Andrei Pop and Mechtild Widrich / Visual Culture

Rethinking Ugliness

Why does ugliness, associated for millenia with negative categories from sin and stupidity to triviality and boredom, remain central to art and cultural practice?

Rethinking Ugliness

Throughout its history, ugliness has been associated with a whole series of negative terms – imperfection, insignificance, failure – even non-existence, to which it was consigned, with evil, by philosopher and theologian Augustine of Hippo around 400ce. But isn’t ugliness really just the opposite of beauty? And would that be a positive opposite with a content of its own, or just the absence of beauty? Could beauty itself be defined as nothing more than the absence of ugliness? Even if it should turn out, as Augustine thought, that ugliness doesn’t really exist – or, with Pierre Bourdieu, that it is only an ideological fiction used to enforce the judgements of elite consumers – there remains the fact that people think it really exists and have done so, in different ways of course, around the world for thousands of years. This at least requires explanation.

A humble example can indicate the stakes of such an inquiry. On 5 January 2009, Sasha Obama, younger daughter of then recently elected Barack Obama, surprised the assembled journalists gathered to document her first day at Washington’s exclusive Sidwell Friends School by carrying on her backpack an ‘Uglydoll’. The toy, a turquoise stuffed animal representing a stylised monster with two protruding incisors, was a marketing phenomenon even before this ‘official’ endorsement. Obama’s decision to carry it made news and provoked much public speculation about the emulation of political personages in matters of fashion. Yet the representational connotations of her act were complex indeed. That the first non-white ‘First Daughter’ should carry Babo’s Bird (Babo means fool in Korean, but can be a term of affection), allaying her anxieties concerning both school life and media scrutiny through the perhaps talismanic function of an attractive monster, is neither accidental nor simple. [1] Indeed, the company that makes Uglydolls, founded by an American man and a Korean woman, is called Pretty Ugly, and announces on its web page that ‘in the Uglydoll universe “ugly” means unique and different’. All of this indicates a high level of theoretical awareness, in contemporary life, of the problems involved in identifying something as ugly, and in valuing it as such. Besides being current, ugliness is very much alive in the history of art: from ritual invocations of mythic monsters to the scare tactics of the early twentieth-century avant-garde, and from the cabinet of curiosities to the identity politics of today, ugliness has been every bit as active as beauty, and often much more of a reality, though less often a goal. Studies are needed that formulate not just a unitary countertradition to the canon of beauty, but help us understand why humans possess an aesthetic term that seems to negate all they want from their objects and practices.

It is no overstatement to say that theoretically, ugliness has been the foil of beauty throughout the pre-modern era. One of the first authors to explicitly advance theories of beauty and ugliness, Plato, embodies many persistent attitudes while proposing radically different and even incompatible models. In the early, ‘aporetic’ dialogues, Socrates inquires and eventually fails to find definitions for concepts like virtue, goodness, and beauty; in the Hippias Major, which comes just after this period, the search for a definition runs aground on the observation that the same objects and persons are both beautiful and ugly, as a beautiful pot is in relation to a person, and a beautiful person is in relation to a god. [2] In the major work of Plato’s late middle period, the Symposium or Party, a whole series of then-current opinions about love and beauty are affectionately exhibited and dissected, before Socrates advances what may be thought the genuine Platonic view: beauty is love, or more accurately desire, which extends from the animal instinct to procreate, through successive purifications of the concept, through sexual love and intellectual friendship, to the highest mode of experiencing beauty and love, reflection on the ideas themselves. This has immediate practical consequences, since the beautiful object of love is protected or propagated by the lover. Consistent with this, ugliness is defined as that which prevents conception, that ‘in which one does not propagate’. This erotic theory of beauty and ugliness, which has persisted in Western aesthetics up to the present (Elaine Scarry’s recent work insisting that love of beautiful things makes us just toward things and fellow humans), also has some affinities with modern biological attempts to explain aesthetics in terms of the social life of animals. Be that as it may, Plato is notorious for banning artists from the ideal city (Republic); and in the late dialogue Philebus, while still distinguishing beauty from pleasure, utility, and goodness, he advances a more ‘classicist’ view of what makes things beautiful, namely proportion and order. Can this be reconciled with the anarchic effects of beauty as love, which the Socrates of the Symposium describes as a hungry, barefooted, restless being?

As classical art gave way in late Antiquity to the wilder, more fantastic image production of Hellenism, and as the elite drinking groups of the Symposium gave way to the realities of imperial politics, the theory of beauty and ugliness had to shake off any such confident identifications between what is desired and what exists. Plotinus, writing in Greek in third-century Rome, still advocates a Platonic ascent to contemplation of pure beauty; but he finds no comfort in the thought of beauty as proportion. Two evil thoughts, he points out, may be just as ‘symmetrical’. Beauty remains form, but not in the sense of composition: a rock or a sound can be beautiful, though simple, because their ideas determine them perfectly. In the case of human souls, stuck between the divine world of mind and the fallen world of matter, beauty is autonomy in the sense of self-possession. Ugliness is memorably compared with a body rolling in mud; what is problematic is supposed to be the self-willed admixture with a foreign material that limits the agent’s independence qua soul; accordingly, the task is one of purification, and the Platonic erotic epic becomes one of salvation from the world of matter.

Modernity is indeed the key target of any analysis of ugliness, thanks to its aesthetically challenging output. Modernist art may be difficult to grasp: yet the ugliness in it is not. ‘Let us go then, you and I, / Where the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table;’ thus begins T.S. Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. A romantic lyric of utmost musicality turns within one line to the image of a surgical patient unconscious on the operating table. Kant’s insistence that art can make anything beautiful may be helpful here: ugliness in Eliot is strictly a function of the subject matter, which the modernist wants to handle without idealisation, while beauty is achieved in the form or the performance. But such an explanation raises more questions than it answers: for why should the honest or unadorned or visceral treatment of an ugly reality be transmuted into aesthetic beauty? Theodor Adorno, in his posthumously published Aesthetic Theory (1970), devoted himself to precisely this question: the ‘ugliness’ of modernist beauty. He advances a speculative anthropological hypothesis, according to which the archaic is the ugly, and is overcome by being turned to beauty by each subsequent state of civilisation. But Adorno also notes that the unjust, barbaric (that is, ‘politically ugly’) state of the world demands an art able to deal with it, and that this art, modernism, has come to its austerity through a purely formal development, through the refinement of its means until all pleasant descriptive associations (what Kant calls ‘dependent beauty’) are burnt off.

In these disparate claims on behalf of modernism, ugliness, and their respective politics, the question of representation and its relation to aesthetics is unavoidable. Can we even speak of beauty and ugliness with reference to artworks that claim not to represent anything, or only their own means of production, or only the second-hand references of the mass culture they belong to? It is perhaps no accident that, at the end of the 1980s, as if in response to the exhaustion of mass imagery in pop art, the coolly contextual exploration of art world institutions in conceptual art, and the ideologically loaded return to painting of the neo-expressionists, an ‘Abject Art’ overtook the art market and its theoretical organs. Visceral, direct, and cannily publicised, abject art employed ‘low’ bodily products and their simulacra, from faecal matter and blood to sexual fluids, to suggest deformed or ostensibly mistreated bodies. This might sound like a straightforward return to representation, with some relation to the shock tactics of high modernists like Eliot, but abject art was usually discussed as a radical break with modernism. Avoiding negative aesthetic discourse (‘the ugly’) in favour of a psychoanalytic language of trauma (the ‘abject’ Mother of Julia Kristeva, who returns to haunt a subject shaped by language and ideology), abject art sought a shock value meant to break through contingent cultural significations to put spectators and artists in touch with psychological and political realities which the dominant visual culture had no means of representing.

The theoretical position of ugliness today thus remains ambiguous: the ugly is neither mere nature nor culture, neither purely in the mind nor in the world, neither a solid fact nor mere ungrounded judgement. Its position between idea and reality seems to constitute its interest. And that is no narrowly contemporary insight. It is palpable already in Plato’s Parmenides, a late text often regarded as a theoretical self-critique. Pressed to state his position on the existence of ideas for ‘ridiculous things’ like ‘hair, mud, dirt’, Socrates replies irritably that they are nothing but what they seem, and that giving them more thought would mire him in a ‘bottomless pit of nonsense’. To this, the elderly Parmenides replies patiently that the true philosopher does not disregard ‘even the lowest things’, which in this case reveal that, however particular and ephemeral their objects may be, we could not think about them if they did not possess ideas of exactly the same character as ‘the good’, or ‘the beautiful’, or ‘man’. Ugliness as such is not mentioned by Parmenides. But it follows that ‘the ugly’ is more than some piece of detritus, and less than an eternal truth: it is one of the tools by which we organise the world, for better or for worse. ■

UglinessAndrei Pop is Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Basel and Mechtild Widrich is Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Architecture, ETH Zurich. They are co-editors of the new book Ugliness: The Non-Beautiful in Art and Theory, of which the above article is an edited extract.
Image shows a detail from Head of a Damned Soul in Dante’s Inferno; engraving by William Blake after a drawing by Henry Fuseli.


[1] Richard Leiby and DeNeen L. Brown, ‘Obama Girls Start at Their New School, Sidwell Friends’, The Washington Post, 6 January 2009. Prior to this event, journalists emphasised the dolls’ appeal to boys: see Donald G. McNeil Jr., ‘Guys and Dolls: An Ugly Remake’, New York Times, 23 March 2008. On Babo, see Alex Pham, ‘Ugly Dolls were a labor of love’, Los Angeles Times, 18 August 2009.
[2] Plato, Hippias Major, 289a1–6

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