The Aesthetics of Ugliness


Contemporary art, by refusing any approach to art other than that of the artist’s "mental map", cuts itself off from what is fundamental to art  beauty  and enters into its discourse. And yet, an artist’s discourse and intention cannot overlook images, since art is shown through what is visible. Thus, by violating all of the rules which enter into the elaboration of a work of art, contemporary art inevitably ends up colliding with beauty.


By showing it aside as superfluous, since it considers it to be purely subjective, and perhaps even decreeing that art does not even need visibility (Ben) contemporary artists find themselves faced with ugliness. There is no intermediate solution. Other qualifiers might be used, such as ugly, deformed, deranged, kitsch, monstrous, abject, sickening, aberrant, violent, convulsive, incoherent… it nonetheless always remains ugliness. Indeed, all these variants of ugliness populate contemporary art since, in art, avoiding forms is difficult. The question that arises is: does this art, which believes itself able to refuse beauty, really manage to escape it? For is not the ugly simply the opposite of the beautiful? Where the beautiful proposes harmonious proportions, the ugly proposes disorder all the way until the monstrous; where the beautiful proposes balance, the ugly delights in disorder; where the beautiful invites to pleasure, the ugly provokes disgust.


In order to escape this contradiction and affirm one’s work as a work of art, and not just as an ersatz, contemporary artists are left with owning the autonomy of ugliness. Taking their work out of the so-called dictatorship of the beautiful. This step was first taken by Raymond Polin: "What is ugly offends not by what it does not have but by what it has. It is not the absence of beauty, but the presence of ugliness, not a lack but an overfilling." Thus, the ugly, by becoming a presence (presence of ugliness), can claim a certain autonomy. It claims a reality onto itself, more than simply as the negative side of the beautiful. However, the ugly can never achieve any true autonomy, it can never be "an end in itself" (Rosenkranz). It is the workings of the world that gives beauty its foundation, it is in these workings, based on a perpetual and ordered rebalancing, that beauty draws its structure. It is the organization of nature that assigns objective criteria to beauty. It is in the power of life where it replenishes itself and is renewed. The ugly is its opposite, the moment of disorder in which everything plunges into chaos and death.


Of course, ugliness has often been a part of works of art, but it is imperative to distinguish the ugly in the work and the ugly of the work. The ugly in the work is an ugly form in a harmonious whole, it is an ancillary form, a moment in the artistic quality of the work. The ugly of the work is plain ugliness. Too bad for Nietzche, who declares that it is through ugliness that art is profound .(Twilight of the Idols)


What authorized the idea of a certain autonomy of ugliness is the affirmation of the subjectivity of beauty. And yet, for a work of art to be distinguishable from any other object, it must rely on an objective foundation, and the only possible objectivity is that of the beautiful since "the beautiful has only one type, the ugly has thousands." (Victor Hugo, preface to Cromwell).


And now a new science, neuroscience, is diving into this vital question for man. Faced with a work of art, there is no neutral observation. Thanks to recent research through medical imagery, it has become possible to disentangle, when faced with the beautiful, on the one hand the emotional reactions linked to pleasure or displeasure, and on the other aesthetic appreciation.


During experiments in which people were placed in front of art objects, researchers discovered that two different circuits of the brain became activated : the evolved cortical circuit and insula, and the emotional circuit and amygdala. When experiments were conducted to gauge reactions to works of art created according to the golden mean by showing subjects antique and Renaissance sculptures, it was found that harmonious proportions are perceived by everyone as being such. Everybody sees harmony and balance in a work of art. The same circuits become activated  those of the evolved cortical circuit. The responses are very quick, almost immediate. Shortly after, deeper, older regions involving emotions become activated. Then, our experiences, our memories, our states of mind become activated, and a second answer follows: I like it, or I don’t. Although we can all appreciate the beauty of the Victory of Samothrace, some of us do not like it. (I knew a Victory, what a bad memory!) Thus, we must distinguish, on the one hand, the objectively beautiful linked to physically measurable harmonious forms and relations and, on the other hand, the "subjectively beautiful" (I like it  I don’t like it), which results from affective emotions. On the one side, it is the external world, the harmony of the world, and on the other side, our personal baggage. Most often, affective emotion overwhelms aesthetic emotion and we may not love quality works, while being seduced by works of no aesthetic interest. This is why the idea of subjective beauty has become so ingrained.


However, "the study of our brain’s responses to beauty and the resulting psychological modifications show that we mentally imitate such a statue, that we unconsciously appreciate the harmonious proportions of a composition, that music relieves us, that such a painting will be seen by our brain as a loved one." (Pierre Lemarquis, Portrait of the Brain as an Artist). For our physical and mental health, it would be ideal to trend towards the joining of beauty with "I like it." To reach this joining, it is necessary to regularly see different works, to learn, and to distance oneself from oneself. In this context, ugliness is reduced to what it is "a destructive contradiction which designates either the vulgar as opposed to the sublime, the amorphous as opposed to the beautiful, or the repugnant as opposed to the charming or the pleasant." (Rosenkranz).


Finally, modern art based on ugliness conveys neuroses, anxieties and various pathologies which, without being elaborated within an aesthetic setting, but presented in the first degree, exert a harmful influence on the viewer. Instead of linking it to the harmony of the world and the energy of the living, it proposes decomposition and death.

Ksenia Milicevic