While all the beautiful people were headed to Bushwick to look at art, I was on my way to East First Street, to look at beautiful people as art. Nonsensical perhaps, but I was intrigued by the tagline of the Museum of Beautiful People: “Look as much as you like, stay as long as you wish.”
This may as well be the motto of the NYC subway system, I quibbled. What’s the difference between attending any gallery opening in the city — or stepping into any downtown bar — where beautiful people are legion, and going to a pop-up exhibition of beautiful people expressly to gaze at them? How often, in reality, do New Yorkers think to themselves: I am starved of the sight of human attractiveness, I must seek it out and stare at it uninterrupted for long periods of time?
It is unsurprising then that this show’s curators are recent arrivals to our fair city. J. Tanner Cusick and wife Lilly have recently spent an extended period abroad — living in Berlin, Venice and Finland. It was in Berlin that the idea hit them. “We were sitting watching this stunning sunset, when a beautiful person walked by,” says Lucy. “And my husband said: I just feel so safe looking at that beautiful person. Aren’t beautiful people just a joy to watch?’”There is little room for differences of aesthetic opinion in this project. “We were looking at what society tells us is beautiful,” explains Lilly. “Not what’s beautiful in another country, or in another time period, but here and now. What we are told is the ideal.”
She and her husband luckily have very similar taste—and there is very little doubt that their selections are remarkably good-looking. The models hail mostly from America, with a duo of Italians and a lone Nigerian. They are mostly women, but three men make an appearance. While the female specimens are all built differently, their body fat quotient undoubtedly hovers around the 1% mark. Several sport the sort of unlikely proportions that make you stare incredulously, whether you intend to or not. I mention this to Lilly. “I know,” she whispers, reverently.
While many in the audience spend much of their time simply cataloguing and extolling the particular charms of each model, some find the project less easily palatable. “I’m all for the celebration of beauty, but I do feel uncomfortable if it’s a celebration of beauty without diversity,” the bearded finance journalist beside me noted.
“Is there any way to do this without making non-beautiful people feel inadequate?” His companion, an advertising exec, took umbrage. “Would we say the same thing about sports people?” she challenged. “We’re all born with particular skills, and what if your skill is simply being very beautiful?” Conversation ensued about the relative merits and PC-ness of critiquing beauty versus brains, in which it was decided that it is far more socially acceptable to call someone stupid than fat.The conversation turned out to be so enthralling that I spent much of the evening looking at the finance journalist and his friend rather than at the beautiful people. The couple themselves happened to be very beautiful—despite being seated with the Normals—and in interesting sorts of ways: he with a slightly crooked, chipped front tooth which gave him a rakish charm, she with the kind of slender, long-limbed awkwardness and expressively flailing gestures that lend themselves to geeky elegance.
At one point we conspired together, contemplating—hubristically—tearing off our outer layers, leaping onto our chairs, and posing across the room in a sort of Normal vs. Beautiful face-off, just to mix things up. But this seemed a bit rude.
Glancing up, I realized that much of the audience had turned inward like us, cradling free plastic cups of wine (tequila was also available, in a dashing gesture of high spirits) and engaging their neighbours in conversation. The beautiful people continued to look bored, but in a more piqued way: Why aren’t you looking at us, one could almost hear them wonder. We are beautiful.It seems that just as unblemished physical perfection is fleeting, so too is the interest it holds. Quite aside from the ethical, moral and socio-political questions that the museum fails to explore, it also fails at an aesthetic, general-interest level, not because of a dearth of beauty, but because of its ubiquitousness. Beauty is by nature un-transgressive, and looking at beautiful things is un-transgressive—which makes the whole effort a little boring.
Half of the joy of beauty, after all, is spotting it in an otherwise normal to ugly landscape. This is like the difference between looking at a wild animal in a zoo, and finding it, by a stroke of good fortune and a great deal of binocular-scanning, in a game park. Beauty on a platter is resoundingly unsatisfying, it turns out.
John Ruskin once said, “Beauty deprived of its proper foils and adjuncts ceases to be enjoyed as beauty, just as light deprived of all shadows ceases to be enjoyed as light.” I prefer catching sight of perfection in the bedraggled chaos of the urban wild.