of feminine beauty was most praiseworthy in each of them.’ (2) By selecting the best features available it was believed the painter could arrive at an objective ideal of beauty freed from all the accidents of time and nature, one that usually conformed to the proportionate measurements of the Golden Section. Three hundred years later, the painter William Hogarth mocked such dependence on measurement in The Analysis of Beauty, 1753, arguing that the search for perfect proportion had little to do with art. But, the Western obsession with classical canons of beauty has not disappeared with the twentieth century. In his classic text, The Nude: a Study in Ideal Form, the art historian Kenneth Clark writing in the 1950’s suggested that, for the Greeks, the god Apollo was ‘beautiful because his body conformed to certain laws of proportion and so partook of the divine beauty of mathematics.’ (3)
From Alberti writing in the fifteenth century to Kenneth Clark in the mid twentieth, art theorists have been confident that they could identify a method of determining what this ideal of beauty is, however subject to change over time. it is therefore entirely appropriate that, in their investigation of modern ideals of beauty, the artists Matthew Cornford and David Cross have taken this logic to its ultimate conclusion by using computer software to establish the ‘perfect’ face based on ideals of symmetry and proportion. In a system of which Alberti would have been proud, the computer matches photographs of individual faces against the ideal facial proportions stored in a database and the one closest to the ideal becomes, by definition, the most beautiful face of all.
At the end of the millennium we no longer have such faith in human capacity to recognise ideal beauty, nor indeed, whether such an ideal is still desirable in a culture in which we are conscious of differences in age, race, gender and physical ability. Yet, by pushing the idea of measurement to the extreme, Cornford & Cross make us uncomfortably aware of the underlying power of such ideals to shape social processes of selection and rejection. According to recent medical research, people with asymmetrical faces and bodies are more inclined to ill health and early death, yet all of us are lopsided in one way or another — left or right handed, astigmatic sight, noses slightly askew. Current research on the Human Genome Project will provide a mapping of the human genes that determine physical appearance: size, susceptibility to disease, skin and hair colour. Genetically cloned organisms are already being manufactured and the genetic cloning of humans is on the horizon, if not yet established as fact. Such momentous changes in the capacity to control human appearance offer disturbing challenges to our deepest sense of ourselves. This exhibition invites us to contemplate what a world based on the possibility perfection might be like - and, perhaps, whether we would ever want it.
There is a further sinister side to the process of defining identity, which this commission exposes. The computer software used by the artists was developed initially for use in police facial identification based on photo-fits’ or real images such as those obtained by surveillance cameras. It is of the type likely to be applied to new systems of security and access, for example. in banks or prisons. In this case, photographs taken under ‘scientific conditions with controlled lighting, pose and composition are then cropped to remove extraneous details of clothing or hair from the image. But such ‘cropping’ also eliminates some of our individuality, literally whatever we may make of our given appearance through exercise of personal choice. Perversely, the same computer image technology is used by cosmetic surgeons to visualise ideal facial or body parts for prospective clients who wish to undergo physical transformation. It thus poses both aesthetic and ethical dilemmas about the nature of images and the purposes to which they are put.
Over the last two and a half decades, feminists have questioned the kind of attention given to image and appearance, particularly for women. In the 1970’s it was argued that appearance did not really matter, we were all sisters under the skin. Yet this denial of the extent to which appearance shapes individual life histories has shown to be naive, not only from experience, but through extensive feminist analysis of the relationship between representations and reality in visual images. Images make up a discourse which affects us all, women and men, in various ways. Traditionally it has been women who have been most affected by the insistence as an index of character, type or even respectability. But in the 1990’s, as men lose their former secure role within the economy, they are increasingly affected by the tyranny of appearance and its rewards, or the loss of beauty through aging or disfigurement. It is perhaps not so surprising in this context that the majority of contestants who initially came forward to be photographed by Cornford & Cross were men. A more complete analysis might reveal how complex are the range of factors: gender. age, sexuality, social status, race and education, that influence how we see — and are seen — by others.
Conventionally, photographers have entered into poor communities to document their inhabitants in semi-anthropological surveys like those of the Mass Observation undertaken in English towns and cities in the 1930’s. Cornford & Cross turn this tradition of ethno-photography on its head. The hundred or so people they photographed for the project entered the galleries over two days for the opportunity to win part of the total £3000 in cash prizes. The only criterion for entry was that all contestants should live, work or study in the City Challenge area of Derby, which was designated as ‘deprived’.
The deliberate subversion of photographic traditions is characteristic of previous projects by Cornford & Cross that similarly have transgressed artistic and architectural conventions. In New Holland, shown as part of East International in 1997, they created a site-specific installation based on one of Bernard Matthews’ turkey breeder units which was placed directly outside Sir Norman Foster’s International Modernist design for the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, effectively juxtaposing two products of industrial culture that traditionally are kept economically and aesthetically distinct. In Power to the People, a live art event in Liverpool in March 1997, Cornford & Cross called on people to join in a record fair held at the Bluecoat Gallery, thus questioning the traditional function of a gallery space. In Camelot, shown as part of City Limits in 1996, they fenced off areas of neglected public land in the centre of Stoke On Trent, inviting passers-by to debate questions of territory, access and control.
Inevitably, such projects attract the attention of the media, and in turn this media focus becomes part of the process of generating wider public participation and debate between artists, audiences and funders of art. In 10, this process operates at dual level: the participants are photographed and selected and then they — and we, the audience — are invited to make our own judgements upon them. Cornford & Cross thus said to produce a true public art, breaking down the boundaries of gallery space, transgressing the limits of conventional art and opening up aesthetic choices to us all.
1.Alberti. L.B (1972) On Painting and Sculpture, [ed. & trans. C. Grayson]. London: Phaidon Press, p.99
3.Clark.K. (1956) The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, New York: Doubleday & Anchor Press, p.55