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Aesthetics: The Branch of Knowledge Dealing
with the Aesthetic Diversity of Life and Art


The Ugly

As compared to the beautiful, its opposites – the ugly, the base, and the horrible – have received less attention in theory, but they have not been entirely neglected. Pondering on the dialectics of the beautiful and the ugly, ancient Egyptians noted that through ageing everything healthy and beautiful becomes ill and ugly, "that which is sound grows rotten, and the flavour is lost". The transitory character of the beautiful and the ugly and the flow of one into the other and back are the subject of an Egyptian myth about Isida. The lovely and young Isida was forbidden to go to a certain island. She turned into an old woman, deceived the boatman and made the crossing. Once on the island, she said the incantations and turned back into a beautiful young woman.
A theoretical study of the ugly in art was begun by Aristotle. The form of a work of art is always beautiful, but its subject may include the ugly. "Though the objects themselves may be painful to see, we delight to view the most realistic representation of them in art, the forms for example of the lowest animals and of dead bodies." This pleasure is produced by the satisfaction of recognition of reality which is brilliantly depicted by the artist.
The ugly and the beautiful are the opposites united by a thousand ties. Shakespeare said that "for if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a good kissing carrion" considering this phenomenon as part of nature and society.
The ugly repels, while the beautiful delights by simply being there. What is the ugly? To define it as the opposite of the beautiful would be logically insufficient. Baudelaire said that an ugly face is devoid of harmony, it is pathological and uninspired and has no light, no inner life.
The ugly is an aesthetic characteristic of the objects whose natural properties have a negative significance for society at the present level of its development but do not seriously threaten it, as man is able to control the objects possessing this characteristic.

The Base

The consciousness of ancient Egyptians evolved the idea of the base as the opposite, of the sublime, although the word designating it had not yet been invented. In the evenings, the Sun plunged the world and the people into a "base" state. In a hymn in honour of Aton, an Egyptian poet described the sunset and the horror of death which gripped the people at that moment. For the first time in the history of aesthetics, the base was mentioned by Aristotle in a discussion of the aesthetic qualities of life imitated by art. As an example, he gave the character of Menelaus in Euripides's Orestes whose baseness was not caused by necessity.
The base is the extreme degree of the ugly and a highly negative quality. It is embodied in the negative forces which are a menace to humanity, as the people have not yet bent them to their will. If man does not control his own social relations, this spells disaster. All phenomena connected with this menace are perceived as base (nuclear war, Nazism, etc.).
The baseness of war was strikingly demonstrated by the Russian painter Vereshchagin in his Apotheosis of War. He dedicated the painting, which shows a pyramid of human sculls, to all "great conquerors" of the past, the present and the future.
Another grave consequence of the inability of the people to control social relations is tyranny. Etienne de La Boetie, a 16th-century French humanist, wrote, "it is indeed the greatest of misfortunes to be dependent on the arbitrariness of the ruler with whom one can never tell whether he is going to be kind, for it is always within his power to be malicious when he wishes it." He considered lack of freedom the result of man's amazing social blindness: the tyrant "would have been defeated had the country refused to be enslaved. There is no need to take anything away from him, the thing is not to give him anything. The country does not have to do anything for its benefit, it only has to do nothing to its own detriment. I do not demand that you fight against him or assault him; merely withdraw your support, and you will see him crumple down under his own weight and fall into pieces, like a colossus whose foundation has been knocked out from under him." For La Boetie, the baseness of tyranny lies in its being socially ungovernable, in the subjection of the people to the tyrant's egotistical whims.
Music has learnt to depict evil – the ugly or the base – in the 19th-20th centuries, i.e. comparatively recently (Dmitry Shostakovich Symphony No. 7). Before that, evil was reflected indirectly (Mozart, Beethoven) through intense struggle and the effort that was needed to overcome the ugly and the base.

The Horrible

The horrible is not far distant from the tragic and is at the same time opposite to it. Tragedy is optimistic, while the horrible is hopeless and endless. It is a disaster or a death which contain nothing to make it bearable, nothing to show that the horror will be over; the horrible cannot be controlled by man but dominates him. In the tragic, the affliction is sublime, it ennobles man who remains the master of the situation and asserts his rule over the world even in death. In the horrible, man is the slave of circumstances. The horrible was the dominant element of man's attitude towards the world in the Middle Ages. Mediaeval religious consciousness was very aware of the Inferno which awaited the sinner, and of the coming Doomsday.
In Hamlet, the horrible is a shade of the tragic. The Ghost's story follows the rules of this aesthetic category:

Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatched.
Cut of f even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled;
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.
O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!

During the periods when a certain system of human relationships and mental attitudes to the world is being shattered and nothing has yet been evolved to take its place, man frequently perceives the universe as a place of horror. The collapse of a historic order is regarded by contemporaries as a global catastrophe. Pieter Breughel conveyed hopeless horror in his painting The Parable of the Blind: mankind is represented as a file of blind people heading towards a precipice.
The category of the horrible includes those phenomena with which man does not feel at ease and which bring him disaster and death that cannot be put right even during the course of history (hence the pessimistic outlook). In Jose Ribera's painting The Suicide of Cato Uticensis, the character has nothing in common with the great figures of Shakespeare's tragedies. His death is not tragic but horrible: the social element and the emotions shown in it are reduced to a biological terror of death and the instinct of self-preservation. Man is shown as a wretched being which has come into the world without any definite purpose. When he dies, the world resounds with his cry of agony, anguish and blind despair.
The work of Franz Kafka shows the reader a horrible world which is mad and full of blind forces hostile to man. The horror there is matter-of-fact, "ordinary", routine.
Karl Günther Simon, a West German critic, said that the insanity of the world is a fact which art cannot disregard: "A lunatic asylum has entered, freely and shamelessly, into the world which is around us every day and which is losing logic and causal relationships. We ... hear stories about inventors of the atomic bomb who have taken monastic vows, and movie stars who have turned Buddhists. We are fed up with the age of positivism; the rationalistically optimistic progress is standing before the abyss opened up by the atomic bomb." This characteristic contains more than a touch of fear caused by the complexity of the age, and global historical pessimism. In such an atmosphere, the tragic becomes irrational and is transformed into the horrible.
The ugly, the base and the horrible are negative values, negative aesthetic characteristics of the world portrayed by art and reflected in the system of aesthetic categories. In 20th-century art, they occupy a place of importance. For instance, they are essential for understanding the works dealing with the horrors of Nazism, and it is no accident that they have been accepted as independent categories of modern aesthetics.

Integrity and Fragmentation

Certain aesthetic characteristics of life and art which in the past had the status of notions have expanded and are now ranked as categories by modern students of aesthetics. It is quite legitimate to regard integrity and fragmentation as aesthetic categories which can assist understanding of contemporary art.
Let us consider from this angle the principal characters of Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American. Fowlaire, a British newspaper correspondent in Vietnam, is a sceptic and a cynic, a disillusioned man who retains a position of neutrality in the dramatic situation he is witnessing. With all that, Fowlaire is not devoid of dignity and honour; he is also brave and intelligent. His character and behaviour are a mixture but not a blend of contradictory emotions, thoughts and acts. He is sympathetic towards the Vietnamese liberation army and the civilians who die as a result of Pyle's provocations, but he does not censure the pilot bombing a Vietnamese village. His inner world is torn asunder; his thoughts and feelings are devoid of harmony, his character – of a principle that would hold it together, his consciousness – of attainable ideals, and his actions – of a single purpose. He is an observer, a loner, although he lives among people and a war is going on all around him. His nature is a monad separated from life and deprived of inner completeness.
Torn by conflicting motives, Fowlaire is forced to overcome his discord with life and the fragmentation of his consciousness. In a situation when his interference can prevent bloodshed and save innocent people, he abandons the position of a casual observer and assists the Vietnamese in getting rid of "the quiet American". The other protagonist of the story, "the quiet American" Pyle, seems to be all of a piece. His inner world is a product of modern civilisation whose goal is to shape standard mass consciousness. He does not have a shadow of a doubt when the explosions he has prepared kill women, children and old people. But Pyle's wholeness is misleading. It rests on profound subjectivism, which literally ignores everything that goes against his goals and ideals. The powerful propaganda apparatus has uprooted all contradictions from his consciousness. And, although basically he is a kind man, Pyle has become an automaton which possesses all the cruelty bred by narrow-mindedness. In its most complete form, this type of character was fostered in Nazi Germany with its cult of the "strong", "superior" personality, absolutely free in its actions and absolved from having a conscience. This sort of "wholeness" is in fact the worst kind of fragmentation.
Fragmentation characterises many trends of modernism. Moreover, it is often the chief reason for their aesthetic impact. Jean Cassou, the French art critic, noted that the art of today is turned towards the past, the long-gone harmony and completeness of the classics. There is a longing for another age of primitivism, which would give back to man the lucidity of his childhood days, return strength to his arm, and freshness to his language. The cost the artists are willing to pay to attain this ideal may be quite high – adoption of a primitive artistic mentality. The success of primitivist painting can be explained by its integral world outlook, but this is the integrity of simplification and imitation of a child's mentality (Pirosmanishvili's Fisherman Among the Rocks, Henri Rousseau's The Poet and His Muse, The Dream, etc.).
However, is it justifiable to regard integrity or fragmentation of the character's inner world as an aesthetic and not a moral quality? Fragmentation is, of course, a feature of a person's moral character, but ethics here is blended with aesthetics. The ethical, intellectual and emotional properties of the person become an object of direct aesthetic assessment. Discussing the aesthetic significance of the ethical in Russian 19th-century literature, Maxim Gorky said that it possessed the beauty of justice. Lev Tolstoy regarded art as a way of distinguishing between good and evil, and good, as one of the chief sources of art. He wrote, "Art is the ability to show that which should be, that which all the people should strive to attain, that which benefits people most. Humanity has already lived through two ideals of this kind and is now living for the third. The first was utility: everything useful was a work of art and was regarded as such; then came the beautiful, and now – that which is kind, good and moral."
Indeed, aesthetic qualities changed as humanity progressed. Originally, the utilitarian, the directly useful was perceived as beautiful. Later, the relationship between social practice and the aesthetic grew more complicated, and later still, the aesthetic value of the moral came to be appreciated.

Aesthetic Notions and Their Relation to Aesthetic Categories

Apart from aesthetic categories, the system of aesthetics includes a number of notions, which are less "capacious" and significant than categories. They may reflect certain aspects of basic aesthetic categories (the graceful, for instance, is one of the manifestations of the beautiful), or describe the aesthetic qualities of life and art which at a given moment are not universal.
There is no insurmountable barrier between aesthetic notions and categories; the former may sometimes rise to the level of the latter. When a certain aesthetic quality is given priority in the principal works of art produced by a given epoch, aesthetics may single it out as an independent category. Sentimentalism and later bourgeois melodrama developed the aesthetic quality of the touching, and various aesthetic systems studied it as an aesthetic category. Mediaeval art, which leaned towards asceticism, was alien to the delightful as an aesthetic quality; therefore, the aesthetics of that period could have nothing to do with it. The desire to satisfy the refined aesthetic needs filled Renaissance and baroque art with images which lacked simplicity and sublimity, and launched a search not so much for beauty as that which delights. The delightful – sensual beauty – ceased to be a shade of the beautiful and emerged as an independent aesthetic category, which was included into the system of aesthetics.
The less sensual and the more spiritual beauty is, the more sublime it is, and vice versa: the more sensual, the more delightful. L. Saccetti, a professor in St. Petersburg, characterised this category in the following way: the delightful is beauty which appeals to external feelings, which "gives sensual pleasure by its ability to flatter external feelings". The delightful as an aesthetic quality started to grow into an independent category when art began to take an interest in the nude human body which in addition lacked the cool impassivity of antiquity (compare the Venus of Milo, Giorgione's Venus, and The Venus by Poussain). Landscapes, still life and household objects all came to be perceived in the light of the delightful. Renaissance used it as an argument and a weapon against mediaeval ascetic consciousness.
The material for the study of the delightful was looked for not only in contemporary art but also in the art of the past; a search began in the history of art for the delightful as an independent aesthetic quality. William Lecky, a 19th-century English aesthetician, wrote that the delightful glorified the joy and pleasures of life. In his opinion, it had an empathy with contemporary world outlook based not on the demode ascetic but on the fashionable "industrial" philosophy. The motto of the first was mortification of the flesh, and of the second – evolution. The first sought to subdue, and the second, to enhance desires.
Schopenhauer admitted that the delightful existed, but considered
it a negative aesthetic quality representing the spirit of subjective coarse lust. He was convinced that the delightful should be shunned by art. But a number of other theorists, including John Ruskin, Theodor Lipps, and Paul Souriau, treated the delightful as an independent aesthetic quality which should be studied as a category in its own right.
It is impossible to understand the aesthetics of a folk fairy tale without the notion of the miraculous, which is also important for a critical analysis of the work of Dostoyevsky, Hoffmann and Gogol, and many other phenomena of art. This notion was introduced into aesthetics and studied by Denis Diderot, who wrote that the miraculous must become the principal subject of art since in his opinion it reflected the philosophical quality of art and allowed it to crystallise human experience. 'Diderot maintained that miraculous and unusual events helped reveal the beautiful. The aesthetic diversity and wealth of life and art are so great that besides the traditional and stable categories, such as the beautiful, the sublime, the tragic, and the comic, new aesthetic categories and notions are emerging which represent the qualities that are intricately and flexibly interwoven in life and art.1

The Quality of Polyphony and Interrelation of
Aesthetic Qualities in Life and Art

The relationship between man and the world around him is a complex and many-faceted one. Life is fluid and changeable, and man, while remaining himself, is both equal and unequal to himself in every given situation, is both unchanged and changed. He has his good sides and his bad sides, he may be both comic and heroic, etc. To portray the interrelation of the personality and the circumstances by the means available to art is to depict life in all its diversity, to show it as possessing a great variety of aesthetic qualities.
An element of comedy is introduced into Shakespeare's tragedies by the wit of a jester. In them, the mixture of the sublime and the base, the fearsome and the funny, the heroic and the flippant is so bizarre that Voltaire, whose taste was nurtured by the aesthetically monotonous classicist art, even called Shakespeare a drunken savage. A fanciful mixture of opposing characteristics is also a feature of Cervantes's work. Don Quixote's character seems to be made up of all aesthetic qualities possible, combining as it does the sublime, the beautiful, the aesthetically negative, the romantic, the wonderful and the moving. The background for this variety is a blend of the tragic and the comic.
Lope de Vega, the Spanish dramatist, maintained that a combination of the tragic and the comic in drama is quite legitimate, since this is a feature of life itself. Similar views were advanced by Lessing, who wrote that nature itself gives man an example of how to unite ordinariness and sublimity, mirth and gravity, sadness and merriment.
The flexible interaction and interpenetration of various aesthetic qualities in a realistic character do not make him vague. In other words, aesthetic polyphony typical of a character in a work of art does not exclude his aesthetic dominant. The character is either predominantly sublime, or comic, or tragic.
Let us examine the Countess, a character in Pushkin's novel The Queen of Spades. The inner resources of that "half-dead old woman" have been expended during a long lifetime. Her intellect and feelings are like embers which glimmer and send up smoke; on no account can they be called rich and varied. And yet, being aesthetically rich, the character is far from flat: the Countess combines beautiful, ugly, sublime, noble, base and hideous, tragic and comic traits. The aesthetic dominant of the character is the base and the ugly. It is a foundation of sorts upon which the other aesthetic qualities are displayed. The very physical decay of the old woman is repulsive: the last of an old aristocratic family, she seems to belong not only to another century but to the other world as well.
The very aesthetic dominant of the character is rich in shades. Here is one of her most graphic descriptions: "She participated in all the vanities of high society, dragging herself to balls, where, seated in a corner, rouged and dressed according to the fashion of ancient days, she was the hideous and essential ornament of the ballroom; newly-arrived guests went up to her and bowed low, as though in obedience to an established ritual, after which nobody took any notice of her." Every link in the chain of meaning in that phrase enhances the main aesthetic characteristics. The Countess is a senile, dying participant in all the vanities of high society (the word serves to disparage both the society and the Countess herself). She does not go but drags herself to balls. The corner in which she sits makes one think of a useless thing shoved there. The rouge on her face. stresses her decrepitude and ugliness. She is a "hideous and essential ornament" of the ballroom to which the guests go up to bow, the embodiment of baseness to which high society makes obeisance "as though in obedience to an established ritual". But even the vain high society, which is itself morally and intellectually negligible, cannot be bothered with this "hideous ornament"; therefore, having made the required bow, no one "took any notice of her". The Countess' ugliness and the emptiness and uselessness of her whole life are enhanced by yet another shade of the ugly – her likeness to a corpse: "two footmen were half-lifting, half-pushing the old dame through the door"; "Hermann saw the footmen come out, supporting on either side the bowed form of the old woman in her sable cloak"; "the Countess, more dead than alive, entered and sank into the high-backed arm-chair"; "utter absence of thought could be seen in her dim eyes".
As portrayed by Pushkin, the Countess is disgusting, which is especially so when she is getting ready for bed: "The yellow dress embroidered in silver dropped to her swollen feet. Hermann was a witness of the horrid secrets of her toilet." The baseness of the Countess also makes itself felt in her manner of speaking: each phrase of hers is an order, a peremptory shout, an ironic remark, an attempt to find fault, or whim of a petty tyrant.
But the character also has diametrically opposite traits. In certain respects, she is beautiful and even majestic – or, rather, used to be in her youth. The portrait hanging in her bedroom shows "a young belle with an aquiline nose, her powdered locks, brushed up from the temples, adorned with a rose", and this is how she emerges from the story told by Tomsky.
Beauty illuminates the old woman's last minutes. Her ugliness is conveyed through her cadaverous appearance, while her beautiful qualities become apparent in liveliness. The last flashes lit up her face and for a moment humanise it. The appearance of Hermann, a strange man, in her bedroom made a strong impression on her: "Suddenly an indescribable change came over her death-like countenance. Her lips ceased their twitching, and a light came into her eyes." The name of the lover of her young days returned life to her features: "The Countess was visibly embarrassed. Some powerful emotion showed itself on her face." For the third time, she "showed signs of powerful emotion" when she saw a pistol in Hermann's hand. And, finally, the instinct of self-preservation proved so strong that once again the fire of life ran through her at the moment immediately before her death: "She jerked back her head and raised her hand, as if to ward off a shot. Then she fell against the back of her chair ... and remained motionless."
If a person is capable of strong feelings, if even at the hour of death the beautiful light of animation sparkles at a memory of the romance of youth, that means that no matter how dreary and base the person, he still possesses beautiful, admirable traits.
The Countess is also a tragic figure. It is tragic that she shows any animation only in the last minutes of her life. Her death is enveloped in mystery and lit by the shimmering light of immense dramatic tension, which is echoed by nature itself: "The weather was atrocious, the wind howled and snow fell in moist flakes. The lamps burnt dimly, the streets were deserted." The leitmotives of the tragic and intense scene of the night rendez-vous are the pleading of Hermann and the silence of the Countess. The mounting tension is resolved by a horrible finale: the old woman "fell against the back of her chair ... and remained motionless".
"Come, you are not a child! – said Hermann, taking her hand. – I ask you for the last time – do you intend to tell me what these three cards are? Yes or no?"
"The Countess made no answer. Hermann saw that she was dead."
As the ugly and the base in the character are highlighted by the beautiful and the sublime, so are the tragedy and horror highlighted by irony and satire. The deathliness and the fantastical transmogrification of the Countess into the Queen of Spades are very close to objectivation, a device frequently used in satire. The Countess, a symbol of the past century, mocks, as Fate itself, the spirit of appropriation and adventurism of the new epoch personified by Hermann. The irony of Fate is made real through the irony of the old woman. For the first time, a leer appears on her face as she is lying on the bier: "Then he [Hermann] rose, as white as the corpse itself, ascended the steps to the bier, and bent down... It seemed to him that the dead woman looked at him quizzically, and winked." Later, irony is written on the face of the Queen of Spades: "Your queen is covered", – said Chekalinsky urbanely.
"Hermann started: it was true – instead of an ace there lay the Queen of Spades. He could hardly believe his eyes, and wondered how he could have made such a blunder.
"And all of a sudden, it seemed to him that the Queen of Spades was narrowing her eyes laughing at him. He was struck by an extraordinary likeness. "The old woman! – he cried in horror."
The figure of the Countess is a flexible system of aesthetic qualities which dialectically interact, pass into each other and complement and highlight each other. But dominating and ruling her character is deathliness. In the end, this manifestation of ugliness acquires a "material" form, becomes fully developed, and turns into real death: "The dead old woman sat there as if turned to stone; there was an expression of profound calm on her features."
The rich combination of aesthetic characteristics allows art to reflect the existing aesthetic wealth of life itself.

1 A peculiar system of aesthetic qualities is represented by the gallery of Japanese masks portraying the traditional personages who possess fixed aesthetic characteristics (Owari, Shimbaso, Tengu, Tengu-Karasu, etc.).