Cliff Hocker

Ben Sharkey with work from Dollface. Photo: courtesy N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art.Art may point to clues to what matters not only in the aesthetic realm, but also the hard-nosed, rough and tumble competition of politics.  Aspects of art just might come into play regarding who wins or loses the election for U.S. president, who wins in the TV debates between challenger Mitt Romney and incumbent Barack Obama.  More on that shortly.

 President Barack Obama on a conference call. Photo: The White House Photostream. An exhibition at the N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Detroit is a commentary on beauty in media and contemporary culture.  Doll Face  by artist and musician Ben Sharkey is a nine-painting series of 6-by-4-foot canvases rendered in oil and wax. Their blown-up scale confronts the viewer with stylized beauty.  The exhibition ends Oct. 13th.

Ben Sharkey painting from Doll Face. Photo: courtesy N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art. Sharkey’s depictions of the female face are a combination of what's generally considered the most desirable features.  Women of various ethnicities serve as models.  In choosing the models for these paintings, Sharkey says his intent was to capture characteristics of the world's largest ethnicities: Caucasian, African, Latino, Northeast Asian, Indian, Arabic, Native American, Southeast Asian, and Australian Aborigine. 

Ben Sharkey painting from Doll Face. Photo: courtesy N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art.Scientific studies like "New 'golden ratios' for female facial beauty," published by a team of psychology researchers, demonstrate that symmetry and proportion underlie a rationale for attractiveness. Other studies show people are attracted to large eyes, small noses, large lips and smooth skin.

 Ben Sharkey painting from Doll Face. Photo: courtesy N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art. The Doll Face exhibit is part of the N'Namdi Center's "Artists to Watch" Mini-Series.


Ben Sharkey painting from Doll Face. Photo: courtesy N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art. So how is the audience perception of performance in the televised presidential debates influenced by the appearance of the candidates? In the first Obama-Romney debate, the 51-year old President looks tired from the constant pressure of the job, aging, routinely groomed and detached, while the 65-year old, ex-governor seemed fresh, groomed to cosmetic perfection, and animated. Readers of a certain age or those who know the history of presidential campaigns will recall that Richard Nixon's 5 o'clock shadow during the first 1960 presidential debate is thought to have shaved away his chances against John F. Kennedy, who looked like a million dollars. Nixon declined using TV makeup.

 Does an overemphasis on attractiveness distort voters' reception to politicians' message?  "If there aren't any distractions, I think it's easier to look at what the actual issues are," says Sharkey. "If someone had a black eye, a lot of people would be paying attention to that black eye rather than to what the candidate is discussing. If you alleviate some of those distractions, it's easier to get a message across." Both candidates are sharp dressers and have well-defined haircuts.  "Grooming is essential, because we're an image-based society. If anyone looks frazzled or nervous, our response is of them being unprepared, and that would make us nervous as far as a presidential candidate goes."


For television, matte makeup is applied so subjects do not appear shiny or sweaty.  "That would cue us off for them being nervous, and you definitely don't want to look nervous as a presidential candidate." Sharkey believes neither candidate would go so far as to get a Botox treatment. However, in noting that President Obama's complexion appeared not much darker that Mitt Romney's, Starkey remembers seeing the Republican on Univision, the Latino TV network.  "He must have gotten a dark tan just before. I'm not sure he did that consciously or went on a vacation in a hot area before that and got a tan or not.  If he did do it consciously, it's interesting, because he would not be so alienated from the Hispanic culture."

 Sharkey says attractiveness goes a long way likability and that in surveying past presidential elections, winners are favored by good looks.  He says Romney has classic looks, even features and a presence like that of a 1950s-era gentleman. Obama projects seriousness.


Back to the Doll Face exhibition.  Is American culture is so hung up on conforming to a media-promoted conception of beauty, that people have lost sight of real beauty that may present itself in unusual or surprising ways?  "This stuff stems back to our beginnings," says Sharkey.  "It's not just our culture today, but I think our media has used these things we're attracted to in their favor. We are attracted to beauty. They have altered beauty with Photoshop to enhance those features that we're attracted to just to draw our eye in and sell their product. There definitely is a false sense of what beauty is right now, and everyone knows that.  This is kind of tough, because when it comes to reality, some people aren't sure of where they stand in that standard of beauty. They might not really have the highest confidence because of that, which is kind of sad. On the other hand, I think a lot of people are really smart and they know that these are altered images that we're given, and so they can make these decisions for themselves of what beauty is and what it isn't."

 The young artist says he doesn't know much about the 1960s and 1970s “black is beautiful” movement, but appreciates the aesthetics of physical difference.  “I think everyone should be proud of the features they've been given and work with those features as far as their own attractiveness. Everyone has been given different things, and as long as you have the confidence, then you can really portray that attractiveness in your own special way. Sometimes you see people who straighten their hair when they have naturally beautiful curly hair, it's tough to see that. You know that curly hair is attractive or that natural straight hair is attractive.  There have been so many ethnic women that have been so extravagantly beautiful that no one should be ashamed of any of those features they've been given."