On Beauty’s Sincerity

by Rosie Matthews


The aesthetics of postmodernism and poststructuralism hadult, art, artisticave, to some degree, tainted our current reception of ‘sincerity’. Such movements, at their core, subverted any easy understanding and reception of ‘genuine’ experience of art. What has prevailed is an ethos of irony and skepticism in which we have arguably come to perceive all meaning in art, and all artistic intent, as inauthentic. In such a view, the possibility of an aesthetic that ascribes to the authentic human experience, seems impossible.

There are a number of contemporary writers and artists that are, however, seeking to rehabilitate sincerity. This emerging “New Sincerity” has a desire to represent, and, moreover, value authentic individual experience. Engaging closely with ideas such as morality, responsibility, and empathy, it has a firm belief in a philosophy of ethics.

Zadie Smith is a prominent figure of the movement. In her 2005 novel, On Beauty, the codes of New Sincerity are focused on the authenticity of beauty. Moreover, there is a particular emphasis on beauty’s aesthetic appeal to its reader. As Smith writes in one of her non-fiction pieces, “When we read with fine attention, we find ourselves caring about people who are various, muddled, uncertain and not quite like us” (“Love Actually”). Here ,Smith envisions characters who are rendered authentically; additionally, the novelist outlines an ‘ethical reader’- one unafraid of valuing their affective responses to art.

Reflecting on my own affective responses to On Beauty, I recall my genuine admiration of Smith’s  representation of Kiki. In the narrative, Smith rejects the description of Kiki as an “African Queen” as “patronizing, not to mention factually inaccurate” (313), and instead, favours Kiki as “like a big Buddha” with “Coils of long afro hair” (396, 397). The latter image comes from a section of the novel in which Kiki and Howard passionately make love on their living room floor. Smith’s imagery in this scene is sensual and visceral-  keenly somatic. Candidly Kiki’s body is seen “bouncing…clasping and unclasping”, her “beautiful face” taken over by “that starburst of pleasure and love and beauty” (397). As readers, Smith connects us to the passion and frenzy of the estranged couple’s love, for all imperfections and painful reality. In this, Kiki embodies Smith’s views on authenticity.

Smith, in On Beauty, puts forth an aesthetic firmly connected to reality: Kiki’s body is frank and uncensored. Smith’s perception of Kiki’s beauty is genuine. Beauty’s sincerity, then, is one that should not shy away from reality.