Ugliness

Was very struck by two pieces in the October issue of The Ecologist. One feature gathered together a ‘Grumpy Old Men’ series of comments on all that is ugly in modern life. Some of these were not really aesthetic objections, but more about symbolism – bike lanes as symbolic of wrong-headed transport policy, intensive farming showing that we are ‘a long way from civilisation.’ etc. I was rather more interested in those comments about the battlefield chic of the Hummer, or boxy supermarket buildings, because they seem to me to indicate a connection being made between cultural ‘healthiness’ and beauty/ugliness in the arts and design.
The earlier column in the same issue by ‘Cassandra’ (‘The architecture of life’) made the linkage explicit: beauty is produced when a culture is ‘living in harmony with the purposes for which God evoked the universe.’ He asks then ‘what has died in the human soul that our collective consciousness no longer soars, but wallows in swamps of mediocrity ?’ He recalls the medieval cathedrals as an example of the integration he recommends, and contrasts them with ugly school buildings and chaotic urban design; the products of ‘the first ugly civilization.’
From a historical point of view, I find this particularly interesting, as it seems to be part of a recovery of a much older rhetoric of ‘malfunctioning society = ugly art/architecture’, which was very prevalent in the earlier part of the 20th century. Cassandra mentions William Morris and Ruskin, but the feeling persisted. During the planning for reconstruction after 1945, there was a consciousness, at least among clergy, that unless the reconstruction of society was first and foremost a inward, moral one, then ugly buildings and art would be the inevitable outward result.
Where I think things are less clear, and need more research, is what happened to this integral conception of ‘national spirit’ and culture as the century went on. One contributor notes the problem that to call anything ugly is a value judgment, and thus not ‘politically correct.’ That fracture of shared criteria of artistic judgement must have some bearing, but there remains much work to be done on the subject. When and how did such a loss of confidence in judgement occur ? Did this rhetoric disappear entirely, or was it simply obscured, or channelled in other directions ?

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