Against the idea of Beauty as an upright soul in an upright body.
We’ve all been fed this Ugly Truth, haven’t we? Ugly is the realm of the wicked, the depraved and vicious. Beautiful Cinderella surrounded by her black-hearted stepsisters and their deformed feet; the warped features of the presiding Duchess in Alice’s Wonderland; Donald Trump’s citrus coloured rubber face decrying these “fucking ugly”, “nasty women”, sparing no one from TV show presenters, to “That Kardashian piglet” and former Miss Beauty United States – ugly as the ultimate weapon to deride degraded items, peoples or attitudes. Ugliness conceived as a monstrosity and a threat.
The undesirable ones, not worthy of love, attraction, community, sex.
‘The Beauty of an upright soul in an upright Body’ – The Christian ideal confirming the importance of the pleasing body as an expression of the good soul and of the ugly body as a marker of sin.
Defying this established norm opened its own cult of the vulgar. A realm accessible only to the sickest of minds. Those in pursuit of the sordid and the scandalous, a round trip to Hades.
Didn’t Elagabus, the third-century emperor, like to invite eight unfortunates (today “disabled people”) to dinner just to have a good glare? Weren’t the grotesque paintings with their mythic monsters and sideshow freaks causing a stir in the Dark ages, handing the torch to the Marquis de Sade and his later excursions into the land of the vile and loathsome, where sadomasochistic sexual acts questioned conventions of morality? Beauty, in all its forms, is seen as too digestible, palatable and smooth to taste and grapple with. Ugliness, instead, defies form, violates containment, mocks symmetry, leaks where it shouldn’t and refuses to be bound. It has the power to subvert and as such is often the territory of the radical.
When German philosopher Kar Rosenkranz coined the term “The Aesthetics of ugliness” in 1853, he was hardly breaking new ground. Artists continuously explored ways to challenge the absolute aesthetics, ultimately questioning the belief that the golden symmetry of beauty was the inherent purpose of all art.
The 20th century left its own particular mark on it. The Viennese Expressionist movement, heralded by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele at the turn of the century imposed itself as a reaction against the Enlightenment and classical beauty. Instead, it depicted the diseased and disfigured, the prostitutes and those marginalised by the effects of industrialisation and urban sprawl. It was a movement that equated ugliness with truth.
In more recent memory, 1970s psychedelia challenged the codes of figurative paintings; 1980s heavy metal and punk were a reaction against the mass-produced polished hit singles from previous generations; the 1990s mashed up collage with design and online communications branded a “Pretty Ugly” trend; and the 2000s saw the emergence of Anti-Fashion. The vulgar remains the playing field of an intellectual and artistic elite, those who can afford individualism and revere the grotesque – the most obvious way to stand out by being provocative and eliciting a certain degree of revolution.
But whilst the ugly is cultivated in art as a critical tool to search for the truth and even politicised in its revolutionary nature, we shy away when it comes to the human body. What’s interesting in ugly art, in vulgar taste, becomes irritating once it’s final in the flesh. Intriguing becomes disturbing. The female anatomy does not become gripping and challenging, in the eyes of the gaze, but loathsome and putrid, trailing behind it the stains of wickedness, echoing the repulsion of need and anxieties around the “carnal body”.
Ugly like a Necessity, as they say in Brazil. Food coming in all forms.
Age, Tiredness, Heaviness, Poverty and Sickness, all burning reminders of the passing of time, the degeneration and wilting of human tissue. Men’s own mortality – perhaps a reckoning too difficult and visceral to endure. So we push back, look the other way, alienate it, make it go away by claiming it to be Other.
When in fact, our own Bodies have become minefields of scattered Others. Suppressed, in an attempt to see ourselves as a coherent unit: integrity of the self, revealed by one body and one mind. Maybe that’s the thing with our quest for beauty, the pursuit and the belief in a single naturally bound organism when it is a site of multiple desires, contradictory forms and radically disjointed fields. Leaving the skin, the outside and the inside, the contact, the curls, the bends, the folds, the shafts, the traces, the smooth and the rough – a riddle to be solved, one square inch at a time.