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Beauty and ugliness, how to understand them?

"What do you expect me to do with a guy with ears like that?" said Jack Warner after watching Clark Gable's screen test for Gone with the Wind. We know the rest....

In each century, philosophers and artists have provided definitions of beauty, which have allowed to build a history of aesthetic ideas.

It was quite different with ugliness, often defined in opposition to beauty without a history being dedicated to it.

And yet such a history has many common characteristics with that of beauty.

First of all we can only assume that the common tastes corresponded, more or less, to the artistic tastes of their time.

Then we are limited to study the Western civilization because if for the primitive people and for the archaic civilizations we have artistic pieces, we do not have any theoretical text explaining the sense to give to these works (pleasure, terror, sacred, hilarity...) and for the civilizations rich in texts (Indian, Japanese, Chinese civilizations) it is difficult for us to know up to which point their concepts are identifiable with ours.

What do we mean by "ugly" and "beautiful"?

Their meaning has changed throughout Western history.

Look at this medieval philosopher for whom the right proportion is that of cathedrals, while a Renaissance theorist in the 16th century thinks rather of the golden ratio and qualifies the proportions of cathedrals as "gothic".

The concepts of beauty and ugliness are relative to historical periods and cultures.

"Ask a toad what is beauty, the great beautiful. He will answer that it is his toad with two big round eyes coming out of his little head, a wide and flat mouth, a yellow belly, a brown back. Ask the devil: he will tell you that the beautiful is a pair of horns, four claws and a tail."


Everything is relative, as my concierge says: we can find that some works are sublime while for other populations, they will be judged as awful, insignificant, even absurd or ugly.

And this is true for sculptures as well as for music.

Although the beauty and the ugliness are relative to the times and the cultures, one always tried to conceive them in relation to a stable model: the man.

"In the beautiful, man poses as a measure of perfection; in selected cases, he worships himself... We understand the ugly as a sign and a symptom of degeneration. Every indication of exhaustion, heaviness, old age, fatigue, the form of decay, of putrefaction... all this provokes the same reaction, the judgment "ugly"... Who does man hate here? But, there is no doubt here: the lowering of his type". (Nietzsche)

This is why one defined mercilessly as ugly, the beings "disturbed" (Thomas Aquinas) the errors of nature, often "mishandled" by the artists, and for the animal world, the hybrids, this bad union of the formal aspects of two different species.

Is the ugly only the opposite of the beautiful?

It is necessary to be grateful to Karl Rosenkranz to have established the first, in 1853, an analogy between the ugly and the

moral evil.

As well as the evil and the sin are opposed to the good, of which they are the hell, so the ugly is "the hell of the beautiful", a kind of possible "error" that the beautiful contains in itself so well that any aesthetic as science of the beautiful, is forced to approach also the concept of ugliness.

Let us make the effort (for some) to stop in front of works expressing the ugliness.

Their careful examination reveals to us, the ugliness of nature, the spiritual ugliness, the ugliness in art (and the various forms of artistic incorrectness) the absence of form, the asymmetry, the disharmony, the disfiguration, and the deformation (the vile, the petty, the weak, the banal, the casual, the arbitrary, the coarse) the different forms of the repulsive (the left, the dead and the empty, the horrible, the silly, the disgusting, the criminal, the spectral, the demonic, the sorcerer and the Satanic.

It is obviously too much to continue saying that the ugly is the simple opposite of the beautiful understood as harmony, proportion or integrity.

Change our approach to ugliness.

You will have noticed that all the synonyms of beautiful provoke a reaction of disinterested appreciation whereas all those of ugly are associated with a reflex of disgust or even of violent repulsion, horror or horror.

Then, since the ugliness provokes passionate reactions, such as the disgust, is it not possible for us to pronounce an aesthetic judgment of the ugliness?

That would allow us to distinguish the manifestations of the ugly in itself (excrements, a carrion, a being covered with wounds) from those of the formal ugly, this imbalance in the organic relation between the parts of a whole.

It is there that the artistic representation takes all its value: the ugly imitated in the work receives a kind of reverberation of beauty by the talent of the artist, this repugnant and unbearable ugliness which symbolizes however the existential authenticity, that is to say the life in its fragility, its vulnerability, its deprivation, its shamelessness and its violence.

It is thus possible to realize the beautiful by imitating with mastery what is repulsive.

If the "fine arts" do not characterize any more the whole of the artistic production as Yves Michaud notices it, it is also because it is necessary to add to it among others, the "ugly arts" which by showing certain facets of the existence gave to see disturbing, provocative indecent productions, susceptible even sometimes to lead certain spectators either to a feeling of repulsion or disgust, or to an ambivalent feeling of fascination and aversion.

Finally, what if the witches of Macbeth were right when they cried out in the first act: "The ugly is beautiful and the beautiful is ugly..."?

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