Later in the 21st century, a scruffier, quirkier human appearance will be the new attractiveness. That’s according to Crispin Sartwell, an art history professor at Pennsylvania’s Dickinson College who studies the history and future of beauty.
“In the 20th century, technology has created an aesthetic of smooth, corporate surfaces, gleaming skyscrapers, and even TV has adapted a normalized and professional surface look,” Sartwell told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from his home near Carlisle, Pennsylvania. “So now there’s an emerging attractiveness in the dark side of that: people who don’t look quite right—not twisted or fucked up, but scruffy, hairy. Not beautifully produced.”
Sartwell explained that before about 1750, beauty was considered one of the western world’s universal values, up there with truth, justice, and goodness. In the 1800s, he said, beauty morphed into something subjective. And last century, it forked: one prong went corny, and beauty became synonymous with home decorating and other mundane pursuits, he said; the other prong plunged into darkness, as artists slammed beauty as being irrelevant to a harsh and scary world. Thus, Sartwell explained, we have our current discomfort with discourse about human beauty—or any other kind.
“I wouldn’t want to live without beauty,” he said, urging North Americans to start talking about its importance again. “It’s devalued, but it’s still central to people’s lives in thousands of ways.”
Though technology such as Internet dating may seem to liberate us from the dictatorship of personal appearance, Sartwell said, it’s a false freedom.
“It may free us temporarily,” he said, “but we’ll keep coming back to our bodies. Eventually, you’ll want to be a body having sex, not an avatar having sex. So the Internet brings liberation to dating, but also disappointment. You’re not going to escape from your own body.”
In fact, bodies will be even more important in the future, according to Christopher Dewdney. He’s also a futurist, and a fellow of the University of Toronto’s McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology and author of Last Flesh: Life in the Transhuman Era (HarperCollins Canada).
“As well as gender ambiguity, hyper-genitalia will likely become a trend,” Dewdney writes, “and bioengineered sex organs might also become common—double genitals”¦size enhancements; as well as a greater degree of sensation by creating more nerve endings in the sex organs.”
Before we get there, Dewdney told the Straight in a phone interview from Toronto, singles wishing to connect with one another have a couple of battles to fight. First, he said, the habit of constant, shallow, tech-based communication has, in general, led young people to have shallow relationships. Trendy polyamory, he said, is a great example of this: lots of contact, but not necessarily much depth. Second, he noted, the 21st century’s flawless digital aesthetic has lured young people into a kind of agnosia, or inability to see other people for how they truly are.
“They see the image they project, instead of how they really look,” Dewdney said.