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March 21, 2014 8:50 AM   Subscribe

Think You Know Ugly? Think Again
You might feel revolted by an object, but if you try to objectively explain why it is ugly, it’s harder than you think. Most people are influenced by the dominant tastes and fashion sensibilities of their generation, class, and ethnic group, and when you remove those factors from the equation, an exact, universal definition of “ugliness” becomes almost impossible to pin down.

Ugly is the new beautiful: From aesthetic monstrosity to design masterpiece

Stephen Bayley writes in The Architectural Review: The Ugly Truth: The Beauty of Ugliness
posted by the man of twists and turns (61 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
One Hundred And Thirty Nine Defective Carrots
Ze Frank's 2006 defence of ugly MySpace pages as markers of mass experimentation and the democratisation of design
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:59 AM on March 21 [4 favorites]


Oh dang I thought there was gonna be a quiz where we got to say ugly or not for a bunch of things and then get told what the various cultures or times the things were from thought about it.
posted by sio42 at 9:02 AM on March 21 [4 favorites]


Obviously 139 defective carrots aren't ugly because they're 5 shy of gross.
I'll show myself out...
posted by hanoixan at 9:09 AM on March 21 [46 favorites]


This is especially apparent when viewing old media.

I'm empirically aware that having no eyebrows was considered incredibly hot in the 1930s. But all those early Hollywood starlets look like aliens to me. (Except Garbo. Because, you know, Garbo.)
posted by Sara C. at 9:15 AM on March 21 [1 favorite]


Inclusion of the Thonet chair is kind of slippery, though. AFAIK they've always been considered iconic design, unlike things like the Eiffel Tower which were once considered ugly but are now considered modernist classics.
posted by Sara C. at 9:24 AM on March 21


IMMA JUST LEAVE THIS HERE

(only $350!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:30 AM on March 21 [4 favorites]


an exact, universal definition of “ugliness” becomes almost impossible to pin down

"almost"??
posted by yoink at 9:34 AM on March 21


aka la jolie laide

more examples
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:51 AM on March 21


Oh come on. I don't think I can bear to live in a world where Angelica Huston is "you know, like ugly pretty".

Angelica Huston is beautiful. What is the New York Times smoking?
posted by Sara C. at 10:00 AM on March 21 [3 favorites]


Isn't this the totally obvious corollary to beauty being in the eye of the beholder? That said, how anyone could find the architecture of Frank Gehry anything but super-fugly is completely beyond me. (Actually, I suppose that rather proves the point. Guess that why there's 31 flavors, as the man said...)
posted by slappy_pinchbottom at 10:03 AM on March 21 [1 favorite]


Those... matches.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:22 AM on March 21 [2 favorites]


Hmm. I thought we all universally agreed here that this Steve Jobs statue is ugly?
posted by monospace at 10:22 AM on March 21 [3 favorites]


Anjelica Huston, someone observed, had to grow into her looks. 45 years ago, she looked more striking than beautiful, I think. But Francis Bacon tells us that there is not any excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:30 AM on March 21 [2 favorites]


Of course judgements about beauty and ugliness are heavily dependent on a long string of historical accidents. Just knowing that doesn't mean anybody's going to alter their aesthetic preferences or suddenly find you hot if they didn't before. Historical accidents roOl.

> Hmm. I thought we all universally agreed here that this Steve Jobs statue is ugly?

Not as ugly as the yacht.
posted by jfuller at 10:31 AM on March 21


PS. In the library, by Col. Mustard, with the Baccarat millefiori mushroom glass paperweight.
posted by jfuller at 10:37 AM on March 21 [1 favorite]


Those... matches.

Yeah, but I think conflating "ugliness" of the sentiment conveyed by an object (or the "ugliness" of the moral reflections we're lead to by an image or an object) with the specifically aesthetic ugliness of the object itself is unhelpful. You could have the greatest typesetters of the world set Mein Kampf and the greatest illustrators illustrate it and you'd have a beautiful object that was no less morally "ugly" for all that.
posted by yoink at 10:43 AM on March 21 [2 favorites]


That Prince Charles-designed firehouse?
posted by Navelgazer at 10:44 AM on March 21


From Ugly is the new beautiful: From aesthetic monstrosity to design masterpiece
At what is billed as London's first "ugly party", a grand café will be decked out with "ghoulish objects" and "revolting curios", including a stuffed pug giving birth to a flying pig and blown-up images from Bayley's book, including one of Myra Hindley. "My barman is working on a grey- coloured cocktail and Martinis with gherkins in them," says Bayley. "Talking about beauty is boring – when you get talking about ugliness it gets interesting."
To me, the quoted words have a range of meanings: "ghoulish" and "revolting" is not the same as "ugly," especially when paired with the appearances of people. Look at the Ugly modeling agency's models: none strike me as ugly, but rather normal. Which, in the world of modeling, could be ugly. And when they're made up? They all strike me as attractive, if unconventionally so.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:56 AM on March 21 [2 favorites]


Arrrrg!...
posted by quazichimp at 11:02 AM on March 21 [2 favorites]


There was much discussion of this in classes where I did my grad. degree, the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary. They taught design planning, architecture, industrial design, etc. in one faculty. A lot of the courses were design oriented, and a lot of the discussion really was about what ultimately makes good design.

I agree with the bulk of the article, but what I think gets under-stated (despite the title) is that people don't look at objects in a vaccuum. They are very coloured by their culture, yes, but they also value things in terms of their authenticity. Most things which are termed 'ugly' are inauthentic; the article uses 'fake'. But I think that's the main point; rather than being solely a temporal thing, the best objects are made well with natural or high quality materials, they have a purpose and they fill that purpose well, and they also conform to the general basic design principles of a complementary colour pallette, pleasing ratios, etc. The opposite is also true, that ugly objects are poorly made, or are made to be a cheap representation of something, or consist of poor materials.

I use my house as an example; we have a modest 100 year old craftsman style house with ornate woodwork, leaded glass windows etc - the opposite of a modern house. And yet, it's authentic. Our mid-century modern furniture suits it very well despite the clashes in eras and style because both are authentic, high-quality representations of their eras. I think if you took the best of every style and mixed them together in a home's decor, it would work because people see the value in authentic objects.
posted by jimmythefish at 11:14 AM on March 21 [7 favorites]


These discussions go on and on without making attacks against the infrastructure that allows a minority to dictate what the majority thinks - mass media and the unintended consequences thereof. I guess it's pretty difficult to get the word out about these things without, you know, using mass media to do so.

These articles (and the NYT probably has a boilerplate sitting around for them) end up sounding like a zen koan - beauty is ugly. Ugly is beauty. Beauty is beauty etc etc.
posted by Dmenet at 11:26 AM on March 21


Makes me thing of the "First World War Noises" sketch from Monty Python's Matching Tie and Handkerchief.

'Did I ever show that picture of my wife, Sarge? Pretty nice, eh?'
'Ah, a bit ugly, though, sir.'
'Well I suppose that's rather a matter of taste, Sarge.'
'Oh, no, no, she's ugly, sir.'


They touch on one of the complicating issues in the article: worlds like "ugly" and "beautiful" have different meanings and shades of meaning that can become conflated, and people can talk past each other on the same subject without realizing it.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:40 AM on March 21


it would work because people see the value in authentic objects.

"Authentic" is far too problematic a term to be of any help here. Lots off people admire Palladian architecture, but it's clearly not "authentic" classical architecture, despite its many debts to that tradition. Nor was it the "authentic" vernacular architecture of its day. Lots of people found Walpole's Strawberry Hill "beautiful" but its "gothick" touches were wildly inventive and utterly "inauthentic." But what could be more genuinely characteristic of their historical moment? Is the sober, historicist neo-Gothic of some nineteenth century architecture more "beautiful" for its antiquarian accuracy? Or is it less "authentic" because more likely to be mistaken for the "real thing"? What could be more "authentically" mid-century American than tiki-lamps and other such kitsch (far more "authentic," I would argue, than whatever Scandinavian-and-Japanese influenced mid-century modernist classics you're putting into your house), but what could be faker, too?

I think the term's essentially empty of meaning. It's a moral claim masquerading as an objective assessment.
posted by yoink at 11:42 AM on March 21 [9 favorites]


I'm ugly, I'm ugly as sin,
But beautiful's out - ugly's in.
If you're ugly like me, you're in good companee;
There are millions of us who're uglee.

posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:45 AM on March 21 [1 favorite]


I don't really think of objects or tangible things as ugly. I think everything posted is interesting, some I find more aesthetically pleasing than others. I mostly use that term when describing someone's abhorrent personality, whether they be racist, or homophobic, or just plain nasty.
posted by Kokopuff at 11:57 AM on March 21 [1 favorite]


Growing up in the '80s and '90s, I thought those colors that everything made in the sixties was inevitably in - you know that avocado green and corresponding burnt orange - were the absolute pinnacle of ugly. Literally could not understand how anybody could make a conscious decision to purchase, let alone manufacture, something in those colors.

Now they are gorgeous to me, and not for kitsch reasons. I just love those colors.

Obviously the change was with me, but I have no idea why.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:57 AM on March 21 [7 favorites]


I think beauty and ugliness has a lot to do with someone's innate expectations of how something should look. It's influenced by culture, upbringing, and a personal development of taste.

I think with creatures and items appearing in nature, there's more of an objective rule to beauty (symmetry, serenity, awe-inspiring, rarity), but with man-made objects it's more evolution of design creating expectations within a generation. Even recent "revolutionary" designs of beauty have heavy overtones of evolution in them. The iPhone comes to mind, which was widely held as beautiful, but the screen, glass and chrome were already long elements of uber-tech, modern design in popular culture.

I'd be curious (as they must have happened) to find out more about purely revolutionary design jumps that were successful.
posted by Debaser626 at 12:13 PM on March 21


What could be more "authentically" mid-century American than tiki-lamps and other such kitsch (far more "authentic," I would argue, than whatever Scandinavian-and-Japanese influenced mid-century modernist classics you're putting into your house), but what could be faker, too?

I think you're confusing nostalgia or familiarity with authenticity. Nostalgia has value, sure, but not necessarily for the intended purpose. It's in the same way that one can listen to a song that reminds them of an enjoyable time in their lives and like that song, when that song might be...oh...Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice. That's not really a good song by very many people's standards of what makes a good song, but it has nostalgic value.

The tiki stuff is nostalgic, but (personally) i see it as ugly due to its racist, colonial connotations.

While you may see my ownership of Danish mid-century modern furniture as the co-opting of another time or place, my maternal grandmother was born in Copenhagen and I grew up with Danish culture around my house. I see the 60-year old imported-from-Denmark teak dining room set in my house and I think of who made it, and who owned it, and I feel connected to a distant part of my culture in a way that nobody ever does with tiki stuff. My tastes and sensibilities were formed around these things which not only are beautiful, durable and timeless, but which also connect me to my mother and grandmother and further my culture.

Do you understand that difference? What authentic means in that sense?
posted by jimmythefish at 12:14 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]


When I was a Lisa Frank loving little girl in the '80s, I didn't understand why the adult world was so beige -- didn't bright colors make everyone happier? Why wasn't everything hot pink and neon green?

Some time in the '90s I read some fashion article that said something like "It takes a lot of energy to wear color on a given day," and at first I laughed at the ridiculous things that fashion people say. But it stuck with me and on reflection I realized that it really did take a lot of energy to deal with the attention that wearing attention-grabbing colors generated.

It also takes energy to keep re-directing your attention away from attention-grabbing (ie, distracting, "loud") bright colors when you're trying to concentrate on something else, which I eventually realized is the reason the adult world is so beige. Beige is relaxing. Beige does not grab your attention.

I guess that "ugly" and "beautiful" are two sides of the same coin, both names for things which grab your attention by the way they look. Part of the reason that the definitions might change with fashion is that part of what makes things grab your attention is their contrast with their surroundings. So beige things might seem ugly (or beautiful) in a decade when bright colors are in, and bright colors might seem ugly in a decade when beige things are in. Victorian ornateness might likewise seem especially ugly or beautiful in a minimalist decade, but not noticable at all in a decade in which almost everything is ornate. There's probably some predator-prey differential equation driving fashion, where people react to, for instance, all the ornateness by buying minimalist stuff because it's "beautiful," but as it becomes more common, it blends into the background and ornate stuff becomes "beautiful" again.

But what determines which attention-grabbing things will seem ugly and which will seem beautiful? Of course it is somewhat in the eye of the beholder, and it is somewhat about symmetry and proportion, but in the end I think most people buy into "form follows function" at a pretty deep level. If something catches your attention and then you look at it and you see something which accomplishes some purpose effectively, especially if it does so in a novel way (whether that be evoking a specific feeling, or supporting a roof with a wide span, or re-purposing waste fabric to keep you warm at night) then people are going to see that as beautiful.

I think "authenticity" plays into this in the sense that something is "authentic" if it was really designed to serve the purpose it ostensibly serves, and "inauthentic" if it imitates the appearance of something which was designed for a purpose without actually serving that purpose very well in its current context. So in that sense I agree that "beauty" and "authenticity" are related.
posted by OnceUponATime at 12:24 PM on March 21 [10 favorites]


"they simply detested highly ornamented machine-made furnishings. This led to the anti-industrial Arts and Crafts movement starting in 1860 that promoted handcrafted furniture, metalwork, wallpaper, textiles, and jewelry in simple, symmetrical, and natural styles."

An thus, today, we have Etsy and a million tumblrs of cute things in canning jars.
posted by Grandysaur at 12:38 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]


i see it as ugly due to its racist, colonial connotations.

But that's not really what ugly means.

I understand that southern plantation homes are very beautiful. However, I think they represent the most awful thing in our country's history. I also don't like the way they are used by the local cultures on the ground where they are located. So I don't visit them, wouldn't recommend that others do so, and frankly, for all their beauty and historical value, wouldn't be bothered if they all burnt down.

But are they beautiful? They are undoubtably beautiful.

An thus, today, we have Etsy and a million tumblrs of cute things in canning jars.

FWIW the artists behind the Arts And Crafts movement would roll in their graves to hear themselves compared to such hideous kitschy bullshit. There was nothing quaint or cute about the Arts And Craft aesthetic.
posted by Sara C. at 12:44 PM on March 21 [4 favorites]


But that's not really what ugly means.

How so? The whole discussion here is of how people view things in a context. I can look at a Nazi flag and Nazi memorabilia and appreciate the boldness of the designs. Would I have any of it in my house? No, because it's ugly to me. It's ugly for what it represents.
posted by jimmythefish at 12:49 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]


But if you're talking about aesthetics -- which TFA is -- you're by definition not talking about political context. Something being politically incorrect or historically associated with bigotry doesn't have any actual impact on the aesthetic qualities of the thing.

Another example - disco. In theory, disco should be my favorite genre of music ever. It's all about the little people taking the tools of musicmaking into their own hands to pursue the kinds of aesthetics that they were into, not what high culture or mass media told them they were supposed to like. It was exciting and new and diverse and, a lot of the time, was the medium by which the message of social/cultural tolerance was spread.

And yet aesthetically? Hate it. Ugh. No way. Not my thing at all. Terrible ugly noise as far as I'm concerned.

Being politically left wing doesn't make disco aesthetically beautiful any more than being politically right wing would make it aesthetically ugly.
posted by Sara C. at 1:10 PM on March 21


How so? The whole discussion here is of how people view things in a context. I can look at a Nazi flag and Nazi memorabilia and appreciate the boldness of the designs. Would I have any of it in my house? No, because it's ugly to me. It's ugly for what it represents.

I would describe plantation houses and Nazi memorabilia as "repugnant" rather than ugly. In cases like that, where the specific aesthetics of the object are so outweighed by its other connotations/history/meaning, it seems like a description of the emotional state the object evokes (ie, "repugnance" or "awe") is more important and useful than a description of its aesthetics (ie, "ugly" or "beautiful") anyway.

If I wanted to praise the aesthetics of a repugnant object, I would have a lot of trouble using "beautiful," though. I'd maybe say it was "well designed"?
posted by rue72 at 1:16 PM on March 21 [2 favorites]


From the article: “That’s clearly not true, because a lot of things which work very well like oil refineries, few people find them beautiful."

Maybe not close up, but have you ever driven past one at night, in the distance? It's like a city skyline, but brighter, more alien, and topped by a pillar of flame. We used to drive past the one in El Dorado, Kansas every time we went to my grandparents' house. My dad worked there when he was young. If I was dozing in the back seat I would wake up and press my nose against the window to stare at it until it was out of sight.
posted by OnceUponATime at 1:22 PM on March 21 [5 favorites]


Growing up in the '80s and '90s, I thought those colors that everything made in the sixties was inevitably in - you know that avocado green and corresponding burnt orange - were the absolute pinnacle of ugly.

I felt the same way, and then changed my mind in the same way.

Now, the ugliest era to me is the 1987-1993 age of teal, brass, black and white. The age of post-modern architecture, fake-ass "art deco", and vertical blinds. I wonder if I'll change my mind again? Probably, but it feels impossible to imagine.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 1:23 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]


Maybe not close up, but have you ever driven past one at night, in the distance? It's like a city skyline, but brighter, more alien, and topped by a pillar of flame. We used to drive past the one in El Dorado, Kansas every time we went to my grandparents' house. My dad worked there when he was young. If I was dozing in the back seat I would wake up and press my nose against the window to stare at it until it was out of sight.

This is how I feel about Kansas in general. The huge sky and brown land and shining windmills and black cows are sublime. Something that's sublime can't really fall into categories like "ugly" or "pretty" or even "beautiful," though, I think -- it's too big, somehow? It's "awesome" rather than "pleasing."

I think once you start thinking about the actual human being behind the face and body, people start falling into the "sublime" category more and more, too. (Maybe that's true for natural objects and living things in general, though the writer says she thinks they can be called "ugly"?)
posted by rue72 at 1:38 PM on March 21 [2 favorites]


Growing up in the '80s and '90s, I thought those colors that everything made in the sixties was inevitably in - you know that avocado green and corresponding burnt orange - were the absolute pinnacle of ugly. Literally could not understand how anybody could make a conscious decision to purchase, let alone manufacture, something in those colors.

Now they are gorgeous to me, and not for kitsch reasons. I just love those colors
.

Generally speaking, I like earth tones, but the green/brown babyshit color that was everywhere in the 70s will never look like anything but babyshit to me.

That particular color aside, it wasn't so much the colors that made 70s decor ugly as the design. Faux-Spanish clashed with faux-Chinese clashed with faux-leftover-Pop Art clashed with faux-colonial, and all of them were done in intense colors which fought each other, aesthetically speaking.

The fact that the average family got their decor at places that did things cheaply, in laminate and glue and fake wood veneers, like Sears, only made it worse. A little wear and tear on that avocado-green end table and it began to peel and look dingy.

The cheap stuff of today is, much of the time, better made than the cheap stuff of 40 years ago, and better at hiding its cheapness.
posted by emjaybee at 2:42 PM on March 21


In theory, disco should be my favorite genre of music ever. It's all about the little people taking the tools of musicmaking into their own hands to pursue the kinds of aesthetics that they were into, not what high culture or mass media told them they were supposed to like.

I'm a defender of disco (have to be if you're going to like four-on-the-floor electronic music) but I don't know about this characterization. On one hand disco did originate with and continue to include racial and sexual minorities, on the other it was massively commercialized within a few years and in particular the assertion that some of the glossiest high budget studio production ever represents the little people taking the tools of musicmaking seems a little off base. The house music that followed, on the other hand...
posted by atoxyl at 2:48 PM on March 21


I have always been a huge fan of bright colors and rainbows (for me, ugly is about inharmonious; I can't stand rainbows out of order, for example, but give me something either in order, or held together by a shade, and I will likely love it), but I find the whole discussion of ugly fascinating both because I usually find modern things so ugly (the iPhone's new color scheme, for example, is ugly to me despite my love of bright colors; the red in particular just seems wrong) but I often find kitchy things ugly, too.

For a while I've been thinking of ugly in terms of the rise and fall of fashion trends - the article mentioned punk, but I tend to think of decora (link) and uglycute (link), both of which are about excesses and deformations in a deliberate attempt to be unattractive in an attractive manner.

Often it seems like the change of status of things from ugly to beautiful seem to go along with power - that is the opinions of the people who determine what gets built, what gets on TV, what gets into movies - and age; an old ugly thing is an antique. This is a major issue in art, where the rhetoric is all about vision and authenticity these days, which has led to some epic scams (or people trying to get noticed with a good story, and then getting bitten in the ass, depending on your perspective). I think one issue with authenticity being a marker of attractiveness is that authenticity is so often fake or glosses off gross examples of injustice or prejudice.
posted by Deoridhe at 2:58 PM on March 21 [2 favorites]


On one hand disco did originate with and continue to include racial and sexual minorities, on the other it was massively commercialized within a few years and in particular the assertion that some of the glossiest high budget studio production ever represents the little people taking the tools of musicmaking seems a little off base.

But I think that shows exactly why politics can't really come into the aesthetic value of something. Because if you play two disco tracks for me, I'd be hard-pressed as a non-fan to tell you which was good Emma Goldman lefty dancing to my revolution and which was the slick corporate junk. Aesthetically they are interchangeable at a basic level.

Just like I'd be hard-pressed to tell you, if you showed me a photograph of a 19th century country house, whether it was owned by the abolitionist southern Grimke sisters, or Simon LeGree.

Just like I'd be hard-pressed to tell you which subjects of August Sander's portraits of early 20th century Germans were fascist sympathizers.
posted by Sara C. at 3:03 PM on March 21 [2 favorites]


But I think that shows exactly why politics can't really come into the aesthetic value of something. Because if you play two disco tracks for me, I'd be hard-pressed as a non-fan to tell you which was good Emma Goldman lefty dancing to my revolution and which was the slick corporate junk. Aesthetically they are interchangeable at a basic level.

China Miéville in "Guilty Pleasures: Art and Politics" (30+ min audio) says that dismissing politically repellent writing "because it's not well done" is a poor tactic because what do you do when you find some politically repellent writing that is well done? You've traded your politics for aesthetics, which is a dangerous game. You have to be able to admire something technically while rejecting it philosophically.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:26 PM on March 21 [3 favorites]


good Emma Goldman lefty dancing to my revolution

My argument is that while disco deserves more credit than it gets, this mostly does not actually exist. This was a tangent, not a response to the part of the conversation about politics and aesthetics - though I agree with you.
posted by atoxyl at 3:29 PM on March 21


"Ugly"
"Beautiful"
"Authentic"
"Disco"

*flees thread, screaming*
posted by BitterOldPunk at 4:03 PM on March 21 [6 favorites]


"Criticism is prejudice made plausible."

H.L. Mencken
posted by IndigoJones at 4:39 PM on March 21


But I think that shows exactly why politics can't really come into the aesthetic value of something. Because if you play two disco tracks for me, I'd be hard-pressed as a non-fan to tell you which was good Emma Goldman lefty dancing to my revolution and which was the slick corporate junk. Aesthetically they are interchangeable at a basic level. 

Okay, so imagine two disco songs, more or less indistinguishable in terms of technique and all other formal aspects. As it happens, one of them inspired a political movement that ultimately led to a new social order that lifted millions of formerly poor and oppressed people up, the other didn't quite break the top of the charts in a different country, and was quickly consigned to the box store checkout bargain bins. The only noncontextual difference between the two works? Their content. One had vapid lyrics written by a rich dillettante who'd known nothing but hedonistic pleasure and privilege her entire life, the other had brilliantly subversive lyrics promoting solidarity among socially disenfranchised groups written by a woman who'd worked her way up from abject poverty against impossible odds to become a master self-taught musical producer and performer. Which work of art is more culturally important and impressive? Context is everything in art (which is why I've often been tempted to conclude the only really important work Picasso ever produced was Guernica).
posted by saulgoodman at 7:13 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]


I get bored with mid-century modern. I like interesting clutter. I like curves.
posted by thivaia at 8:49 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]


you know that avocado green and corresponding burnt orange

We had a dishwasher made in the 1970's that was designed so you could switch the metal panel in the front door to one of a different color to change your kitchen decor. The extra panels were stored in the door. Your choices were: Avocado green, coppertone burnt orange, and harvest gold.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:53 PM on March 21 [4 favorites]


When I was a Lisa Frank loving little girl in the '80s, I didn't understand why the adult world was so beige -- didn't bright colors make everyone happier? Why wasn't everything hot pink and neon green?

From what I recall living through the '80s, everything was hot pink and neon green.
posted by krinklyfig at 12:38 AM on March 22 [1 favorite]


Latin drums and soaring strings.
These are all quite beautiful things.
But where, I ask, then did the bliss go
When these things combine into disco?
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:37 AM on March 22


Their content

But we're not talking about content.

Sure, if one song is like "I'm gonna lay down/my sword and shield/down by the riverside", and the other song is like "nch nch fuck me baby nch nch", yeah of course I could tell which of those two songs is the revolutionary anthem and which is slick nonsense.

But this is a conversation about aesthetics.

If I just heard the bridge of each of those songs, I couldn't tell you which was politically "good" vs. "bad". Wagner sounds glorious without context.

Politics don't make something ugly vs. beautiful, as much as we might wish it were so.
posted by Sara C. at 12:40 PM on March 22


I think that very often the original incarnation of a new design/ fashion/technology is bold and different enough to make it noteworthy and fascinating to a segment of the population. Then the design is taken up and interpreted by others, either to beat the price, or to provide it to a wider audience, and that's when the foibles start to accumulate. It becomes ugly when it has reached the point where the ethos is lost, and it is just a bunch of extra cheap stuff, poorly glued to the original concept.

Then we have a back-to-basics period, and it starts again from the same building blocks. The things that last are the simplest, like light bulb design. It takes a major paradigm shift to change them. What is old is always new again, because it is a part of all of us, and evokes the need to simplify our lives and shut out some of the noise.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 5:39 PM on March 22


But this is a conversation about aesthetics.

If I just heard the bridge of each of those songs, I couldn't tell you which was politically "good" vs. "bad". Wagner sounds glorious without context.

Politics don't make something ugly vs. beautiful, as much as we might wish it were so.


Are you arguing that it's possible for someone to experience sensory input wholly without the weight of context? Unless we're talking about experimental bubble-people who were raised in float tanks, that just doesn't make sense.

I'm not sure who these mythical people are who prove that "Wagner sounds glorious without context", because even if you've never heard of Wagner or ever listened to opera in your life, every element of a complex work carries context unique to the person experiencing it. Context doesn't just mean "I read a bio of Wagner and woah dude sounds like a baddie!", it could also mean "I work as a maid and this reminds me of the music rich people like to hear played in hotel bathroom lobby". Or whatever.

I suppose I can accept that some people are attached to the idea of pure form unencumbered by, well, all the other constantly insistent aspects of existence, but I'm not really sure I understand the point of giving much airtime to a quality that can probably only be experienced by AIs.

I literally came in here after reading the OP to wonder aloud why the author would engage a ridiculous strawman like people who supposedly believe in objective beauty, so I guess now I sort of just can't even
posted by threeants at 7:02 PM on March 22 [3 favorites]


Politics don't make something ugly vs. beautiful, as much as we might wish it were so.

I disagree. It's only context and the meaning within the social context of a work that makes it either beautiful or ugly. Empty form is empty form. There's no difference between a formally perfect work of art and a formally beautiful (but semantically empty) equation. Form without content is nothing. Art is almost wholly in the skillful use of formal technique to deliver culturally meaningful content. Anything else is just cargo cult formalism. But I have known people who swear they care nothing about content when evaluating works of art, and I'm sure they're being honest, but I don't personally see how I could ever do that. Even art movements like Dada and Surrealism that rejected rational meaning and interpretation of art did so with an expressly political and social agenda and never advocated empty formalism as an alternative. I don't know. YMMV.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:17 PM on March 24


Are you arguing that it's possible for someone to experience sensory input wholly without the weight of context?

Are you implying that you could hear a strain of unfamiliar music, or see a work of art in an unfamiliar tradition, and immediately understand whether it's politically apropos or not?
posted by Sara C. at 2:31 PM on March 24


It's only context and the meaning within the social context of a work that makes it either beautiful or ugly. Empty form is empty form. There's no difference between a formally perfect work of art and a formally beautiful (but semantically empty) equation. Form without content is nothing

I think you're getting "content" and "context" kind of muddled here. There are lots of beautiful works of art that have no "content" in the sense of having no explicit "message" or extractable "meaning." The vast majority of wordless music, for example, or all abstract painting.

If, on the other hand, you're saying that all aesthetic judgments only make sense within a particular historical/political/psychological context then, yeah, sure. Nobody comes to a work of art free of history. On the other hand, we see every single day people finding works of art beautiful which were produced by people they find personally distasteful with whom they share no political sympathies whatsoever--and we also see every day people finding works of art dull, banal, and/or ugly which are produced by people whose political aims and personal story they admire. So clearly the relationship between "beauty" and "political context" is a far more complex one than "if the artist's personal story is compelling and their intent is noble we will admire the art they produce."
posted by yoink at 2:43 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


I think you're getting "content" and "context" kind of muddled here.

No, I'm using both, and both are relevant.

Music is an interesting case because it's culturally universal among humans. But all the same, while all human cultures seem to have music in some form, cultural ideas about what constitutes music versus what's only annoying noise have definitely been very fluid and bound to ephemeral generational trends, so I'd suggest any one of us might hear a strain of unfamiliar music and not even recognize it as music, depending on our cultural grounding and expectations.

But computers could absolutely do pure music better than humans ever could, so what's to appreciate there? Pure music is a solved problem. It's not interesting to me precisely because it requires no human intelligence to create; raw calculating power is enough to produce pure music more sophisticated than anything we could produce. Same for abstract art. But what good is that for us?
posted by saulgoodman at 2:47 PM on March 24


But computers could absolutely do pure music better than humans ever could, so what's to appreciate there? Pure music is a solved problem.

What does that claim mean? What would "better" mean in this context? And what is this supposed to prove in relation to the original argument?
posted by yoink at 2:55 PM on March 24


Yoink: I don't have time to make a decent argument here, so I'll respectfully bow out, but context is part of what gives rise to the content in even abstract music. A lot of classical that contemporary listeners would hear as pure, abstract music were intended to be and were understood to be figurative in whole or in part at the time they were created. Even pure musical technique happens against a backdrop of musical traditions and conventions that give them relative meaning and expressive power. The point is even the most intricate arpeggiated 64th note runs don't have any inherent value, devoid of some kind of context to which the piece of music is responding or otherwise engaging with. But that's my own personal view. Thankfully, I don't get to tell others what art is or isn't or should or shouldn't be with anymore authority than anyone else.
posted by saulgoodman at 3:41 PM on March 24


A lot of classical that contemporary listeners would hear as pure, abstract music were intended to be and were understood to be figurative in whole or in part at the time they were created.

Sure. But if I go to the symphony to hear my one classical musician friend play Shostakovich, which I've never heard before and have no context for, I'm not going to be like "OMG THIS GUY WAS GROUND UNDER THE STALINIST HEEL, so this music is definitely good." I'm just going to hear the music and decide whether I like it based on the aesthetics. If there's a short blurb in the program or I google Shostakovich later and read about his life, that might put the music in better context for me, but most likely I'll have already imprinted on the overall sound.

This is why people keep rehashing all the arguments about Woody Allen. If you saw Bananas or Sleeper as a kid, it's not like you could discern from pure aesthetics that this dude was someday going to become a creepy child molesting perv. There's nothing innate in the text to tell you THIS IS NOT FUNNY AND ACTUALLY EVIL.
posted by Sara C. at 3:48 PM on March 24


Sure, but you're still engaging with some broader set of conventions and traditions that you've been steeped in aren't you? I mean, you don't go to a concert with no expectations at all, do you? To me, it's not just the mathematical complexity of the otherwise arbitrary notes that makes music engaging, it's the interplay of a lot of different factors, not all of which are internal to the music. Can't really speak definitively about what others bring or don't bring to music or any other aesthetic experience, but I promise I'm telling the truth about how it works for me, to the best of my ability. Empty technique just grates on my nerves after a while. I want to know what my artists are trying to say, even if it's just, "Hey, let's take a break from all this fussing and worrying about what this means and just enjoy some pretty pictures," or "Isn't it impressive how quickly I can move my fingers?" Depending on the cultural moment, those might be important messages or they might not be, but I find it hard to imagine any art worth experiencing without some kind of explicit or implicit semantic or other cultural content. Pure art would just be sterile algorithmically generated patterns of images or tones. Nothing more important or valuable than interesting patterns in static. (Just finished dinner so had a couple minutes, but need to get the kids to bed now. Thanks for the great discussion. I'm probably wrong.)
posted by saulgoodman at 4:56 PM on March 24


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