Art and The Other "Thing"
Experts say beauty is determined by symmetry and proportion and this may apply equally to a building or airplane or mountain or person. There are strong indicators also that the concept of beautiful is learned within a culture by children and so beauty is truly "in the eye of the beholder!" So what is highly esteemed by one culture may not be respected by another. This is especially true in art where different aesthetic rules apply to the making of art objects. Increasingly in homogenous and multicultural societies the internet has brought a flood of multi media influences that are changing peoples traditional sense of what is acceptable. These influences are causing traditional perceptions of beauty to change. What would have been rejected even a decade ago is now accepted, blurring the boundaries of "beautiful" and "ugly" even more. For example, this is really apparent in some parts of the Islamic world where the concept of "Jihad" resulting in brutality and human carnage for the sake of an "ideal," namely a global Islamic "caliphate" or kingdom is regarded as "beautiful!" Anyone outside this shared ideal of course is horrified at the bloodshed and terror used in order to achieve this aim. This is of course in stark contrast to the "beauty" of Islamic art which is usually a sight to behold as exemplified in the "Taj Mahal" built between 1632 - 53 in India.
The push/pull tension between beauty and the "beast" is documented well in art history. We can see the decorative beauty of "Rococco" and the constructed beauty of "Impressionism" pushed aside by the periodic interjection of brute realism and this in itself is innocent enough as artists swung between the "imagined" and the "real" exploring different perceptions of a rapidly changing world. Maybe the first artists to have a widespread effect on the public were the German "Expressionists" who were deeply affected by the tragedy of WW1. The enormous social upheaval and hardship of the time erupted in diverse attitudes and philosophies toward life and artists were attenuated to these changes and painted their often dark feelings and visions about it. A little later in the 20's German artists like Max Beckman, Otto Dix and George Grosz painted images of life in a brutally frank way influencing many of their peers. However it is Pablo Picasso who opened the floodgates in 1907 with his painting "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" by literally fracturing reality with his initial bold "cubist" experiment. The painting although ugly and strange to look at became a landmark in modern art and a turning point for image innovation, shocking people when it was first exhibited in public.
From around 1915 the Dada group of artists also became active espousing an anarchic philosophy rejecting reason and logic and instead encouraging an attitude that embraced the absurd and illogical in their production of art. In this post war pot of social ferment caused by technological advances and extreme conflict, the banal and ugly were again pushed to the forefront in artistic activities and embraced by many artists as they attempted to negotiate the see-saw shift from world devastation to utopian dreams back to economic depression in the 30's and then into second world war devastation and then back again to bright new commercial tomorrows in the 50's. The alienation and brutality of modern life and a pervading existentialist worldview pushed artists to react again by rejecting materialism during the 60's and 70's cold war decades and opting out of society for the simple life instead.
My point is, ugly almost becomes a counterpoint to beauty if life becomes too tenuous or conversely, too saccharine, forcing each younger generation to reevaluate purpose and desire in life. Twentieth century art mirrors this periodic intergenerational change in values like none before as the old is spurned in favour of the "shocking" and "exciting" new! Essentially this would not be possible without democracy and capitalism providing a fertile environment where freedom and wealth give birth to innovation and invention in both industry and education. Unfortunately, material abundance plus disenchantment and rebellion often spawn an unhealthy preoccupation with the profane and vile as moral order systems are challenged and break down. These periodic upsets would not be a big problem if it weren't for the desensitising effect that continual exposure to horror, abjection and ugliness have on people and in particular children. This onslaught of ugliness and the debasement of the body and life comes through tattoo culture, comic books, animations, films, TV and art but the main channel would have to be TV.
I'm mostly inspired by beauty but i sometimes see great art where intelligence has been employed to give the viewer a different slant on things using abjection, banality or ugliness as a working concept. Unfortunately, while people keep flocking to sensation and shock in order to pay for titillation and fleeting excitement, "ugly" art will continue to dominate the mainstream which i believe in the long term bodes ill for society. Art should always go for the highest level, for emancipation, not for the lowest common denominator but should inspire, intrigue and cause us to ask the difficult questions about something that isn't often easy to understand, namely "what is "Art" and what is its function in society today?"