On Ugliness

Over at the Reading Experience Daniel Green considers Roger Scruton’s recent essay, “Beauty and Desecration” in which the philosopher urges us to “rescue art from the modern intoxication with ugliness.” In brief, Scruton’s argument is that the fundamental role of art is to “magnify life as it is and to reveal its beauty,” but modern art and popular culture have instilled the “habit of desecration,” which leads to moral chaos. Once landscape painters like Poussin and Turner portrayed the “joy that lies incipient in decay and to the eternal implied in the transient.” Now we have an adaptation of Mozart’s opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail set in a Berlin brothel. But as Green points out, when Scruton demands that art return to its pre-modernist role of reconciling us to the order inherent in nature, he forgets “the world at times betrays an order that isn’t necessarily beneficent.” Beauty may be truth, but it is a partial truth.

Green is right to charge Scruton with confusing moral and aesthetic crimes. I would add that Scruton underestimates the value of ugliness, which, like beauty itself, has a history. Very early art was full of ugly images in order to enforce taboos by scaring people. As human subjectivity became stronger and the old primitive fears subsided, the ugly became a taboo itself, in this case against crude forms and dissonance. But when the promised freedom of the subject never quite developed fully, the old taboos returned so that the subject could both submit to old fears and rebel against them.

Scruton is correct in pointing out that the ugly took a qualitatively different form in Modernism, although I disagree with the lesson he draws. For traditional aesthetics, the ugly disrupts the harmony and unity of form; consequently, the ugly may appear, but it has to be subsumed under an overall form to reaffirm the mastery of the artist over his or her material. In Modernism, by contrast, the ugly is no longer something that can be recuperated into formal unity. In the Modernism of Rimbaud, Gottfried Benn, and Beckett the ugly becomes a dynamic principle in place of beauty. The ugly incorporates beauty in the same form-giving processes.

Arguably, there’s nothing that is intrinsically ugly, that something appears to be ugly only through reference, directly or indirectly, to art. Without the ugly, a couple of things happen to beauty: one, purified of the ugly, beauty becomes kitsch, and two, without the ugly beauty has nothing to counterbalance the spurious spiritualization of beauty. Beauty thus becomes little more than “a spell on a spell,” as Adorno put it.

Art, as Nietzsche said, is cruel. It changes materials and imposes form on them. Telling an artist that he or she should produce art without any traces of cruelty or ugliness is really just a demand to conform to the tastes of an audience. Ugliness in modern art is an expression of the cruelty of art, of our own botched relationship to nature under globalized capitalism, and of the mythic forces still lurking beneath the surface of modern society, just as the ugly was an expression of the threat of the malevolent divine in early Greek art.

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