In “History of Beauty,” Umberto Eco explored the ways in which notions of attractiveness shift from culture to culture and era to era. With ON UGLINESS, a collection of images and written excerpts from ancient times to the present, he asks: Is repulsiveness, too, in the eye of the beholder? And what do we learn about that beholder when we delve into his aversions? Selecting stark visual images of gore, deformity, moral turpitude and malice, and quotations from sources ranging from Plato to radical feminists, Eco unfurls a taxonomy of ugliness. As gross-out contests go, it’s both absorbing and highbrow.
In every century, philosophers and artists have supplied definitions of beauty, and thanks to their works it is possible to reconstruct a history of aesthetic ideas over time. But this did not happen with ugliness. Most of the time it was defined as the opposite of beauty but almost no one ever devoted a treatise of any length to ugliness, which was relegated to passing mentions in marginal works. Hence, while a history of beauty can draw on a wide range of theoretical sources (from which we can deduce the tastes of a given epoch), for the most part a history of ugliness must seek out its own documents in the visual or verbal portrayals of things or people that are in some way seen as "ugly." Nonetheless, a history of ugliness shares some common characteristics with a history of beauty. First, we can only assume that the tastes of ordinary people corresponded in some way with the tastes of the artists of their day. If a visitor from space went into a gallery of contemporary art, and if he saw women's faces painted by Picasso and heard onlookers describing them as "beautiful," he might get the mistaken idea that in everyday life the men of our time find female creatures with faces like those painted by Picasso beautiful and desirable. But our visitor from space might modify his opinion on watching a fashion show or the Miss Universe contest, in which he would witness the celebration of other models of so-called called primitive peoples we have artistic finds but we have no theoretical texts to tell us if these were intended to cause aesthetic delight, holy fear, or hilarity. To a westerner an African ritual mask might seem hair-raising -- while for a native it might represent a benevolent divinity. Conversely, believers in some non-European religion might be disgusted by the image of Christ scourged, bleeding, and humiliated, while this apparent corporeal ugliness might arouse sympathy and emotion in a Christian. In the case of other cultures, with a wealth of poetic and philosophical texts (such as Indian, Chinese, or Japanese culture), we see images and forms but, on translating their works of literature and philosophy, it is almost always difficult to establish to what extent certain concepts can be identified with our own, although tradition has induced us to translate them into western terms such as "beautiful" or "ugly." Even if the translations were reliable, it would not be enough to know that in a certain culture something that possesses, for example, proportion and harmony, was seen as beautiful. Proportion and harmony. What do we mean by these terms? Even in the course of western history their meaning has changed. It is only by comparing theoretical statements with a picture or an architectonic structure from the period that we notice that what was considered proportionate in one century was no longer seen as such in another; on the subject of proportion, for example, a medieval philosopher would think of the dimensions and the form of a Gothic cathedral, while a Renaissance theoretician would think of a sixteenth-century temple, whose parts were governed by the golden section -- and Renaissance man saw the proportions of cathedrals as barbarous, as the term "Gothic" amply suggests. Concepts of beauty and ugliness are relative to various historical periods or various cultures and, to quote Xenophanes of Colophon (according to Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, V, 110), "But had the oxen or the lions hands, or could with hands depict a work like men, were beasts to draw the semblance of the gods, the horses would them like to horses sketch, to oxen, oxen, and their bodies make of such a shape as to themselves belongs."