Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 31, 2017
Gretchen E. Henderson Ugliness: A Cultural History London: Reaktion Books, 2015. 240 pp.; 67 b/w ills. Cloth $25.00 (9781780235240)

In Ugliness: A Cultural History, Gretchen E. Henderson ventures on a critical journey through the history of ugliness, viewing the concept through the lens of culture and corporeality. Henderson packs an abundance of fascinating case studies and thought-provoking insights into a stimulating conceptual framework, all in the service of her argument about past and contemporary relationships with ugliness. Her aim is not to redefine ugliness but to trace the use and perceptions of it from antiquity to the modern day. Ugliness is not held here strictly within theoretical or aesthetic perspectives; rather, Henderson unpacks the concept with the use of cultural history. She reviews the idea through cultural practices around bodies and things deemed ugly, aiming to tear ugliness away from a binary or simplistic understanding. While ever-shifting and eluding categorization, ugliness has remained uncomfortable to individuals and societies. And its potency as a persistent sore on the flesh of various cultures is compellingly treated in the book.

Henderson investigates the place of various people, groups, and behaviors in the genealogy of ugliness. As a cognitive condition, ugliness engages the beholder by interrupting, shifting, and molding perceptions and provoking responses. Henderson provides varied and engaging evidence for the cultural functions of ugliness, for example as a prompt to reevaluate the classifications of bodies and boundaries, and “to question our own place in the mix” (13). As illustrated by Filippo Balbi’s The Head of a Man Composed of Writhing Nude Figures (ca. 1854), the bodies we perceive are extensions of our mind or of our mind’s projections into the world (19). As Henderson claims, perceptions of “ugly” bodies reveal less about the figures themselves than about the perceiving culture (28). She views ugliness as a mirror of the society that engages with it, a mirror that is broken and therefore reflects back a skewed, deformed image. This primary idea is subtly interwoven throughout the text, repeatedly challenging readers with the mirror being held up to them.

Henderson’s approach is generous and inclusive. She makes good use of data from a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, gender studies, philosophy, literature, history, and art history. She engages with an impressive range of visual and textual sources, putting her collected case studies in conversation, tracing the processes of their “uglification” in the context of ancient, medieval, premodern, and modern societies from various corners of the world. In tracing the use of the label “ugly,” Henderson focuses on “ugly” practices around the designated object. Touching upon issues of colonialism, racism, and other kinds of discrimination and social exclusion, she explores how various peoples and cultures were, and have been, culturally uglified. Rooted in the physical, the book focuses on the bodies of individuals, the collective bodies of stigmatized groups, and, finally, the senses that affect the perceptions of the self and other (ugly) bodies.

The argument is neatly laid out in three chapters. Chapter 1 is structured chronologically around six individuals, three fictional and three historical, whom their time and culture called ugly. Henderson explores the social and aesthetic functions of the label and shows how ugliness carried various social meanings, often being conflated with deformity or abnormality. She demonstrates the ways in which anomalous bodies were pushed into the domain of the human-animal hybrid by the application to them of animal characteristics. The relegation of anomalous bodies to the category of the subhuman is a link between the case studies of the book. For Henderson, ugly bodies act as bearers of social meanings, and each adds a different perspective to the discussion. The mythical cyclops Polyphemus, medieval Dame Ragnell, and the early modern Ugly Duchess feature as the fictional bodies, with fantasy replaced by reality in the bodies of the eighteenth-century disabled politician William Hay, the star of Victorian freak shows Julia Pastrana, and finally ORLAN, the contemporary artist whose experiments with her own body have earned it an “ugly” label. These figures were used and abused for premonition, entertainment, or confirming one’s normative identity. In the chapter, Henderson skillfully highlights how the beholders of ugly bodies may at times acquire the labels of the objects of their gaze, as happened for example to the visitors of the nineteenth-century freak shows, whose voyeuristic behavior deemed them abhorrent in the eyes of subsequent audiences. As with time and cultural change ugly bodies become declassified, those who once defined them become the subject of examination and judgement in turn. But Henderson correctly questions the value and validity of such anachronistic moral evaluations on the part of historians and commentators, as analogous classifications take place in every reality, not least in the writer’s and the reader’s own (one may think of the tabloid pages flagging celebrities’ “ugly” photos or the rather common preoccupation with physiognomies and outfits of female politicians) (60).

Chapter 2 expands the genealogy of ugliness by focusing on groups of people deemed ugly. These groups are viewed through imposed categorizations that allow societies to contain the fear aroused by the unfamiliar or uncomfortable. Henderson lists among those behaviors “scapegoating, sanctifying, colonising, eroticising, militarising, legislating and commercialising the ‘uglies’” (18). The uncomfortable bodies and identities thus defined are bent to the rhetoric of cultural tensions. The clash of identities and sensibilities, spurred by ignorance, prejudice, and fear, creates a conflation of the object with the embodiment of negative connotations such as equating an “other” with devils or monsters. The etymological roots of the word “ugly”—a thing feared or dreaded—were materialized in the bodies of foreigners, the disabled, those of “inferior” races, etc. Noting that “the social consequences of discriminatory treatments expose a kind of ugliness” (113), Henderson revisits and questions those cultural practices, thus exposing relativistic tendencies, as the meanings and qualifiers of beauty and ugliness have shifted. She concludes the litany of ugly practices with an acknowledgement of the resonance of the term “ugly” and its progressive potency to become an empowering tool.

In chapter 3, Henderson explores the sensory aspect of ugliness. She is interested in how ugliness assaults and interrupts sensory perceptions, and, by extension, in looking for the sensory sources of the ugly perceptions and labeling. She explores unsightly views, untuneful soundscapes, and ugly disharmonies. Ugly sight is investigated through examples of apotropaic or vanitas imagery, Japanese wabi-sabi, and controversial contemporary art. Ugly sound is discussed with examples of jazz, rock-and-roll, and Dmitri Shostakovich, all of which cross conventional lines for confounded listeners. Henderson provides examples of olfactory works of art and literature that use a blend of senses to evoke challenging smells. Perhaps most graphically tied with corporeality, the sense of taste brings many possibilities of ugly connotations. From tormented Japanese Hungry Ghosts and Futurist cookbooks to literary hints of cannibalism, the physiologically revolting rhetoric of ugly tastes is tastefully explored. For ugly touch, Henderson presents discomfiting fashions and bodily modifications—beautifying practices that may be considered ugly, again placing emphasis on the fact that the mirror is turned toward the marker as much as toward the marked. Touch, according to Henderson, is the sense most potent at materializing ugliness, particularly evoking the fear of contamination and crossing borders, or ugly osmosis. As she summarizes, the beautiful and the ugly are subjected to the same law of mortality and decomposition, and the senses equalize all parties. She thus uses sensory categories “to consider how such engagements do more than uglify our expectations; they connect us with a wider degenerating and regenerating world” (177).

Among the rich selection of engaging case studies, one may perhaps wish that Henderson had given more space to those coming from non-Western cultures. If various “cultural backgrounds complicate reductive readings of bodies” (59), perhaps a more extensive treatment of those would productively complicate the narrative even further. Among the most interesting examples in the book are those taken from Arabic and Chinese traditions where “blighted” and misfit characters played a didactic role or where the beholder is moved to compassion. Ugliness being disturbing primarily on a visual level, Henderson could have made more of her visual analysis. While there are some noticeable repetitions that could have been removed in the editing process, the writing is vivid and compelling. In fact, what this reader perceives as issues might be deliberate imperfections, pointing to “messier” layers hidden beneath the readable surface, which Henderson wants the reader to further explore. Particularly enjoyable is the topical wordplay, or, perhaps it is more appropriate to say, the linguistic approach flavored with ugliness. Sometimes potentially disturbing visualizations are imposed on the reader. Lastly, with such wealth of references a bibliography would have been useful, in addition to the endnotes.

Ugliness: A Cultural History is a highly readable, erudite, and compelling account that opens up many avenues for further consideration of its topic. Throughout the book, Henderson questions whether ugliness is a cultural quest, in the end not giving an answer, but providing enough triggers to spark the reader’s own evaluation of ugliness and its relationship with culture. Her account leaves the reader hungry for more, and it succeeds in spurring contemplation of the concept in contexts more general, historical, and global as well as local and personal. While “any particular body in a given cultural context might be identified as ‘ugly’” (185), Henderson’s book turns the broken mirror toward its reader, forcing self-scrutiny of one’s own relation with ugliness.

Agata A. Gomółka
Associate Tutor, School of Art History and World Art Studies, University of East Anglia