Umberto Eco’s On Ugliness

Over the last week I’ve had a lot of time to ponder the cosmos from my sick bed.  I’ve also had time to read Umberto Eco’s fascinating book, On Ugliness.  My wife and daughter bought me this book and the first volume in the series, Eco’s History of Beauty, for Christmas, and I’ve been dying to get a chance to read them.  I suppose one should readBeauty first, but as it was across the street in my office and I was across the street in my house, I decided to read this first.

Eco is one of my favorite authors, and I can honestly say his name is the only reason I wanted these volumes.  I knew that they would be informative, interesting, and thought-provoking.  He did not disappoint.

On Ugliness is a fascinating tour through art and literary history.  The book is a heavy, glossy-paged, 455 page examination of the concept of ugliness.  Each section contains relevant works of art and, even more fascinating, a brief anthology of writings ancient and modern that illustrate the point of that particular section.

Eco is a genius at this kind of thing, and I doubt there’s a more well-read man on the planet.  The literary excerpts are fascinating and there are many things here that will amaze, frighten, humor, and challenge the reader.

Eco argues that ugliness, like beauty, is, in most cases, in the eye of the beholder.  He fascinatingly demonstrates that what one period considered ugly, another considered beautiful.  And yet some things, he argues, approach universal ugliness.  Some things are found ugly in most cultures around the world in most times.

I was particularly interested in his sections on artistic depictions of crucifixion, ugliness and industrialization (the little section on the Eiffel Tower is great), ugliness and the poor (this was strangely moving to me and I felt genuinely challenged about how we view the poor), ugliness and the deformed, and ugliness and kitsch.  He provides a wonderful overview of great works of art that we now consider classics that were once deplored by many.  The section on the Futurist movement and Dadaism were interesting and disturbing and should be read if one wants to see how we got to where we are in art.

Eco ends, interestingly, on a note of compassion, calling for understanding for those who are deemed “ugly” by our society, especially the poor, the sick, and the deformed.

Let me also say that I struggle a bit because some of the pictures in this book are truly disturbing.  Now, I’ve never been a prude concerning art.  There’s pornography and there’s art.  I’ve seen nudity that I thought was artistic and I’ve seen clothed people that I thought were pornographic.  What’s the difference?  Well, I’ll just echo the Supreme Court justice who responded when asked, “How do you know when something’s obscene?”  His answer:  “I know it when I see it.”  We all do.

Well, a few of the images here are obscene, though they are not presented obscenely.  This is an exercise in art history that is trying to make a serious and interesting point.  So what does one do when one reads a book that contains some inappropriate images, though they are presented clinically and in the context of a historical argument.

For me, I think about my wife and daughter and I think about myself.  There are, I believe, 4 or 5 images in this book that I will be editing with a black marker.  I do not apologize for doing so.  After all, some things are too ugly to be kept around the house.

So I would encourage this book for those interested in the topic but with a word of caution.  I do not believe the study of culture and art can continue without the (measured and appropriate) consideration of some things that are objectionable.  But we also do not need to allow things that are truly ugly to be exposed to our families or ourselves.

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