What does ugly mean?

According to the vernacular, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That is just as plausible as it is banal. But when we hear such sayings, we usually get the feeling that something should be talked about nicely. Because, so the suspicion is, isn't it primarily a matter of at least rhetorically ensuring compensatory justice in the face of a scandalous inequality? Aren't we constantly experiencing, whether in everyday life, in the media or in private life, that beauty definitely means something like «symbolic capital», of which some people have more, while others are disadvantaged? In his controversial novel “La possibilité d'une île”, the successful French author Michel Houellebecq, who is not exactly known for his dazzling appearance, even adopts the thesis that the norms valid for sexuality, namely: beauty, strength and youth are ultimately values ​​of fascism .

From a scientific point of view, both are correct - depending on the context and interpretation: there is no universal, transhistorical, transcultural norm of beauty. One could even argue that the “beautiful” category is a relatively late invention in the secularized history of ideas. Before God all people were equal, whoever was pious didn't have to be beautiful too. As long as people did not have to distinguish themselves from others as unique individuals, outward appearance only played a subordinate role. At the same time, however, empirical studies show that there is definitely something like standard ideas of what the global mainstream perceives as “beautiful” or “ugly”. The media hype about certain fashion beauties, but also the success of model agencies that specialize in “ugly models”, testifies to a continuing interest in a consensual distinction between “ugly” and “beautiful”.

In an effort to describe and define beauty, numerous philosophical and later also art-theoretical or anthropological teachings of beauty have been developed since antiquity. The lowest common denominator of the classical conceptions of beauty is the consciousness of some defined form. The beautiful corresponds to a certain, objective, sometimes even mathematically determined measure, it follows clear rules of proportionality and harmony. This classic option still plays a central role in collective (unconscious) consciousness and could (but there is no scientific consensus on this ...) even be based on biological or cognitive requirements. An even face, a straight posture, a healthy body indicate, not least, certain genetic predispositions that may play a role in the selection of a sexual partner. All of this is undisputed. But the modern understanding of human beauty has long since ceased to be exclusively about willingness to mate, but about complex symbolic and semiotic processes of cultural life.


But art knew from the beginning that the dichotomous hierarchy of “beautiful and ugly” and the resulting rejection of the ugly are only half the story. Form and structure, rules and laws are only one side of aesthetics, their flip side - even in antiquity - occupied by that which eludes the aesthetic will to form, which is in its "dark" and "ugly", even "sick" Misshapenness, its grotesque, disharmonious and bizarre, decadent, perverse, scandalous otherness allows a freedom that plays a role as an independent, positively charged and thus radically reevaluated aesthetic, especially in late Romanticism and symbolism. E.T.A. Hoffmann and Victor Hugo discover the fantastic and the grotesque, the psychotic and disturbing as the productive forces of literature. “Le beau est toujours bizarre”, writes Baudelaire in his “Curiosités esthétiques”. Illness, death and putrefaction become an aesthetic event. Painting and music of avant-garde modernism also do everything possible to turn the canon of the classical ideal of beauty upside down: the ugly becomes interesting, not least as an agent of rebellion against the social order. As a powerful current in the history of ideas, this tradition pervades the underground of art, the subculture of freaks and punks, beatniks, cyborgs, hybrid monsters and rebellious cripples. They all represent the freedom of the unformed, defraud "normal" patterns of perception, but also appeal to tolerance and empathy. As a pioneer of a modern society of self-fulfillment, the non-conformist individual can also be ugly, neurotic, neglected and instinctual. Art and philosophy turn ugly people into idea carriers, allegories of a new, ideologically and aesthetically open world.

The comforting realization that a disharmonious body can definitely accommodate a "beautiful soul", i.e. a person with charisma and character, was conveyed primarily in the literature of realism in the 19th century. With her moral humanism she contradicts the false teachings of physiognomy and the emerging racism. Houellebecq provokes and exaggerates massively, but the world of beautiful appearances certainly deserves to be seen through from time to time.


question Gilbert Casasus, Professor of European Studies and Director of the Center for European Studies.
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Expert Sabine Haupt is adjunct professor and LFR / MER at the Institute for General and Comparative Literature Studies. In addition to her academic work, she also publishes for the press, radio and television. In May 2018 her novel is: «The blue thread. Parisian dark figures »appeared.
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