The Contradiction of Aesthetic Diversity

Luxury fashion brands time and time again spark controversies in China because of their insensitivity in representing Chinese images. In November of 2021, a photograph displayed at the exhibition Lady Dior As Seen By was once again heavily criticized by netizens. The work, entitled Reserved Pride, features a freckled Asian woman wearing a Qing Dynasty-esque garment and iconic sliver nail armor, holding a classic Lady Dior bag. At the center of criticism, instead of the luxury product, has been the look of the model—narrow, monolid eyes, flat face, chubby hands, and dark skin—that is missing almost all the elements on the checklist of Chinese mainstream beauty standards.

Photo by Chen Man

​​The fury from the public is reminiscent of another failed campaign of the Italian fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana three years ago who posted a video showing a Chinese woman eating traditional Italian food with chopsticks, accompanied by a voiceover in a patronizing and condescending tone instructing her how to eat it. The fashion brand was then accused of racism and had to cancel its Shanghai runway show after a national boycott. Even until today, after a public apology on social media and a series of customer regaining campaigns, the brand still hasn’t recovered from the backlash.

The choice of model was questioned as well in the D&C ads, however, the controversial photo exhibited by Dior seems to trigger a debate that goes beyond the respect of Chinese cultural heritage. The discussion is articulated around the questions of whether the photo in question can be considered as an independent artistic production and if we could legitimize the calls for aesthetic diversity from the two opposing sides—the photo itself is evidence of diversity or a deviation from it.

To answer the first question, we could first look more closely at the creator behind the photograph, Chen Man. Recognized as one of the preeminent photographers in China, Ms. Chen is renowned for her bold, super futuristic works and stylish use of post-production techniques. She was offered the job to shoot covers for leading magazines when she was still studying at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Working in the fashion industry as a visual artist and photographer for years, she acknowledged the eagerness of the luxury brands to present their artistic value besides the commercial side by collaborating with artists through their history. By the same token, her work can be viewed as the crossovers that blend fashion and art, tradition and innovation, and independent art project and commercial photographing.

She expressed her artistic principles in her article for CNN Style, “As a visual artist who grew up in this ‘new’ China… I look to my background for inspiration. But I also believe that repetition is a disease, and I don’t want my work to reinforce stereotypes. Images of dragons and phoenixes are powerful, but when people use them again and again, they lose the power to be fresh or exciting. I want to capture the real contemporary China, not to please people with cliches.”

There is a certain sense of irony that one of her works is now deemed by many netizens demeaning to Chinese faces. Yet the seeming inconsistency might become less surprising when combined with her more pragmatic attitude towards commercial shooting. Ms. Chen said in an interview, “Commercial photographing is for the sole purpose of making money. The masses are way smarter than fashion magazines, and they had better taste.” When dealing with commercial photographing, Ms. Chen turns to the mindset of more of a product manager than an artist: the former tend to draw inspiration from the market demand which is viewed as being extraneous to the art while the latter values the autonomy of the creator. “What I pursue is not a specific style but rather an exactness, a precision planned without waste.” Ms. Chen wrote in one of her exhibitions.

From her perspective, in terms of commercial collaboration, creative autonomy within the traditional art context gives way to the instrumental purpose of artwork – to address and attract more audience, to achieve business success, and to conform with the value defined by magazines and brands. Ms. Chen also stated in her apology on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform, that the photograph was a themed project known as Time Traveling in Qing Dynasty created for Dior. The statement, if true, further reveals the commercial nature of the photo and highlights a loss of autonomy and independence in the creation of the work.

​​Interestingly, later that day, Dior posted an apology on social media as well for the inclusion of the photo, whereas it claimed that the photograph was not part of commercial photographing, trying to part ways with the photographer and stay out of the dispute. Because naturally when the artist enjoys the autonomy in her creation, any emotions incited from viewers—resentment or empathy—after a direct encounter with the artwork is genuine and authentic interaction with the intent of the artist. But even so, Dior can hardly break free of all the doubts and mistrust from the public. In both circumstances, being a curator alone or a client who commissioned the artist, Dior was the narrator of the story.

The photograph in question, Reserved Pride, is not new but was shot 9 years ago as Chen stated in her apology. It’s said that this work was already exhibited by Dior in Taiwan in the summer of 2017, yet it received little attention back then. Regardless of the notable contrast of public attitude from that display, it’s evident that as a curator, Dior has decontextualized and relocated the work from its original context and background for the sake of curatorial narration. Meanwhile, Dior’s involvement in the interpretation of the work is self-explanatory given the exquisite Lady Dior bag in the center of the image. As a result, the aesthetic value of the artwork is at least partially transferred or distorted by the curator, namely that the fashion brand has used the photograph as a constituent of the storytelling, to recap the history and imagine the future of Dior. Under these conditions, Dior is also judged by its choice of selecting the photograph in the space, because any work exhibited by the brand is presumed as a manifestation of the brand’s attitude. Neither Chen Man nor Dior could break away from the viewers’ criticism because of the commercial nature of the work and the complexity of the curatorship.

The other question that begs to be answered is, what is aesthetic diversity? It’s interesting to see that two conflicting voices are demanding at the same time their opponents to self-reflect on the inclusion of diverse beauty.

Defenders of Chen Man attribute the nationwide outrage to China’s twisted, narrow, and self-constrained beauty standards developed in recent decades. Indeed, there is plentiful evidence that shows the popularity of Caucasian features in China: bleached skin, large eyes, tall nose, pouty lips, and well-defined jawline. Celebrities and marketers are constantly reinforcing such prevailing tastes of beauty, which encourages people to use filters or turn to plastic surgery if not naturally inheriting the features. The criterion of beauty is diverse, they said, and there is no unified aesthetic value judgment that dominates all.

The argument is valid and comprehensible, but it cannot fully explain the public uproars nonetheless. The central question is not the appearance of the model but the ambivalent use of cultural reference. Chinese have learned to appreciate poetic depictions of women with slender eyes and flat faces since ancient times. For example, paintings from the Tang dynasty (from 618 to 906 A.D.) often feature women with round faces applied with white powder and eyebrows in the shape of sleeping silkworms. When spectators confront such paintings in museums or independent exhibitions, they are reminded of the playful aristocratic life in the Tang dynasty and the ideal feminine beauty back then.

Court Ladies Adorning Their Hair with Flowers, Zhou Fang, late 8th-early 9th century A.D. 

However, the cultural reference of slender eyes somehow has gained new meanings in western narratives since the so-called Yellow Peril ideology emerged in the late nineteenth century. “Chink” and “Slanty eyes” are used to discriminate and insult Asian people. Fu Manchu, a notorious fictional villain created by the English author Sax Rohmer in the 20th century further perpetuated the racial stereotype. As a result, it’s not accidental that Chen Man’s Lady Dior photograph caused such a disturbance because of its clear resemblance—slight smile, spooky make-up, and stern look—to the deep-rooted malicious image depicted by the West.

​​The photograph once again reveals the implicit dominance of western Orientalism on the depiction of Asians in the fashion industry. It’s a reminder of Orientalist photography that used to portray the East as exotic, rigid, and uncultured. Today, we still see that fashion brands favor Asian models who fit into the preconceived beauty standards while justifying their monotonous aesthetic preference by appealing to diversity in a vain attempt to sugarcoat a sense of superiority. This kind of skepticism in the name of aesthetic diversity coming from Chinese audiences is as necessary now as ever. It highlights the passivity of Chinese or Asian viewers, ​​artists, and practitioners in the fashion industry and calls for opening to the big world.

Models: Gao Qizhen, Lu Yan, Ju XiaoWen, Coco Lee

In the context of modern China, there is a fine line between adequate adaptation of cultural heritage in art and fashion and breaking cultural taboos. The ability for contemporary artists and fashion brands to stay within the boundaries is becoming indispensable.

This also explains the paradox in Chen Man’s works. The photographer has expressed in an interview her ambition to bridge Western and Eastern cultures, through fusing cultural elements and practicing in innovative, radical, and unconventional ways. Now, some of her stunning works have been internationally recognized, such as the shoot with Rihanna wearing traditional Chinese ornaments. However, one of her previous works, 12 Chinese Colors, which is a series of cover shoots she did for i-D magazine in 2012, came under criticism too for the biased choice of models.

Source: An image of Rihanna for the April 2015 issue of Harper’s Bazaar China; Chinese 12 colors by Chen Man for magazine i-D

This work, nonetheless, is more of a victim of the unstoppable public fury than a violator of cultural identity. In an interview with NYT 10 years ago, Ms. Chen explained the inspiration for this work, “I was a special editor on one issue, so I used models of different Chinese races for the covers. People think the Chinese look the same, but we are kind of like the Americans. We have 56 different ethnicities.” She believes that the reason fashion in China looks pale and blurry is that people depended too much on the standard set by Europe and America. Sadly, it’s still the case today. Even Chen Man herself, together with other Chinese artists and brands, attempts to ingratiate with the distorted and exaggerated appreciation of slanted, wide-spaced eyes in the lens of fashion.

On the bright side, those recent backlashes against disrespectful representations have made it clear to all the brands who want to share China’s luxury fashion market that: the insensitivity or even intentional ignorance of the one-sided aesthetic standards, and violation of cultural and political taboos might be a heavy price to pay. 

It also begs the question of how fashion brands continue to use art as a strategic tool. Because social media is becoming another important platform in which artworks circulate and encounter people. An artwork is singled out from its original context and faces the direct judgment of the public. Whether brands could communicate with a wider audience in a space much more complex and volatile than in a traditional high art one is another challenge.

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