“Ugliness,” akin to “beauty” and “the sublime,” belongs to the most troublesome of aesthetic categories. The problem with “ugliness” consists in the fact that an attempt to define it as a simple opposition of “beauty” is doomed to fail, although it seems that the ugly must be a negation of the beautiful, and therefore betray a lack of harmony, proportions, clarity or simplicity. Yet ugliness can be aesthetically interesting, or even exciting, and therefore an antithesis of beauty would rather come in the form of something that in aesthetic perception appears dull or insignificant. Fondness for ugliness, although usually understood as a symptom of perversion, does not in the least have to be grasped as the lack of taste: quite the opposite, the lack of taste refers rather to the sphere of kitsch, artistic falsehood, while taste itself consists in equal measure in an appropriate evaluation of beauty and its negation – ugliness. Bad taste is rather fond of the vulgar. Finally, ugliness is an indispensable component of the comic, the grotesque, and sometimes even the sublime, and possesses a great expressive force, which artists have perceived since the dawn of the phenomenon called art – hence, the opinion that ugliness is “artistically worthless” is far from the truth. Seen from yet another perspective, ugliness has almost always been associated with everything evil, or at least morally reprehensible, and should therefore cause revulsion, rejection, negation. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Shaftesbury was still convinced that beauty and good were akin to two sides of the same coin, but they were perceived by means of different faculties, and that beauty attracts in and of itself, whereas ugliness, akin to evil, naturally repels the human being. And yet ugliness is attractive, it can inspire fondness, and alongside the so-called “paradox of tragedy,” it has given theorists of art and aesthetics sleepless nights at least since the times of Aristotle’s Poetics.
For, apart from the fierce rejection of ugliness within the narrowly understood normative aesthetics of beauty, ugliness was also considered in a much broader context, which is symbolically expressed by the Homeric character of Thersites: his proverbial ugliness is linked to his moral weakness and low social status. Ugliness is therefore an aesthetic phenomenon and poses a challenge to the artist to the same extent that it belongs to the field of moral reflection, indicating at the same time the limits of mature elitist taste, “urbanitas.”
In the case of classical philosophy, the Platonian question of the existential status of beauty, and thereby also ugliness and evil, proved to be a seminal one. The idea of “beauty,” forever united with truth and good, ultimately excludes ugliness and confers onto it the status of a lack, a rupture in the existential and cognitive order of things. The idea of “beauty” as such does exist, but there is no idea of “ugliness” as such, according to Plato’s Parmenides. Ugliness cannot be pleasant, it causes revulsion, pain. The soul must turn away from the world of ugliness as soon as possible, which it does the more so eagerly that ugliness repels it, whereas beauty is accepted in a natural way, because, as Plotinus later said, in beauty the soul recognises its “fatherland.” Ugliness is the lack of form, shapelessness on the border of nothingness; it is a contradiction of order – and such concepts, which deem ugliness equal to “deformitas,” in the light of a tight link between the ontological and aesthetic sphere, preserve their entire meaning, for instance, for Saint Augustine. According to that great thinker, ugliness was characterised by a lack of measure, order, unity. Yet, it was impossible to avoid the question that was analogous to the enquiry into the presence of evil in a world formed by the good Creator. “Unde malum, unde deformitas”? Augustine suggested that perception of ugliness may be a consequence of weakness and limitations of human cognition: the “cosmos,” the world as a whole is good and beautiful, yet we are merely capable of grasping a fragment, a certain aspect of it. Nevertheless, the beauty of the world always refers us back to the Creator: “Deus est causa eficiens, exemplaris et finalis creatae pulchritudinis.”
Other Medieval thinkers, however, discerned a value in ugliness – for its presence alone compels the human being to seek beauty; its repulsiveness the more so fuels the pursuit of harmony and perfection. It is in this light, to some extent, that we can interpret the notion of “dissimilis similitudo” coined by Hugh of St. Victor. However, the mighty rhetorical-aesthetic dimension of ugliness did not escape the attention of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, among other figures, who condemned the aspect of sculptural church decorations that he defined as “deformis formositas ac formosa deformitas.” Bernard rejects them, introducing the classical principle of lack of decorum, logic and order, and puts forward the old argument: the “centaurs” and “figures half man and half beast” divert the attention of the faithful from proper studies and pious practices. Yet, he thus confirms their artistic effect, no matter how ominous and undesirable.
The later history of the category of “ugliness” is particularly complex. The Early Modern translations of Aristotle’s Poetics once again confronted the readers with the dilemma of the aesthetic appeal of ugliness. Something avoided in daily life, something that causes revulsion and rejection, can still be appreciated in the work of art. What is more, consistent implementation of the principle of “mimesis,” which gravitates towards naturalism, cannot exclude ugliness as an object of artistic representation. Still, ugliness may not become a goal of art, but as Nicolas Boileau wrote, the wise hand of the artist and the charm of his paintbrush transforms even the ugliest object and makes it agreeable in the work of art, inspiring pleasure. Besides, the concept of expression built around the affect theory could call for what was devoid of measure, full of tension, or even unnatural, as long as the use of such elements remained in line with the order of the work and its emotional potential. Just as certain dissonances were allowed in music, in other arts the tensions caused by disturbing the logic of the form could result – according to Ernst H. Gombrich’s well-known idea – in “intensification of expression.” Mannerists were noted for this, and although their “oddity” must not be identified with ugliness, from the perspective of the academy and the theory of artistic idealisation, they fully deserved to be called “pittori fantastici.”
The seventeenth century idealisation theory of art condemned Mannerists, who invested too much trust in their fantasy, and “naturalists” in equal measure. Giovanni Pietro Bellori, therefore, sought a solution in the eclectically spirited theory of “idea” and the imitation of nature, yet the ugliness of the world became firmly placed in art, albeit justified, for instance, by a relatively inferior position of genre painting in the hierarchy of genres.
As much as the eighteenth century aesthetics undoubtedly sought to definitely separate ethics and aesthetics, the category of ugliness continued to evoke morally negative terms: in a breakthrough work such as Karl Rosenkranz’s Aesthetics of Ugliness from 1853 we can still encounter – as Werner Hofmann remarks – distinctions of a moral-theological nature. Attempts were made to tame ugliness to a certain degree by including it in the broader context of the sublime, the solemn, as well as in the pre-Romantic and Romantic “aesthetics of horror and eeriness.” For instance, Edmund Burke does not oppose beauty with deformation, but in a straightforward manner: with “ugliness,” which he discerns in such sensual objects that bring to mind the concepts of weakness, illness, imperfection. In the eighteenth century, ugliness was eagerly analysed within the field of the “aesthetics of reception.” Insofar as it was sublime, ugliness could still inspire the deepest sense of fear or horror, as it was always classically exemplified by John Milton’s Satan. “Power,” “énergie,” “douleur agréable” – these terms reveal a characteristic mix of the antique rhetorical tradition of “energeia,” the category of “aptum,” and the broadly delineated psychologising concept of affects. On the other hand, however, shifting the burden of responsibility to the viewer made it possible to diminish the claim of the objective, classical, normative concept of beauty. An enormous attempt at turning back the hands of time undertaken by Johann Joachim Winckelmann merits special attention not because he, once again, through the mediation of Shaftesbury, reached for the Neo-Platonian idea of beauty and how it shines through the sensual form. Praising the noble simplicity and quiet grandeur of Greek sculptures, with regard to their posture and expression alike, Winckelmann re-unites the spheres of ethics and aesthetics, rejecting excessive expression of feelings, mainly suffering, as a symptom of aesthetic ugliness. Yet, his great polemicist Gotthold Lessing not only accepts ugliness in the work of art, but also proposes to distinguish between its two kinds: ugliness that provokes laughter and ugliness that raises fear, horror, which is actually bound with the sublime. The sublime obviously plays a key role in the aesthetics of Immanuel Kant, where it is identified with the formless, the boundless, with a vision of chaos, disarray, but also with force incommensurably superior to human capacity; although, to be precise, Kant does not in fact apply the term “sublime” to the [empirical] object, but to a certain “state of the spirit,” “mood of the spirit,” induced by a certain imagined vision, and its chief effect consists in “expanding the limits of imagination.” Nevertheless, Hegel and Schelling still admired the skills of ancient artists that allowed them to portray suffering in a way that never crossed the border of sublime resignation and tranquillity; in ancient art, suffering is never ugly, instead it is sublime, brimming with pathos, however restrained.
“Sublime ugliness,” understood as a negation of “sublime beauty” is one of the core themes in the reflection of Friedrich Schlegel. Passing over other fascinating aspects of his meditations, it is noteworthy that Schlegel clearly attempts to analyse the phenomenon of ugliness in art at the intersection of theory and history. “Erhabner Häβlichkeit” is for him a trademark of modern art, and it exposes the viewer to the most extreme painful sensations. Thus understood ugliness, as a negation of beauty, became the object of the modern artist’s pursuit, driven by the insatiable thirst for everything that is baffling, shocking, striking, abrupt, or even unpleasant. Schlegel’s “ekelhafte Kruditäten” in the work of the modern artist, as well as his concept of irony, already herald the future theoretical journey into the wide array of experiments in modern art. For that matter, Hegel also feared that art subjected to the Romantic revolution would thenceforth become merely “interesting,” moving from the centre of human life into the sphere of ingenious “endless shaping,” devoid of any substantial inherent meaning.
Romantic sublimation of the mundane, quotidian, which William Wordsworth saw as a type of epiphany, and Novalis as a tool of “romanticising the world,” culminating in the outstanding Letter of Lord Chandos to Francis Bacon penned by Hugo von Hofmannstahl, in the course of time becomes an instrument of the Modernist transformation of life by means of art, and finally a goal in itself, while shocking the audience becomes a basic artistic gimmick. This has to do not only with broadening the borders of the possible in art, but also with a peculiar operation of reversing the viewer’s meanings and habits. Murder as a Fine Art by Thomas de Quincey shifts moral revulsion provoked by a crime to the level of purely literary construction in all its consistency and self-sufficiency of artistic fiction. Baudelaire’s “la beauté du mal” leads to the sublimation of the obscene, salacious, disgusting, while the audience who reject it condemn themselves to the role of “hypocrites.” Moreover, according to the great French poet, each epoch merits a beauty of its own, and modernity is no exception for that matter. From here, it is indeed not far to the “physiological” aesthetics of Friedrich Nietzsche.
Beforehand, however, attempts were made to embed ugliness within a more solid aesthetic system. Referring to Lessing, in terms of aesthetic fondness Karl Rosenkranz introduces the distinction between “gesunde” and “krankhafte Weise” with regard to the ways in which it manifests itself. As “negative beauty,” ugliness bears a mark of necessity within the work of art – ugliness in the work of art is abolished owing to the presence of beauty. Ugliness as such can exist only because there is beauty, which is its positive premise; yet ugliness marks a reversal of freedom that characterises beauty. If in ugliness we find everything that is mutually contradictory, inconsistent, then it plays a major role in the modern collapse of values: “Die Zerrisenheit der Geister weidet sich an dem Häβlichen, weil es für sie gleichsam das Ideal ihrer negativen Zustände wird.” For Rosenkranz, from a systematic point of view, only three types of “disfiguration” exist which delineate the territory of ugliness: the mean instead of the sublime, the repulsive instead of the pleasant, and finally caricature is elevated to the rank of the opposite of beauty. Ugliness can only exist because beauty exists, which is its positive premise: in itself it is, however, a reversal – in contrast to beauty – of freedom.
Apart from all its purely aesthetic functions, a mark of ugliness is found in the “lack of form.” This allegation is very often raised among those authors for whom modernity is a symptom of crisis and an object of radical rejection. Suffice it to mention the famed and critically fierce “manifesto” Verlust der Mitte by Hans Sedlmayr from 1948. However, departing in its programme from the “speculative” and “normative” theory of beauty and reaching for the psychologically motivated concepts of “artistic vision” and “shaping purely visual qualities,” the history and theory of art at least since the times of Alois Riegl has introduced the scheme of categories whose objective, “per fas et nefas,” is the destruction of “metaphysical” beauty and departure beyond the allegedly defunct opposition of “beauty” and “ugliness.” If according to Hegel’s prophecy, art will become merely “interesting” and doomed to “endless shaping,” then the opposition of “beauty” and “ugliness,” without even masking it as the negative sublime, must turn into a dispute concerning not so much the borders of art itself, but the borders of expression. The Futurist war on the past and Expressionism understood as reaching the primitive origins of artistic expression (both in purely psychological and historical sense, yet another discovery and justification of the “aesthetics” of the primitive people) familiarised the broad audience with the hitherto unknown dynamics of form and ugliness, whose condemnation had already become a mere conventional ritualistic spell. Schönberg’s “emancipation of the dissonance” is a good analogy in the field of music. As it seemed, the presence, meaning and perception of dissonance were not determined by certain universal principles, but by the context and traditions of a specific musical language. The gesture of artistic revolt, still momentous at the time of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, today seems to lose its significance before it is even performed. Ugliness ceased to be a negative symptom of metaphysical order, and its expressive potential diminished proportionately with the abruptness of artistic revolutions. Ugliness as a lack, a symptom of chaos, a symbol of moral wrongdoing no longer needed to be rationalised in any way whatsoever, while “deformation” simply became a “modus” of making art. In his influential work Languages of Art, Nelson Goodman remarks that emotional states bear close kinship to cognitive operations: emotions hide convictions, attitudes, evaluations. Therefore, as Goodman suggests, “in aesthetic experience, emotion positive or negative is a mode of sensitivity to a work. The problem of tragedy and the paradox of ugliness evaporates.” In the sphere of the “open concept of art,” the meaning of the work and its expressive effect is determined by the context, while artistic experiment has lost its edge that allowed it to reveal something radically new, and ugliness has been relegated from the sphere of revolt to the sphere of the sociology of taste. If everything is decided by the context, or the verdict of the “art world,” then it becomes crystal clear that aesthetic categories derive their power from more or less arbitrary situations – although this blurs the key difference between the “signification” of a given work and its “implication,” as it was aptly differentiated much earlier by E. D. Hirsch. The beguiling force of persuasion of Ulysses, who encourages his friends to roam to the end of the world, since “Fatti non foste a viver come bruti,/Ma per seguir virtuti e canoscenza” [Inferno, XXVI, 119–120], once again was subject to a reversal, this time of a grotesque character, and thus has disappeared without a trace because, at least in art, there is nothing left to discover, and beauty as an artistic illusion is as indifferent as ugliness. For “beauty,” as Stendhal rightly said, is “nothing other than the promise of happiness.”