The unaesthetic sex. It wasn't the lad mags that started viciousness towards women. Blame the early 20th-century modernists, writes Decca Aitkenhead

The Trouble with Beauty

Wendy Steiner <em>Heinemann, 291pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0434007358

Men's magazines are thought by some to have a problematic attitude towards the beauty of womanhood. In a recent issue of GQ, we were presented with a slack-jawed tribute to the actress Penelope Cruz's achievement of being "preternaturally beautiful". In the same issue, at number 29 in a list of Fifty Things Every Man Should Know is "The art of 'going ugly early' ". Explanation: "If you go for the moose when you arrive, then you won't end the night disappointed."

Critics of lad mags have often mistaken this paradox of sali- vating viciousness for a modern phenomenon, and blamed it on something called New Laddism. I should know, because I was one of them, and spent a misguided amount of the 1990s holding a rather unimportant magazine called Loaded responsible for this "trend". Wendy Steiner's new book has placed the matter in a more illuminating context, demonstrating man's historic confusion and obsession with the proper place of beauty. Is the fairer sex to be worshipped for its beauty? Are men compelled to punish plain women in revenge for the helplessness that strikes them in the face of beauties? Beauty has always been an "unstable quality", Steiner observes, because we are not clear about where its power lies.

Until the 20th century, "artists depicted female beauty in isolation, as an end in itself"; art, woman and beauty were more or less synonymous. This objectification was problematic for feminists in the early 20th century, just as the worship of Penelope Cruz is problematic for women today, but it was also unacceptable to early modernists, and Steiner's book is a study of their artistic struggle to divorce the notion of beauty from femininity. The avant-garde embraced Immanuel Kant's theory that true beauty must be pure and disinterested. They despised the 19th-century bourgeoisie and its preoccupation with material wealth, and despised, too, women's artful engineering of their appearance in pursuit of such riches. Womankind had been taught to deploy her feminine charms for economic advantage; in the modernist mind, she thereby debased them. In artistic terms, feminine beauty could not, therefore, be true beauty at all, but merely a commercial trick of the trade. "The avant-garde conclusion was clear: women and bourgeoisie alike were Mammon, enemies of transcendent, liberating art."

And so began a century of artistic endeavour in which "it is hard to think of a major artist who depicted women as symbols of the beauty and pleasure of art". But if feminism imagined it shared common cause with modernism, it was mistaken, because the modernist denial of beauty in women was as ugly as anything Loaded or GQ has ever come up with. How absurd, sneered the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, to "give the name of the fairer sex to that undersized, narrow-shouldered, broad-hipped and short-legged race . . . Instead of calling them beautiful, there should be more warrant for describing women as the unaesthetic sex."

Steiner's frame of reference is meticulous and extensive. Pound, Eliot, Marinetti and Nietzsche all "recast the romance as a revelation of male power and not as the search for an ideal associated with art and the feminine". The Beats, she writes, were openly misogynistic - indeed, with Hemingway and Mailer, "violence against wives was a kind of trope in modernism". But Steiner gives greatest space to painting - and it is here that we get a hint of the avant-garde's possible ulterior motive in wresting the power of beauty from women. "Picasso, like other modern painters, transformed the allure of the female subject into the formal beauty of line and volume and, in the process, transferred our response from admiration of her beauty to admiration of his virtuosity."

The avant-garde movement purported to be a cerebral, dispassionate thing - the elevation of art to pure disinterest, high above the cheap sexual spell that women cast over its befuddled predecessors. Another interpretation suggests that these artists, far from being disinterested, were engaged in a more venal struggle to have their work cry not "Look at her", but "Look at me". In this analysis, the driving force was resentment of the power of women, those vixens with their painted eyes and ribboned hair, and a desire to poach a bit of it for themselves. And so we are back again to the question of power.

Why do we all want beauty so badly? Besides fame, beauty today is the only non-cash equivalent to wealth, and the evidence of our greed is abundant. Steiner argues that only now are we seeing the return of feminine beauty to art, but in other spheres it never went away, and its currency continues to inflate. Contemporary surveys of schoolgirls are famous for eliciting a universal response to the question: what would you like to be when you grow up? The answer: a model. Enthusiasm in Britain for surgical enhancement is well documented, and it shows no signs of abating. Parliamentary politics is now routinely described as a beauty contest, in which not only the candidates, but also their wives and children (although still not their husbands), are expected to participate. Even that lone voice of protest in the wilderness, Ann Widdecombe, has fallen quiet on the matter. She once boasted of being "short, fat and ugly", but recently she has appeared as a surprisingly glossy, tailored version of her robust former self.

It is interesting that modernists were much more successful at denying feminine beauty in art than feminists have ever been in releasing women from its yoke in real life. Occasionally, we have what appears to be an anti-beauty moment - such as the national infatuation with the glamourless Charlie Dimmock. But this ought not to be misread, because what we were doing was granting the artless gardener special permission to be a sex symbol - an object of beauty - even though she did not wear make-up. Dimmock was not celebrated for lacking beauty but, rather, for having managed to contrive it in spades, without recourse to a bra. Crucially, she was not permitted to announce herself, uninvited, as a beauty. Had she presented herself as such, she would have been in all kinds of trouble, of the nasty variety in which the fat'n'proud Vanessa Feltz found herself. Instead, she had to leave this accolade in gift of others, then declare herself "amazed" when it was granted. And that, in a nutshell, is the trouble with beauty.

Steiner believes that "the judgement of beauty is not a one-way street". On the contrary: "The person or artwork claims nothing, but receives all; the lover or critic is validated, but credits the Other. This is a win-win situation if ever there was one." But that is a happier view of beauty than you will normally hear, from either those who possess it or those who do not. Women curse their blessing as a constant distraction from themselves; men complain that it is a cursed distraction for them. It sounds like a parity of misfortune - only this is not so, for if beauty is located in the beholder, then so is its power.

Decca Aitkenhead has completed a travel book about clubbing, Strange Ways, to be published by Fourth Estate later this year

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the people who make Tony Blair sweat