On Ugliness is an exploration of the monstrous and the repellent in visual culture and the arts. What is the voyeuristic impulse behind our attraction to the gruesome and the horrible? Where does the magnetic appeal of the sordid and the scandalous come from? Is ugliness also in the eye of the beholder?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, beauty is about contemplation, is about disinterested emotion. Ugliness, on the other hand, is not only about seeing, but also about feeling – strong feelings, like repulsion, disgust, horror and fear.
After identifying three phenomena: ugliness in itself, formal ugliness and artistic portrayal of both, Umberto Eco seems mainly interested in the latter, following the development of the aesthetic category of ugliness.
From twentieth century to nowadays, the dichotomy beautiful/ ugly has gradually lost its aesthetic value, thus playing havoc with public taste and creating new categories such as kitsch and camp.
Eco’s conclusion concentrically ends his essay: if it is true that ugliness is relative to the times and cultures since what was unacceptable yesterday may be acceptable tomorrow and what is perceived as ugly can contribute sometimes to the beauty of the whole, the constant in ugliness perception remains the psychological reactions: we are fascinated by it not because it is pleasant, but because it has always created tension, materializing the shadows of our souls:
So we can understand why art in various centuries insistently portrayed ugliness. Marginal as the voice of art may be, it attempted to remind us that, despite the optimism of certain metaphysicians, there is something implacably and sadly malign about this world.