Friday, April 7, 2017

Fr. Benedict Ashley on the Role of Ugliness in Fine Art

We can now understand why a work of art, if it is to have emotional meaning, must not be simply a perfect geometrical design or pattern; why it must contain something which is imperfect, incomplete, ugly, and disordered. It is not possible to present the pleasant in an effective and intense way without also suggesting the unpleasant, or at least the less pleasant. A piece of music which was all sweet chords, or a picture which had a perfect balance of pure colors, would seem emotionally empty because they would not suggest to us the movement of emotions from the unpleasant to the pleasant. A story with no villain, no conflict, no danger is bound to be insipid. That is why good works of art at first sight sometimes seem shocking or strange or depressing. It is because we have noticed the unpleasant element, and have not yet perceived how this unpleasant element is present only as a means to intensify the emotional movement toward the pleasant. The apparent disorder exists only to bring us to a profound order, just as in the universe sin and sorrow exist only to awaken us to the pursuit of true happiness.

This does not mean, however, that there must always be something ugly for there to be something beautiful. God is Beauty without ugliness of any sort because he is Eternal Beauty. But creatures arrive at beauty and goodness only by a long journey, and every journey not only has a goal, but also a place of departure. We journey toward Beauty only by leaving ugliness behind.


Source: Fr. Benedict M. Ashley, The Arts of Learning and Communication: A Handbook of the Liberal Arts (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 255.

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