positive ugly art
March 4, 2013 2:53 PM   Subscribe

Is there any art that you find ugly, but still admire or value?

I am interested in seeing if there is a distinct category of aesthetic or artistic value that could be called the positive ugly. So the criteria is that you find the thing or artwork to be ugly (and maybe actually feel some revulsion) but you still value it. In addition, the value should be distinct from the value of the comic, the horrific, the tragic or the sublime (so ugliest dog in the world doesn't count for instance).

This category seems very popular in modern art, but there's a lot of modern art that I don't value- since it seems to express a nihilist attitude to me. So can you give me an example of a work of art (in any art form) that you find ugly, but still admire or value? And can you explain why you value it?
posted by leibniz to Media & Arts (39 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:03 PM on March 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

The problem with this question is that "ugly" is so broad and loaded that there's no way to accurately answer this — you're essentially asking for a bunch of idiosyncratic aesthetic reactions without a clear purpose.

Unfortunately, that makes this read like chatfilter. So maybe either define down your terms or understand that "ugly" and "value" are, as currently constituted, too broad to have any meaning.
posted by klangklangston at 3:05 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Vaillancourt Fountain in Justin Herman Plaza is really ugly. However, because it has been a part of the SF landscape for so long and I've eaten lunch in its shadow over the years and enjoyed events and other public happenings in and around it, I would be saddened and dismayed if it was torn down.
posted by agatha_magatha at 3:08 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Santiago Sierra
posted by bradbane at 3:09 PM on March 4, 2013

The Egg.
posted by oflinkey at 3:11 PM on March 4, 2013

I like some examples of Brutalist Architecture, which is as close to "ugly on purpose" as you'll find. Meant to be cheap, honest and progressive some buildings are still striking in their form or proportions even as they decay.
posted by 2bucksplus at 3:12 PM on March 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

The self portraits of Rembrandt. The link is to a previous comment of mine where I explain why I like them. I don't think Rembrandt was all that attractive. The value I place on them is emotional/psychological, not in terms of beauty per se.
posted by Michele in California at 3:14 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with CPB: your description pretty much summarizes how I feel about the Guernica.

But I don't value it because of the ugliness.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:14 PM on March 4, 2013

I love "ugly" art. Especially when somebody (usually someone who thinks they are better and smarter than us) decides it's worth money. I think it's radically subversive.

Example. $5.6 Million and there is more than one!

This one too.

final budget $500K or so

for super Meta...

Banksy spray paints freaking stencils on walls and dealers sell his "subversive political art" for millions to the very people his art is lampooning... which is funny, because he's one of them now. Rich, entitled, free.
posted by bobdow at 3:19 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a bit squeamish about gore, but I admire some splatterpunk horror for pushing the boundaries of whats acceptable. Similarly, I don't really listen to metal but I admire the aesthetic qualities - the darkness, the heaviness, the commitment - found in it. Basically, I don't listen to grindcore or extreme metal but I'm glad they exist.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 3:32 PM on March 4, 2013

I used to find Picasso's art to be incredibly ugly, although I appreciate it more now. Guernica is ugly, I suppose, but some of his portraits of women are so ugly they horrified me as a child to the point that I couldn't even look at them.
posted by infinitywaltz at 3:33 PM on March 4, 2013

In any form, you say? Plenty of ugly poetry out there, not all of it 20th C.

"then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust."
("To His Coy Mistress" -- worms eating a corpse's "quaint" has got to count as disgusting, surely.)

"That I could drink thy veins as wine, and eat
Thy breasts like honey! that from face to feet
Thy body were abolished and consumed,
And in my flesh thy very flesh entombed!
Ah, ah, thy beauty! like a beast it bites,
Stings like an adder, like an arrow smites."

"The wretch condemned, who has not been arraigned,
Chafes at his sentence. Shall I, unsustained,
Drag on Love's nerveless body thro' all time?"
("Modern Love")

... and so on.
posted by monkeymonkey at 3:33 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Define 'ugly', though. If it means Picasso and Andrew Marvell (who I consider a beautiful poet, with the only ugliness being in the PUA intentions of that poem) then pretty much everything I enjoy - from the paintings of Brueghel and Blake to Francis Bacon to violent videogames to the Sex Pistols to Nick Cave to graffiti and odd arrangements of vomit on the street count. Everything is ugly to somebody - my mother was horrified by Francis Bacon's paintings, but they're clearly well-executed and appeal to a wide audience. Conversely, Nazi kitsch and Soviet social realist paintings fit easily into a 'traditional' notion of beauty and harmony, but are deeply ugly.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 3:36 PM on March 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Broadly, I think that it's not so much that all or most modern (or contemporary) art is expressive of some broadly constituted nihilism, but rather that what artists and audiences consider to be of interest has shifted over the past 150 years or so way beyond what was considered conventionally beautiful at the time of the birth of modern aesthetics (mid C18) to encompass awkwardness, elegance (in a mathematical, or even conceptual sense) and many other different qualities, but what's considered beautiful has always been in flux (and probably always will be).

WRT examples - seconding 2bucksplus on Brutalist architecture - I just spent a few days working in Argyle House in Edinburgh. I can't say that I like the way it looks, but I really enjoy looking at it, and I like the way that the building works - it's a place that I'm fond of. Another example of this for me is this painting by Leon Kossoff. You couldn't call it beautiful, but I think it's wonderful.
posted by Chairboy at 3:38 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Underground comix with that really gross, gooey style - its hard to explain, but think squashed eyeballs, Ren & Stimpy, morphing shapes. I find it hard to look at and it kinda makes me nauseous, but I appreciate the counterculture that birthed it.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 3:43 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Since this is a philosophical enquiry, I don't want to prejudge the issue too much. But lets define the ugly as something that you see as (perhaps deliberately) failing to meet some norm of aesthetic beauty. So seeming deformed (relative to some category) or lacking in craftmanship would be central examples.

Note, it won't help me much if you don't explain why you value the thing.

To avoid confusing it with the sublime, you should probably rule out cases where you feel fear and awe. For tragedy, where you feel pity and sadness, for horror, where you feel horror, and for comedy where you feel amusement. I realise that makes it harder, but that's why it's an interesting question to me.
posted by leibniz at 3:43 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, the thing is that the beautiful and the "pretty" are not the same, in the same sense that the beautiful is not good or the useful, etc. The thing is, strictly aesthetically speaking, if you find value or meaning in the artwork qua artwork, it would still be "beautiful," as this is more or less what we mean by beauty - in a philosophical sense. Plenty of artists have tried to isolate this beauty from the object itself, with Warhol or Duchamp being sort of the go-to examples here. The point is, beauty is a transcendental thing, whereas prettiness is something more tangible, surface. If that sounds esoteric its because it is esoteric - perhaps the most esoteric thing.

I think what you're getting at is the more popular meanings of beauty and ugliness, which really do more or less correspond to cannonized 17-19th century works of art (with an emphasis on the Romantics and the Impressionists) vs. the 20th century. Blame Kant or the Russians or whomever for this, but it is generally where we find ourselves.

So, as others have said, the question, I think, is ill-formed. Piss Christ, Pierrot Lunaire, the M. Dutt toilet, 4'33", The Maids - whatever and etc. are all "ugly" works in the Romantics vs. Everything Else dichotomy, but that doesn't make them "not-beautiful."
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:48 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

In general, I appreciate 'ugly' things that push the aesthetic boundaries of some artform, making space for more mild versions of the same thing. So albums made entirely of white noise and distortion open the way for more limited distortion in pop music and films that are just wall to wall gore open the way to more mild gore in movies like The Thing or The Shining (which push the boundaries for mainstreamish film).

I also vaguely follow the Futurist Manifesto (minus the fascism) which helps me see beauty in concrete and skyscrapers and roads and parking lots.

On the other end, I appreciate art that is overemotional or 'kitschy' - Baroque art, overstuffed Victorian homes, emo music, cheesy metal album covers - because it honestly speaks to me emotionally. It's partly related to the horror vacui, the 'fear of empty space', where my fear of death translates into a fear of minimalism.

There's also the general preference for 'authentic' low-fi music styles, but that's not really interesting or new.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 3:49 PM on March 4, 2013

Art without beauty.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 3:56 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Does spontaneous nose bleeds count? Because that it what modern art does to me the more I dislike it. Installations, in particular, but if we stick to flat pieces then I would say that Picasso fits the bill where it is not aesthetically pleasing to me at all but I appreciate the reasoning behind it. Another one his Bosch and his Garden of Earthly Delights. Any, puti I find are technically well executed but not attractive in the least.

I find this question very subjective, but that is the ball of ugly, beauty and art.
posted by jadepearl at 3:57 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I took a first-year undergraduate class in art theory, I learned for the first time (hey - I was 18) about kitsch. It embarrassed and horrified me that some of the stuff I had considered pretty and would hang on my walls was automatically ruled out as art because it was only pretty or because it played on your emotions. As a reaction to that, I went through a stage of only liking (or at least only opening expressing a like of) discordant, deformed, unbeautiful art when I visited galleries, because then at least I could be sure that its value (if it had some) was "truly" artistic, rather than it just being popular because it was beautiful. In retrospect, I think this thinking was totally messed up, but I wouldn't be surprised if there are many people out there whose artistic taste is still driven by something like it.
posted by lollusc at 4:00 PM on March 4, 2013

Response by poster: To the people who find certain Picasso paintings ugly: what exactly do you value about one of them? Please be detailed.
posted by leibniz at 4:05 PM on March 4, 2013

Since this is a philosophical enquiry, I don't want to prejudge the issue too much. But lets define the ugly as something that you see as (perhaps deliberately) failing to meet some norm of aesthetic beauty. So seeming deformed (relative to some category) or lacking in craftmanship would be central examples.

But this is overly Kantian and narrow. Because unless we arbitrarily define these norms, we are nowhere, and the norms cannot be defined in any universal sense. Plenty of folks writing in the 18th and 19th century tried to do just this, which is largely what the 20th century was a reaction against. For any example there will be a counter example. So-called "norms of aesthetic beauty" are historically, socially, culturally, and facticity-ly contingent. It is very easy to find "craftless" works of art that are great and great works of craft that are not artful at all, etc.

I mean, this is problem, right? Because on the one hand we want to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. On the other hand, we want to say that Beethoven's 9th is more beautiful than Call Me Maybe, no matter who says differently. This is the central question that aesthetics has tried to answer over several centuries - with little success.

There's a reason why many philosophers of art ask very tough questions - can war be beautiful? for example. (Stockhausen famously asserted that 9/11 was the greatest work of art of all time). We try to get at the thing, the qualia, the "norms of aesthetic beauty" that separate the artworks from the not-art. But there are no principles. There are really only contingent conditions that are broadly or narrowly shared among audiences. These can be explored, suggested, applied to one movement or work or another. But you'd be hard pressed and probably wrong to make any sweeping statements of the sort "sometimes ugly works can have value because x" simply because the premise isn't right.

It's like when Wittgenstein said of a Schubert quartet: "If I hear a quartet and like it, I cannot say give me another. They are not the same."
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:07 PM on March 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think Francis Bacon's paintings are very good at expressing horror and disgust, and in invoking those feelings in the viewer.

The Québécoise surrealist artist Mimi Parent made a lot of work out of hair and bone that I find both repellent and compelling---repellent, because ew, hair and bone, creepy and reminiscent of corpses, and compelling because we will all be hair and bone one day, unless we are first reduced to ash.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:12 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Jenny Saville hits this button for me in a huge way. We're used to seeing female nudes in art and naked women in the media - we're told that women's bodies are just more beautiful, that everyone likes naked women, they're naturally pleasing, the female shape is endlessly inspiring... well, here's what she does with it.

The solo show featured in the Guardian (first link) has some madonna & child pieces that are more conventional / less disturbing (and far less interesting, to me), but I greatly prefer the really-quite-hideous images from her 'Closed Contact' series with Glen Luchford (second link). Unlike the Picassos or Rembrandts mentioned above (and unlike her madonna & child images), I can't imagine anyone finding any element of these images lovely or appealing in any way, and that is part of why I love them as art. They're intense. They are not remotely pleasing. They make quite a disturbing statement. And it's a feminist statement - how terribly unpopular. No one wants to hear that shit anymore. Nobody wants to look at ugliness. But they're very pushy. They silently say a great deal about what we conventionally expect women to be, what we conventionally expect the female nude to be, how we want to consume women's bodies in both art and life. They say a lot about fat, our societal fear of fat (and our special brand of loathing for fat women). I should note that these works are almost all huge in canvas or print size. I find what they evoke in people, what they force one to confront about what and how we value bodies, to be very interesting indeed.

But then, I like the very idea of art that is not aesthetically pleasant. Art that messes with your head and definitely doesn't match your couch.
posted by involution at 4:15 PM on March 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

Is photojournalism "art"? If so, lots of things like The Scourged Back and Phan Thi Kim Phuc.

In the (I guess) more standard "art" world, I've always liked Mr. Bean's take on "Whistler's Mother":
Even though Mr. Whistler was perfectly aware that his mother was a hideous old bat who looked like she had a cactus lodged up her backside, he stuck with her, and even took the time to paint this amazing picture of her. It's not just a painting; it's a picture of a mad old cow who he thought the world of. And that's marvelous.
posted by Flunkie at 5:03 PM on March 4, 2013

If you count films as "art," then HELL yeah - I have a very, very big soft spot for the "so bad it's good" realm of filmmaking.

Films like Manos, Hands of Fate or Plan 9 from Outer Space are empirically awful by aesthetic standards, and yet I love them (one film so much so that I made an FPP about it). For me, the appeal is the touchingly naive enthusiasm on the part of all the people creating it - they are so absolutely convinced that what they are making is a wonderful, wonderful thing and they get so caught up in the excitement of it, and their enthusiasm is so naked and innocent, that it's endearing and charming.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:07 PM on March 4, 2013

Pretty much everything Egon Schiele ever did fits in this category for me.
posted by julthumbscrew at 5:09 PM on March 4, 2013

Goya painted Saturn devouring his Son on the walls of his house. I find that horrible and compelling at the same time.
posted by mmascolino at 5:33 PM on March 4, 2013

Distorted guitars are my prototypical example of this. It's sort of obvious because they've become commodified and digitized but imagine playing Whole Lotta Love or Pay to Cum or Sister Ray for a classical fan from 1930? Theyd be terrified. The secret though is that distorted chords contain hidden overtones, especially high in the feedback. The sound developed to denote scary chaos and negativity turned out to reveal new ways of celebrating the order of music. So that forms a lot my opinion about ugliness in art.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:03 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Patricia Piccinini's sculptures are something I find equally repulsive and beautiful. The Long Awaited is my favourite. I admire it because the detail is exquisite, and I cannot conceive of them, yet alone dream of executing anything so perfect. I value them because, as with my favourite, her commentary is spot-on, often being about the "relationship with the stuff we create - and a lot of that stuff is alive." And yes, in me, they evoke strong feelings (as she says, empathy) and are a reminder that different is beautiful too. I could spend hours with them, and can't say that for many things.
posted by peagood at 7:24 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 'Woman l' from 1950-52.
Willem de Kooning

De Kooning's most famous work and perhaps the last painting of the 20th century that still shocks. He worked on it for roughly two years, painting and scraping away the still wet oils repeatedly. It's large, just over 6 feet by 5 feet, and has an aggressive vulgarity about it that I also find quite funny.

At the time it was painted, what was considered the cutting edge of the cutting edge in art was abstract painting, specifically the very large canvas's that became known as Abstract Expressionism. The figure, especially, was out and considered hopelessly retrograde. So, of course, de Kooning in his intemperate way, had to paint the figure. A giant 'NO!', specifically directed at influential art critic Clement Greenberg, denying ideology as critique.

Where this painting really stands out though, is in its sense of space, its figure/ground relationship along with its abstract/representational relationship. There is a muddying of boundaries going on here. Nothing is quite resolved or clearly defined in the painting and that's okay. She could be a figure or she could be the landscape the figure inhabits. There are large areas which are pure abstraction but the viewer still makes out a figure of a woman. All this was quite new in the early '50s. He was also very conscious about this being a parody of the artist and his muse. Initially the image itself was considered quite shocking. The violent slashing of the brush, the vulgar monstrosity of the form etc. But over time what has allowed it to retain that frisson is the sheer ambivalence of the enterprise. All those either/or things I mentioned earlier; none of them are resolved in the piece. Through an extremely delicate balancing act de Kooning refuses to set down firmly in any direction and it's that refusal that still upsets 60 years later. We like things resolved, the plot finished in tidy fashion, and are not so comfortable when someone refuses to play along.

My own sense of it is that it's also about the anxiety of trying to create something. He is commenting on attendant risks of creation while he's trying to create this thing he is commenting on. It's not a painting I could say I like(it's not interested in being liked), but it's certainly a painting I am still fascinated by. After all these years it refuses to sit nicely on the art museum wall unlike so many previously radical shocking pieces of art and that is something to think about indeed.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 11:09 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ed Kienholz
posted by bardic at 1:38 AM on March 5, 2013

There are several Bertand Goldberg building in Chicago that are "not to my taste" i.e., I think they are ugly (Prentice Women's Hospital, in particular), but I can, nevertheless, appreciate their value as architecture.

(I also recognize that if Prentice, Marina City, or River City were demolished, there is a very good chance that the space would be filled with something even less desirable.)
posted by she's not there at 1:44 AM on March 5, 2013

Amazing sculptures made from nylons by Rosa Verloop. I love the figures but I also love the pins that have been left in that help form the shapes.

Drawings of old people on old pieces of paper by Mark Powell. Every detail of a person's face etched onto non-pristine paper.

Intense pictures of super creepy things by Karl Persson. Not beautiful, but beautifully done.
posted by h00py at 4:52 AM on March 5, 2013

Oooh, you know what? I love Charlie White's "Understanding Joshua" series... it's grotesque, and upsetting, and just kinda viscerally repellent, but it's also REALLY expertly-crafted and well-done. I'd hang these in my house if I wasn't afraid of them scarring the kids for life.
posted by julthumbscrew at 6:59 AM on March 5, 2013

Most of Harrison Birtwistle's and Peter Maxwell Davies's work does precisely this for me.

Maxwell Davies: Eight Songs for a Mad King

Birtwistle: The Minotaur [full-length opera; link is to first video in playlist]

Then there's the Grosse Fuge, originally the last movement of Beethoven's 13th string quartet.

Also oh my god, the Tiger Lillies. They have their moments of beauty, but also don't shy away from extreme ugliness. Their album Ad Nauseam is a great example. Voilà: Murder.
posted by Pallas Athena at 8:17 AM on March 5, 2013

For me Cindy Sherman fits the bill. Some of her self portraits as characters are ugly. Fugly! But to me what makes it valuable is that she depicts real aesthetics floating around thath we see in the public every day. Aesthetics that an average person strives for. These styles are intentional and regular people put effort into making themselves look just that way and you, art viewer, are a snob trying to reconcile your lack of effort in the daily self depiction front! No go out there and be the next Ziggy Stardust or something!
posted by WeekendJen at 10:57 AM on March 5, 2013

Which is to say that the value in them is that they build a sense of empathy towards the characters (and everyday people they represent) within the viewer while empowering the viewer's creativity.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:59 AM on March 5, 2013

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