A brief outline of the history of ugliness (1)
May 31, 2011 § Leave a comment
Ugliness as an uncontrolled experiment
One possible interpretation of the history of European Art in the nineteenth century forces itself upon you as you read its various histories (and look at the illustrations): that it was an experiment with the aesthetic of ugliness; and that the experiment has gone horribly wrong.
The simile might be to an innocent child learning to stimulate its anus for sexual pleasure. Just as gentle stroking of the anus can indeed be pleasurable, so limited use of mild ugliness can be effective in art, not perhaps so much for the shudder it gives, but for the way it makes following beauty stand out even more. Some things — like mountain-climbing, or being mercilessly scrubbed down in a Turkish hamam — feel best when they stop; and sometimes, the experience of having them stop is worth having them in the first place: spending half an hour with Goya’s Horrors of War becomes deeply rewarding the instant we walk out of the room.
But, unchecked, daring experiments develop according to their own dynamic; and some uncontrolled dynamics, like the dynamic of a speeding driverless car on a winding mountain road, can only end one way. In our metaphor: gentle stroking leads to probing, probing to penetration, and, before you know it we’re into incontinence, piles, and colonic cancer. (I.e. start out with a little ugliness in Goya and end up with nothing but in Schiele and Munch).
To guard against the disastrous consequences of uncontrolled experiments, the divine Pythius Lycegenes gave us the commandment μηδέν άγαν: nothing in excess. Alas, the nineteenth century, like a bunch of high-schoolers going on strike, embraced Rousseau flattering dicta, and refused to read the classics for instruction. They went for self-discovery instead.
And there’s the rub: any discovery is only as valuable as the thing it throws up. Given the nature of human nature, self-discovery throws up mostly nastiness. It is perhaps not ignorant but self-knowing of the human race to avoid any closer brush with… self-knowledge.
Next: The three prophets of ugliness: Goya, Delacroix, Courbet