The Ugly Truth

There is a strange thing about modern ugliness: It is militant and proselytizing, and not just the result of thoughtlessness, poverty, lack of skill, and so forth. It might properly be called ideological. It is not so much the result of bad taste as of opposition to good taste as a desideratum. I have often noticed this before, but I was reminded of it powerfully when I opened my French newspaper the other day and saw a revealing juxtaposition—revealing, whether intentional or not.

The headline said “Europe [meaning the European Union rather than the geographical expression] is a necessary utopia for the left,” and the article beneath was an interview with the seemingly eternal and indestructible student revolutionary Daniel Cohn-Bendit. The large photograph that accompanied the interview was of Exarchia Square in Athens, described in the caption as being in a bohemian and oppositional district.

The picture showed a building in the best fascismo-concrete style originated by Le Corbusier, its hideous structure covered—I cannot say defaced, for that implies a surface whose appearance can be much worsened from its original state—with scrawled graffiti. It was a sight of such appalling and inhuman ugliness that blindness itself would be a blessing by comparison.

For anyone with minimal aesthetic sensibility, this picture resembles hell more than utopia, but a world of such ugliness is nevertheless a kind of utopia for those who value what they call social justice above all other considerations, for while ugliness is democratic, being within the reach of all, beauty is aristocratic or at least elitist, being available to only a minority even in the best of circumstances.

There are other advantages to ugliness over beauty. It requires no effort and no maintenance, for example; it increases with neglect. Beauty, on the other hand, imposes a discipline and a restraint on those who would have it. This includes dress, of course; on the back page of the same newspaper was a picture of a campaigner for a more economical use of energy (not a despicable aim in itself), who was dressed—as a matter of principle, one suspects—as if he had just fallen out of bed after two hours’ sleep after an all-night party.

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