From the Gap Toothed Model, to highly designed leftover food products to Roland Barthes’ classic photo essay on the ‘punctum’, looking ‘bad’ is looking good. It seems we are fascinated by the ‘imperfect’ or at last what’s socially judged as imperfect. From the fabricated ‘oops!’ of lens flare, to eruptions against photo-shopping women in fashion, to gap-toothed models, the media is wrestling with the images of ‘imperfection’
Back in the 1980s Italian writer Umberto Eco, best known for penning The Name of the Rose, explored the eccentrically inventive visual culture of theme parks and wax museums. The highlight of this journey was a visit to the Palace of Living Arts in Buena Park, Los Angeles – “when it comes to spiritual emotions nothing can equal what you will feel”. The Palace reproduced three dimensional, life-size versions of classic artworks, so you can see for example Leonardo painting the portrait of the Mona Lisa. It’s obviously improved by 3D. What’s more, and the brilliant, transformative logic of this begins to make my head hurt – an ‘original’ painting was on display beside the 3D version. It wasn’t a perfect reproduction print, but something painted by a sidewalk artist, flawed, so it felt more ‘real’, more ‘authentic’.
But the highlight of the tour for Eco is a reproduction of the Venus de Milo as she would have been around 200BC, leaning against a column. “I say ‘leaning’,” Eco writes, “and in fact this polychrome unfortunate has arms.” This is an improved, more authentic version of the Venus De Milo. Jeez, who really wants to see armless statues?
I was reminded of Eco’s examination of originals and copies, of perfect and imperfect copies, when reading Venessa Wong’s feature for Bloomberg Businessweek, “Food Marketing in 2014 Will Be Ugly“. Wong highlights some features from JWT’s 2014 Trends Report, which suggests that this year will be ‘proudly imperfect’, citing for example brands crowdsourcing ‘real people models’.
But Wong points out the limitations of the Report and the dizzying logic of creating imperfection. She writes that when it comes to food, the report “suggests merely that next year we’ll see more food that looks imperfect. Take the turkey in Oscar Mayer’s Carving Board line of sliced meat. It’s cut thick and uneven to look like home-cooked leftovers, but as JWT explains, that requires a process that took the company two years to develop. The so-called imperfection of the product is as deliberate as it is false. Packaging actual leftover meat – or any product with more serious flaws, for that matter – likely wouldn’t be as appetizing to consumers.” It’s a kind of reverse engineered imperfection.
Though ‘real’ leftovers have had a renaissance over the last decade among foodies, Tripe (the stomach of an animal) used to be part of the staple diet of poorer cultures, my father would eat tripe and onions once a week while my stomach remained hypnotised, undecided whether to eject it’s own contents or remain in frozen admiration at the eating of this rubbery matter. Yet Vanessa Wong has a serious point about the wasteful energy going into make something seem ‘imperfect’.
Nevertheless there’s been a consensus among media mavens that the aesthetic/idea of imperfection is appealing to people seeking a little bit of ‘grit’ in any increasingly smoothed-over digital culture, most obviously in the various campaigns around photo-shopping (read a nuanced piece by Peggy Drexler on the recent American Eagle campaign,) and the desire to see women in advertising who reflect a vaguely realistic body-type.
And while citizens have always had a richer psychological life than the behaviourists / data boffins in the agency have supposed, perceived imperfection in real-life has human consequences that aren’t resolved, don’t have happy endings, can’t be packaged-up as ‘proudly imperfect’. A recent campaign for Dermablend Professional cosmetics, a product used by people with skin conditions to help them get on with their life, the ad makes the viewer look at the judgements and values we work with. Exploitative? Honest?
Fashion, since at least grunge and Martin Margiela’s ‘unfinished’ clothes (deconstructivism) of the 90s, has a sweet spot for the ‘imperfect’, in that elegantly shot fashiony kind of way, where imperfection feels a little bit knowing, in quotation marks.
Back in 2010, ‘imperfection’ was embodied in the figure of the gap-toothed model, such as Georgia Jagger and teenage supermodel Linsey Wixson, who’s imperfect teeth expressed authenticity – actually it was really just the gap, the space between the teeth. If graphic designers could kern teeth they would look like Linsey Wixson’s.
Or Lara Stone’s.
Back in the 1970s Lauren Hutton was told by model agencies she would never make it as a model. In an interview with Derek Blasberg at Harper’s Bazaar, Hutton said about her gap-tooth, “ It’s becoming quite fashionable now, isn’t it? Forty-five years later.” Blasberg continues, “At first, she tried using morticians’ wax to cover the gap, cutting a line in the middle of it. Then she used a cap, which she would often swallow, laugh out, or misplace.
‘Revlon wanted me to use it all the time, and then the construction workers would yell at me in the street, Hey, Lauren, why did you fill in your space? We don’t like you anymore!’ she says. ‘So I would turn and give them a great big grin and they would cheer.’”
And before you roll your eyes up to heaven muttering, “only in fashion!”, one of the most famous essays, and theories of photography rests on an analysis of teeth. In 1980 French writer Roland Barthes published Camera Lucida where he unpacked the visual element of a photograph that grabs and disturbs him, as something unnamable, and aspect in a photograph he calls the ‘punctum’, the “accident [of photographic detail]which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me), …for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole.” The punctum always bursts the bubble of the photographer’s intentions. From the point of view of the creative, it’s not unlike the ‘happy accident’, from the viewers’ perspective it’s experienced as something that doesn’t fit the overall vision.
And Barthes finds this accident of photographic detail in one of William Klein’s photos of children paying Little Italy in New York, “all very touching, amusing, but what I stubbornly see are one child’s bad teeth, but what I notice, by that additional vision which is in a sense the gift, the punctum.”
Barthes contrasts the ‘punctum’ with the ‘stadium’ (another latin word he borrows) to describe the conscious intentions of the photographer revealed in the narrative and construction of the photo. The power of the accidental detail overwhelms the conscious intentions. But what happens when the ‘imperfect’ is consciously sought? This ‘accident’ of detail is now part of the vision of contemporary fashion. In a world of perfect teeth, or at least perfect celebrity teeth in advertising and fashion, the gap-toothed model delivers a bit of poignant imperfection (readers who can’t get enough of this discussion of teeth, check out Ronald Paulson’s bizarrely fascinating academic study “The Perfect Teeth: Dental Aesthetics and Morals”)
The Japanese have a phrase for this Aesthetic – Wabi-Sabi. Andrew Juniper writes in his book Wabi-Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence, that the term suggests, “such qualities impermanence, humility, asymmetry, and imperfection. These underlying principles are diametrically opposed to those of their Western counterparts, whose values are rooted in a Hellenic worldview that values permanence, grandeur, symmetry and perfection.”
It would be hard to argue that our recent fascination for the gap-toothed model signals a greater appreciation of mortality or a recognition of the transience of things. But along with phenomena such lens-flare, either deliberate or accidental, it’s arguable that people are connecting with images, and things, that express a material quality, something that does feel marked by a specific moment in time, even in the form of a ‘mistake’. This imperfectionism has erupted more frequently around the turn of the century, from film-maker Harmony Korine’s Mistakist manifesto a response to digital culture and film-making, to the ironic imperfectionism of Goodby, Silverstein and Partners’ Got Milk ad for the California Milk Processor Board using the face of Mad Magazine – Alfred E. Neuman. The milk may have created perfect sparkling teeth, closing the famous gap teeth, but the daft kid wears his messy milk moustache with the same charming innocence and imperfection.