Ugly Art: the paradox of aesthetics
What is the purpose of ugly art and why should we be interested in it?
You only have to google ‘Medieval cat’ or ‘Renaissance baby’ to find some bazar examples of art gone ugly. On top of this, thousands of works have been named and shamed as the ugliest art ever. This made narrowing down difficult. Ugliness is so broad and subjective. Even the word itself can be used to describe a medley of things beyond physical unattractiveness. Ronald Dahl summed it up best in The Twits:
“If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face” where as a “person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly”.
Ugliness is clearly more than skin deep then, and I feel this pearl of wisdom must surely apply to the world of art. It certainly comes in handy to explain why I think the otherwise beautiful etching by Eric Gill, ‘Girl in Bath: I’ is in fact ugly. The model for this series of nudes was his daughter that he sexually abused. This for me changed the appearance of the art, turning it swiftly from beautiful to ugly. And, despite my attempts to separate the art from the artist, here I felt the line was too close; it all blurred into this ugly objectified mess. Here the art was intended to reflect beauty, but instead accomplishes the opposite.
Both the artists harness the ugly to control their viewers
So what about art that is ugly by design? Quentin Blake’s illustration for Ronald Dahl’s The Twits was the first example that popped to mind. Eight year old me was transfixed by the ugliness of the sketched couple. His technique of wobbly unfinished lines helped create this enticing ugliness. He forces the reader to gawk rudely at the drawings, revealing our own ugliness in turn. The same could be said for Francisco Goya’s painting ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’. The aim is to repulse the viewer at the ugliness of the cannibalistic act. (Granted, the worst the Twits ever ate where worms, but the effect to me felt the same). Both the artists harness the ugly to control their viewers.
However, I don’t find Blake or Goyer’s art ugly in the sense of unappealing. I love both, despite their acquired aesthetic taste. They are interesting and fascinating to stare at, and I would go back and view these pieces again and again. It was difficult to think of a piece of art whose ugly appearance was indefensible or if not then comedically enjoyable. Until I remembered the Toby jug.
It was difficult to think of a piece of art whose ugly appearance was indefensible
I will call them works of art because I feel the craftsmanship and historical value grants them a place. But, in terms of overall unappealing ugliness, I feel they take the cake. The jugs are modelled after famous and influential figures, formally royalty, however, their mawkishness and rosy cheeked expressions mean they don’t fit in the dark and surreal realm of satirical art. Neither do they come under the category of grotesque art, which, despite its name, encompasses beautifully ornate and gothic pieces. Toby jugs to me are simply ugly. However, the one thing I can take from the Toby jug is the idea that art doesn’t have to be beautiful. It’s incredibly uplifting to think that if people actually enjoy collecting and looking at these jugs, then there is a place in the world for your own art – regardless of it how ugly you may think it is. If nothing else, at least they’re a confidence boost.