Ugliness: A Cultural History
Gretchen E. Henderson
Reaktion Books 236pp £16.99
Gretchen E. Henderson approaches her topic through an impressive number of examples, spanning disciplines, mediums, usages, geographies and chronologies and including works of fine and popular art, architecture, mythology, cultural moments, historical facts and human individuals and groups. The book offers an anecdotal survey of what people have termed ‘ugly’ in various contexts. This method proves a productive approach towards a concept that is constantly shifting: ugliness, we are told, is a cultural construct.
Ugliness is not a characteristic attached to any object, but situated between the object and the subject who qualifies it as such. To call something ‘ugly’ says as much – or more – about the subject than it does about the object. What is regarded as ugly is consolidated at cultural crossroads, where new relationships are being formed. For example, in the 18th century, when discussing the Hellenistic Laocoön statue, the German philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing drew up aesthetic standards that distinguished between European subjects (the colonial viewer) and African objects (the colonised and ugly ‘other’), which, from today’s perspective, display plain racism. In other cases ugliness is simply misogyny. The book’s first image is a 17th-century etching showing an old woman with wrinkled skin and sagging breasts – enduring characteristics of ugliness, especially in combination with the woman’s own obliviousness towards the fact, signified by her vain look in the mirror. In this respect, more could be said than the book does on social power, on why certain social groups have the authority to degrade others that way and which precisely are the fears they are thereby expressing.
Henderson pays special attention to the human body, often the realm in which the cultural practice judging what is ugly operates. In many examples, human bodies are deemed ugly, such as that of Julia Pastrana, ‘the ugliest woman in the world’, the ‘Elephant Man’ Joseph Merrick in the 19th century, or the soldiers whose faces were disfigured in the First World War. What all these real bodies have in common is that their markers transgress the boundaries of the normal: female features mixed with male ones, human with animal ones, or extinguished to such a degree that they are not classifiable. The focus on the body also means that Henderson includes how ugliness manifests itself in the body of the perceiving subject: in all its senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and the ‘sixth sense’ of the mind and interpretation. As a result the author manages to take the discussion of ugliness into its own territory, beyond a mere opposition to beauty. This book provides an engaging and accessible cultural history that is informative and entices the reader to see things in a different perspective.
Catherine Berger teaches History of Art at University College London.