Ugliness & the Life Force

A&L links to a review of Umberto Eco’s latest book. Underneath some modernism is a fear of the life force as much as a fear of death; that what we consider beautiful is also what is healthy and what is procreative is a long standing assumption – one that modern evolutionary theoreticians repeatedly prove. So, what are the implications of what Ezra Pound hailed as

a “cult of ugliness” . . . . This echoed the Italian and Russian Futurist manifesto, entitled “Let Us Be Courageously Ugly,” which stated that “our aim is to underline the great importance for art of harshness, dissonance, and pure primordial coarseness.” The gay sensibility of camp is related to other forms of ironic (kitsch) or militant (punk) ugliness, and Eco at least acknowledges them, even if he isn’t able to effectively separate them.

A&L also links to another review, this time of Peter Gay’s Modernism: The Lure of Heresy. His examples are seldom of Americans, though we hear echoes of Rothko in William Morris, who “raged that he and his compatriots had set out to change the world and ended up making precious objects ‘for the swinish rich.'” Indeed, he observes:

Today, a cynic might find high modernism’s real legacy on the pages of a glossy decorating magazine — a single austerely curved Barcelona chair before a color field painting in a hospital-white box of a downtown loft. That cynic might go on to observe that a certain kind of Freudian might argue that modernism’s great ally was the masochism of the middle classes, an indefatigable willingness to be abused and affronted over their own petty bourgeois appetite for comfort and serenity.

These two reviews, looking back as we seem to be crossing between the railroad cars (always a perilous move) as modernism is, in our time, followed by what? Surely post-modernism is too weak a word.

But these positions are not unrelated to the last few posts on this blog. In both art and scholarship, the biological as well as the beautiful have come to be seen as conventional. The beautiful – that is, transcendent, selfless, good – act is viewed as inauthentic.

The romantic artist and the romantic scholar (two intertwined groups historically) see themselves as rebels, pushing boundaries. Irony and cynicism, the belief that beauty and good acts are but covers, is central to the tone of much modernism. In a relatively open society, modernists turn their eye on the boundaries of nature itself. They find beauty a matter of cliches & boredom.

Unconsciously, though, they suspect that nature is likely to win. For one thing, they rebel against our natural desire to reproduce ourselves, to act as a bridge between earlier and future generations. They prefer theories that make man’s very existence an act against nature rather than thinking, as most of us would, that nature courses through us and we, too, are a part of it. Their work is not true to nature (to reality). Perhaps unaware, they find themselves alienated, unhappy. Their fear may be unconscious, but, finding themselves harshly at odds with nature, they intensely echo the slogans of the environmentalist groups. These marches, this expiation is prompted by an unease – perhaps a buried understanding that they are betraying nature in their art. And perhaps from a fear – they may feel – if not realize – nature is not likely to accept their contemptuous dismissal of her for long.

6 thoughts on “Ugliness & the Life Force”

  1. Unconsciously, though, they suspect that nature is likely to win.

    I think that a lot of this attitude is based on ignorance about science, technology and the natural world, of the Rosie O’Donnell “fire can’t melt steel” variety. How many engineers share this attitude?

  2. …masochism of the middle classes, an indefatigable willingness to be abused and affronted over their own petty bourgeois appetite for comfort and serenity.

    Or its just the taste of people who have to get up and go to work in the morning, virtually every morning.

    I think its all about business. Artist periodically embrace the “ugly” because it gives them something new to sell and it allows poorly capitalized or unskilled artist to sell products.

  3. But why does someone want to buy something that is by about any traditional standards aesthetically unpleasant? And why do people choose to believe that nature is either man’s victim or man’s enemy?
    What both of you are saying may well be true – but why?
    Why, for instance, do some prefer to think others are idiots if they have problems with a watered down evolutionary generality that “we descended from apes and have no souls” while having no problem with their own thinking that few if any of our choices are heavily influenced by the biological and eternal?
    Why do you think you are a superior art buyer because no one “understands” the art you buy and you label that interesting tingle you read as fine-tuned art appreciation while others describe the reaction as revulsion?

  4. “But why does someone want to buy something that is by about any traditional standards aesthetically unpleasant?”

    One reason for doing so would be to demonstrate one’s independence of any aesthetic standards that do not originate within oneself. This is obvious enough when it comes to accepted traditional standards (which are easily dismissed as conventions to be overcome on the way to an authentic aesthetic), less obvious when it comes to those standards which appear to originate in “nature”–a problematic term in such contexts, since traditional aesthetic standards will often present themselves as rooted in nature. One area of difficulty that emerges in the Romantic movement is the nature/convention tension. One reason this dichotomy is problematic is that conventions are, in fact, natural for human beings. After all, we live in social worlds that are shaped in ways obvious and subtle by language, which is built up out of conventions. But learning to use and live within those conventions is utterly natural to us, so much so that those who fail to pick up the basics of language at an early age are recognized as abnormal. Romantics tend to oscillate between a desire for authentic self-expression understood as an absolute autonomy (as in self-legislating) at odds with the forces of mere convention–the dream here is of the person perfectly free from anything transcending her individuality; and a desire to be perfectly natural, the seamlessly authentic expression and fulfillment of nature–here a longing for unity with what is sometimes called the ground of being seems to be crucial.

    That we as human beings are naturally conventional and conventionally natural, and hence neither absolutely autonomous nor simply natural, can from certain perspectives take on the appearance of an intolerable restriction upon our being. Sometimes this view can take on a surprisingly naive directness, as when some philosophers of language speak of the “prison of language”. From such perspectives, the condition of our being as what some have called “second-natured” creatures can only be something to deny or rebel against. And of course, from the perspective I am taking here, such denial or rebellion is a rebellion against life itself. Hence, I would suggest, the animus Ginny notes against the linkage between the beautiful and the healthy.

    p.s Note however that the matter can be much more complicated, since the concept of “health” can be taken over by the Romantic, as we see in the case of Nazism.

  5. Many artists see themselves as a group apart from “the herd”, possessing knowledge and taste superior to the masses. It follows that anything liked by the many simply can’t be any “good”, and they are contemptuous of any art that is or becomes popular. I know well a woman who is a great painter in a realistic mode. She ignores this talent and simply refuses to paint like this, a way that would be commercially viable. Instead she insists on putting together “multimedia” pieces that that are incomprehensible and downright ugly, but that her artist friends love. They sit around drinking wine and complaining that nobody buys their work. I tried to commission a painting from her, but in her “old” style. She flatly refused, telling me that it was “boring” and that she didn’t want to be “known” for such works. The truth is that she is completely unknown outside her little group, but that this is where much of her self identity comes from. I think her attitude is common among artists.

  6. Ginny,

    But why does someone want to buy something that is by about any traditional standards aesthetically unpleasant?

    Because art is like gold. Its primary value lays in its ability to communicate the status and power of the owner. A big snob appeal lays in claiming to see beauty and significance in a work that other cannot. If ordinary people just see noise or discord in a work of art, another can claim elite status by claiming to see significance and beauty.

    It’s simply the parable of the “Emperor’s New Clothes”.

Comments are closed.