Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Czardas dancers, 1908.
Inside an old brick building in Somerville’s Davis Square, below the gilded stage and the red velvet seats, there is an unusual museum. Hidden in the basement of the 1914 Art Deco building is a collection of hideous paintings and disturbing drawings otherwise known as the Museum of Bad Art. “You won’t ever see this stuff in the Museum of Fine Arts,” the curator Michael Frank says. Frank is the kind of guy who can’t pass a yard sale or a flea market without stopping to browse. He loves ugly things, but for him, ugly is a problematic word. “When I read your email, I thought, Uh-oh,” he admits. “Calling something ugly is like calling something beautiful. The minute you say it, you’re in a difficult spot, trying to define what that really means.”
Frank prefers to think of these paintings as “badart,” one word, no hyphen. Badart is not the inverse of “good art”; it’s the inverse of “important art.” Some might call these pieces outsider art, and in the past, many of them could have been termed primitive or art brut. I prefer to think of them as ugly. Charming—like the dancing dog wearing a tutu or the nineties eyebrows on one particularly serene Virgin Mary—but ugly nonetheless.
However, I understand where Frank is coming from. For Frank, ugly is a word that suffocates, depriving his favorite paintings of their rightful playful air. Ugly is also a word that carries hard moral implications; for centuries, ugliness has been associated not only with sickness and deformity but also dishonesty, violence, aggression, and bigotry. Consider the term ugly American or the repeated critique of Trump’s “ugly” acts. The word itself comes from the equally discordant-sounding ugga and uggligr, two Old Norse adjectives that mean “dreadful, fearful, aggressive.” (Other words that bloomed from the “dreadful” root include loath and loathsome.) The meaning changed only in the fourteenth century, when uglike stopped meaning “terrifying” and began to mean “unpleasant to look at.”
Even though the word ugly is now primarily used to describe the unaesthetic aspect of things rather than their deep moral fiber, it retains elements of its original meaning. Using it can shift a well-meaning aesthetic critique into the realm of moral judgment. This is unfortunate for those of us who genuinely enjoy, and celebrate, ugly things. If you, too, want to appreciate ugliness, the first thing you have to do is stop assuming that it is the inverse of beauty. We tend to talk about aesthetics as though the categories are locked in a battle: good versus evil, light versus dark. But opposites are a crutch. Beauty and ugliness do not negate each other. Read More