Art & Beauty (Or: Why Modern Art is So Ugly)

You’re in a museum. You’re surrounded by a lot of famous paintings and sculptures by famous 19th and 20th century artists.

But there’s one thing that really jumps out at you: a lot of the art is, well, ugly.

Colors clash, faces are distorted, and images are disturbing. There are themes of violence and sexual abuse. Sometimes the art hardly looks like art at all. Almost all of it is depressing.

How is this even art? Why isn’t any of it beautiful? Why don’t I feel better after looking at it?

To understand this, you have to understand how and why art got the way it is today.

A little history goes a long way

There are two big things that completely changed art from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. When you look back at it, you can’t imagine art going any other way.
  1. Photography
  2. Global war


“Painting is dead,” said Paul Delaroche, upon seeing the first Daguerreotype. Advances in photography did a lot to make the role of painters as documenters or portraitists outdated and outmoded. With cameras able to quickly, more cheaply, and more accurately reproduce what is seen, artists had to move beyond just portraying what they could see with their eyes.

This also coincided with Romanticism, in which art became more inwardly-directed. It’s a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment, which placed importance on science and technology. The Romantics put imagination at the forefront. Emotions ruled over logic and rationalism.

Romanticism in this sense isn’t sappy emotionalism, but a focus on imagination and internal truth and the idea of the mind as the ultimate thing that makes us like God, if reality is first conceived in the mind.

Global war

By the early years of the twentieth century, I suppose it all came to a head when rationalism and for lack of a better word, Romanticism, clashed and culminated in the first world war. I know that’s not the official story, but but when when you look at the rationalist underpinnings of fascism, you can see what I’m getting at.

You can’t deny that two world wars made man’s brutality unmistakable. We keep inventing more efficient ways of killing each other on a massive scale. And that’s a lot of what Romanticism was against, the development of technology for the purpose of killing or otherwise demeaning humanity.

The world got ugly and so did art

It’s said that art imitates life, but life imitates art as well. Art and life imitate each other, really. Everything was turned upside-down. People in power took philosophical ideas and twisted them into justifications for controlling and destroying those they didn’t like. The world got ugly, and art followed suit. People were stripped of their humanity, and massively destructive weapons were created.

There have always been bleak aspects to life, but up until the past 100 or so years, said bleakness was often a matter of course, due to famine, disease, and war. Now, massacre on an unprecedented scale was seen every day. Out of what can be boiled down to plain old meanness justified “rationalist” principles.

So it’s only natural that art became more distorted, more inwardly-focused, and more brutal. And more “rational,” ultimately so rational that painting was reduced to a single color spread on a canvas.

Just like our society. Self-absorption may be at an all-time high now. Everyone tries to justify their actions based on some rationale that makes it okay.

But where do I stand?

I hope this explains in part how we got here. The full story is much more complicated, of course, but it should give you some idea of how why art today is so “ugly.”

Personally, I think there is a place for beauty and a place for ugliness. I think in a hurting and uglified world, beauty and redemption are necessary. At the same time, one of the functions of art is to be a mirror and show the world to itself. A lot of the time, we don’t like what we see.

Let’s look at it another way. Think of your favorite songs or your favorite movies. Chances are pretty good that they’re not all uplifting. I bet one or two make you cry, and one or two make you feel like dancing and shouting.

The point is that good art will change you in some way. This is pretty widely accepted in the art world, whether artists and critics will admit it. A lot of artists take adopt a platform that is more complex than this, but this is what you will find at the core.

If there’s some sort of emotional impact, whether it makes you mad or thrills you or shocks you, a work of art is considered a success. A movie that has no effect on you is considered a failure. If it makes you laugh or cry, it’s done its job, right? Things are more interesting at the edges.

Plus, in this day and age where “happiness” is so accessible in the form of TV, drugs, food, and sex, happiness is a cheap commodity. So making art that raises people’s spirits is seen as a waste.

That’s my take on it.

I suppose my bottom line is this: the existence of beauty and ugliness in art really just depends on what the artist is trying to do.

Personally, I want art that makes me feel something, whether that is happy, sad, uplifted, or claustrophobic. I want to make positive changes in the world, but I am aware of the fact that sometimes I may have to make people uncomfortable with the realities of life.

What about you?

What’s your take on beauty in the arts? Is beauty necessary? Or do you think beauty in art is a waste? Let me know in the comments.

Photo Credit: katmary via Compfight cc