Why are some things ugly and others beautiful?


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Why are some things ugly and others beautiful?

The distinguishing characteristic between organic and inorganic motif is movement. Movement can manifest itself simply through growth or volitional locomotion. The basic characteristic of inorganic crystallinity is not, however, entirely missing in organic bodies. Trees have their annual rings, leaves display systematic structure, these characteristics are however often veiled and hidden from the observers eye or partially obscured by principles such as the law of motion.

The basic characteristics of inorganic crystallinity are “(a) delimitation by regular surfaces conjoined at angles and (b) absolute stereometric and planimetric symmetry.” Art deals with inorganic substances; primitive wo/man unavoidably, and most likely unconsciously, asked the question how would nature do it?

What prevents the formal law of inorganic things, i.e. crystallization, from dominating all attempts to depict organic things? The laws of motion characteristic of inorganic things “compel the continuous rearrangement of molecules, which permits them to coalesce into a symmetrical structure only during pauses in the process of motion”.

In addition to motion a second characteristic of organic matter is curvature. Inorganic matter often appears in a shapeless state while organic matter generally appears in a state of curvature.

“Thus man found himself faced with the task of reproducing an organic natural being in dead matter. We must keep firmly in mind that this called not for imitation or lateral portrayal but for competition. If conceptual requirements demanded a depiction of a four-legged creature, the primitive artist was not compelled to portray a specific individual or, even less, an accidental attitude of that individual. He needed instead to depict a representative of the given species with no intent to individualize.”

In the attempt to adopt the principles of inorganic matter while simultaneously attempting to place the human species as being above that of nature required that the artist “depict a representative of a given species with no intent to individualize.” When portraying organic matter the artist must record it paused in mid motion.

Once it was deemed acceptable to depict organic matter in motion, stopped motion but nevertheless motion, “transitory and accidental qualities entered art”. This was a moment of great consequence for art; perhaps even more important than was the introduction of organic motifs.

An object in motion is an object that tends to lose its symmetry and proportionality, vital characteristics of crystalline structure. “Even this limited movement meant the loss of absolute symmetry; thus asymmetry came to accompany curvature.”

The artist must attempt to make this absence of absolute symmetry minimally apparent. Symmetry determines the relationship between the left and right sides of a figure. Proportion determines the relationship between the upper and lower parts of the figure.

When a thing of nature fails to conform to instinctive views of minimal acceptability of symmetry and/or proportionality “we describe it as ugly. A person’s face might exhibit the most punctilious symmetry, but if the forehead is too low, the cheeks too broad, or the nose too long, we call the whole thing unattractive without there being the slightest possibility of disagreement.”

Quotes from Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts by Alois Riegl