Friday, 16 December 2011


The simple answer is "No," as will be readily understood by anyone who has heard the music of Metallica or seen any pictorial representation of the temptations of Saint Anthony.  Of course, we could always deny that heavy metal music is art, a move that exposes just one of the complexities involved in our topic question.  What counts as art?  What is beauty?  What is the opposite of beauty?  If some art is not beautiful, how are we to characterize it?  Only the last of these is directly relevant to our topic, so I propose to begin with a set of orienting principles that, if not self-evident, are so widely shared as to provide an acceptable platform from which to begin our inquiry.

1.  The term art can be suitably applied to any deliberately created  product of the human      imagination.  This definition makes room for children's art, folk art, and decorative crafts, but excludes dreams and  the elegant trails left by sidewinders slithering across desert sands.   It also excludes the nifty nests of bower birds, although if someone  insists on making a case for them, I won't contest the point.
2.  Aesthetic judgment - a claim that an object is beautiful or not - is a  prerogative of rational beings.

3.  We call a work of art beautiful when it occasions in us a high degree of  pleasure.

4.  One thing can be more beautiful than another.

5.  The judgment of taste is about the beautiful object, not about the  subject's state of mind.     (#3, 4, and 5 are from R. Scruton, A Very Short  Introduction to Beauty).

6.  Shared agreement about what is beautiful and what is not is common  both within and across different cultures, along with lots of  disagreement. 

Given these initial ideas, our task is to attempt to make a case, either for or against the proposition that art must be beautiful.  Metallica and St. Anthony provide an easy first answer, but a more careful look reveals some interesting subtleties.  James Joyce distinguished proper from improper art.  The latter refers to works that tend to arouse some kind of desire in the experiencer.  Examples include pornography, didactic and propagandistic art.  Art is proper when it is experienced without any inclination to possess its subject or to perform some action.  In that opinion, Joyce agrees with other thinkers, such as philosopher Roger Scruton and historian Umberto Eco.  The idea is that the experience of beauty is disinterested appreciation - contemplation of a beautiful object solely for the delight, pleasure, joy, or spiritual feeling it evokes in us.

It is not clear from the above that Joyce would claim that only proper art is beautiful, but we can be pretty certain he would say that a lot of improper art is not beautiful.  He would find lots of takers for that position.  We can add a number of particulars to his broad category: boring art, poorly executed art, most children's art, raw sketches, doodles, and conceptual art (20th century) come to mind.  There may be others, but I think the most fascinating opposite-to-beauty is ugliness.  It may come as a surprise to many people to learn that alongside the history of beauty is a history of ugliness in art that is equally compelling, although in a different way.

Since earliest times, artists have not hesitated to portray ugliness in its many forms: the deformed, the chaotic, the disgusting, the monstrous, the diabolical, the terrifying, the  gory, etc.  Tender-minded philosophers like Plato and Marcus Aurelius have tried to avoid the reality of ugliness in various ways, but the persistent attention to ugliness by artists throughout the ages makes for a strong case that ugliness is not merely the absence of beauty but that, in art, it delivers powerful symbols of a dark component of reality itself. 

In Part 2 of this essay, I will explore in greater detail the concept of ugliness in art.

   - C. Marxer


  1. I have to agree with Bob on this. When art fails to be beautiful (generating a total positive response in the receiver) then it will not be preserved. Why have ugliness in your home? There is enough crap in the world without adding to it. I am sure that sensitive & skillful artists can communicate their own aesthetic response to the world in an art object that reproduces (to a lesser degree) the same response in the audience.
    I personally rarely get such an aesthetic response to a painting but I often admire the very rare extreme craftsmanship required to produce the piece. However I do get such a response from music & the music that generates this response from many people over an extended time period should proudly call itself 'Art Music'.

  2. Most people, I believe, would not want ugliness in their homes, but what are we to make of the fact that museums around the world are home to a myriad of expertly crafted works of ugly art?