okama ; Aesthetics (ever so mildly nsfw)

In 2007 okama released a doujin collection of pictures he contributed to various magazines titled Useless Beauty.  He explained in the book that he was a big Elvis Costello fan and that he was inspired by his song “It’s All Useless Beauty”, for two reasons: 1) the initials U.B. happen to be his doujin circle name and 2) his own pictures are nothing more and nothing less than “Useless Beauty”.

flower crowns

flower crowns

I don’t think I’m dissing okama when I clarify that his English is not the greatest, as he himself stated that he used a machine translator to figure out what the English words “Useless Beauty” meant.  And this transmission of a concept is ripe for distortion, transformation, etc..

Useless Beauty.  Costello says he wrote the song because of what happened to him in a Florentine museum one day.  He said he was sitting down and taking his time to look at the paintings when he noticed that all the visitors were doing was going from one painting to the next, as if they were going down a checklist: “OK. I saw this one, now on to the next…”  Costello ended up looking at visitors instead and bemoaning the state of affairs in the late 20th century.

I think two reactions are possible, and I certainly felt both of them, so they are not necessarily contradictory.  On the one hand, I think most of us have made this observation in our trips to museums.  You do see people that seem like they’re just going through the motions, taking exactly the same amount of time on each painting except the big (and famous) one in the center of the room…  On the other hand, many of us will suspect Costello of being an elitist.  After all, it’s no surprise that he had time to sit down in Florence and enjoy his painting considering his financial situation.  I had a measly 3 hours to visit the Louvre, and I almost ran into a couple of sculptures just trying to get to my “favorite paintings”, knowing full well this would probably my first and last chance to be in the friggin’ continent, let alone in that particular museum!!

Anyway, the song decries our modern life in tones so familiar (to Westerners, at least) that I don’t feel a need go at length on them; let me just quote two lines:

“Nonsense prevails, modesty fails
Grace and virtue turn into stupidity”

And the refrain: “What shall we do with all this useless beauty?”

By which I guess he means all of the museum pieces that, while lovely and wonderful, can’t really teach us how to be good people, or even good artists, not even at the very least good art appreciators.

Hypernet

Hypernet

I don’t think okama is concerned with any of this.  He fed the translator “Useless Beauty” and out came “役に立たない美しさ” which is, well, “Useless Beauty”.

A neat thing about this doujinshi is that okama has provided a blurb on each picture.  Methods he used, elements he likes.  One thing he doesn’t get into is motivation.  In fact, there’s a series of four pictures he did for the magazine “TECH Win” of which he says that he drew “mindlessly in an attempt to cause an accidental miracle.”  In other pictures he asks himself questions: “Why does she have a light bulb…?” “I wonder if they’re repairing…”  There are a lot of “maybes” too, as okama tries to respond to his fans and himself!

His confusion and/or his inspiration have a bearing on this “Useless Beauty”.    His pictures are always full of, sometimes cluttered with, things and gadgets.  His picture “Hypernet” has a keyboard, a mouse and something that okama aptly describes as “the mechanical whatever-it-is”.  The essential thing is that this “object” obviously has a use, as the girl is happily working away “on” it.  If it didn’t have any use, the girl wouldn’t be happy and okama’s picture would have failed.

Future Dance (section)

Future Dance (section)

There’s another picture, named “Future Dance”, in which one of the girls is wearing a strange “pad”.  okama suggests it is to enhance her shapeliness, but he doesn’t understand how it works and in fact the reason for his suggestion is that the girl’s friend is better endowed and okama thinks the first one is trying to compete with her by using the pad.

okama is not about portraying useless things, on the contrary, all of his “tools” have a function.  So when he calls his work “Useless Beauty” he is referring to its uselessness with respect to us.  So far this agrees with Costello’s usage: the Mona Lisa is pretty useless to the visitor [defining “use” narrowly].  My own sense is that okama is not nearly as pessimistic about the state of our society these days, although I don’t really have any statements of his to prove this.

If anything, okama’s aesthetic sense seems to agree with Immanuel Kant’s.  Kant famously argued that what we consider “beautiful” is what seems to have “purposiveness/usefulness”  without necessarily having a “purpose/use”.  In his view, something with a use can be beautiful, but the feeling of the beautiful in us will not be as pure simply because now we’re throwing in our own interests and calculations into our appreciation of the object.  For example, our aesthetic appreciation of a Ferrari is going to be mixed in with our desire to ride it somewhere or pick up guys/gals in it🙂

useful ugliness  A Beautiful Mind

(NOT useful ugliness) A Beautiful Mind

Kant’s insight (a pretty obvious one, but he deserves praise for stating it so well) was that human beings have an attraction toward “things that work well”: whether it be contraptions, organisms, you name it.  okama thrives on these busy images with gadgets and their operators, but inasmuch as they’re simply representations they’re useless, and our appreciation can work freely on this “Useless Beauty”.

Kant believed that the work of art must seem as if it has a purpose, like an actual organism or a machine, without “betraying” its origin in the mind of the artists (otherwise the work will look overdone or pretentious).  In the best of cases, Kant taught, artists are possessed of a genius i.e. a god-given ability to make works of art under certain rules (to effect a transition from nature to the canvas) without really being able to consciously explain them.   Is this why okama looks so clueless when talking about his own drawings???

Anyway, for more Useless Beauty, be sure to check out The Rabbit Reich!

~ by Haloed Bane on June 14, 2009.

9 Responses to “okama ; Aesthetics (ever so mildly nsfw)”

  1. An experience of an object that I find beautiful or even merely interesting (I’ll leave the definition of art out of it), and made by humans, is useful to me as a storyteller. The story is often incomplete; I may end up making up a lot of things as I go along looking at it (assuming an image or a sculpture), but to share a story with me is its primary use.

    Your criteria: tell us how to make better art, tell us how to appreciate art… are actually very narrow uses. A piece may teach us something, but that is not it’s sole or primary purpose.

  2. @ghost

    Those criteria are not mine, but Costello’s (if I’m reading him correctly) which is why he calls the pieces in the museum “useless beauty”…And even as I write this I’m getting it wrong, so let me put it more clearly: (I think) Costello calls “beauty” useless in relation to the casual observer at the museum, who is not enriched by it or even delighted by it, and who surely isn’t inspired by it to create more. Costello’s point of view is not anti-art but the opposite: pro-art to the point of potentially bordering on elitism.

    Now, your idea of the “story” connects nicely with Kant, because the point of a story is precisely that “there is a point” to it!! I.e. purposiveness.

  3. nice post as usual, even if I’m not sure how to reply. I am the kind of guy who buys an art book but flips through it at a pretty exceptional speed and actually opens it maybe once a year, but I think that also has to do with me having both a good memory and being very easily inspired.

  4. digiboy, I’m the same. I just bought a book on Japanese graphic design (posters, ads etc..) and i flipped thru the 500 pages in a millisecond. i’ve found that artbooks are very handy when i’m drinking wine, though, then it’s fun to revisit them and look at them more slowly (plus with the added minigame of not spilling the stuff all over the book..)

  5. Since practically most of the drawings in “Useless Beauty” were made for zines, okama probably made some decent scratch off them, so in that sense, it sure was useful to him. Plus “Egguard” hooked him up to do “Glass Fleet”.

    The best part to me is all this art isn’t even “useless” to us, the audience. Here we are, reading some tech mag, and BAM, next page there’s okama to remind you that drawings are pretty damn cool. Or at least that’s what I assume; I’ve never read Tech Win.

  6. Does the purpose of the artist have anything to do with the finished product? It’s an interesting question. People like Dali and Warhol always talked about moneymaking in relation to Art, Dali bragged about it…

    I haven’t read TECH Win either, though it sounds like I wouldn’t understand a word of it (even in English translation..)

  7. Is this why okama looks so clueless when talking about his own drawings???

    Artists may explain what they draw, but they don’t always draw what they explain😛

  8. @Kitsune

    Or maybe they do, and you just don’t see it… Nah, you’re right: they don’t.

  9. […] Okama – Aesthetics (ever so mildly nsfw) […]

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