artist seth alverson, good find!
these are difficult, courageous, paintings. the subject matter is, how to put it? ugly.
precisely. and what's "ugly"?
"it just is" one would declare. & here's the redundancy. one resorts to this nugacious bit automatically. but we shouldn't treat ugliness like a fact. the depiction of a "deformed" hand doesn't refer to a fact.
still, it's a hand: "... the terminal part of the human arm located below the forearm, used for grasping and holding and consisting of the wrist, palm, four fingers, and an opposable thumb." or this: "... a prehensile, multi-fingered extremity located at the end of an arm or forelimb of primates such as humans, chimpanzees, monkeys, and lemurs." alverson's hand has six fingers.
polydactyly is defined as a congenital anomaly. but how anomalous is a condition that becomes regular? the wikipedia entry congenital disorder acknowledges: "most people have one or more minor physical anomalies if examined carefully." alverson's images waver between normal & abnormal.
below, alverson's painting of a face.
|smashed face (2013)|
we don't know if "smashed" is literal or dyslogistic. obviously, alverson's art dwells in the teratological, but smashed face is not really "smashed." methinks the title conveys alverson's own legerdemain. i.e., in the set of all "normal" faces, this one appears "as if" smashed (an important point if we want to understand ugliness, as if beauty and ugliness were structurally related).
the face above is not crushed by a blow --or accident. its wrinkled guise is less offensive and more incongruous, a ridiculous "soft" face (after a while you feel like kissing it). in that sense, alverson's smashed face is not "normal".
normality requires consensus, facts (generally) don't.
for the sake of argument, imagine smashed face as the norm in twin earth. what then? twin earth people's faces are all "smashed" & they don't have any problem with it. their "normal" is just at variance with ours on earth.
kant analyzes ugliness in his aesthetic theory. i just want to present some quick ideas (the yellow is my interjection into kant's text).
In order to decide whether or not something is beautiful (ugly). we do not relate the representation by means of understanding to the object for cognition, but rather relate it by means of the imagination (perhaps combined with the understanding) to the subject and its feeling of pleasure or displeasure. (CoJ, 203)"by means of the imagination" already suggests that ugliness is not a fact, but this needs qualification. kant's exposition is quite nuanced. we should see his third critique as part of a larger project which includes his two previous critiques. when we say "this is ugly" we are not expressing a fact (i.e., ugliness is not epistemic), neither are we expressing a moral sentiment (i.e., "ugliness" cannot be subsumed under a moral concept such as "evil"). so, aesthetic pleasure consists in this attunement (Stimmung) between imagination & understanding.
when i call something ugly, i feel disgust? and believe my feeling can be justified, but my justification is not empirically irrevocable; someone else could feel something different and still claim she is right (this, according to kant, is structural to the judgment of taste). am i not implicitly appealing to a prejudging standard am not aware of? (this is a variation of the cultural relativist argument applied to taste). kant avoids the relativist pitfall by an interesting conceptual transaction: though judgments of taste are particular their reach appears universal.
(is the taste of clos de los 7 from mendoza, argentina, just a subjective property?)
besides, art can show something ugly in a beautiful light. how?
The art of sculpture, too, has excluded from its creations any direct presentation of ugly objects, since in its products art is almost confused with nature. Instead it has permitted [ugly objects] to be presented by an allegory -- e.g., death ([by] a beautiful genius) or a warlike spirit ([by] Mars) -- or by attributes that come across as likable, and hence has permitted them only to be presented indirectly and by means of an interpretation of reason rather than presented for a merely aesthetic power of judgment. (CoJ, 178)as per the subject of disgust (in german, Ekel) oft associated with ugliness, kant explains:
(...) There is only one kind of ugliness that cannot be presented in conformity with nature without obliterating all aesthetic liking and hence artistic beauty: that ugliness which arouses disgust. For in that strange sensation, which rests on nothing but imagination, the object is presented as if it insisted, as it were, on our enjoying it even though that is just what we are forcefully resisting; and hence the artistic presentation of the object is no longer distinguished in our sensation from the nature of this object itself, so that it cannot possibly be considered beautiful. (CoJ, 172)
the image above is ugly (beauty gets botched by exaggeration). is it disgusting?
((can too much of beauty become ugly?))
the shot above is not a painting. the subject appears as posing, though that's not crucial to save kant's point about "nature". art, according to kant must have "finality" (Zweckmäsigkeit). in #45 of CoJ, under the subtitle fine art is an art, so far as it has at the same time the appearance of being nature kant explains that art has the intention of producing something intended to be "accompanied by pleasure" (could it be accompanied by ugliness?). he takes pain to elucidate the interplay between art and nature:
... hence the finality in the product of fine art, intentional though it may be, must not have the appearance of being intentional, i.e., fine art must be clothed with the aspect of nature although we recognize it to be art.here's kant again (with a bit of my help in yellow):
If the object is presented as a product of art, and is as such to be declared beautiful (think ugly instead), then seeing that art always presupposes an end in the cause (and its causality) a thing of what the thing is intended to be must first of all be laid at its basis. (CoJ, 173).the impression of finality (as form) on the faculty of cognition amounts to the very feeling of pleasure itself, the subject's cognitive activity is the "causality". of course, there's a lot more, only we don't have the time. this is just a sketch.
going back to the form
one would think that to understand ugliness we have to address beauty, or at least opposites in plato's theory of forms "ugliness" is a contrary to "beauty" in protagoras,
|useless foot (2014)|
is "ugly" a lesser beautiful form? do i need to understand beauty to apprehend ugliness? if X is non-beautiful, X doesn't have to be ugly (one doesn't necessarily contain the other).
christian theology doesn't admit of ugliness in heaven.
well, plato really never solved the riddle.