(This is the third in a series of posts on the relationship between aesthetics and ethics.]

Jackson Pollock, painting “No. 27,” 1950“Full Fathom Five,” 1947, by Jackson Pollock

The art critic Clement Greenberg once wrote that the new is always ugly. This is because it confronts us with experiences and ideas that we haven’t encountered before and don’t understand, or, at least, are not accustomed to. It follows that, because we live in a society, and an urban landscape, driven by the new, we are in for substantial, even perpetual, ugliness. His concern was the aesthetic, but also the ethical. He wrote in a post-WWII period not only of rapid expansion of American cities and the social landscape they create, but also of Existentialism, which made ugliness—if it was ‘authentic,’ that is, if it emerged from the inner nature of a thing—a virtue. Prettiness was conventional, easily acceptable, and, in a time of rapid change, an ethical crime against truth. Prettiness was used as a cosmetic by advertisers and other commercial—and political—interests to disguise the difficult, even tragic, struggles that social, economic and technological changes were forcing upon people and their ways of thinking and living. Prettiness was used by the powers-that-be not to make the new more digestible, but to disguise its deeper implications and ethical imperatives. It was a way of saying, ‘Don’t worry, everything is normal–just go on as you always have.’ In other words, “Just let us keep running the world as we always have.’

Occasionally artists manage to create the truly ugly. The painter Jackson Pollock, whose drip paintings were prime examples of Greenbergian newness, hence ugliness, was driven by ideas of the ‘automatic,’ which was a term for the uncontrollable forces of both the psyche and of society. Mega-scaled urban and suburban growth had made central control impossible, much the same as mass production and mass media had a generation before. The technological machinery was no longer guided by a single person or elite group; rather, the elite, to gain commercial advantage, had broken big machines down into ever smaller, more salable ones, relinquishing control of the changes they wrought to ever more dispersed and more ubiquitous ‘consumers.’ Pollock’s tangled paint drippings and swirls were at once an assertion of one person’s independence from the norms and a poignant expression of his surrender to the unpredictable, the vicissitudes of modern existence. Their violation of the aesthetic norms of beauty were at once exciting and challenging. They existed at an edge between order and chaos, balancing traditional notions of composition with inchoate scrawls and scribbles. Their ugliness indicated a way forward. We could live with uncertainty without abandoning all noble traditions.

If we follow through on Greenberg’s thought, we realize that eventually things we didn’t understand become familiar: yesterday’s ‘ugly’ becomes today’s ‘pretty.’ It’s telling that Pollock’s paintings, even though they’ve become icons of modern art, are still considered ugly by many people–a sign of their enduring newness.

Question: have architects managed to create the truly new and enduringly ugly? If we look at Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp, I think we can agree he succeeded in doing so here. Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim, which we might see as a play on Ronchamp’s formal themes, seems glittering and pretty in comparison, and won universal acceptance immediately, always the acid test. Ronchamp is a modernist icon, but is too strange in form and idea to have been, by now, more than superficially assimilated. It is still new, still ugly.


Le Corbusier’s Chapel at Ronchamp, France

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