On Ugliness

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Beauty may be attractive, but the history of ugliness is more fun

Hi, welcome to Bookey. Today we’ll unlock the book On Ugliness.

What is ugliness? Is ugliness merely the opposite of beauty? Between Eastern and Western aesthetics, there are many commonalities. For example, something with harmonious proportions would be considered beautiful by both. Both are also somewhat narcissistic. What do we mean by that? Well, for instance, a god, a being whose image is regarded as supreme and perfect, is typically depicted in the form of a human being, in both Eastern and Western cultures. And when imagining an alien, many of us picture it as having eyes and hands similar to us humans, the most intelligent creatures on earth.

If that which is most harmonious with the human form is regarded as beauty, otherwise it is ugly, then most of us must admit we don’t find E.T. or the avatar aliens to be beautiful. To put it more clearly, if what Greek philosopher Xenophanes said was true – that

“if cattle and horses and lions had hands

or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,

horses like horses and cattle like cattle

also would depict the gods' shapes and make their bodies

of such a sort as the form they themselves have.”

we wouldn’t think gods with ox or horse heads were beautiful, in the strictest sense. Human beauty has human form and human needs at its core.

It would be an over-simplification if we saw ugliness only as the opposite of beauty when we examine the history of ugliness. Though Eastern and Western gods are more-or-less human-like, Eastern gods look more like Easterners, and Western gods look more like Westerners. In the eyes of the Easterners, the curly hair and high noses of Western Gods don’t seem inviting. While for Westerners, Eastern gods may seem lazy, with their loose robes and big bellies.

Obviously, the concepts of beauty and ugliness not only differ between cultures, but also change over time. In the past, an African ritual mask might have seemed scary and ugly for a Westerner, but for artists like Picasso, it could be deconstructed into another kind of beauty. A medieval philosopher would think of the dimensions and the form of a Gothic cathedral as unparalleled in beauty. Yet in the Renaissance, when compared to a 16th-century temple built to the “golden ratio”, its proportions might have seemed barbarous.

What are the categories of ugliness? The author of the book, Eco, argues that one should differentiate between three types of ugliness. First, ugliness in itself, such as waste and decomposing corpses. Second, formal ugliness, which refers to the lack of equilibrium in the organic relationship between the parts of a whole. And third, the artistic portrayal of ugliness, which means any form of ugliness can be redeemed by a faithful, effective rendering by an artist.

Moving through the ages, drawing on a spectacular collection of sources befitting its polymath author, On Ugliness overturns traditional notions of beauty and ugliness to present a surprising history of the aesthetics of ugliness. As an encyclopedic scholar, Eco provides a rich material of visual arts and literary works and presents to us the aesthetics of ugliness through the classical period, the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Romanticism and the modern times. As Eco said himself, “ugliness is more interesting than beauty. Beauty is frequently boring !”

Up next, we’ll tell you the history of Umberto Eco’s Western aesthetics of ugliness in chronological order.

Part 1: ugliness in the classical age.

Part 2: ugliness in the Middle Ages.

Part 3: ugliness from the Renaissance to Romanticism.

Part 4: ugliness in modern times.

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