Ugly is a beautiful book. Glossy pages and colourful images make it a pleasant object to hold and behold. It has been written by Stephen Bayley, previously chief executive of the London Design Museum, to make the reader step back from his opinions and consider why he holds them.
We’ve been brainwashed into thinking that in Beauty versus Ugliness there is only one winner. Beauty is surely best, end of debate? We all want more beauty and less ugliness, don’t we? Well no, it turns out. Albert Camus was one of those who thought differently, beauty driving him to despair. In this lavish book Bayley investigates the true meanings of beauty and ugliness, asking questions throughout the 271 pages that will get you pondering next time you make an aesthetic judgement. Is bad taste intoxicating? Is beauty boring?
It is not a problem that this book about ugliness is itself beautiful as Bayley demonstrates the interlinking of the two right from the start. After all, Leonardo believed perfection is only reached ‘through a series of disgusts.’ You cannot have one without the other. Ugly is written for the general reader rather than the specialist and will introduce many readers to new words – amorphophallus for one, neuroesthetics for another. The Amorphophallus is a type of plant, neuroesthetics a science that suggests that ugliness is not a matter of taste and can be defined absolutely. This follows the ideas of the Renaissance and Palladio’s belief that proportions are a means to beauty in architecture. This seeming conclusion only throws up more questions. If it is true why don’t the laws work across music as well?
If then proportions are not the means to beauty then maybe functionality is? A good modernist theory, form following function giving for example the bicycle with no extraneous parts. But if this is so, the functionality of the pig should make it the most beautiful object on earth. After all don’t the French eat everything but the squeak? Unfortunately the pig is clearly very far from being the most beautiful object on earth. So another thesis crashes down, further questions beating at its corpse. Why are gargoyles placed on beautiful churches? Can an image of satan be anything other than ugly? Why are freak shows popular?
Bayley wonders if ugliness is not in fact the opposite of beauty but a vital aspect of it. After all, why can we not stop rubber-necking accidents and pile-ups? Does Ugliness attract us? Quentin Massys’ Ugly Duchess is one of the most popular pictures in the National Gallery – when surrounded by beauty people want to buy the ugliest image in the gallery.
Maybe it is postulated, that is because beauty is boring. F Scott Fitzgerald implied so when he commented ‘after a certain degree of prettiness one pretty girl is as pretty as another.’ Of course beauty is relative to other things. If everything was beautiful nothing would be. But why do we think of one thing as beautiful and another as ugly? Especially as what counts as ugly changes over time. Mountains used to be seen as evil and foreboding, whereas now they are loved and associated with good health and good time.
Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything is published by Goodman Fiell and is full of beautiful photographs, from the classical Palladio villa to the ugliest of flowers, reminding us that photographs can make the ugliest thing attractive. It is an informative read, trawling through history with one eye on aesthetics and the other on fun. It throws up many questions to ponder and changes the way you look at the world around you.
Are your aesthetics something you can control? Read this book. You might even start seeing beauty in ugliness!