I’m in the basement of a university dormitory, in a former apartment currently serving as an office for a construction company. This “office” space is cluttered with equipment, including my own equipment for collecting air samples. I’m collecting the samples outside of areas in the dorm where asbestos is being removed. (And while my samples are running I have time to sit in the office and write unnecessary things like a blog entry.)
The three floors above me in this dorm have been partially gutted, with walls knocked out. Every floor is fairly dark, although temporary lights have been hung, everything is incredibly dirty with a fine dust, wires are hanging down here and there, and—for me, anyway—there is a general ambiance of creepy dangerousness. It’s quite ugly.
But what is ugly? Or to look at this in the other direction, what is beautiful? I would guess that because vision is the most compelling of our senses, for the majority of people, the words “beautiful” and “ugly”, in whatever language you want, originated as descriptions of things that were visible. Only later, I think, did those words transfer as metaphors to non-visual things, like sounds or ideas.
I don’t know for a fact that there are universal perceptions of beauty among all humans, but my strong feeling is that there are. Maybe there’s psychological research that says I’m wrong, but if there is, then that research is just ugly. My guess is that you could take pictures of beautiful women, handsome men, flowers, or sunsets over waterfalls, and carry those pictures around the world, from London to the Amazon, and you’d get a lot of agreement on beauty.
And yet, like most things humans do, our brains get to working on it, and there also seems to be a cultural element in perception of beauty. When we see the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens, a Flemish painter who lived 1577-1640, we find idealized images of women who are much heavier than the ideal for western society of the early 21st century. Whether Rubens represented a common image of what a beautiful woman should look like, or whether this was only his personal taste does not matter, as the paintings show an image of beauty that differs from the modern western norm.
We can also find striking examples more in keeping with the filthy dark building above me.
From the Renaissance on, and into the 19th century, beautiful paintings tended to be along the lines of the sunsets over waterfalls I mentioned above. Toward the end of the 19th century, however, as industrialization spread, painters began to incorporate that reality into their paintings. Are those paintings beautiful?
Aristotle said that it pleases us to see a skillful artistic rendering of an object that in reality we wouldn’t like. I think he’s right, and I think that idea can also be found in literature, when we take pleasure from reading about things that in reality would repel or horrify us, such as murder mysteries, or humor (the novel Confederacy of Dunces, Shakespeare’s character Falstaff, or the Russian humor novel The Twelve Chairs).
Perhaps I got a little off the topic of beauty there. Slap my hand. I was going on to say that visual depictions in the 20th century also moved into abstract paintings that are astounding in their ugliness—but there are many people who disagree and like them. As ugliness I might cite Jackson Pollock (yeah, I know, slap my hand twice), but he’s merely dull compared to some painters. There are things hanging on museum walls that looks like someone dynamited a dog. Maybe they did. Yet there are people who like it.
So I think some of those people could come here, put on the bright orange vest and hard hat and walk upstairs with me, and they would admire the spareness of the empty walls, the range of shadows in the dark rooms, the evocation of modern industrial life.
Or would they like this because it’s ugly? It may be that looking at such things as cultural variations on how we perceive beauty is misleading, because much of modern art is not seen as beautiful even by the admirers. There is a wide, and correct, perception, that modern art, the “serious” stuff, is often ugly. Maybe we are not seeing a shift in what is beautiful, but instead an expression of a cultural sickness, an admiration of ugliness by a damaged culture.
Possibly someday people will look back at us and say “what a fucked up culture”. And all we can do is nod our heads and say, no doubt enthusiastically, “yes, we are”.