Aesthetic Self-destruction: Ugliness as Entropy and the Disruption of Order

If, as Socrates wished us to believe, Philosophy is a field of questions, then aesthetics must be the field which asks the question of art. Yet, any study of art leads inevitably to considering art as an exploratory form itself seeking answers, as itself a form of questioning. Perhaps then the concern of the aesthetic philosopher should not be “What is art?” but “What is art asking? What does it seek to explore?”. In the realm of the positive, the beautiful and the pleasing, these questions do not seem to diverge: art is that which is beautiful (or some other positive quality) and its intention is to explore that beauty. In the negative, however, in the manifestation of ugliness and the unappealing, we see art complete its exploration but find as answer something wholly disturbing or unacceptable. We know this unsightliness when we encounter it (a sudden aversion, a headshaking revulsion, a disgusted frown, a provocation to righteous anger- ugliness always manages to engender a response), but what exactly is this negative aesthetic answer? What is ugliness? Taking Ruth Lorand’s account as our guide (with supplements from Michael Carmichael and Frank Sibley) we will attempt to prove here that negative aesthetic reactions, generally, arise from a disruption of order and that ugliness, specifically, is the manifestation of chaos and its inevitable conquest of order (i.e. entropy).

Beginning, as Lorand does, with straightforward ugliness, we can identify the foundational role of disorder quite directly. Lorand equates beauty with order by telling us that already the concept “is implied by many aestheticians” when they say beautiful art is “constructed of parts… fitted to give pleasure and satisfaction” or that the object is “well organized [with] every element is in its right place,” but here we can conceive of order even more broadly (402). Order, taken without specificity, merely implies the existence of some system, some way for the presented elements to be organized. In this sense, both a philosophical theory and a city are orderly, while a dice roll or an explosion are not (or, at least, are less orderly). In essence, the content of the order is irrelevant here (though it can become more relevant in our later negative categories) since no matter what theoretical provisions we specify for order, chaos will always be its opposite. If aesthetic enterprise then, is an attempt at crafting order, ugliness must arise from a miscrafting of order. This is not the elimination of order (since that would require no order to begin with or an intentional infusion of chaos), but the self-defeat of order, the “clash of orders in an object occurring when each of its parts has an order of its own, but these orders do not fit together”. Thus, “ugliness is a state in which the perceiver experiences disharmony, a disintegration due to the clash of orders” (Lorand 402). This is as far as Lorand goes, but there is more to say on why exactly this type of disintegration is so offensive to taste. After all, there are many things we consider “defective, mistaken, feeble, abject” (to use the terms from Carmichael’s correlating category) or otherwise disordered from which we take no offense (Carmichael 495). The difference lurks in what is implied by the aesthetic object. A poem promises a certain order in its form, but when it becomes ugly, it uses mixed metaphors or random rhyming patterns, it courts chaos to overwhelm that form. The conflicting orders Lorand observes naturally make integration impossible, but they also make the work itself unstable. Just as a tower constructed of a random array of architectural techniques (all of them legitimate if used alone) will inevitably crumble into ruin, just so an aesthetic object constructed with conflicting orders implies a total collapse of meaning if the work is appreciated or analyzed to its full extent. This total collapse is, of course, chaos. So a work that uses mismatching orders is a manifestation of entropy- a prime example of order falling away into chaos.


This chaotic instability need not be confined to Lorand’s definition of pure ugliness. An alternative to Lorand’s approach is to view ugliness as deformity, as arising with the failure of an object to be what it should. Sibley most directly supports this view, though from a more logical perspective: “[To say some x is] ugly,” he says, “implies the possession by x of some quality or set of qualities… which would constitute or be regarded as a (probably fairly extreme) deformity in an N [where x is a species of N]” (196).  Carmichael too supports this perspective, asserting that “ugliness is evidently nothing positive, nothing in itself… As evil is sometimes considered nothing positive but only a deficiency, so ugliness might be translated into terms of deficiency” (497). These might seem radically different conceptions of ugliness, but they both remain within the purview of instability. It should be obvious how an “extreme deformity” of the type Sibley discusses implies a more radical dissolution of the order of an object (if the object has such an extreme flaw that it is no longer a good example of an N, how long until it is no N at all?), but Carmichael’s position is more stubborn: how can something which is “nothing in itself” manifest chaos (which, one could assert, is something in itself)? Carmichael himself provides the answer in his discussion of the motives for ugliness. As he says, “A great range of man-made ugliness stems from an alogia in the conception and construction of things… This is a self-contradiction, like a reductio ad absurdum in a logical demonstration: it contradicts some one or more of the premises of humane existence.” (498). What could be more order-defying, more chaotic than self-contradiction? Ugliness itself might not be substantial, but its occurrence certainly would imply something chaotic about the order of a work.

All this said, Carmichael does discuss one instance (he calls it the “one grand exception”) of positive deformity which we can use to progress our account of chaos. This positive deformity, in which “positive forces are at work producing ugly things,” is an instance where deficiency does not arise from a failure to achieve, but from the success of an object to destroy (Carmichael 497). We see positive deformity most frequently and most powerfully in nature, with “disease, degeneration, pathological enormities, [and] universal corruption of living things”. These are powerful forces and incredibly revolting because of their power, as Carmichael describes them “[they are] supreme ugliness; not simply a lack, disproportion, or miscarriage, but a positive, tragic, and fateful force… antithetical to every aesthetic disposition or category” (497). The union of destructive power and revulsion is no coincidence here, for positive deformity is so ugly precisely because it forces one to face “a world where all visible, tangible beauties are extant only so long as brute force requires to exhaust, corrupt, or otherwise give the quietus to them-” beautiful order lasts only as long as it takes entropy to wipe it out (497).  Thus, positive deformity is the most powerful and the most chaotic of all forms of ugliness- it is the destructive hunger of chaos made manifest. Furthermore, while natural examples are the most powerful, positive deformity can also be found in art. Usually it is found indirectly, when an artwork references the chaos of the natural world through “filth, decay, [or] corruption” (what Carmichael categorizes as the Noisome, our “protoaesthetic sense” of ugliness), but art itself can also be destructive (495). Excluding the outright vandalism of art (perhaps the most literal introduction of chaos, and, not coincidentally, the most revolting) we have the “art interventions” of modern and post-modern art. The defacement of art in the name of aesthetic protest, the destruction of exhibits as “performance art,” or the destructive reinvention of older art (as with the famous case in which a modernist painter received an impressionist painting as a gift, and then deliberately painted over it for his next exhibit), all inspire (if one valued what was lost) an undeniable revulsion at the wanton destruction of order. This positive deformity, the intentional spreading of chaos, is true ugliness.

Having thoroughly catalogued the direct aesthetic expressions of chaos, let us now move away from straightforward ugliness to other cases where an artwork is evaluated negatively. First, we have meaninglessness as a form of unfriendly order. As Lorand considers it, meaningless works are very similar to ugly ones, but rather than having elements that contradict, they have elements which appear arbitrary. Any “meaningful object is bound to be associated with some concept,” to be organized in accordance with some known schema- but “a perfectly meaningless object… does not conform to any concept whatsoever” (403). Lorand takes this to mean that any meaningless object must be “an example of perfect disorder,” since if the object had order, we would expect to recognize the laws and concepts which provide that order. However, she herself notes that “meaninglessness may become meaningful through learning-” an order can exist without our knowledge of it (403). This does not affect her point (since, from our perspective, being unaware of an object’s order is effectively the same as the object itself being disordered), but it does serve to prove that a meaningless object is not necessarily an object without order. This presents a problem for our chaotic account for such an object seems to carry the awareness of entropy and yet has a sort of order, it “cannot be beautiful, but it cannot be considered ugly either” (402). As solution, we can follow Lorand in creating a new category. However, unlike Lorand’s solution, this category must remain on the spectrum between order and chaos that we have already established- it must be a type of order which gives no comfort. Non-biological order seems the closest correlate to this type of order, for while it can be made sense of using certain laws, it does not seem to center itself around a particular concept- it has no purpose. Biological order is familiar to us and its purpose is always the thriving of the biological organism. This provides meaning to all elements of a biological order, but that meaning falls apart for natural instances of order such as geography or the solar system. These are meaningless sources of order for we see in them no purpose and thus, so estranged from our familiar types of order, take no comfort in them. This is the type of order which meaningless artworks also embody: the “hodge-podge of words presented as a poem” is still a poem and does still use words which are compatible, an element of order remains but has no real effect on us (Lorand 401). Extending the parallel, just as awareness of a more fundamental reason behind natural order (for example, the delicate balance of earth’s ecosystem) can compel us to think of it in more friendly, comforting terms, so too gaining knowledge of why a meaningless artwork was organized in such a way can make the work properly beautiful.

Another case of dysfunctional order is the boring and, as a subset, the kitsch. While the kitsch can be further characterized (specifically, Lorand speaks about intentionality and the “misuse of beauty” (403)), if we limit ourselves to considering the object itself we can see that the kitsch and the boring suffer from the same blandness, the same failure to interest us. The order that kitsch provides is a sickly sweet one: it employs “well-known and well-tested beautiful objects,” not interesting in their own right, but designed “to get the ‘right’ reaction, the one found in similar previous experiences” (403). Similarly, a boring work uses an otherwise flawless order that “is neither ugly nor meaningless nor kitsch,” but that is so “well-known… [it] makes the object predictable… gives the impression that it is similar to many others” (403). At first glance, nothing seems more orderly than “well-known predictable patterns,” Lorand even notes that “we expect nature to be boring in order to control it” (403). But nature is not boring- volcanoes, hurricanes, waterfalls, thunderstorms, all of these things are not boring and yet follow a (mostly) predictable set of orderly laws. Merely because the substance of the order is predictable or boring, does not mean the manifestation is (one can know the meteorological laws governing the formation of hurricanes but this does not make hurricanes themselves boring). Art itself is such a manifestation- a novel is the result of an arrangement of orders, it is not order itself (that would be the literary laws, like plot structure or diction). Yet one cannot deny that works rooted in previous experience (kitsch seeks to evoke it, the boring merely imitates it) are rarely interesting. Perhaps this is because the manifestation itself becomes unrealistic. Any ordered system is, by definition, not static- a system must include regulated change in order to be a system. How odd, then, for us to see a system once in one state, and then see it again in exactly the same state. One could perhaps have some patience, but if a clock continues to count the same minute twice over, one begins to wonder if the order of the clock has not broken down. The literary cliché, a ubiquitous feature of both the boring and kitsch, works the same way. The first time we encounter it we may appreciate it as beautiful, but once it has been drained of all meaning and uniqueness by constant use, we cannot help but cringe to hear a beautiful princess described once again as “as brilliant as the sun”. Thus, works that are boring or kitsch fail to interest us because we know their orders to be too good to be true: they are orders frozen in time, without change or even a hint of entropy.

There is a corollary we can draw from considering order as a system and it explains our reaction to both insignificant and irrelevant artworks. A system requires not only change, but complexity. Just as there is no machine with one part, no system can exist with only one component. In art, this becomes more a matter of abstraction- do we see enough complexity in the object to appreciate the order of a system? Or is it so trivial that we take the order it possesses for granted? To use Lorand’s example, if a vase “does not express either in a metaphorical sense or in any other way some significant features beyond its obvious function,” then we see the sole component of utility and dismiss the object entirely (404). On the other hand, a complex system can also be misleading or distracting. When we find an object’s order to be too multi-faceted, too oriented around non-aesthetic priorities, we dismiss it as irrelevant, as not an aesthetic form of order. Thus, the most controversial art objects (in terms of whether the work is considered art) are always those which are the most conceptually complex- just as post-modern abstract art is often doubted today.

There is one category of ugliness we have not approached and, being not entirely of aesthetic nature, we can only speculate towards: moral ugliness. While Sibley discussed deformity, Lorand focused on ugly disorder, meaninglessness, kitsch/boringness, and insignificance/irrelevancy, Carmicheal (in addition to his comments on positive deformity) focuses nearly entirely on moral ugliness: the Maleficient, the Wanton, the Despicable, the Wretched, all these categories ultimately reduce to human actions which are repulsive to humane standards. Yet the chaos we witness here, while it may engender a similar emotional response, is of an entirely different order than that of aesthetic chaos. The chaos evoked by ugliness in art is chaos out of our control; entropy cannot be affected by human action. The chaos of evil, however, is entirely within our control- we can choose to be evil just as we can choose to be good. Thus, where the exploration of art brings us in touch with reality, the exploration of morality brings us in touch with ourselves and our choices. It is interesting then, that we sometimes pursue both at the same time and even more interesting that sometimes we pit them against each other, for what are tragedy and sublimity other than the inevitable collision of human choice with a chaotic reality?


Works Cited

Carmichael, Peter A. “The Sense of Ugliness.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (1972): 495-498.

Lorand, Ruth. “Beauty and Its Opposites.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (1994): 399-406.

Sibley, Frank. “Some Notes On Ugliness.” Sibley, Frank. Approach to Aesthetics : Collected Papers on Philosophical Aesthetics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001. 190-206.



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