Can Art Be Ugly?


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We’ve all had that experience of walking into a museum and wondering how a certain piece of art ever made the cut. We look around, wondering if anyone else notices that an ugly imposter is sitting on the wall of this prestigious museum. But, most likely, no one else freaks out. Don’t they think the art is ugly too?

Art can be ugly to the person viewing it, but that doesn’t mean that it is universally ugly to everyone. Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder, which means that some art will be ugly to some, but beautiful to others.

Believe me, I’ve often been that person in the museum wondering why there hasn’t been outrage over an ugly piece of art that was being displayed on the wall. Heck, show my art, why don’t you?! If that’s the standard?! Oh, well. 

Whether art is considered ugly, beautiful, entertaining, depressing, chaotic, insert your favorite adjective here, is completely up to each individual.

It’s both frustrating and amazing that we all hold our own opinions, tastes, and preferences as far as art is concerned. It’s frustrating because we can find ourselves in a museum, shaking our heads about the art that was chosen for display. It’s amazing because we can really develop our own, unique love of art.

Can you imagine if the entire world had the same preferences for art? That would suck, to say the least. Even though I’d be happy to never hear certain genres of music ever again…not naming names…it makes life SO much more fun when we all have different interests and preferences.

At least we can all have lively discussions about whether the art we’re looking at or listening to is crappy. How much less fun would dinner parties be without that? 

Now, this begs the question of whether there’s a group of people out there who are simply wrong. They like ugly art, and they’re mistaken in thinking it’s not ugly. Do they just need a reality check? 

Let’s dig into the definition of “ugly” to figure out if there’s a way that we can objectively call something ugly or not. 

The Definition of Ugly

Ugly is defined as something that is offensive, whether to any of the senses, or to someone’s morals. Something that’s ugly can cause inconvenience or discomfort to the individual. Experiencing ugliness is subjective and dependent on each individual’s disposition and preferences.

To restate, here’s how Merriam Webster defines ugly:

-offensive to the sight

-offensive or unpleasant to any sense

-morally offensive or objectionable

-likely to cause inconvenience or discomfort

-synonyms include: hideous, dirre, frightful, surly, quarrelsome

(source).

Based on the definition of ugly, we have no way of classifying anything as ugly in an objective way. Instead, the definition describes a completely subjective experience. 

While I’m standing in the museum with my eyes taking offense to the sight they’re taking in, the person next to me might not be having that same experience. 

They aren’t having that same, ugly experience.

“Experience” is actually a great word for describing “ugliness.” When we find something to be ugly, it’s an experience we have. An experience that might be completely different than the person’s next to us. 

And, that’s how the definition of the word “ugly” is written!

With Art, Opinions Matter

There is no universal definition of beautiful art, nor of ugly art. That means that art is subjective and up for debate. Everyone is allowed to have their own opinions about art, and whether they believe it’s ugly or not.

I’m someone who really likes clear cut, black and white answers. Unfortunately, or fortunately, art doesn’t give us that. It’s not even that art lives in a gray area. It’s not black, white, or gray at all. There’s no barometer at all to say whether art is beautiful or ugly. 

At all.

Art is subjective, which is actually a really important feature of it. The fact that we can all have our own opinions and analyses of art is a wonderful thing. While I love clear cut answers, it’s actually pretty neat that art lives in such a subjective realm.

Ok, so now that I’ve made such a stink about art being subjective, there’s actually one way in which I could possibly agree that there’s some objectivity to art.

Analyzing the Craftsmanship of Art

Even though art is subjective, there’s something to be said for how well it’s made from a craftsmanship perspective. In some cases, a work of art may be deemed beautiful vs. ugly depending on the skill and expertise with which it was made.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had moments in museums where I’m blown away by the artist’s skill and technique, yet the subject matter is a little on the ugly side. In those moments, I can’t help but say that the art is beautiful. The craftsmanship is beautiful which, in my subjective opinion, makes the entire piece beautiful.

And, craftsmanship isn’t completely subjective. No, there’s something to be said for how long someone has trained, the complexities of the techniques they use, and their reputation within the art community. That, to some degree, is measurable. 

There’s no doubt that there are times when we appreciate the beauty of the craftsmanship of a piece of art, but find the content of it to be ugly. Does that make the entire piece of art beautiful? Or, is it still ugly?

I guess that part is still up for subjective opinion. 

Given the definition of “ugly,” there’s no way to universally say whether a piece of art is ugly or not. We all have our own, subjective opinions about the degree to which any given work of art is beautiful. And, that’s a good thing! If there were a rule book stating which art was ugly, and which wasn’t, I bet the world would be a much less interesting place.

Get out there and be proud of your subjective art opinions!

Diana Fitts

Diana has been an artist for over 25 years and has training in drawing, painting, digital drawing and graphic design. Diana's latest obsession is digitally drawing with Procreate and creating t-shirt designs with Canva. Diana has experience selling her art across a number of platforms and loves helping other artists learn how to make money from their art as well.

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