Tuesday, November 14, 2023

A curious but common art form

A curious art form that blends nature with artifice is endemic in our culture, and likely a cultural universal. Many people modify their bodies (e.g., muscle building, hair-styling, etc.) and then combine them in harmonious ways with other physical objects attached to the body, such as paint, clothing, jewelry, etc., deliberately to create a work of art that is a hybrid of a living thing and typically (but not always) non-living accessories.

A large proportion of our population engages in this art form on a daily basis, but I don’t know a good name for the works of this art in the languages I know. We have two English words that come close, “fashion” and “cosmetics”, but both are specific to aspects of the art rather than the work as a whole. We might try to explain this odd lack by saying that there is a sense in which the work is the person (for, after all, normally when we imagine a person, we imagine them accoutred). We might call the art form "anthropocosmetique", using the archaic spelling to hearken back etymologically to earlier English uses (evoking shades of Bulwer's use of "cosmetique" and his specific contexts) that may be closer to the Greek roots, but also emphasizing the human component in the work.

An interesting feature of the works of anthropocosmetique art is their diachronic character. They are often created for a specific occasion—a day, a party, a liturgical celebration—and disassembled into their constituents afterwards, typically without any feeling that one has destroyed something of great value in disassembly.

At the same time, some people engage in a larger art form, one spread over multiple occasions, consisting of sequences of the anthropocosmetique art, with similarities and differences from occasion to occasion in the particular works of each occasion being aesthetically relevant perhaps in something like the way that themes and variations are the warp and weft (not respectively) of music.

Sometimes there is a melding between the anthropocosmetique and other art forms, especially performance arts like dance.

And another curious fact is that many of the most famous works of fine art are actually meta-art: they are themselves portrayals of the works of the anthropocosmetique art.

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