On Ugliness

Umberto Eco, On Ugliness - e-book

Read from April 30th to May 20th 2013

Rating: 4/5 stars


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, beauty is about contemplation, is about disinterested emotion. Ugliness, on the other hand, is not only about seeing, but also about feeling – strong feelings, like repulsion, disgust, horror and fear. 

On this distinction made by Karl Rosenkrantz, in his Aesthetic of Ugliness (1856) is loosely based this anthology. After identifying three phenomena: ugliness in itself, formal ugliness and artistic portrayal of both, Umberto Eco seems mainly concerned with the latter, following diachronically the development of the aesthetic category of ugliness. 

The attitudes towards ugliness varied in time: Antiquity, “a world dominated by beauty”, considered ugliness an attribute of the material world of shadows and imitation (Plato), even if Aristotle admitted that beautiful imitations of ugly things can be made. 

In Middle Ages, Christians developed the pancalia theme – the disharmony is a part of God’s general order, too. However, it is said that many victims of the Inquisition were accused of witchcraft because they were ugly (!). 

After Renaissance, ugliness takes a philosophical function, becoming a satire of the world, culminating with Romanticism that transformed grotesque in an aesthetic category, together with the sublime, which 'subjugates terror by means of art' (Nietzsche). 
From twentieth century to nowadays, the dichotomy beautiful/ ugly has gradually lost its aesthetic value, thus playing havoc with public taste and creating new categories such as pompier art, kitsch and camp. 

Eco’s conclusion concentrically ends his essay: if it is true that ugliness is relative to the times and cultures since what was unacceptable yesterday may be acceptable tomorrow and what is perceived as ugly can contribute sometimes to the beauty of the whole, the constant in ugliness perception remains the psychological reactions: we are fascinated by it not because it is pleasant, but because it has always created tension, materializing the shadows of our souls: 

“So we can understand why art in various centuries insistently portrayed ugliness. Marginal as the voice of art may be, it attempted to remind us that, despite the optimism of certain metaphysicians, there is something implacably and sadly malign about this world.”

An anthology-like essay, On Ugliness is as fascinating as its subject, by far more interesting than On beauty. A book to read and to keep.

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