Things Are Getting Ugly

The Ugly Duchess by Quentin Massys, circa 1513. i i

The Ugly Duchess by Quentin Massys, circa 1513. National Gallery, London, via Wikimedia Commons hide caption

itoggle caption National Gallery, London, via Wikimedia Commons
The Ugly Duchess by Quentin Massys, circa 1513.

The Ugly Duchess by Quentin Massys, circa 1513.

National Gallery, London, via Wikimedia Commons

Ugly is everywhere. There are Ugly Dog pageants, Ugly Sweater sites and Ugly Sofa contests. Taking Ugly-Faced selfies is an online phenomenon. Could ugly be the new beautiful?

Like beauty, some people say, ugly is in the mind — and eye — of the beholder. But is it really?

Can't we all agree that a certain car is ugly? Or a holiday ornament? Or a fish? Not necessarily.

Ugly and beautiful "are not precisely defined territories," says Stephen Bayley, a writer and design consultant in Great Britain, and the author of Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything.

But he argues that ugliness has a place in this world. After all, beauty is fleeting.

As evidence, he quotes Serge Gainsbourg, the "stubbly, chain-smoking Paris gargoyle" who once dated starlet Brigitte Bardot and who famously said, "Ugliness is superior to beauty because it lasts longer."

The Beauty Conspiracy

Ugliness, Stephen maintains, is fascinating. He cites Joseph Merrick, the "Elephant Man" of the 1880s, who suffered from abnormal skin and bone growth. As soon as Merrick offered himself to a circus, he became a celebrity. And, Stephen adds, postcard sales of a popular painting in London's National Gallery, Quentin Massys' Ugly Duchess, rival the sales of Monet's "delightful and unthreatening" waterlilies.

Stephen gets really amped up talking about ugliness: "Artists always play with the conflict of beauty and ugliness. Salvador Dali thought sex must be ugly. The architect Rem Koolhaas says only when you begin to discuss ugliness do buildings get really interesting. The poet Baudelaire found bad taste 'intoxicating.' "

Our contemporary notion of what is beautiful is a "ludicrous conspiracy," Stephen says. "It is a fashion industry chorus of the uncreased, fragrant, deodorized, toned and meticulously depilated who cannot actually agree what they are conspiring about."

Ideas about beauty continuously change, he says. "In the 17th century, Rubens' pink fatties were the beautiful ideal while a knock-kneed scrawny skeleton is ours. In a quarter of a century we will be back to fatties. ... In 25 years, Kate Moss will look ridiculous."

Plugging Ugly

The pendulum may already be swinging.

Jeremy Gutsche of the site Trend Hunter believes that many people nowadays are embracing ugliness so that they will stand out from the herd. "Purposely and explicitly unattractive products offer up a way for people to reject the status quo in a clever way," Jeremy writes in a recent post. He points to mock meat purses and horrible holiday sweaters as examples.

"These products," Jeremy observes, "are explicit and self-aware of their appearance, and are marketed in a way that play up flaws instead of diminishing them."

Could we be hurtling toward a day when homeliness is held up as the ideal? When nubbiness is the norm and ugliness is no longer ugly?

Ugh. Probably not. But isn't it pretty to think so?

What is The Protojournalist? New-school storytelling, old-school reporting. @NPRtpj

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