Wednesday, 20 February 2013



Definition: Uglification - deliberate creation of ugliness (as contrasted with the failure to create beauty).

Contrast uglification...

Mark Rothko - Brown on Black


...with the (relative) failure to create beauty...

Thomas Kinkade Christmas greetings card:


The difference is that Kinkade's is a not-particularly-successful attempt to make a beautiful picture; while Rothko is not-even-trying to make a beautiful picture...

The difference is that Kinkade is utterly loathed by art experts, while Rothko is regarded as a godlike hero of twentieth century art. 


Actually, the 'Rothko' painting above is a total fake - it is in fact a picture of some wallpaper

A real Rothko would be something like Black Form Painting number 1:

...which is, of course, ahem, much more beautiful than the wallpaper...


In the history of art, there was an evolution from the hard job of trying to make ultimate beauty (and either succeeding or failing to some lesser-or-greater degree, like Kinkade); via trying to make something beauty-in-ugliness or not-primarily-beautiful but 'true' (maybe like some of Rembrandt's portraits of ugly people) - which is even more difficult, but possible; to uglification - deliberate making of varieties of ugliness: monotony and dullness, horror and revulsion, aggressive violence, blatant but ironic vulgarity, obscenity etc (which category pretty much all of the 'great' names of 20th century art) - which is very, very easy...



1. Artists want to avoid the shame of failure - ultimate beauty is extremely difficult to attain, but you pretty much cannot fail if you are try to create ugliness.

2. Status games - the implicit desire to imply that the art expert has insight to arcane knowledge - sees through the surface ugliness, can perceive beauty in ugliness.

3. Renders art captive to critical opinion - the artist is merely an interchangeable unit, and art is defined by critical consensus.

4. Evil. The poisoning of mortal life by the propagation of ugliness. The perplexing and subversion of the human spirit by high status consensus that black is white, two plus two makes five and viscerally-repellent ugliness is beauty such that Rothko is analogous to Vermeer -- whereas in reality they were engaged in opposite activities - as different as evil from good, Satan from Christ.



The Geographer by Johannes Vermeer



CorkyAgain said...

Forgive me saying "I told you so" but this is exactly the point I was trying to make here a while ago, about women wearing makeup etc in a vain attempt to look young and beautiful, versus the deliberate, in-your-face transgressiveness of tattoos, piercings, purple hair dye, and so on.

Bruce Charlton said...

Corky - Sorry but that is my blogging style, my thinking style - repetition on a restricted range of themes with only modest variation...

I once caught myself having recomposed an almost identical post to one from several months before.

Matthew C. said...

Some of the best Kincade stuff isn't bad (this picture is definitely far from his better work).

He poured his entire soul into his art and they savaged him for it, mercilessly and brutally.

As someone who tries to create (positive) art through nature photography, I agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of this post.

dearieme said...

Ahoy, Bruce. Is this link up your street?

Bruce Charlton said...

@MC - I agree, some of TK's work is better, some is worse - fine by me.

I could have used Bob Ross as an example, but perhaps people love him too much (for his voice!) to savage him; and he was in fact an *extremely* skilled painter. Anyone who can watch his shows (and I have seen scores of 'em), and fail to recognize Bob Ross's amazing technical ability is not competent to discuss painting.

Or, I might have used Norman Rockwell - but Rockwell was so wonderful a painter that I cannot even entertain for the sake of argument the notion that he was a bad artist. At worst you could say he was 'good bad' - like Orwell said about Rudyard Kipling as poet - thus, Rockwell was good-bad in the same way as Kipling. Or in other words he was superb!

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - yes, he seems like a wise old cove. But it is too late, too late...

Thursday said...

The problem with Rothko isn't that he's ugly (there's absolutely nothing wrong with a sombre blue or black), but that he is merely decorative. Wallpaper is exactly what he is. There's nothing particularly wrong with making wallpaper, but it's aiming really low.

And you're letting Kinkade off way too easy. The over the top kitschiness of a Kinkade painting is not merely a sincere but failed attempt to create genuine beauty; it's evidence for a real sickness of soul. Kinkade may be a different manifestation of the aesthetic problems created by modernity, but he exhibits them just as much as the favourites of the critical establishment.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thu - No I'm not letting-off Kinkade; you are grossly over-reacting to only-moderately-successful art.

Your 'sickness of soul' tone seems to suggest that this is harmful, debasing, and the world would be better without it.

But there are good qualities in the painting I display here, and its obviousness (aka kitsch) is necessary in order to make an impact on 'middlebrow' people who are only moderately appreciative of art.

I agree that Rothko is not actively-repellant in the Gilbert and George mode - but the effect of his canvases displayed prominently, respectfully in galleries is soul-draining, nihilistic.

In context, the world would be better-off without Rothko on display (I'm sure the canvases could be put to use, out of sight - maybe in covering cracked plaster or something): as a public artist he does net harm, I feel sure.

Thursday said...

There is some very good, even great art still being produced, but in out of the way places, away from the media and the art establishment.

Have a gander through the paintings of Christi Belcourt, a Metis painter who has talked about having to leave Toronto for northern Ontario in order to paint well:

Or David Blackwood:

In Canada, I'd name Christi Belcourt, Garner Moody, Robert Davidson and David Blackwood as still living artists of extremely high esthetic value. But, of course, many of them are natives, often animists, off in the boonies, or, in the case of Blackwood, some white guy all the way off in Newfoundland. (Davidson and Moody are poorly represented on the web.)

Thursday said...

Your 'sickness of soul' tone seems to suggest that this is harmful, debasing, and the world would be better without it.

Absolutely. It's physically painful to look at.

Thursday said...

the effect of his canvases displayed prominently, respectfully in galleries is soul-draining, nihilistic.

Yes, elevating the merely decorative to the status of great art is corrupt, and corrupting.

Samson J. said...

Have a gander through the paintings of Christi Belcourt, a Metis painter who has talked about having to leave Toronto for northern Ontario in order to paint well

I find all those pieces pretty garish and ugly. But you know what they say about opinions. Anyway, of course there is still good art being made; cafes and gift shops in touristy towns are always full of nice works by amateur painters - but that's part of the point, isn't it? The only good art is being made by amateurs doing it as a hobby.

Thursday said...

A better example than Kinkade of a failed attempt at genuine beauty would be that favourite of Roger Scruton, Alexander Stoddart. Stoddart's work is kind of boring, but it is a genuine attempt at beauty. No sickness of soul there.

But then Stoddart isn't really reviled by the art establishment like Kinkade, whose art is both wildly popular and thoroughly revolting.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thu - The way to have better popular art is for the gallery owners and critics to discriminate and top quality art of this type. But most of them are ignorant fools - who lack a basic understanding of the art form.

I am not especially arty, indeed I am only somewhat and intermittently interested in the field; but (partly having been educated by my father who was briefly a art teacher, and a skillful amateur landscape painter), I can discriminate among portraiture (specifically) to a sufficient extent that I realize how many in the art establishment are at a lower level than I am.