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The Beauty of Ugliness by Stephen Bayley

What's more interesting, pretty or ugly?

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In his book Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything, Stephen Bayley argues that ugliness is, in fact, far more interesting than beauty.

Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything, Stephen BayleyDo you worry what people think about your house? Concerned your husband or wife could be in better shape? Don’t worry, perceptions change.

A friend of mine who is a senior designer in the car industry keeps a photograph of a ‘beautiful’ woman on his laptop. He has an app that allows him to distort the image. He does this ever so slowly with trainees and student designers and asks them to shriek in alarm when the distortions become aesthetically disturbing. At some point, they do.

Since the Ancient Greeks, philosophers and architects have believed that ‘beauty’ could be defined by such measurements, by mathematical proportions. Perhaps ugliness can be defined in the same way. Then again, perhaps not.

To garble John Keats, a thing of ugliness is a joy forever. This assertion may not be quite as mad as it first sounds. It is beauty that is evanescent, fragile, dismaying. Ugliness is robust, enduring and incontrovertible. Albert Camus, who died when his publisher’s Facel-Vega hit a tree south of Paris, said that beauty ‘drives us to despair, offering for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time’. Oh yes it does.

Another very wise Frenchman, the grizzled chanteur, Serge Gainsbourg, who died when his consumption of whiskey and cigarettes passed the outer limits of recklessness, maintained that ‘ugliness is superior to beauty because it lasts longer’. Gainsbourg, who over the years came to resemble a grotesque, chain-smoking Notre-Dame gargoyle, was being archly absurdist, but he was right. There is something noble about unrepentant ugliness.

Yet, despite the volatility of the concept, our civilization is based on the veneration of the beautiful. In religious art or in shopping at Westfield, in going on holiday or buying a house, we are trying to capture and consume beauty so as to give meaning and direction to existence. The beauty of a renaissance Madonna was a painted expression of the divine. We are dedicated followers of fashion because we believe clothes can make us more beautiful. We want to be slim, to get a tan, go to a gym in order to hit a remote target of beauty.

But the more you think about it, the more absurd this quest becomes. First, beauty is dull. It is samey and predictable. There is much more variety and surprise in ugliness. Beauty is soothing rather than challenging and who is to say being soothed is better than being challenged? The architect, Rem Koolhaas argues ‘discussing beauty is boring. But when you start discussing ugliness, it gets really interesting’. At least, that’s the assumption of my new book.

Certainly, if everything were beautiful then nothing would be. The uniformity of perfection would be intolerable. Imagine if absolutely everyone looked like Claudia Schiffer and George Clooney! It would be as bad as everyone looking like Ena Sharples and Sid James. We can only savour the tragic, ephemeral deliciousness of beauty if we have an active concept of what its opposite ugliness is. Heaven needs hell.

Follow this argument to its conclusion and you will soon see that a measure of ugliness is essential to keep our appetites alive. Agree with that and a few very testing questions immediately follow. Exactly how much ugliness should we maintain in our world to keep ourselves sane? Should we actually encourage its production? What’s the optimum exposure to ugliness?

Ugliness is certainly fascinating. One of the most popular pictures in London’s National Gallery is by the 16th century Flemish master Quentin Matsys. It is conventionally known as The Ugly Duchess (opposite top right) and probably shows Margaret Duchess of Austria. Whoever she is, the sitter appears to be suffering from Paget’s Disease, a chronic disorder which results in localised bone enlargement with consequently harrowing facial deformities. In The National Gallery’s Shop, The Ugly Duchess postcard sells at least as well as Claude Monet’s Water Lily Pond. What does that tell us about human motivation?

We get the word ‘ugly’ from an Old Norse word ugga which means ‘aggressive’, hence the expression an ‘ugly customer’ or ‘ugly noises’, first mentioned by Daniel Defoe. In this sense, the modern mind readily makes the equation of ugliness with unpleasantness or fear, but in fact it is rather more subtle.

So subtle, in fact, that very few books have ever addressed the subject. A German philosopher called Karl Rosenkranz wrote a book about ugliness in the mid-19th century, but it has never been translated. The Bloomsbury-era aesthetician E.F. Carritt does not even mention ugliness in his important 1914 book The Theory of Beauty. Umberto Eco recently edited a book called On Ugliness, but it is really more a fascinating account of freaks and grotesques, which is not quite the same thing.

Ugliness deserves to be understood, but when you examine it, the idea disappears. It is like embracing fog. It is, for example, quite possible to look at steaming, fulminating landfill and see a thing of beauty. It is certainly not enough to say, as The Oxford English Dictionary does, that ugliness is repugnant to ‘refined taste’. This is because tastes, refined or crude, change. That great Victorian champion of beauty in nature and painting, John Ruskin railed against the ugly intrusion of the steam railway into the unspoilt Lake District and the noisy vaporetto into dignified Venice. Now we see each as lovely, possibly even beautiful.

As the fashion historian and pioneer 1930s television pundit James Laver so memorably explained, everything is on an historical cycle which goes from indecent, shameless, daring, smart, dowdy, hideous, ridiculous, amusing, quaint, charming, romantic, beautiful. Laver was thinking of clothes, but that cycle of acceptance and repugnance applies to everything. Judgements about what is and is not beautiful do not last. Neither do those about ugliness.

Michelangelo was once thought a ham-fisted oaf. Shakespeare, a rustic buffoon. We once were fearful of detestable mountains, now they are ‘beautiful views’. But not everyone enjoys nature: Alice B. Toklas says, ‘I like a view, but with my back turned to it’. It is only a matter of time before Erno Goldfinger’s despised Brutalist concrete buildings in Notting Hill, Poplar and The Elephant and Castle acquire an admired period gloss and are energetically protected by pink-cheeked and foaming-at-the-mouth conservationists.

We have popular cults of elective ugliness: punk was only the most familiar. The architectural trade paper, Building Design has an annual award for The Carbuncle Cup, given to the year’s ugliest new building. It attracts a lot more energetic comment than the teethachingly earnest Stirling Prize.

About 15 years ago, car designers exhausted the formal conventions of automobile beauty. Ferrari has not made a beautiful car for a long time: they have run out of curves. Ever since the Picturesque movement, we have learnt to enjoy the pleasure of ruins. There is certainly beauty in decay, although we see it more readily in the decay of stone than of plastic. The curiosities continue.

Our obsession with beauty, like so many other ‘traditions’ – cricket and public schools, for example – can be traced back to the middle of the 19th century. It was then that, rather in the spirit of Ruskin, Lewis Carroll coined the term ‘uglification’ to describe the changes to town and country which industry had forced and which he found disturbing. But another 19th century spirit, Marcel Proust had a more sophisticated view. He believed that a taste for ugliness was aristocratic because it was not concerned with pleasing.

You cannot design ugliness. It tends to be an accident, but seen with the right eyes, sometimes a rather beautiful one.

Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything by Stephen Bayley

*First published in 2012*