Christianity, Modernity, and the Arts
This book probes the intersection of the beautiful and the ugly, offering a systematic framework to understand, interpret, and evaluate how ugliness can contribute to beautiful art.
Many great artworks include elements of ugliness: repugnant content, disproportionate forms, unresolved dissonance, and unintegrated parts. Mark William Roche’s authoritative monograph Beautiful Ugliness: Christianity, Modernity, and the Arts challenges current practices of the dominant aesthetic schools by exploring the role of ugliness in art and literature. Roche offers a comprehensive and unique framework that integrates philosophical and theological reflection, intellectual-historical analysis, and interpretations of a large number of works from the arts. The study is driven by the recognition that, though ugliness is usually understood as the opposite of beauty, ugliness nonetheless contributes significantly to the beauty of many artworks.
Roche’s analysis unfolds in three parts. The first offers a refreshing conceptual analysis of ugliness in art. The second considers the history of ugliness in art and literature, with special attention to its role in Christian art and its central place in modern and contemporary art. The third synthesizes earlier material, offering a taxonomy of beautiful ugliness derived from Hegelian philosophical categories. Roche mesmerizes the reader with an extraordinary range of literary scholarship and expertise, with a particular focus on English, Latin, and German literature, and with a broad range of analyzed phenomena, including fine arts, architecture, and music.
Including 63 color illustrations, Beautiful Ugliness will draw in readers from multiple disciplines as well as those from beyond the academy who wish to make sense of today’s complex art world.
List of Illustrations
Abbreviations and Translations
Part One. Conceptual Framework
1. Unveiling Ugliness
2. Aesthetic Categories
3. Intellectual Resources
4. Imperial Rome
5. Late Medieval Christianity
6. The Theological Rationale for Christianity’s Immersion in Ugliness
Part Two. Historical Interlude
8. Modernity’s Ontological and Aesthetic Shift
Part Three. Forms of Beautiful Ugliness
Styles of Beautiful Ugliness
9. Repugnant Beauty
10. Fractured Beauty
11. Aischric Beauty
12. Beauty Dwelling in Ugliness
13. Dialectical Beauty
14. Speculative Beauty
“It is hard to deny that Beautiful Ugliness is an enormously rich, argumentatively dense, and intelligent book that has the power to trigger many discussions. It shows, perhaps precisely through its provocative potential, the enormous power of a rational aesthetics of the ugly.” —Christian Illies, co-author of Philosophy of Architecture
"Probably since Karl Rosenkranz's famous Aesthetics of the Ugly of 1853 no comparable effort has been made to look at the various forms in which ugliness can be used for aesthetic purposes and thus become itself a part of the beautiful. Roche's richly illustrated Beautiful Ugliness is highly recommended to philosophers, theologians, and historians of art and literature." —Vittorio Hösle, author of A Short History of German Philosophy
"There is something refreshing in Mark William Roche's seriousness and audacity in engaging a theme of great interest, too often neglected. The author addresses and overcomes this neglect, addressing the ugly and beauty in an ordered systematic way. I know nothing which matches its range of engagement." —William Desmond, author of Godsends: From Default Atheism to the Surprise of Revelation
"Roche’s erudition is not easily matched, not only in the study of Hegel’s philosophy, but also in literature and the arts. Examples from literature, painting, music, theatre, and film abound in this book, bringing an entirely new dimension to the author’s philosophical argument." —Vladimir Marchenkov, coeditor of Hegel's Political Aesthetics
The rise of the ugly in modern art would seem to resist every traditional concept of art, including the organic, which animated criticism from Plato to the early twentieth century. For Plato an argument should be organic, like a living being, with a beginning, middle, and end, the diverse parts conjoined and forming a coherent and unified whole (263d-266d). Great art follows this organic model: art integrates content and form in such a way that to separate the meaning and the shape would be to violate the integrity of the whole. Just as the two major moments of form and content belong together, so do the various parts stand in an organic relation to one another. Hegel, who follows Plato in elevating the organic, both in general and in art, articulates three aspects (Hegel 9.368). First, all the parts have a certain autonomy, which renders them interesting in and of themselves. Second, each part is connected to the others; they fit or belong together such that no part is not expressive of the whole. Third, despite the relative interest they garner as parts, their full meaning evolves only from their position within the totality of the artwork and slowly becomes recognizable in this way (Hegel 13.156-157).
This connection between art and the organic begins to fade or is directly countered in modernity; its few adherents, Leo Spitzer, for example, stand out as exceptions. Instead, modernity tends to favor the nonorganic, arbitrary and contingent. Contingency is an important theme in modernity, but much depends on what you do with it. A contemporary master of contingency is the Turkish-German film director Fatih Akin, who integrates the contingent not only in a comedy such as In July (2000), a genre in which coincidence and chance are common, but also in darker works, such as The Edge of Heaven (2007). Missed chances and missed opportunities abound. The characters see only their own contingent dimensions, whereas the viewer grasps the fuller picture. Akin explains that he had to cut his favorite scene from the latter film because it did not help to carry the meaning of the whole. Although the scene had great independent or intrinsic value, it did not fit organically (“The Making”). Akin thematizes chance without making his work nonorganic. Jazz, too, is able to combine chance and the organic, folding idiosyncratic and innovative parts into a larger whole. These practices contrast with those of composer John Cage, whose work with chance pushes art into the realm of the arbitrary, or Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose aleatoric compositions involve a throw of the dice, with much of the work finalized by the contingent decisions of the performers. Hegel had foreseen this movement to contingency in modern art, which culminates in the idea of art as a game, and contrasted it with devotion to substantive topics and organic form (14.223-29).
A creative approach to ugliness will help us recognize that many seemingly contingent, dissonant, and negative works are in fact organic, but organic in a complex way and on a metalevel, insofar as dissonance serves a higher meaning or insofar as an artwork may be the negation of a negation. Many conservative critics simply fail to grasp the complex beauty or nuanced unity of much of modern art. The mixture of genres, for example, is not an argument against harmony, especially as unity presupposes difference. The blurring of categories can be admirable, as in tragicomedy, an appropriately complex way to address an intricate subject. Christian Weiße, one of the first modern theorists of ugliness, is wrong when he argues that when instrumental music, say, a flute, imitates human song, the sound is ugly, for it inappropriately mixes the abstract realm of instrumental music with the human world (2.66). The pushing of boundaries can in fact be the forerunner to the creation of a new and beautiful form. In addition, an element of formal dissonance may serve a higher unity, as when the dissonance of Holbein’s skull conveys some sense of our inability to face our own death.
The more original the work, the more difficult it is to recognize the constituent moments and their meaningful interconnections. What is new is often strange. Indeed Charles Baudelaire thought that “the beautiful is always strange” [Le beau est toujours bizarre] (Œuvres complètes 2.578). In this sense the beautiful is often difficult to discern and process. A reverse way of saying this is that the superficially pleasant will rarely have the complexity of beauty. Wittgenstein writes: “What is pretty cannot be beautiful” (Vermischte Bemerkungen 85). The difficulty of recognizing complex beauty may be especially intense in post-classical eras, where the artistic desire to be innovative may oblige artists to experiment with forms that appear to be, at least superficially, nonorganic. In our capacity to see the hidden logic of seemingly nonorganic forms, to grasp new and surprising interconnections, we must be broad. Here hermeneutics and aesthetics function dialectically. The questions we ask of a work may better illuminate its hidden features or organic connections, thus altering our evaluation of it. The organic suggests that the constituent elements of a great artwork--from language and manner to theme and structure--are variable, but what remains common is the transformation of the elements into a meaningful whole.