Ugliness as useful as beauty, says critic
In a controversial new book, critic Stephen Bayley examines the history of the hideous. Are our ideas of ugliness and beauty fixed? And can the unappealing ever be valuable?
The Southbank Centre is one of London’s greatest landmarks. Overlooking the Thames, its ingeniously designed spaces buzz with cultural activity. Millions think it an architectural treasure, at once thought-provoking, functional and beautiful.
It is also routinely voted Britain’s most hideous building: a hulking atrocity built from grey, featureless expanses of concrete. The Southbank, critics say, is ugly.
That charged word is the title of a provocative new book. Cultural critic Stephen Bayley has long been fascinated by beauty: in Ugly, he examines it through the lens of the downright disgusting.
At the book’s launch, the hideous sashayed into the spotlight. Mugly, the most unattractive dog in the world, featured alongside Quentin Massys’ famously hideous ‘Ugly Duchess’ painting, and guests sipped unappealing grey cocktails.
Why would London’s art world revel in the revolting? First, Bayley thinks, ugliness can help us understand beauty: ‘you can only understand heaven’ he says, ‘if you have a concept of hell’.
This is not an unfamiliar concept: in the 15th Century, painter Hieronymus Bosch paired images of Eden with nightmarish depictions of writhing bodies in hell. And while Leonardo da Vinci examined nature for the perfect proportions he would reproduce in painting, he also filled sketchbooks with drawings of deformed faces.
Are these alternate images inherently ugly? Perhaps. But Bayley’s book also examines the idea that beauty can change. When it was built in 1889, for example, the Eiffel Tower was described as ‘monstrous’, a ‘hateful column of bolted tin’. Today, it is one of Europe’s most romantic landmarks.
Artists even try to redefine ugliness themselves. After the First World War, writers like Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound tried to create a beauty for brutal times by incorporating the mechanised and horrifying into their work. Decades later, Damien Hirst shocked the art world with his sculptures of sawn-up animals. Now, his bronze statue of a pregnant woman, with her internal organs visible, stands in a Devon town centre – and has attracted as much praise and derision as London’s Brutalist Southbank.
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Many conservative critics are appalled at this plague of ‘ugliness’. They think art should elevate humanity, with a dignified vision of traditional beauty. It should only concern itself with the most awe-inspiring and beautiful things, not a world that is base, disgusting and ugly.
But art, others say, must tackle the dark, sordid and revolting as well as the attractive. Things that are considered ugly can still give people profound and important insights into the world around them – reflections that might make the hideous appear beautiful.
- Is there anything beautiful about things that are horrible or disturbing?
- Does ‘beauty’ obey fixed rules, or does it change over time?
- Choose a building in your area that you think looks particularly offensive or ‘ugly’. Make your own depiction of it – using writing, art or photography – that places it in a ‘beautiful’ light.
- Write a ‘defence of ugliness’, using examples from art and literature.
Some People Say...
“Modern art is ugly and disgusting.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- I don’t care if people want to look at ugly things.
- You might mind if they construct a new building or create a piece of public art in your town or city. Buildings like the Southbank are common, as are statues like Damien Hirst’sVerity. They come from a particular idea of what public art and architecture should be like.
- What if I don’t like it?
- You might just have to live with it – most Brutalist architecture probably won’t be demolished. But you can get interested in the buildings in your area, and think about what you’d prefer. Join a local conservation society if you feel strongly about it.
- What then?
- Developers always have to ask for planning permission, so local people have a chance to object. And in local newspapers and meetings, debates are always raging about public art.
- Ugly Duchess
- This 16th Century painting is meant to be satirical. It depicts a wrinkled, hideous old woman, dressed up and clutching a flower that implies she is looking for a husband. The artist, it is thought, was making fun of old women trying to cling to their youth.
- Hieronymus Bosch
- Bosch is a Dutch painter who lived in the 15th and 16th Centuries. He is well known for the surreal and fantastic imagery which he used to convey moral and religious messages in many of his paintings.
- Leonardo da Vinci
- A Renaissance painter, inventor, musician, mathematician, anatomist and sculptor, Leonardo da Vinci created some of the most ‘beautiful’ paintings in the history of art. His famous works include the Mona Lisa and Last Supper, while the ‘Vitruvian Man’, a careful, geometric drawing of a human form, illustrates the ‘perfect’ dimensions of the human body.
- Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound
- These early Twentieth Century writers pioneered an approach to art called Vorticism. This short-lived movement values abstract shapes, full of movement and momentum, that tried to mirror the dynamic sense of modern industrialisation.
- The architectural movement Brutalism isn’t meant to be brutal – the name comes from the French beton brut, or raw concrete – a phrase used by Le Corbusier, who pioneered the Brutalist style. Buildings are characterised by heavy, square concrete blocks, with a rough and imposing appearance; they are carefully designed to provide communal living environments. Famous Brutalist structures include the J. Edgar Hoover building in Washington and the Unité d'Habitation in Marseille.