The Atlantic Monthly used to run a column called “Word Fugitives,” where writers and readers would come together to find or create words describing something or other, often an idea or feeling with no name as of yet.

I’d like to suggest a word fugitive still at large. Here’s what it describes: a piece of art, film or music chiefly enjoyed because its artist, actor(s), filmmaker or musician is physically attractive. This doesn’t mean the artwork has no artistic merit, although that sometimes is the case. However, the person’s winsome features are enjoyed more than the art itself. Sometimes the art isn’t really enjoyed at all.

This is not the same as enjoying an already-good piece of art more because somebody’s pretty. What this fugitive word refers to is art which, if it were made by a homely person, would not interest you at all, however meaningful or well-made.

Allow me to give you an example from my own life. I find most no wave music, art and cinema completely uninteresting. However, many of the principal no wave artists were good looking in an intelligent, unsound sort of way. Look at these photos to see what I mean:

Anya Phillips (middle)

James Chance

James Chance

Lung Leg

Lung Leg

Lydia Lunch

Lydia Lunch

Lance Loud and Lydia Lunch.

Lance Loud and Lydia Lunch.

Nick Zedd

Nick Zedd

Nick Zedd

Nick Zedd, again

This is just a sample, albeit a biased one. I’m sure someone reading this finds some or all of these people hideous, but to me they look okay. In my early twenties I made a show of being interested in transgressive cinema and No New York, but I found I wasn’t so much watching these films or listening to the albums as I was scouring the internet for high-resolution pictures of Lung Leg and friends.

(Tangentially: has anyone done a study on how the attractiveness of non-mainstream artists affects their status in mainstream culture? Does the most attractive member of the movement automatically become the spokesperson in the media’s eyes? Will an artistic movement full of attractive people necessarily garner more “buzz”?)

This phenomenon goes not just for famous artists but for obscure ones as well. I’ve known maybe a dozen beautiful young artists, poets, musicians etc. in my life. In every instance but one, their art was, I’m sad to say, not very good. I didn’t know any of them well enough to see what kinds of feedback they got, but they did seem to keep up with their art longer than their less attractive peers. This was just my impression, though, and twelve isn’t a representative sample size.

Here is how I became conscious of this phenomenon. One night, in college, a friend’s band was supposed to play on the radio at 6:30 pm. I got caught up in something and only turned the radio on at 7:15 or so, cursing my negligence. This was a college radio station, and the DJ had already switched to some unlistenable indie/experimental/post-punk/feedback type garbage. I was about to turn the radio off when the song stopped and I heard my friend’s voice. It was their band, playing one of their songs.

That’s when I realized that, not only did I like the band because they were my friends, but because they were good looking kids. I had no sexual interest in them, but looking at their faces made me feel good. I misattributed this nice feeling to their music, which would not have interested me otherwise. I realized how shallow I was––a good thing to realize in college.

Dear reader, what should we call this phenomenon? Do you know of any good neologisms? I considered pulchraftsmanship, but that doesn’t fit, and it’s clunky besides. Maybe some art school veteran has already invented a term which I do not know. Maybe everyone else knows the word for this, and I’ve just embarrased myself. Oh well. Not the first time, not the last.

Advertisements