BY Edward Allington in Features | 07 JUN 03
Featured in
Issue 76

The Ugly Truth

It was 1961...

BY Edward Allington in Features | 07 JUN 03

It was 1961. We were on a train in Germany. I was about ten, travelling with my father and my younger brother. There was one other passenger in the compartment. She was frighteningly ugly, the very personification of a fairy tale witch: exaggerated features, a huge nose and a massive chin.

Later I realized that she was probably suffering from some sort of disfiguring disease. As we left the train, my father said, 'She was a very ugly woman, but did you notice how clean her fingernails were.' It would seem that the poor woman's appearance was redeemed, in my father's eyes at least, by her cleanliness, which implied that, although visually repulsive, her nails indicated that she was not morally ugly as well.

'Ugly' is an Old English word meaning dreadful or terrible. To be ugly is to induce fear: the fear of pollution, of death, dissolution and decadence. This is much more extreme than the word's common usage as simply the opposite of 'beautiful'. Yet generally it is beauty that is discussed, not its antonym. In her book The Symptom of Beauty (1994) Francette Pacteau describes how in Western culture the concept of beauty is inextricably linked to the female form, as in the expression 'pretty as a picture'. Her proposition is that beauty is a dictate of art and she quotes Roland Barthes' in S/Z (1970): 'Lovely as Venus? But Venus as lovely as what? [...] deprived of any anterior code beauty would be mute'. 1 Thus beauty is an external, imposed condition; as Pacteau says: 'No woman escapes "beauty". Unavoidably, from her earliest years, beauty will be either attributed or denied to her. If she does not have it, she may hope to gain it; if she possesses it, she will certainly lose it.' 2 She quotes Allon White and Peter Stallybrass, describing the 'grotesque' body, which one may assume is also the ugly body, and its bourgeois opposite the 'classical' body; one of these is found in high culture, the other in low culture: 'The classical statue has no openings or orifices whereas [...] the grotesque body is emphasized as a mobile, split, multiple self, a subject of pleasure in processes of exchange; it is never closed off from either its social or ecosystemic context. The classical body on the other hand keeps its distance.' 3 The 'grotesque' body is associated with impurity, a focus on gaps, orifices and symbolic filth.

Beauty may be imposed on the body through art, but beauty as a referential term in art has almost fallen into disuse. We tend to say that we like or don't like a given artwork - a piece of information that may be useful in terms of getting to know someone's taste, or that may suggest a level of power (all opinions not being equal), but which is virtually useless when it comes to actually learning something about the work itself. Alternatively, we restrict ourselves to terms such as 'good' or 'bad'. When we do this, are we implying notions of beauty or ugliness?

He sits in the courtyard of the British Library, bent over, a pair of dividers in his hand, a colossal bronze statue on a huge brick plinth. When you turn to confront him face to face, he is somehow too broad; worse than that, there are splits, disjunctures, as if he was assembled from parts, like Frankenstein's monster or some badly assembled flat pack furniture. Sir Eduardo Paolozzi's statue of Newton, after Blake (1995) belongs to his late period and is thus, as is common with much art in the modern era, usually dismissed. It would seem that, to some, artists automatically lose the ability to make good work as they advance in years, in the same way that we are all deprived by age of the symptom of beauty. Paolozzi's sculpture is based on William Blake's only large colour print to focus on a person of his own century and country. For Blake, Newton was an entirely negative figure who had brought war and moral decay to his country; therefore Newton was morally ugly. Paolozzi's Newton is one of few sculptures I have regularly heard being called ugly.

In Blake's print Newton is naked, sitting on an outcrop of rock, using his dividers to measure a triangle symbolizing the Trinity, a non-rational concept as difficult to grasp as the Buddhist notion of the undifferentiated. Is this late work of Paolozzi's bad? This is a different question from whether it is ugly or not, and a different question from whether one likes it or not.

Personally I have always been an admirer of Paolozzi's work, and I owe him. He included me in a Serpentine summer show, which was the first time I exhibited work in a fine art context. Years later we met again at the Royal College of Art. I was researching ceramics produced by fine artists, a particular hobby-horse of mine. Paolozzi sat there, a huge protean personality - it was like visiting the Minotaur. His response was explosive: 'Don't talk to me about all that kitsch I've been making.' It was not a particularly productive conversation but it highlighted the complexity of his position as an artist.

It gets worse. Even more negative than the suggestion that Newton is ugly, and therefore bad, is the implication by the artist himself that some of his work might be kitsch. Kitsch is usually seen as art's antithesis - that which is worse than ugly. The use of kitsch mechanisms by totalitarian states, most notoriously fascism, indicates how easily it can be harnessed to support the worst of moral outrages. Clement Greenberg, in his classic text 'The Avant-garde and Kitsch' (1939), specifically focuses on the attraction that kitsch holds for totalitarian states and equates it with folk culture: 'There has always been on one side the minority of the powerful - and therefore cultivated - and on the other the great mass of the exploited - and poor and therefore ignorant. Formal culture has always belonged to the first, while the last have had to content themselves with folk or rudimentary culture, or kitsch.' 4

Herman Broch, in one of the other seminal texts on the subject, 'Notes on the Problem of Kitsch' (1950), a lecture given to students of the faculty of German at Yale, describes kitsch as a fixed form of behaviour towards life: 'Kitsch could not, in fact prosper without the existence of kitsch-man, the lover of kitsch; as a producer of art he produces kitsch and as a consumer of art is prepared to acquire it and pay quite handsomely for it.' 5 More recently, Thomas Kulka has described kitsch as 'transparent symbols'. The kitschmensch (Broch's term), when shown a painting of a child with large, crying eyes, for example, does not look at the painting; instead he feels the effect of sympathy and sadness directly. The '... effect [of kitsch] is not secured by the specific qualities of the symbols themselves, but rather by what the symbols stand for. Typical consumers of kitsch usually look through the symbol, so to speak, to what the symbol refers to. They may believe that they appreciate the works for their aesthetic properties, while what they are really affected by is the emotional charge of the depicted object, to which they are positively predisposed. In contrast to real art, with kitsch the What overshadows the How.' 6

Kulka's thesis is interesting, as it works convincingly to prove that kitsch lacks the specificity inherent in both good and bad art. Paolozzi's outburst would seem to be more related to the notion that he had somehow been induced to make humble objects and works that were tainted by functional concerns, be they pottery or public commissions. One of the conditions of Western art since the advent of Romanticism has been that it should be apart from the constraints of reality. Hence the imposition of impossible ideals on the notion of female beauty, given that in the West it is the body as represented in art that validates our concept of beauty. In the East nature fulfils this function: that which just is (seen in the West as being in contrast to the notion of a divine world of perfection) is perceived as evidence of the oneness of the universe to which all things belong.

The first major study and celebration of Blake's writing was written by a Japanese author. In 1914 the philosopher, aesthete and writer Soetsu Yanagi published a 770-page book entitled William Blake: His Life, Work and Philosophy. The book was designed by Yanagi and dedicated to his friend Bernard Leach. It was Blake's cosmos of beauty, linked to Yanagi's profound delight in Korean pottery of the Yi dynasty, that inspired him to develop his aesthetic concept of mingei (an abbreviation of minshu-teki kogei, which means the crafts or arts made by the people to be used daily by the people). 7 Yanagi was subtly to transform the world's appreciation of craft in a way that is non-dialectical, founded on a Buddhist sensibility of unity. In his most influential book (in the West) The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty (1972) he describes the notion of the 'undifferentiated' which drives his aesthetic: this fundamental 'unborn' state is expressed in Buddhist terms as inherent or innate nature. The distinction between beauty and ugliness is post-natal and artificial, and therefore one is constantly advised to 'return to one's original state', since this means liberation from dualism. 8

Yanagi's notion of beauty celebrates what Greenberg describes as rudimentary culture. The term mingei was coined to imply the opposite of bourgeois fine art. Mingei is, firstly, utility-oriented. Secondly, it comprises commonplace, 'normal' things: necessities such as clothes, household utensils, furniture and stationery. What is luxurious, costly and rare is not mingei. 9 Yanagi's criteria for a Buddhist notion of beauty are timelessness and the absence of the maker's identity. This concept emanated from the object's utility and was essentially a notion of a 'healthy' beauty - 'no event beauty', was how Yanagi described it. It is the opposite of the Modernist notion of the avant-garde, which is all about events. It was a revolutionary idea, not only in Japan but worldwide. As Alan Watts, the outspoken advocate of Eastern thought, emphasized: 'Religious institutions in the West function primarily as "societies of the saved", whose primary purpose seems to be to distinguish their members from those of the "not saved".' 10

In the West art has long had a quasi religious aura; today the moral implications of beauty versus ugliness have been replaced by a dialectic between advanced and regressive art. The battle is against time. Marcel Duchamp said: 'No painting has an active life of more than 30 or 40 years [...] I don't care if it's true, it helps me make that distinction between living art and art history. After 30 or 40 years the painting dies, loses its aura, its emanation, whatever you want to call it.' 11 Duchamp implies that in time advanced art can decay and fall into a 'non saved' position. Greenberg's stance is similar, but imbued with a fundamentalist fervour. Like Broch, Greenberg proposes a hierarchy of quality, the difference being that Broch is more inclusive. Yanagi's position is more radical in that it proposes the inclusion of the humble and celebrates the lack of formality that Greenberg in particular associates with ignorance and poverty.

The ugliness of poverty has held a position in Christian Art since the 18th century for moralizing purposes because it teaches that behind the rude exterior may lurk a heart susceptible to worship. For Fred Licht 'Ugliness is simply a condition of modern man. His deeds and appearance are not capable of interpretation into transcendental terms.' 12 For Licht ugliness comes to the fore as a viable theme for sculpture with the advent of Romanticism, which is also the point that most major authors choose as the moment when kitsch came into being.

Paolozzi first came to prominence among a diverse group of postwar sculptors (including Kenneth Armitage, Lynn Chadwick and Germain Richier) whose work is now usually referred to as 'The geometry of fear'. In response to the unprecedented horror of World War II, these artists found that the ugly could be used not simply to counterbalance (divine) beauty but as a subject with which to evoke the fear and horror from which the world had escaped. Paolozzi's work of this period, such as his Saint Sebastian No. 1 (1957), resemble burnt corpses standing before us. These are works that are ugly in Licht's terms: they refuse transcendence and are built from the quotidian. Pieces such as Saint Sebastian were created by making moulds from everyday detritus, pulling wax sheets from these moulds and folding them into figures.

The first time I met Paolozzi, he was cutting up found images with scissors and reassembling them. The images came from a vast range of sources, most of them 'poor' or 'rudimentary', culled from modern folk culture. Paolozzi named them 'bunk', but his methodology is that of collage, as made evident in his extraordinary animated film The History of Nothing (1960), as well as his prints and sculptures. Paolozzi's art, including the late works, is an extraordinary exploration of the fear that is the real meaning of the word 'ugly'.

In S/Z Barthes makes the assertion that 'Beauty (unlike ugliness) cannot really be explained.' 13 However, later in the book he offers his own explanation: 'Beauty, as we have seen, cannot be induced through catachresis other than from some great cultural model (written or pictorial): it is stated, not described. Contrariwise, ugliness can be abundantly described: it alone is "realistic", confronting the referent without an intermediate code (whence the notion that realism, in art, is concerned solely with ugliness).' 14

Is this why Paolozzi's Newton, like Blake's, alone, naked in the world is seen as ugly? It is not kitsch - we do not see through the symbol to the emotion; we are blocked by the way it is made, its scale, weight and the disjuncture of it's parts: 'Ugliness we confront everyday. Heaviness we are well acquainted with. Largeness

is familiar to us. It is therefore not enough to say that monstrosity equals extreme ugliness or extreme size or extreme weight, for this would be like placing the monster at the head of legions of ugly beings, or large and massive ones, as if we entrusted their official representation to the one who happened to possess the greatest amount of a given, common attribute. But "the authentic monster represents no one but himself." He is no standard-bearer of more or less close similes. He is the exception.' 15

If for Blake, Newton was a monster, Paolozzi's Newton is also a kind of monster. Yet we are attracted to monsters, because they represent our horror at our own sense of solitude, the turpitude and ugliness of our desires. The monster is defined as something unnaturally marvellous, evoking René Magritte's vache paintings, or Julia Pastrana, the bearded woman known as 'the ugliest woman in the world'. In both repulsion and fascination things are not as they should be, yet we want to keep looking. For me Newton, after Blake is less a statue of Newton than a self portrait of the artist, an image of monstrous solitude and disjuncture -
conditions we fear and hence call 'ugly'.

1. Francette Pacteau, The Symptom of Beauty, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1994, p. 21.
2. Ibid., p. 14.
3. Ibid., p. 128.
4. Reproduced in: Gillo Dorfles, Kitsch: An Anthology of Bad Taste, Studio Vista, London, 1973, p. 116.
5. Ibid., p. 49.
6. Thomas Kulka: Kitsch and Art, Pennsylvania State University Press, State College, 1996, pp. 114?15.
7. Mingei: Two Centuries of Folk Art, Japan Folk Crafts Museum, Tokyo, 1995, p. 13.
8. Soetsu Yanagi, The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty, Kodansha International Ltd, Tokyo, 1972, p. 138.
9. Mingei, op. cit., p. 5.
10. Mark Watts, The Philosophies of Asia, The Edited Transcripts of Alan Watts, Charles E. Tuttle Co. Ltd, Vermont and Tokyo, 1995, p. 10.
11. The Bride and the Bachelors, Five Masters of the Avant-garde, Viking, Compass Books, New York, 1968, pp. 18?19; quoted in Donald Kuspit, The Dialectic of Decadence, Stux Press, New York, 1993, p. 43.
12. Fred Licht. Sculpture: 19th and 20th Centuries, George Rainbird Ltd, London, 1967, p. 29.
13. Roland Barthes, S/Z, Blackwell Publishing, London, 1990, p. 33.
14. Ibid., p. 59.
15. F. Gonzalez-Crussi, Notes of an Anatomist, Picador, London, 1986, p. 93.