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

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis