Work and Ugliness

There is a Renaissance notion I’ll introduce as the hinge for this discussion: Sprezzatura, as it is called, defines the courtly ideal that certain expressions should come across effortlessly.  Whether in art, dance, or speech, the underlying mechanics of an act should be concealed, to signify mastery of the form and to permit its appreciation by others at rarefied levels.  Any visible struggle in something’s manufacture denotes the work as of lesser quality, and thus less worthy of remark.

Art has come a long way since this proposition was formulated, of course, and there are many theories that take very different stances on the role of beauty and ugliness – some, for instance, claim ugliness as beauty itself, while others maintain that neither concept is especially helpful to understanding art.  But in general, sprezzatura remains the default framework by which people evaluate things.  A movie where the filming equipment and stage sets are evident, when not purposefully “meta”, gets a ‘B’ rating and is considered kitsch.  A video game with obvious glitches loses its flow, as does art that looks like it’s “trying” to be something (i.e. often in photorealistic terms) but fails to get it right.

There is a measure of common sense to this approach: of course, we prefer things that function fluidly, and are hardwired to be awed by demonstrations of skill.  There are, however, problems with all of this for the beginner buying into it.

Skill is a byproduct of practice.  Obvious work, or “ugliness”, is inevitable if you make art for long enough, and in any case required to gain access to higher aesthetic levels.  Many who hold to the sprezzatura model too firmly are intimidated out of the game during early stages.  Due to the self-consciousness that frequently underlies such an aesthetic ideal (within Western cultural norms), yet more strive towards sheer skill as the epitome of their studies.

So there are two things here.  The first is that there is such a thing as ugliness.  It’s simply to be expected in the course of artistic development.  You don’t have to embrace the awkwardness of learning as desirable in itself (some do), but a solid appreciation for its role is helpful to progress in several dimensions, specifically one’s ability to relax and produce work confidently.

The second is that ugliness or awkwardness may be useful domains to experiment with.  Being able to express a concept in a manner appropriate to it is the essence of being an artist, and there are lots of things out there with elements of struggle or ugliness to them.  Life is, after all, like that.  This second sense of ugliness is a consciously cultivated one wherein the artist hones skill at its most fundamental level – that of developing a (visual) language unique to them.

One final thought: what we call ugliness is not just a stage you move through.  It is rather an ongoing feature which marks periods of transition and growth.  I know for myself, very often when working on something there is a point where I’m struggling – it means I am thinking and not simply executing a design by rote.  I am unsure.  What, if anything, is ugly about that taps doubtlessly into the deep lack of comfort we have with ambiguity and uncertainty.  It is why we feel uncomfortable both as creative producers, and/or as witnesses to art works which do not map on easily to ordered expectations.  “Ugly” feelings in this context rank among the most rewarding one can have.









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