William Koch on the Disciples of Ugliness

Eugene Delacroix, Lion Hunt, 1861

In the early half of the eighteen hundreds the French Neo-Classical painter Ingres sneeringly described the younger Romantic painter Delacroix as “a disciple of ugliness”. A century later the French novelist Jean Genet claimed that “Ugliness is Beauty at rest.”1 Between these two events stretches the Romantic revolution in art. But what, ultimately, did this revolution mean? It may be that, in tracing the path between these two entrances of the ugly into art, we can uncover something of the strange relationship between ugliness and beauty suggested by Genet.

It is not simply wrong, or merely an insult, to describe the vibrant violent painting of Delacroix as the worship of ugliness. The savage, brutally overpowering and fearful fascinated both Delacroix and Genet. In each case the terrible and the beautiful seem necessarily united. This very fact, however, reveals that the style of their presentation makes demands upon the content of their work and vice versa. This was not, before the rise of Romanticism, a widely accepted idea. The great philosophy of art that dominated Enlightenment Europe was Formalism, a theory that believed that the beauty or ugliness of a work was derived from its formal properties independent from what the work actually represented. This theory almost entirely separated stylistic considerations from the content of a work. This Enlightenment division of taste from inspiration served to reinforce the ancient divide between reason and passion. Before Romanticism, then, formal beauty in a work of art is the “rest”, the timeless frozen production, of the passionate and growingly eccentric genius of the artist.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Roger Rescuing Angelica, 1819

It has been suggested by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben that Romanticism in art can be understood as a reaction to this tension between disinterested considerations of style and the passionate drive that actually leads to the creation of art works and the selection of subjects for depiction. As a rejection of this divide and, in its very assertion of the indivisibility of subject matter and style, Romanticism reinstates the idea that beauty and ugliness are found within the world of actions and events and not merely in the realm of formal characteristics. This is the reason why Delacroix chooses to use his bright colors and frantic seeming brush strokes to depict the tearing teeth of the lion, the vicious swords or stones of fanatics, and the whirling wild Paganini. But this suggests that the harmoniously balanced presentation of chaos, the rationalizing of the horrifying, makes for bad art. When the Romantic poet Keats claims that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” it becomes necessary to consider whether even horrifying truths may be beautiful, not because beauty is merely formal but because beauty is tied to the truthful content of the work.

Jean Genet helps complete this Romantic revolution by transforming the static relation of truthfulness into the active relation of passion. In doing so he brings to fruition the internal tendency of Romanticism, which already conceived of the truth of art as a process, an active fulfillment of potentialities already implicit in nature.

The young Jean Genet

Genet was a French orphan turned thief who spent most of the first thirty years of his life in and out of punitive colonies and prisons for acts of petty theft. Genet’s first two novels, Our Lady of the Flowers and Miracle of the Rose, were entirely written on scraps of paper while he was incarcerated. In the second of these works Genet would glorify criminality and prison life, transforming the death sentence of a repeated murderer into an apotheosis akin to the martyrdom of a saint and prison life into an amorous pleasure garden of homosexual monks. These glorifications led the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to propose that Genet’s works primarily represented an inversion of social standards. But, while reversal is a favorite tool of Genet, to think of his work merely as inversion is to miss his kinship with Romanticism and the odd rhythm of Genet’s work which moves from decadent embellishment to stark and shocking realism. This movement suggests an intimate investigation of the interconnected nature of ugliness and beauty as mediated by human passion and action.

In Genet’s text the displacement between moments of religious rapture in the face of the horrifying and sober disgust is brought about by an exhaustion of excitement at that moment when the details of the prison were, Genet states, “worn out by his eyes.” This suggests that beauty in the world demands passionate activity on the part of those who would gain access to it. Similarly, beauty in art requires passionate adoration on the part of the artist or viewer. In this sense, then, beauty is in the activity that unifies artist and world or viewer and artwork as ugliness is in the exhausted declining withdrawal from a world that presses too closely upon us. For this reason we find in Genet an art of the embrace and an art of the decline.

An art of the embrace can manifest beauty in the horrific, a fact to which Genet attests when he observes that “…beauty is the projection of ugliness and… by ‘developing’ certain monstrosities we obtain the purest ornaments.” This is a new formulation of the Romantic idea that the artist completes the potentialities of nature, but nature identified with the terrifying inhuman reality that underlies the veneer of our social niceties. But, as the relation of passion is prioritized on neither the side of the artist nor the world, it is as possible for an event to draw us into the rapturous experience of beauty as it is for passion to transfigure the world. This transfiguration of the world is not the creation of a façade, it is the surprisingly hopeful revelation that the power of art completes the manifestation of the ugly such that it becomes beauty. Even more, since art is often born from a rapture which takes hold of us within the practice of a craft, this projection into beauty which art is becomes the self-perfecting movement of nature itself.

1 This and the following quotes by Genet are from Miracle of the Rose, Grove Press, 1966, pp 19-20

William KochWilliam Koch has a Ph.D. in philosophy, which he teaches at the college level. His research and writing focuses primarily upon the work of Martin Heidegger and the philosophy of art. He is the author of a chapter exploring the literature of Jean Genet as an example of art which affects changes to social traditions and behaviors entitled “Jean Genet, Butler and Dreyfus: A Case Study of the Artist’s Explication and Alteration of Social Practice” which will be published in the upcoming book Painting Mirrors: Essays on the Artist as Observer and Social Critic. Visit William’s blog

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