Why Beauty Looks Dumb
Internationally acclaimed German artist Gerhard Richter recently said: “Beauty is being discredited. When fashion and models are called beautiful, they’re not. They look rather stupid.”
He’s referring to a long tradition in fashion, art and portraiture where the model wears a blank look on their face. An expression that looks clueless, stunned, sedated, or zoned-out. Not every model presents this expression, but it has been an extremely common approach in selling beauty for hundreds of years. Why is this so?
Any painter who has worked with a model asks the model to “hold still.” Even photographers who can capture an expression at a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second still encourage models to “hold that pose.” Holding any pose with a complicated facial expression is difficult, while a bland pose is easier on the model and simpler for the painter to capture. In advertising work, a neutral facial expression is less likely to distract the buyer from the wares being sold.
Also, there’s a centuries-old tendency to emulate the blank expressions of the aristocratic classes (kings, popes, important ladies, etc.) In museums you’ll find these frozen visages captured by classical painters from the renaissance to the 20th century. These royals and great nobles existed in a time before modern dental care, which further suppressed smiling in portraiture. Moreover, since art has always struggled to present itself as a worthwhile activity and not some lowly craft, portrait clients wearing a big fat grin undercuts the seriousness of the entire enterprise.
With the advent of photographic portraits, a lifeless, frozen expression was popularized worldwide by André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri in 1854. This frozen look was necessary because early photographic technology required portrait sitters to hold still for 15 minutes. That fixed and blank expression established the default style for the photographic portrait that persists to this day. It’s the same blank expression people use at the DMV and for high school portraits. In those settings it makes limited sense to normalize the portrait, but in the world of high fashion images, the blank look is more curious.
Anthropologists, sociologists and theorists have discussed the way we, as observers, react when another human presents blankness, blunted affect, or alexithymia; all mental states of reduced outward engagement. While generally a stony expression is not favorable to communication, the flip side is that we admire people that appear calm and in-control. If you show zero volatility you signal a lack of fear, and strength. We want to emulate people that keep their cool — even when they look stupid, and that’s how contemporary fashion sells the blank slate: as the illusion of calm pasted over our desperate, beeping, twittering humanity. For female models the ultimate is a vacant expression, pouting slightly to indicate relaxed compliance to the inevitable. For male models it’s even easier: just look too dumb to find your shirt.