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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.