Article: Judith Clark

Mark Cousins' 'The Ugly' - 20 Years On

by Judith Clark .

Ugliness is condemned to the role of the mistake, to the role of the object that has gone wrong. Ugliness does not exist as such, but only as a privation of what should have been. It belongs to the same family of ‘error’ as the merely contingent or the grossly individual.

For over 30 years on a Friday afternoon, the cultural theorist Mark Cousins has delivered a lecture at the Architectural Association in Bedford Square in London. Each year the lecture series is themed: The Home; Topoanalysis; The Scenographic (this year); and - twenty years ago - The Ugly.

A synopsis of twenty-two articles on ugliness delivered at the AA in the academic year 1994/95 was created for publication in the AA Files the same year.

Fashion has changed most dramatically more due to its re-descriptions rather than its shapes. By making Ugly the new Fashionable, Miuccia Prada suggests that the Beautiful and the Ugly are recognizable and definable categories, and are in some sense the opposites of each other. The Beautiful and the Ugly are aesthetic judgements based on consensus. We are always asking from whose point of view is this ugly?

Mark Cousins reconsidered these questions twenty years ago: is Beauty the absence of Ugliness? Is Ugliness the repression of Beauty? In what way can these terms be used in relation to fashion? What connections are made possible by these words?
What do they help us describe, or clarify?

All quotes below are from The Ugly Mark Cousins, AA files, (Number 28, Autumn 1994, pp. 61 - 64), the questions are mine.

1.    'That the ugly is, is central to this argument. But to assert this is to contradict a long tradition which seeks to relegate ugliness to the status of a philosophical problem of the negative.'

If you call the Ugly fashionable, are you calling it beautiful?

2. 'Ugliness is condemned to the role of the mistake, to the role of the object that has gone wrong. Ugliness does not exist as such, but only as a privation of what should have been. It belongs to the same family of 'error' as the merely contingent or the grossly individual. It has negated what is real, what is a true object of thought.'

What is a mistake in fashion now? Is the mistake the experiment?

3.  'The argument that will be presented here is part of an attempt to suggest that ugliness has little to do with beauty and that, in fact, beauty and ugliness belong to quite different registers.'

Stendhal famously remarked that Beauty is the promise of happiness; what then is ugliness the promise of?

5.  'This stress upon the object's being perfect and therefore finished already suggests a philosophical criterion as to what will function as ugly. It is that which prevents a work’s completion, or deforms a totality – whatever resists the whole.

What do we mean when we say 'the complete look' in fashion?

6.  Lastly, ugliness appears in discussion concerning the nature of genius. What sets the work of a genius apart from that of an artist who merely makes a beautiful object? [ ] Rather than effortlessly and swiftly creating a totality, the genius may incorporate alien objects into the structure of the work, elements that would defeat a lesser artist, in whose hands the whole world would break down into ridiculous collection of incompatible fragments. The genius is able, indeed needs to, pit himself against a seemingly impossible task – to mould individual, inappropriate elements into a final whole. The greater the difficulty, the greater the final impression that the totality makes. In this sense the ugly is part of the power of genius.

In what sense are fashion designers geniuses?
   
7.  Ugliness, by complicating beauty, achieves an ambiguous status – utterly excluded from beauty, and at the same time a 'moment' in the unfolding of a beauty whose form as a totality is all the more triumphant for having overcome the resistance to itself in its 'moments' of ugliness.'

If beauty and fashion are not synonymous, what is the use of the ugly?

8.  'Mary Douglas has famously remarked that dirt is matter out of place. What makes dirt dirty is not its substantial form, however much we commonly believe this to be the case, but the fact that it is in the wrong place. [ ] A stain must be cleansed. Is this because the stain is ugly? The stain is not an aesthetic issue as such. It is a question of something that should not be there and so must be removed. The constitutive experience is therefore of an object which should not be there; in this way it is a question of ugliness. This connection between a thing being in the wrong place, sin, and ugliness still obtains where the prohibitions within a culture take the form, not of elaborate reasoning, but of swift revulsion from the 'ugliness' of an act.'

In fashion what are we purifying?