Wednesday, 28 December 2011


Even the ancient Greeks with their sublime standards of proportion, harmony, and otherworldly perfection, passed down images and stories of ugly and frightening creatures, both human and non-human. The grotesque and horrific entered Christianity in the Book of Revelation, scenes from which became favorite subjects for such later artists as Hieronymous Bosch, Albrecht Duhrer, and Fra Angelico. Hell, the Devil, and St. Anthony's temptations (hard to look at for very long) were favorite themes. Ugliness, like beauty, experienced numerous changes in fashion over the centuries, now displayed in the images of old women, now in dwarves and corpses, and often in frightful images of dragons, mythical beasts, and monsters of all kinds. In the modern era, the ugliness of industrial cities and the deformed people who inhabit them find expression on the canvases (and on movie screens!) of artists usually admired for less disturbing works, as well as some who seem to be ugliness specialists.

Judgments of ugliness, like those of beauty, are ultimately subjective, and Aristotle may find some support for his claim that the skill of a great artist can render beautiful an ugly object. However, I am inclined to the view of Umberto Eco (On Ugliness, 2007) who asserted there are some realities that no one can render pleasant by any philosphical maneuver or aesthetic rationalization. A few moments with Salvador Dali's Soft Construction With Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) is probably all you will need to see his point. When artists painted or sculpted images of demons or severed limbs or the unadorned human genitalia or a pile of trash, they knew their subjects are ugly, they intended their works to reflect that ugliness, and they would likely be put off by anyone who did not react to them with revulsion or horror.

In the vast catalogue of ugly works of Western art, there are virtually no depictions of ugly landscapes other than those that have been destroyed or desecrated by human beings. Almost all the images of ugliness are of humans or creatures that bear enough resemblance to humans that we cannot behold them without self-reference. What are we to make of this? We find a clue in Friedrich Nietzsche's dictum that what we humans hate above all is the deformation of our own kind. Ernest Becker (Denial of Death, 1973) nailed the point precisely, I think: for us the body is always an existential problem. The evolution of the psyche from an infantile identification with bodily sensations through various stages of dawning self-consciousness brings us finally to a fully realized ability to contemplate ourselves and our situation as embodied, finite beings whose universal destiny is decline, disease, old age, and death. Our reaction is painfully split: on the one hand we yearn for liberation from this decaying flesh and for the perfection of the gods, while on the other we know perfectly well that without our ambiguous embodiment there can be no experience of truth, of love, of beauty, or indeed of anything like life as we have come to know it.

If beauty is truth, as Keats wrote, then, as artists of all eras seem to insist, ugliness is also truth.   In this ultimately mysterious universe, beauty and ugliness are, equally, fundamental elements of the order of things and of our own being.

     - C. Marxer

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