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Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Why the Long Face Part 17

Oliver Burkemann asks why so many people look so miserable in photographs, why they turn looking miserable into an art form, why looking happy, being happy is so desperately uncool. This obviously applies to photography where miserable, vacant faces are the norm - though it's really the artist who should be miserable and not the subject - the artist being the one for whom "cheeriness betokens a failure to comprehend the horrors of existence." Perhaps the whole miserabilist thing is part of the Smoke and Mirrors of Self-Promotion - where the higher the value, the less the need to smile and please. We are serious artists, remember, Prada not Walmart, Waitrose not Aldi, never mind our 6 figure income (that's including the pennies remember). Read the whole article here. And the Psychology Today research into fashion faces here.

Why the long faces? In Psychology Today, the designer Ingrid Fetell speculated that modernist spaces might be inherently ­depressing. "Desaturated" colours may mute our autonomic nervous systems, making us less animated; there's also evidence that angular shapes trigger an unconscious fear response, perhaps because we've evolved to associate angles in nature – cliffs, rocks – with danger. But I reckon the hipsters are one more example of a ­phenomenon that, though well-known, remains mysterious: the link between gloominess and cool. Looking happy isn't hip. When did you last see a catwalk model ­grinning? No less a celebrity frowner than Victoria Beckham has labelled this the "miserable cow syndrome", and seems to appreciate its ironies. "People would be quite upset if I ­actually smiled," she said.

US psychologists have ­studied this puzzle: they cropped pictures of models in ads so only their faces were visible, then asked people to rank them in order of mood. Overwhelmingly, models ­advertising pricier brands were judged to look glummer. This is probably down to signalling, noted ­researcher ­Timothy Ketelaar: smiling indicates eagerness to please, ­suggesting low status. If a Prada model isn't smiling, she clearly doesn't need to, implying high status. Brands that target less wealthy ­customers use smiling ­models, suggesting lower status, and thus affordability.

More broadly, being happy is seen as indicating silliness, boringness or lack of creativity. ("To be stupid, and selfish, and to have good health are the three requirements for ­happiness," groused Flaubert, "though if stupidity is lacking, the others are useless.") The image of the brooding artist is compelling; cheeriness ­betokens a failure to comprehend the horrors of existence.


fr. said...

The same question could be raised on facial expression in the fine art world; yet the real question is, why are people putting on their smiley faces when a camera is raised before their eyes?

Look at your photoalbum (be it digital or analog), or the one of your neighbor, or the one of your colleague at work; smiley faces everywhere.

We have grown so accustumed to that look, that a non smiley face on a photograph seems odd. To turn it the other way: How would you feel, walking outside the door in the morning, and everybody you see is brightly smiling?

However, the findings of the study are interesting. Thanks for the link.

cafe selavy said...

I'm linking this.

The first photographs had such long exposures that smiling was virtually prohibited. Few smiles in early photos. The tradition.

And I agree with fr. though I like it when people smile at me. I'm just a chimp.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Fr and Cs - it would be great if everyone was smiling. Go some places and most people do smile - doesn't mean they're happy, just means they're smiling. But it's lovely and it does make everyone happier than scowling in that London/New York/Paris/Munich way we have. We should all smile more, it's a good thing.