Ugly

by Nicholas Mancusi

When, after six busy days of creation, God dusted off his hands and looked at what he had brought into being, Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that “he [had] made every-thing beautiful.” Pleasant, perhaps, but how boring it must have been. There is a reason the best-selling third part of The Divine Comedy deals with the gruesome torture of the damned, rather than with the rewards of the devout, or why people are most drawn to the extreme right of Bosch’s triptych Garden of Earthly Delights, where the bird-headed prince of hell holds court, rather than to the extreme left, where happy critters frolic in Eden: ugly is interesting.

In Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything, English cultural commentator and design expert Stephen Bayley aims to impart a better understanding of beauty by considering all the things that it definitely is not, from Leonardo’s grotesques and the star-nosed mole to suburban sprawl and brutalist architecture. This is not a dense philosophical text—“I am not going to pretend to have read, still less understood, Plato and Kant,” Bayley writes—but rather a useful codex of aesthetic misadventures, rich with full-color photographs and wry wit. He is not an impartial observer, but a warrior in the cause of better design, taking as his charge the mission of critic Kenneth Tynan: “Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds!”

The history of ugly, we see, is the negative image of the history of art itself; the ever-changing obverse that art (generally) aims to counteract or efface. For most of human history, this dichotomy was understood quite simply. Beauty, a shade of the heavenly, was to be obtained by codifiable principles set down in mathematical formulas, and ugliness was to be avoided, and discussed in obvious terms, if discussed at all. It is not until the industrial revolution, when the ugliness of industry began to impose itself on the bucolic countryside, that the book picks up steam. Once ugly was here to stay, in the form of concessions made to the functionality of machines, it touched off an aesthetic pendulum of reaction and re-reaction that is still evinced today.

We can trace the energy of this closed system though the idea of “kitsch,” which Bayley describes as “the artful, knowing, and sly elevation of bad taste.” The concept did not always contain an implicitly ironic connotation, however: Kitsch was first used to describe, or slur, the attempts of newly efficient industry to make products that were “cheap and yet still attempt to create at least some impression of a higher value,” and sell them to a new consumer base that was either undiscerning or over-eager to ornament their lives with what they saw as class signifiers. “Since the new consumers largely lacked education,” Bayley writes, “taste and refinement were not really needed. Production and consumption were no longer the privilege of an elite, but were open to all social classes. Somewhat depressingly, this led to generalized mediocrity rather than generalized excellence.” (If these words ring slightly un-democratic, remember that good criticism should be an undemocratic business.) In other words, kitsch once meant simply a failure of design, which bordered even on immorality, with no knowing wink. “The producer of kitsch,” wrote critic Hermann Broch in 1933, “must be judged as a contemptible being.”

Once the clean lines and simplicity of the Bauhaus and modernist movements came along to tidy up the mess, kitsch, still “ugly” by sight, was reborn in an ironic light, a way for those in the know to display their own postmodern understanding of the relativistic nature of art history. Bayley will have none of it: ugly is ugly, and let it be ever thus. As he says of artist Jon Wealleans’s paintings of Day-Glo “kitchen kitsch”: “In their searing hideousness, submission to queasy effect and dumb noise, Wealleans’s extraordinary paintings are a case study of self-conscious kitsch in the service of really rather disturbing ugliness.” Self-consciousness is no excuse.

Bayley aims to further the revival of John Ruskin, the most famous Cassandra of the coming blight of machinery and soot of the industrial age. Ruskin believed that ugliness, carted in on clanging iron railways, was the Mephistophelian price that society was far too eager to pay for economic progress. He dreaded that England would one day become “set as thick with chimneys as the masts stand in the docks of Liverpool; that there shall be no meadows in it; no tree; no gardens; only a little corn grown on the housetops, reaped and threshed by the steam; that you do not even have room for roads, but travel either over the roofs of your mills, on viaducts; or under their floors, in tunnels; that, the smoke having rendered the light of the sun unserviceable, you work always by the light of your own gas; that no acre of English ground shall be without its shaft and engine.” An ugly prediction indeed, but we need only read accounts of Manchester, England, at the height of unrestrained industrialism to see how accurate it was.

This is the danger of aesthetic ambivalence, and one that Bayley would see corrected. When the public is unconcerned with design, it is not only that we risk hanging ugliness on our walls; we risk it coming to define and describe our lives so pervasively that we would not even be able to imagine a better way, as we would lack the vocabulary. Bayley writes with the righteous dynamism of someone confident (and rightly so) in his own good taste. Take this passage, in which he describes the oppressive sight of a London souvenir kiosk: “Any London souvenir stall is a perfect vernacular museum of kitsch.…Soft toys of indeterminate animal origin with Union Jack clothing. Novelty t-shirts. A plastic gilt Big Ben made in China: merely to describe is to condemn without having to recourse to critical bravura or analytical methodologies.”

“Merely to describe is to condemn.” It may seem a weak, relativistic phrase on its face, but why then does it ring so agreeable? Here we have, in fact, the apotheosis of criticism: to point out the obvious (or, if you like, the objective) truth of something in front of us that has tried to disguise itself. After finishing this book, it is true that the reader will be more cognizant of the ugliness all around them. But they also be more prepared to combat it.

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2014, Volume 31, Number 1