We live in a world that revolves around beauty. Art is a universal act but also a reflection of society as a whole: defining how we as a society see beauty in the world, and shaping our own visions. In the magazine Philosophy Now, art philosopher Catherine Bosley says “Art is where we make meaning beyond language. Art consists in the making of meaning through intelligent agency, eliciting an aesthetic response. It’s a means of communication where language is not sufficient to explain or describe its content. Art can render visible and known what was previously unspoken.” Through this, how is one to determine what is beautiful within someone else’s interpretation? With experimentation in modern art, society has always perceived the “new” as “ugly,” psychologist Harry Beckwith comments on this in his article on whether people like new things. He says, “Thomas Kuhn makes a related point in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where he concluded that science doesn’t progress steadily because scientists, like all of us, lock into paradigms; they heed the rules they’ve heard for years. For a breakthrough to happen, that generation must be replaced by a new one that challenges this old orthodoxy and sees – and helps cause – a paradigm shift. Only when that new idea finally becomes familiar will a generation adopt it.” The first reaction to something you can’t understand is most times dislike.
But can art be inherently ugly? Historically the obsession has always been with beauty, but contemporary art is trying to change that.
The obsession in beauty within art began with the romantic era. Romanticism until the 1850’s, was the most widely used artistic style as it reflected emotion, beauty, originality and artistic skill of the artist themselves. Romanticism emphasized the power of art and omitting emotion; that emotional response is a part of the aesthetic experience of the viewer. But the main objective of romantic artists was to create something inherently and formulaically beautiful: beauty was the end goal. Writer Michael Sebastian says in his article about “contemporary art and cultural degeneracy” that “At first glance, these do not seem to be bad values, but they set the stage for future degeneration. With originality, artists begin to feel the need to be completely unique. Each artist must represent a complete break with everything that came before him as well as his contemporaries. Introducing the emotion of the artist will eventually become making the art all about the artist’s feelings.” In the second half of the 19th century, realism emerged to oppose romanticism and aimed to portray “real” and contemporary people and scenes; polar opposite to the extravagance of romantic paintings. Art movements change over time with artist’s attempts to become more and more unique like Sebastian mentions.
Following romanticism, German philosopher Karl Rosenkranz published a book titled Aesthetics of Ugliness in 1853. His ideas exposed the standards of art as painting anything experimental as essentially not real art. Since its publishing, artists have begun to push the barrier of what is considered art. Shortly after Rosenkranz published his works, modern art movements arose in the 1870’s to 1980’s. In this era, traditions are thrown aside for discovery and new experimentation to oppose beauty standards despite society considering it ugly. However, slowly this push in aesthetics began to redefine how society sees beauty within the world of art. Colors became vibrant and artists became fearless with the messages they portrayed. And even after this, post-modernistic visions emerged to contradict modernism, and take experimentation even further. A New York Times article written by Charlie Fox once said that ugly art reflects an ugly time. This is parallel to the rise of modernism and post-modernism beginning during times of war, as both focused on exposing the world for the ugliness going on in politics and war.
James Purpura (detail)
Several artists use this aspect of reality to evoke strong emotional responses through grotesque images or brutal realities in the world such as death and illness, using what Stephen Hicks describes as the strategy of isn’t that disgusting? In an article by Johnston Jones, he states that ugly (as in the idea of truthful), art is therapeutic and that painting the “face bears the marks of inner suffering in a graphic way,” that art is the visual archive of our entire existence, and our entire existence is messy and unfiltered. But can ugly art be beautiful in its own grotesque truth? American artist James Purpura, who plays with color to change reality in his contemporary works, agrees with this as he said that he thinks art can be ugly, but there can be beauty in ugliness. Talking about Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters, as an example, he says “these people are not pretty. It’s not a pretty scene but it’s beautiful… beauty speaks for itself.” His definition essentially being that art is a self-defining entity.
Art has always been significant, probing the same issues about the human condition that all forms of cultural life probe. –Stephen Hicks
Much later in the 1920’s, a German art movement called New Objectivity also emerged as a reaction against expressionism, a movement in art made to express emotion. New Objectivity fought the romanticism and idealism of expressionism because of its impact on societal opinion. Its purpose was to steer away from fantasizing about an ideal world and turn viewers toward action and engagement of the public. This follows Fox’s idea of ugly art reflecting ugly times, as this movement started right before World War II, and reflected society at that time. Fox explains that “What exactly is deemed ugly, of course, remains in the eye of the beholder.” Fox also says “But what unifies ugly painting is its defiance of the obviously attractive, familiar or lifelike. It serves as a reminder that art isn’t a branch of mortuary science, providing faithful replication of lost beauties.” Italian artist Luigi La Ferla is like many contemporary artists who fight against beauty standards. On the topic of beauty, he says: “it is not the first thing that is important… even in ugliness, there is beauty.” His definition ultimately being that beauty is not one solid complex, but rather something that can be seen in everything. The most challenging thing for artists is to avoid these past beauty standards set by the greats and evolve into unique views.
Although art has changed throughout time, the battle of aesthetic standards still remains. Now, the most widely agreed upon “ugly” art would be contemporary art, or art stemming from this past 20th century. With the emergence of radical new artists like Maurizio Cattelan, Chen Wenling, and Banksy, audiences oftentimes question what the purpose of this crazy artwork is. Purpura expresses his dislike for the minimalist movement for the “lack of work” put behind it. He explained that art needs to make the viewer think. “if I can stare at a painting and think, ‘how the hell did you do that?’… For me, that’s magic” but minimalism is lacking that very originality. Artist and art philosopher Michael Dunn however contrasts this idea saying that “Changing tastes over time also indicate that beauty isn’t universal” and that “the arts is a subjective area of knowledge. This means that views on what is good art and bad art vary from individual to individual.” French contemporary artist Florence Mabillat states that he considers beauty a binary concept and is not a good thing in itself. “I don’t see anything interesting in binary thought… I think life is much more complex” he says. Mabillat defines beauty as trying to fit life into a box, whereas life cannot be so cleanly categorized.
These artists are trying to create their individual unique visions. It’s reflective of a societal and global idea of anti-mimesis that Oscar Wilde created: “life imitates art much more than art imitates life.” That art is a reflection of the good the bad and the ugly in life. But why try to categorize art as good or bad? Ugly or beautiful? The individuality of the viewer cannot say for certain that one artist is better than another, as art has no real means of ranking like other aspects of society. Art is a form of communication, and viewers tend to focus on defining the art rather than speaking with it. At its base, the one thing we can say for certain about art is that art is made with meaning and a message. The message is left for the audience to interpret, whether they see it as ugly or beautiful or both.
[First published in Peacock / Winter 2017-18]