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The ugly truth: the beauty of ugliness

The best-selling author of Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything, sees ugliness as a necessary corrective that stimulates a deeper appreciation of beauty

What is ugly? Not that magnificent power station. No, the way that Bernd and Hilla Becher photographed the decrepit infrastructure of the Ruhr made sooty industry beautiful, surely?

When the designers were working on the jacket of my new book, someone suggested including a question mark after the title and giving the whole a mirror finish. Curious browsers would be immediately confronted with a deadly question. How beautiful are you? Tact prevailed and we used a scary detail from a Hieronymus Bosch nightmare instead. That was on the front. We put Ernö Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower on the back.

We all enjoy beauty. But an appreciation of ugliness is necessary to it. The beautiful and the ugly are not opposites, but aspects of the same thing. Concerned what people think about your house? Wish your partner were better looking? In dieting, getting a tan or going to the gym, choosing a Weimaraner over a rescue mutt, visiting an exhibition or shopping at Westfield, we are trying to acquire beauty to give us a personal competitive advantage. But don’t worry if you feel ugly: perceptions change.


Utopian ideals embodied by Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower, once scorned, now grade II listed

In 1969, a group of London advertising folk, fatigued with the conventions of their trade, started The Ugly Modelling Agency. They wanted faces with character, not bland perfection. Look at the photographs from the time and you wonder what the fuss was about. The agency survives as Ugly Models whose clients include Diesel and Calvin Klein. Meanwhile, ever since the Francophile Nancy Mitford popularised the expression, we have had the idea of jolie-laide, a woman who can be attractive and ugly at the same time. Mitford was herself an example. So too is Jeanne Moreau.

‘Beauty’, however defined, is not necessarily attractive. And ugliness is not always repulsive. Besides, tastes change. The tides of taste go back and forth, erasing aesthetic certainties. This is a truth so disturbing that most of our assumptions about art are immediately and ruinously undermined. For example, two years before it was finished, the great Paris intellos of the day lined-up against the Eiffel Tower, writing letters to the papers denouncing it as an ugly and hateful column of bolted tin. Of course, it is now one of the world’s most loved monuments.

John Ruskin, the Victorian booster of Nature’s beauty, campaigned manically against the ugly intrusion of the steam railway into the unspoilt and tranquil Lake District. And he despised the introduction of the noisy vaporetto into the dignified Venice he regarded as his private intellectual playpen. Now we see each machine as quaint and lovely, possibly even beautiful. Back in Ruskin’s London, the Albert Memorial, now a national architectural treasure as fondly regarded as hot buttered toast and the shipping forecast, was once described as verminous and crawling.

Yet the very same Nature that Ruskin thought inevitably beautiful can be repellent. We are now required by custom to admire Alpine views, but mountains were once thought disgusting: they were dangerous, frightening and home to nasty demons and bandits. Nature can be ugly. Not all plants conform to beautiful conventions: the Amorphophallus Titanum is a vast, hideous, swollen phallic thing which stinks of death: it is known as the corpse flower.

Darwin explained our need for ‘beauty’ in saying that breeding attractive children is a survival characteristic: I, for example, may feel the need to fuse my premium genetic material with yours so that humanity continues in the same fine style. But there may be a mathematical, as well as biological, basis to the conventional ideas of the beautiful. This is what the Greeks believed: beauty can be described by numbers. Classical sculpture was based on strict ratios and Classical architecture is pleasing because its proportions are based on the field of vision of the human eye.


Discus thrower by Myron, ca 460 B.C, sculpted in the vein of anatomical perfection

These rules may still exist. I know a designer in the car industry who keeps a photograph of Claudia Schiffer’s face on his laptop. He has an app which allows him to distort the image in any dimension. This he does as a demonstration to show how at a very specific moment, what was beautiful becomes, one millimetre too far, unacceptable.

Besides measurement, another factor which changes our perceptions: time. ‘Familiarity is a magician that is cruel to beauty, but kind to ugliness’ according to the excitable Victorian novelist Maria Louise Ramé. This might not be as mad as it first sounds. It’s beauty that is evanescent, fragile, dismaying a subject of measurements. When something becomes familiar we tolerate it and tolerance can grow into affection. And, as Serge Gainsbourg remarked, ‘ugliness is superior to beauty because it lasts longer’. Maybe a thing of ugliness is a joy forever.

We get the word ‘ugly’ from an Old Norse word ugga which means ‘aggressive’, hence the expression an ‘ugly customer’. It’s this sense of violence that is initially disturbing, but this also means there is much more variety and surprise in ugliness. Beauty is a sedative, predictable and soothing rather than challenging. And who is to say being sedated and soothed is better than being stimulated? 

The strange truth is: too much beauty would be intolerable, an awful world of meticulously cropped lawns and starched linen. We only enjoy the ephemeral deliciousness of beauty if we have an active concept of ugliness. Heaven needs hell. Follow this argument to its conclusion and you will see that a measure of ugliness is essential to keep our appetites alive. So, exactly how much ugliness should we maintain in our world? Should we actually encourage its production? What’s the optimum exposure to ugliness? Should there be quotas? 

An even stranger truth is that ugliness fascinates. One of the most popular pictures in London’s National Gallery is by the 16th-century Flemish master Quentin Matsys. Conventionally known as The Ugly Duchess, the sitter is suffering from a bone disorder causing horrible facial deformities. In the National Gallery’s shop, the Ugly Duchess postcard sells at least as well as Claude Monet’s serene Water-Lily Pond.


The Ugly Duchess by Quentin Matsys, 1513

Ugliness deserves to be understood, but when you begin to examine it, the idea disappears. It is, for example, quite possible to look at steaming, suppurating landfill and find a thing of strange beauty. See the A38/M6 interchange from the air and it is surely a thing of transcendent beauty. That B-52? This murderous atrocity is also sublime. Equally, it is only a matter of time before the Brutalist Trellick Tower, loathed by thatched-roof sentimentalists, acquires an admired period gloss. Already it has been Grade II listed since 1998. Soon, Prince Charles will, with a tear in his eye, speak fondly of its stained concrete.

Ugly cars could once be explained by the ignorance or incompetence of their manufacturers. The AMC Gremlin and Morris Marina are just two examples from recent history, but now there is so much design competence in the motor industry that creating beauty is easy. Thus Ferrari, with impeccable credentials in the manufacture of gorgeous automobile sculpture, has not made a beautiful car for a long time: its signature curves have been stolen by Koreans. 

So, at the end of beauty’s road, Ferrari design is seeking confrontation. When Renault entered the large car market, it decided not to compete with the industry-norm of German Gute Form, but introduced the self-consciously ugly Vel Satis. In products, the iPhone’s success is to a degree based on a delicious physical appeal which can be no further refined. Whatever Apple does next, it is unlikely to be more beautiful.

Our obsession with beauty and our fear of ugliness, like so many other ‘traditions’ – cricket and public schools, for example – goes back to the middle of the 19th century. It was then that Lewis Carroll, a contemporary of John Ruskin, coined the term ‘uglification’ to describe the changes to town and country which industry had forced and which he found disturbing. Ever since, we have fretted about what is good and bad. Like it or not, we are all in a continuing debate about aesthetics. Peter Schleldahl, the US art critic said ‘Beauty is … no big deal, but the lack of it is’. Maybe, but if everything were beautiful … nothing would be.


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