views updated Jun 08 2018


Aesthetics has often been described as the philosophical study of beauty and "ugliness." It is important at the outset to see what is involved in this familiar definition, for it embodies a view of ugliness and of its role within aesthetic theory that has been the major source of contention in historical debates on the concept. The first thing to note about this view is that it takes ugliness to be a category that properly falls within aesthetic theory. Ugliness designates aesthetic disvalue as beauty designates positive aesthetic value. The two therefore constitute a value polarity analogous to right and wrong in ethics or to truth and falsehood in epistemology. Just as the field of ethics comprises responsible human actions of which some are evil and blameworthy, so, among perceptual objects, there are some that have negative aesthetic value. This does not mean that such objects simply lack the characteristics by virtue of which things are beautiful; it means, rather, that they possess recognizable properties that are the opposites of those found in beautiful objects.

The relation between beauty and ugliness has commonly been conceived in hedonistic terms, that is, whereas a beautiful object is a source of pleasure in the spectator, an ugly object arouses its opposite, pain. Plato, in numerous instances, takes beauty to be characteristically pleasurable (Hippias Major 297299, Philebus 5052, Laws II). Aristotle perpetuates this view, and in his study of specific art forms (notably tragedy) he holds that it is the proper function of these forms to create pleasure. Yet it is clear in his classic Poetics that he is troubled by the seeming conflict between this view of art and the empirical fact that works of art often represent objects and events that are ugly. Aristotle raises the question first in regard to the type of visual art that depicts things "which in themselves we view with pain" (IV). He does not doubt, however, that the painting itself arouses pleasure, a phenomenon that is explained by our intellectual interest in recognizing the object. Comedy, moreover, "imitates" men who are ignoble and therefore ludicrous; and though this is a kind of ugliness, the comedy is, for reasons that Aristotle does not specify, kept from being painful (V). Finally, though the protagonist is a good man who suffers adversity, tragedy is not merely shocking (XIII).

Thus Aristotle initiated the controversy over the "paradox of tragedy" that has survived to the present day. As has been shown, this paradox is not the sole instance of the problem of ugliness in art, but it states the problem most acutely, both because tragedy is almost the only artistic genre whose subject matter is necessarily sorrowful or pathetic and because of the preeminent value that has traditionally been claimed for works in this genre. Why do we esteem narratives of evil and suffering? The poetic values of tragic literature, the ennobling courage of the hero, the insight and wisdom gained by the spectatorthese are among the usual solutions of the paradox. All of them consider the ugly as only a single aspect of the work of art, for they all undertake to show that within the work as a whole the ugliness is somehow transcended. Hence they presuppose that some objects, such as the preartistic model of tragic plot, are "painful in themselves," and therefore ugly.

Throughout aesthetic theory, ugliness is discussed mainly by those philosophers who deny precisely this assumption. They wish to hold that ugliness does not exist, and since their thesis runs counter to ordinary belief, they are constrained to justify it. In Augustine, the unreality of ugliness is enjoined by his most fundamental philosophical doctrines. Stated theologically, the world and everything in it have been created by an infinitely good God, as an expression of his goodness; stated metaphysically, existence is not neutral with respect to value and disvalue, but is rather an embodiment, through and through, of positive value. In such a worldview, the apparent presence of evil of any kind poses a problem, and Augustine considers sin and blindness just such problems. But aesthetic disvalue is a particular issue for him because his conception of reality is conspicuously aesthetic. All things are images of the ideas of form and harmony that exist in the mind of God, and together they make up an internally ordered unity. The categories of Greek aesthetic theory are thus writ large in his metaphysics.

To say that a thing can exist at all only if it possesses form, and that, indeed, its existence cannot be conceived of apart from form, implies the solution of Augustine's problem. Objects are beautiful by virtue of their form, but if this is so, then ugliness does not exist, since sheer formlessness cannot exist. The opposite of beauty is not anything real, but merely the absence or "privation" of positive value. But now the argument seems to prove almost too much, for it appears to deny the possibility of the very factsthat is, apparently ugly objectswhich gave rise to it in the first place. Augustine therefore employs the notion of "degrees" of value characteristic of metaphysical optimism and idealism. An object may not have the form appropriate to things of its kind, but this lack constitutes a relative deficiency of beauty, not sheer ugliness. Moreover, such objects must be seen not in isolation but as parts of the universe as a whole. Seeming ugliness sets off, and thereby enhances, the beauty of the world. Augustine uses the same argument in the case of objects, such as dangerous animals, which are not in any clear way lacking in form, but are considered ugly because they are displeasing or offensive to the sight.

However, when "form" has been construed less broadly than it was by Augustine, it has been used to differentiate beauty from genuine ugliness. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, numerous treatises were devoted to particular arts, on the model of the Poetics. The properties of form that a work must possess in order to achieve beauty are specified precisely and narrowly. These include the "unities" in drama (Pierre Corneille) and the "correct" anatomical proportions in the visual arts (Albrecht Dürer). A work of art that lacks these properties is still recognizably a drama or a sculpture and therefore has some organization or structure. Yet it is not only deficient in beauty but really ugly.

This assured and unequivocal way of distinguishing ugliness was called into question, however, by the rebellion against the "rules" of form that was carried on throughout the eighteenth century. The rules were found to be too parochial and constricting. Yet the distinction between beauty and ugliness might still have been drawn, by reference to felt experience rather than to the object, if the hedonistic theory of value had been consistently preserved. But examination of aesthetic experience (of the sublime) reveals that it engenders feelings that are akin to pain. Sublime objects are overwhelming, menacing, intractable to understanding and control. And yet such experiences, because they are intensely moving, are of great value. Thus, both formalism and hedonism, which had traditionally sustained the duality of beauty-ugliness, are impugned. More fundamentally still, the eighteenth century first established aesthetics as an autonomous and systematic discipline. The question "What counts as a properly aesthetic phenomenon?" was then raised explicitly for the first time. The answer to this question, as we shall see, ultimately determines whether ugliness is a category of aesthetic disvalue. In all these ways, the eighteenth century provided impulse and direction to the vigorous prosecution in recent thought of what was first called, at the close of that century, "the theory of ugliness" (Friedrich von Schlegel, 1797).

According to two of the most influential answers to the question raised above, the aesthetic is to be found either (1) wherever some conceptual theme is embodied in an object that can be grasped by sense and imagination or (2) wherever some sensory structure expresses to the observer its distinctive feeling-quality. Any object of either kind is said to possess beauty. Ugliness, traditionally, is the "opposite" of aesthetic value. But what would be the opposites of these two conceptions of the aesthetic? In the first case, the opposite would be found in some sensory presentation devoid of intellectual significance or, alternatively, in pure concepts, such as certain of those of science and philosophy, which are beyond imagination. Such objects, however, do not exemplify aesthetic disvalue; rather they fall wholly outside of the realm of the aesthetic as it is defined according to this theory. In the second case, similarly, a thing completely lacking any emotional toneif any such thing existsis simply nonaesthetic.

This conclusion, however, fails to take into account ugliness in the usual sensethat is, what we perceive as being displeasing or revolting. W. T. Stace, a recent exponent of the first theory mentioned above, which he took over from G. W. F. Hegel, suggests that what is thus excluded from the aesthetic should be called "the unbeautiful""the mere negative absence of beauty"rather than the ugly. Ugliness itself is a "species" of beauty that is present whenever such concepts as evil and disaster enter into the aesthetic object. The pain that such concepts arouse in us is moral, not aesthetic, and it is usually overcome by the aesthetic pleasure we gain from the total object. Bernard Bosanquet develops the second theory, derived from Benedetto Croce, by arguing that most of what is usually found to be ugly is deemed so because of "the weakness of the spectator." Either the work of art makes very great demands on his emotional capacities or, as in satiric comedy, it offends his moral beliefs; the "weakness," however, is remediable. Such a work of art is therefore more properly considered an instance of "difficult beauty" than of ugliness. Are there any objects at all that come within the realm of the aesthetic and are genuinely (or, as Bosanquet says, "invincibly") ugly? Bosanquet is "much inclined" to think that there are none. Given his view that the expressive is the aesthetic, and that "every form expresses" and is therefore beautiful, it is difficult to see how there could be any such object. He holds, however, that ugliness is to be located in what is only incipiently and partially expressive, that is, in a work of art that suggests some feeling but does not coherently elaborate and fulfill the suggestion, as in sentimental or "affected" art.

The traditional polarity of beauty-ugliness marks the distinction between aesthetic value and disvalue. Both the above theories conceive of the aesthetic in such a way that they leave little or no room for disvalue. Yet both Stace and Bosanquet regard the aesthetic experience as pleasurable. At the same time, they want to make room for art that is tragic, demonic, "difficult" (Stace, for example, cites the sculpture of Jacob Epstein). Therefore, as has just been shown, they seek to reconcile the painfulness of such art with the positive value that it necessarily possesses as an aesthetic object. In the case of Bosanquet, however, the question should be raised whether the expression of feeling is universally accompanied by pleasure. Historically, the concept of "expression" has tended to accommodate emotions of every kind within art, even those, as in an art of violence or outrage, which are "darkest." Successful artistic expression can render such emotions more, rather than less, concentrated and painful, and if it be urged that pleasure is taken in the unity and power of the artist's conception, there are, according to Bosanquet's theory, many nonartistic aesthetic objects that are intensely expressive and for which this explanation will not hold. Since there is no necessary or logical connection between "expression" and "pleasingness," it must be decided empirically whether, even when "the weakness of the spectator" is overcome, his experience of the expressive object has a positive hedonic tone. Stace's view that the painfulness of the theme of a work of art is moral, not aesthetic, seems more like definitional legislation than an insight into aesthetic experience. Moral perplexity and frustration are integral to such art as tragedy, and their painfulness enters into our perception of the total work of art. Stace's view, too, is a defense of hedonism. Yet there is no reason a priori to hold to hedonism in aesthetics, and indeed these difficulties cast doubt on such a theory. The term ugliness, in the sense of what is preponderantly painful, may still be used to designate one kind of aesthetic object without any implications of disvalue. So considered, "X is ugly but aesthetically good" is not self-contradictory and may indeed be something that we want to and have to say. Those modern artists who have vigorously repudiated the pleasingness of beauty as the goal of their creative efforts have made this way of speaking sound less implausible than it once did.

The graver and more basic question is whether ugliness, in the broader sense of negative aesthetic value, is, for aesthetic theory, otiose. Doubtless, we also want to say sometimes that the work of art is bad. Bosanquet, however, takes genuine ugliness to be at least partially expressive, and if we follow this lead, badness must be construed as a deficiency or relatively slight degree of aesthetic goodness. The work achieves less than it promises, the nonartistic object is lacking in vitality or charm. According to this view, then, there is no opposite to aesthetic value, but only, as Augustine said, a "privation" of it. On the other hand, this may be thought to be a gratuitous misreading of those properties that are commonly held to constitute ugliness or that are adduced as reasons for judging a thing ugly. Muddy orchestration or incoherent plot structure are, significantly, opposites to orchestral clarity or unity of plot, and they are equally real and present to awareness. In the absence of compensating virtues, objects that possess them are "positively bad."

No matter whether the denial of negative value should, finally, be tolerated or rejected, it is fair to say that this denial is less vexing in aesthetics than in ethics or epistemology. The explanation lies, in large part, in Bosanquet's notion of "the weakness of the spectator." The determination of beauty and ugliness is much more closely tied to the perceptual and emotional capacities of the spectator and to the attitudes that affect them than it is to moral and cognitive values. This leads us to think that the experience of negative value (though not that of positive value) results from a failure to see what is yet there to be seen. Thus, the transvaluation of what had previously been accounted ugly, which is endemic to the history of art and taste, is characteristically credited with being an enlargement of sympathy and a refinement of discrimination. The more obdurate cognitive and moral judgments of falsehood and evil, however, are not characteristically altered in this way. Can any limits, therefore, be set to what sensibility finds to be aesthetically good? To define the field of the aesthetic in such a way that all things are seen to possess positive value formalizes the endless catholicity of aesthetic interest. Freed from the exigencies of morality and the biases of perceptual habit, the aesthetic approach to the world, at the hypothetical limit, fixes upon any tone or shade the quality of any ambience. In John Keats's words, it "has as much delight in an Iago as an Imogen." But if everything engages and rewards aesthetic perception, then either "aesthetic disvalue" is a self-contradiction or else it denotes nothing.

See also Aesthetic Qualities; Aesthetics, History of; Aesthetics, Problems of; Aristotle; Augustine, St.; Beauty; Bosanquet, Bernard; Croce, Benedetto; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Humor; Plato; Pleasure; Schlegel, Friedrich von; Stace, Walter Terence; Tragedy; Visual Arts, Theory of the.


Bosanquet, Bernard. Three Lectures on Aesthetic. London, 1923. Lecture III is the starting point for any serious discussion of the problem of ugliness.

Chapman, Emmanuel. Saint Augustine's Philosophy of Beauty. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1939. Those of Augustine's writings on aesthetics that have survived are scattered among several different treatises. This convenient volume locates these passages.

Pepper, Stephen C. The Basis of Criticism in the Arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1946. Contrasts the meaning and status of ugliness in some of the major aesthetic theories. In the author's own view, ugliness is a moral rather than an aesthetic category.

Rosenkranz, Karl. Ästhetik des Hässlichen. Köenigsberg, 1853. The classic post-Hegelian study of ugliness. Addicted somewhat to multiplying conceptual distinctions but a thoughtful and suggestive analysis. Argues that art would be unduly narrow if it did not include the ugly and that ugliness is not simply a device to enhance beauty.

Santayana, George. The Sense of Beauty. New York: Scribners, 1936. An influential contemporary statement of hedonist aesthetics.

Stace, W. T. The Meaning of Beauty. London: G. Richards and H. Toulmin, 1929.

Véron, Eugène. Esthétique. Paris: C. Reinwald, 1878. Translated by W. H. Armstrong as Aesthetics. London: Chapman and Hall, 1879. An early and forceful statement of the theory that the artist seeks emotional self-expression rather than beauty and will therefore exploit rather than mitigate the ugliness of his subject.

other recommended works

Coleman, Earle J. "The Beautiful, the Ugly and the Tao." Journal of Chinese Philosophy (1991): 213226.

Devereaux, Mary. "The Ugly." The American Society for Aesthetics Newsletter, vol. 24, no. 3 (Winter 2005): 12.

Guyer, Paul. "Thomson's Problems with Kant: A Comment on Kant's Problems with Ugliness." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 50, no. 4 (Fall 1992): 317319.

Higgins, Lesley Hall. The Modernist Cult of Ugliness: Aesthetic and Gender Politics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Kieran, Matthew. "Aesthetic Value: Beauty, Ugliness and Incoherence." Philosophy, vol. 72, no. 281 (1997): 383399.

McCall, Robert E. "The Metaphysical Analysis of the Beautiful and the Ugly" (with comment by James P. Reilly). Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association. Vol. 30, 1956, pp. 137153.

Mesa, James, P. "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Aesthetic in Moral Imagination." In Beauty, Art and the Polis, edited by Alice Ramos, Catholic University of America Press, 2000, pp. 237244.

Miller, William Ian. The Anatomy of Disgust. Harvard University Press, 1998.

Pickford, R. W. "The Psychology of Ugliness." British Journal of Aesthetics 9 (1969): 258270.

Raters, Marie-Luise. "Unbeautiful Beauty in Hegel and Bosanquet." Bradley Studies, vol. 7, no. 2 (Autumn 2001): 162176.

Shier, David. "Why Kant Finds Nothing Ugly." British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 38, no. 4 (1998): 412418.

Thomson, Garrett. " Kant's Problems with Ugliness." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 50, no. 2 (Spring 1992): 107115.

Jerome Stolnitz (1967)

Bibliography updated by Mary Devereaux (2005)


views updated May 21 2018

ugliness The etymology of the word indicates what is at stake: ‘ugly’ is a Middle English (1150–1475) term meaning ‘frightful’ or ‘repulsive’, and is derived from the Old Norse term uggligr. Uggligr is in turn formed by uggr: fear or horror, and the suffix -ligr: like. An ugly body is thus a physical body that induces horror in us. This element of fear is evident in the ugly bodies par excellence: the monster, the grotesque body, and the freak.

Ugliness is conventionally seen as the opposite of beauty, but its modern use contrasts more directly to normalcy. Even though most of us cannot fulfil ideals of beauty, we can still be considered good-looking, pretty, or nice. If we were considered plain-looking or even unattractive, we would hardly be ugly, since we are still within the range of normalcy.

Normalcy as a concept and social standard arose in the early nineteenth century in Europe, and was linked to the development of statistics and the modern, administrative institutions of the state. Until the mid eighteenth century ‘normal’ meant ‘perpendicular’. By 1840 ‘normal’ had become current in the English language as indicating conformity to, and not deviance from, a standard or the usual. ‘Normality’ and ‘normalcy’ appeared respectively in 1849 and 1857.

The French statistician Adolphe Quetelet (1796–1847) contributed considerably to the concept of ‘the average man’, which he defined as ‘an individual who epitomized in himself, at a given time, all the qualities of the average man and who would represent at once all the greatness, beauty, and goodness of that being’. Deviations from the mean constituted, Quetelet observed, ugliness of the body, vice in morals, and sickness in regard to constitution.

An important reinterpretation of statistical distribution was made by Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911). Where Quetelet considered any deviation from the average an error, Galton saw this as mere difference from the mean. The total variation of these differences in the height of individuals in a population, for example, was defined as the normal distribution, also known as the ‘bell curve’. This way, extremes that Galton saw as positive — intelligence, tallness, fertility etc. — would not be judged as errors as they had been by Quetelet. Variation could be ranked.

The statistics founded by Galton and others enabled the rising state bureaucracies to compile inventories of their citizens' different characteristics and to assess the number of able-bodied persons available for the work force, military purposes, etc. Through the concept of the average and the ranking of the variations, the sound body of the population was defined, thus enabling the state to initiate policies that could further soundness and isolate incurably unsound elements — disabled persons, criminals, demented persons — in suitable institutions.

The ugly body is thus a body whose difference from the normal body is turned into deviance. Ugliness can be seen as a kind of stigma — a term originally used by the ancient Greeks for marks made on the bodies of person who were considered unusual, such as slaves and criminals. ‘Stigma’ is now also used medically to indicate visible evidence of a disease. Other kinds of stigma, not all resulting in typecasting a person as ugly, are: disability, membership of an ethnic group, and criminality.

Criteria for specifying which bodies are normal, maybe even beautiful, and not ugly, vary from society to society and over time. Should the body be symmetrical? Should the skin be smooth, scarred, or tattooed? Should the teeth be filed? Western societies celebrate the untouched, natural body, but at what point disfiguration becomes ugliness is uncertain. Is squinting ugly? Is a harelip, a person with eyes of two colours, a missing arm, an abnormal arm ugly? Among various peoples in Africa, scars forming patterns covering large parts of the body are basic to the beautiful body. Another criterion for beauty is found in how the body is cared for, and often concerns health, hygiene, or aesthetics. Is the skin to be oiled or to be painted or neither? How often should it be washed and with what (water, soap, disinfectant)? Should scents be applied? The extent and range of non-compliance necessary for a person to be considered not only not-beautiful, but also not-normal, and therefore ugly, varies.

In Euro-America, which for long has been dominated by the standards and culture of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant males, a wide range of groups of people have over time been called ugly: for example aboriginal Australians, Africans, disabled persons, Hottentots, Jews, and wrinkled old women (significantly called ‘witches’).

A protest against the enforcement of normalcy can be found in the use by punk and other movements of ‘disfigurement’ of the body — for example by tattooing which is extensive or in unusual places; piercing of eyebrows, tongues, and noses; and atypical hairstyling. These efforts can be seen as attempts to create an aesthetic of the ugly in protest against conventional standards of beauty.

Claus Bossen


Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma. Notes on the management of spoiled identity. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.
Halprin, S. (1995). Look at my ugly face. Myths and musings on beauty and other perilous obsessions with women's appearance. Viking Penguin, New York.

See also beauty; body image; body shape.


views updated May 11 2018

664. Ugliness

  1. Avagddu ugly child of Tegid Voel and Cerridwen. [Celtic Folklore: Parrinder, 35]
  2. Balkis hairy-legged type of Queen of Sheba. [Talmudic Legend: Walsh Classical, 45]
  3. Bendith Y Mamau stunted, ugly fairies; kidnapped children. [Celtic Folklore: Briggs, 21]
  4. Berchta beady-eyed, hook-nosed crone with clubfoot and stringy hair. [Ger. Folklore: Leach, 137]
  5. Black Annis cannibalistic hag with blue face and iron claws. [Br. Folklore: Briggs, 24]
  6. Duessa witch, stripped of lavish disguise, found to be hideous hag. [Br. Lit.: Faerie Queene ]
  7. Ethel buck-toothed, gangly teenager in love with idler, Jughead. [Comics: Archie in Horn, 37]
  8. Euryale and Stheno the immortal Gorgons; had serpents for hair and brazen claws. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 114]
  9. Frankensteins monster ugly monster. [Br. Lit.: Frankenstein, Payton, 254]
  10. gargoyles medieval European church waterspouts; made in form of grotesque creatures. [Architecture: NCE, 1046]
  11. Gorgons snake-haired, winged creatures of frightful appearance. [Gk. Myth.: Howe, 108]
  12. Gross, Allison repulsive witch in the north country. [Scot. Ballad: Childe Ballads ]
  13. Medusa creature with fangs, snake-hair, and protruding tongue. [Gk. Myth.: Hall, 206]
  14. Quasimodo Nowhere on earth a more grotesque creature. [Fr. Lit.: The Hunchback of Notre Dame ]
  15. Spriggans grotesque fairies; dourest and most ugly set of sprights. [Br. Folklore: Briggs, 380381]
  16. Ugly Duchess repulsive woman with pocket-shaped mouth. [Br. Lit.: Alices Adventures in Wonderland ]
  17. Ugly Duckling ugly outcast until fully grown. [Fairy Tale: Misc.]
  18. Witch of Wookey repulsive hag curses boys and girls. [Br. Legend: Brewer Dictionary, 1164]


views updated Jun 08 2018


Ugliness, a quality, in life or in art, related by negation to beauty. Its exact nature has been a classical and much controverted subject in the history of aesthetics since Aristotle's Poetics. It is variously defined as the positive negation of beauty, that is, a radical failure in something trying to be, or expected to be, beautiful; a perversion of beauty; the perversion of the characteristic function of anything or anyone. The implication is that there is prototype of beauty or some expectation in mind, in terms of which the falling off produces shock. Much of the "ironic" nature of modern poetry, e.g., T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, seems to depend on such a technique. A more radical probing of ugliness tends to consider it as the very material through which art and life move to accomplish their final triumphs. Special notice should also be given to the theory maintaining that the artist can produce beauty when by his craftsmanship he makes us recognize, with the enjoyment of recognition, the ugly in life. Thus theories about the comic can be closely related to theories about ugliness, and what deals with the ugly need not itself be ugly.

See Also: transcendentals.

Bibliography: e. auerbach, Mimesis, tr. w.r. trask (Princeton, N.J. 1953). k. rosenkranz, Aesthetik des Hasslichen (Konigsberg 1853).

[w. f. lynch]