10 Days of Aesthetics: The Ugly (Day 6)

Leonardo da Vinci, Grotesque Head, c. 1480-1510 Red chalk on paper, 17.2 x 14.3 cm Windsor Castle, Royal Library

*Read this series from the beginning.* 

Ugly is the ontological opposite of pretty and fills the other side of the Sensual Axis. Where pretty causes sensual delight, the ugly causes sensual discomfort. This is relatively evident. There are clearly objects which cause discomfort on a sheer aesthetic level. However, the question of a pure judgment of ugly is never addressed by Kant; he focuses entirely on beauty. Philosophers have differing opinions as to whether a Kantian system can allow for a judgment of ugly. Without going into great detail, there are two camps: one which believes a Kantian system cannot, for a variety of reasons, account for a pure judgment of ugly. The other side believes that, for a variety of reasons, a Kantian system can account for a pure judgment of ugly. The Axis Theory in some ways sides with both positions. The Kantian system integrates the concepts of ugly and disgust which are separated in the Axis Theory. Ugly, as conceived in the Axis Theory, would clearly not be a pure judgment as it relies entirely on sense perception. However, following the lead of Leddy’s Everyday Aesthetics ugly, like pretty, is still considered an aesthetic category. Disgust, as will be discussed later, likely would be considered a pure judgment since it is a judgment that can be made disinterestedly.

Painting by Jenny Saville

Jenny Seville, Prop, 1992, oil on canvas, 213.5 x 183 cm

The challenge becomes when something causes both sensual aversion and intellectual pleasure. This pleasure may occur in different ways. Da Vinci’s grotesques (Fig. 6) may move into the realm of beauty simply through the prodigious skill with which he worked. His skill alone is worthy of intellectual contemplation. Similarly, Jenny Seville’s work (Fig. 7) is beautifully executed. She is a master painter.  The way she handles the paint and the beauty of her painting surface are almost unparalleled in the contemporary art scene. Yet, the subject matter is difficult. Saville intentionally paints subjects that we typically do not find pretty—obese women, deformed children, and transgender individuals. Her work creates discomfort. She complicates the issue by dealing with subject matter that some would find morally objectionable, transgendered persons, while treating them with dignity that some would find completely moral.

In a formalist language, Ross Neher similarly plays with the relationship between beauty and the ugly. His Sforza series (Fig. 8) is characterized by true formalist beauty. However, some works use color in a way that literally causes physical discomfort, at least when seen in person. This sort of approach clearly does not employ the sort of sensual delight that one would associate with the pretty but at the same time has an unmitigated formal beauty. These works fall in the overlap between beauty and ugly.

Ross Neher sforzaAn additional complication happens when something does not cause sensual but moral or intellectual displeasure. Pornography is one example. Pornography causes a sensual delight, is pretty, but not an intellectual one, and therefore is not beautiful.  On the Sensual Axis, it does not cause displeasure so it is not ugly but it would be considered by many to be morally ugly. This would potentially fall under the category of disgust which will be examined shortly.

Here are links to the entire series:

This essay is from our Anastasis Series where we resurrect articles from the past that are either still relevant today or can be easily updated. This piece was first published on April 19, 2014, and has been lightly edited and updated.

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  • A most intriguing subject. I sometimes wonder about this problem on another level. I find that in the photography world, we generally prefer some level of distortion or decay over generic beauty. We prefer to view the weathered face, the ramshackle barn, the peeling sign, the rusted car etc over those forms which are simply pretty in a generic way. Who takes pictures of suburbia? (I know someone does, but on the whole, generic pretty is far more challenging to capture, unless it can be given some kind of Stepford-wive’s vibe. I guess we have our Southern Comfort Magazines and paintings by Kincade (sp?) but we rarely think of those images of styled beauty as being truly artful. So why is it, that we… who prefer to posses a generically beautiful face, or a suburban home (as opposed to a spray painted tenement house…) still prefer the latter in images. The world I seek to create around myself, is not a world I traditionally want to examine with art.

  • ps. I sometimes feel this question on a different level. I view and respond to art in which ugliness is strong component. Yet I sometimes feel checked in my soul when I intentionally produce such works. It is part of the “Whatsoever” admonition. (Ie, Whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are noble….if there be any virtue, if there be any praise.. think on these things. (Loose from memory) So, while I respond and enjoy works in which ugliness plays a prominent theme, I find I can only go so far before conviction sets in. Same with sex themes. I view more in this realm than I feel comfortable producing, for the same reason. I expect to answer for the tastes I cultivate in myself, and those that I might forge in another. So I never feel the artistic liberty to do what I would, because I feel constrained by the idea that I must answer to God for what I savor — or encourage.

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