Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Art of Light(en)ing


In yesterday’s Guardian blog Bim Adewunmi asks, “So what if Beyoncé’s skin colour is looking lighter?”, a question which I think has many more answers than she cares to give.

In response to the furore surrounding Beyoncé’s new album cover, Adewunmi makes the perfectly valid point that, of course, black people’s skin colour “changes with the seasons” and so is sometimes simply lighter. Adewunmi puts the fact that Beyoncé is far whiter in this picture than could possibly be accounted for by a lack of sun, down to lighting and retouching, and then considers her case closed. But look at the picture: what Adewunmi has failed to observe is that in post-production the singer has been deliberately turned into a white woman. She is blonde. With pale skin and a heavily made-up face that bears no resemblance at all to any other images of Beyoncé.

The implication is that Beyoncé’s image was not acceptable in its original form, requiring a complete overhaul from black woman to white.

In countries all over the world there are centuries-old prejudices in favour of pale skin, usually signifying higher class and moral purity – the UK, US, India and China are a few examples. However, that cannot be the case for Beyoncé, considering the composition of the image: she is near-naked and draped over leopard skins. Moral purity is evidently not a concern.

My research addresses what happens when human flesh is turned into art. Here we have one example: what happens is that the model’s flesh is no longer their own, modified beyond recognition into a clearly established Western ideal of beauty (in this case very much conflated with sexiness). The philosophies of Plato and St Augustine argue that the more flesh is reified into an abstract ideal of beauty, the more moral that beauty is. The further we get from the actual, tempting flesh, the purer the image becomes. But oddly, in the case of Beyoncé, her post-production team have reified her image into an ideal in an effort to make her more tempting, discarding every hope of moral integrity in the process.

Is it simply racism? A rather archaic devotion to the Marilyn Monroe ideal of beauty? A direct consequence of the continuation of such attitudes is the popularity of products like skin lightening creams. What is most pertinent and worrying is that the image will certainly be aspirational for many.



I am currently writing an article on beauty and alchemy, and in the meeting of these two subjects I keep encountering the idea of transformation. In particular, transformation of the self. Alchemy, which has been around as an art, a science and a philosophy since at least the second century B.C., was not just about turning base metals into gold. The serious alchemists, who were not just trying to get rich, were more concerned with transforming their own souls, and even the outside world, into a metaphorical ‘gold’ – i.e. beautiful perfection.

This desire for perfecting oneself is still very much around today, and amusingly enough the alchemical idea of transformation produces some serious gold – for the cosmetics companies.

It seems that the gold we’re seeking to make out of ordinary materials is now beauty, a process we can see on countless makeover programmes. But beauty represents a more general transformation: as Cinderella shows us, becoming beautiful entails a further transformation into prosperity, happiness and love. Happy ever after. This is precisely what most of the adverts that bombard us every day are trading on.


The difference in alchemy is that beauty is not the ultimate transformation. It is a subordinate metaphor, that represents the ultimate transformation of the soul. However, that is a life’s work – I mean, how much easier is it to find a ‘new you’ just by losing ten pounds and buying a new lipstick?

I think this is partly why alchemy has had a bit of a revival in the last few decades. Self-help books by Jay Ramsay (Alchemy: The Art of Transformation), self-help novels by Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist) and novels like Lindsay Clarke’s The Chymical Wedding, Patrick Harpur’s Mercurius: The Marriage of Heaven and Earth and Peter Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee – these all use alchemy as a framework for freeing the soul (or perhaps the mind, nowadays) from the pettiness and corruption of Western capitalist culture. Fiction recently has started to explore and advocate a return to the more serious work of self-transformation, involving a fuller understanding of human beauty – our desire for it and its effect on us. And although I’m not sure about combining sulphur and mercury in a hermetically sealed vessel, I still think these reworkings of alchemy have more to offer than lipstick.