“What a strange illusion is to suppose that beauty is goodness,” wrote Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina. He goes on: “A beautiful woman utters absurdities. We listen and we hear not the absurdities, but wise thoughts.” For centuries, beauty has indeed followed humanity and its need for a binary order of the world. Assigning goodness to the visibly beautiful is a way to recognise and tame the desirable unknown, and to avoid and combat its counterpart: beauty is a revelation of the divine, purity made flesh, while ugliness stands as a mark of evil. If notions of beauty and ugliness are relative to particular eras and follow an evolution of aesthetic taste and judgement, what seems to be absolute is this calibration of both to morality.
In his treatise On Ugliness, Umberto Eco speaks of the “autonomy of ugliness,” its quality of drifting from being a simple negation of beauty: ugliness is the absence of beauty, but this void is filled with more complex elements, that move past the expected “appreciation – disregard” binary. When beauty generates reactions of “disinterested appreciation,” ugliness sets in motion a wider range of responses – disgust, repulsion, horror, fear.
In Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche considers the norm of perfection and finds that “man posits himself” to be this referent of utmost beauty; engaging with the beautiful and the ugly will be, in this sense, a constant affirmation of a desirable self, and a necessary rejection of any failure of this desirability: “Ugliness is seen as a sign and a symptom of degeneration. Every suggestion of exhaustion, heaviness, senility, fatigue, any sort of lack of freedom … all this provokes an identical reaction, the value judgement 'ugly…' What does man hate? There is no doubt about this: he hates the twilight of his own type.”
Although seemingly modelled on a human scale, this mode of operating ugliness does not account for what we have come to know as universally human: decay, collapse, disease, and death. Rejecting the ugly in encounters with these manifestations of human frailty starts, in fact, with the uncanny recognition of their unavoidability. Many of the intellectual and artistic movements of the twentieth century fully engaged with this dichotomy, leading an anarchy of taste meant to redeem the repugnant, the unbearable, to bring destruction, waste, and decay in the forefront, thus, as Theodor Adorno writes, “to denounce, through ugliness, the world that creates it and reproduces it in its own likeness.” Art might have been successful here to call out power and destabilise its claim over aesthetic categories. This new model of beauty that avant-garde established lends its legacy to contemporary art and creative production, with artists declaring the opposition between ugliness and beauty without value, and clearing a limitless space for the surprising coexistence of ancient understandings of physical beauty and various forms of monstrosity and so-called deviance.
In this setting, the hegemony of the aesthetically pleasant in ascribing desirability and normativity might come to an end; its moral extensions, manifested in conventional pairings can be challenged, but do we have political and social structures that can successfully do this? Current political discourse incorporates ideological content of the past; pathologies of the unlikable are still at work: they criminalise addiction, delegitimise poverty, homelessness, and unemployment, expel the diseased, and objectify the foreign. This zone of social marginality is clearly produced by turning rejection – of the unwanted, the repugnant – into a socio-political act, seemingly made legitimate by its successful containment and control of ugliness. What a strange illusion!
Words: Elena Stanciu