Walking around MoMA’s new exhibition “Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty,” I remembered something that happened a little over a year ago in London. I was in my dorm room with a few friends, for one reason or another. On the board behind my desk I had pinned some things that I found interesting: letters, cards, flyers for various museum and gallery shows I wanted to see, etc. One such thing was a postcard sized flyer for an Egon Schiele show at the Courtauld Gallery. The side of the card facing the room was taken up, in large part, by a full length study of a particularly garish nude woman. Personally, I loved it. I love almost everything Schiele created, that is why I put it there. However, one of my friends, a boy, looked at it and asked the room (probably rhetorically): “why do they always paint ugly women.” I, of course, immediately jumped to the defense of the figure: “she’s not ugly!” But then I realized, yes she is…and she is supposed to be.
Now, I’ve thought about this particular moment a lot. In part because that is what I do, I overanalyze a lot of insignificant moments…in another part because I had a crush on the guy in question…but also in part (and this is what I believe to be the important part) because I want to understand why I immediately jumped to the defense of this woman. First of all, she’s long dead and even if she was still alive, she wasn’t there…and beyond that, this is a drawing of the woman, not a woman in flesh and blood or even a photograph. My friend wasn’t insulting her, he was insulting the drawing…but he wasn’t really insulting anyone or anything because he was just stating an objective opinion. Second of all, why did I defend her as if she was going to be hurt? Why didn’t I defend the merit of the drawing or the artist? Why did I even feel the need to defend its beauty when I know that it isn’t beautiful and wasn’t meant to be?
I would like to explain something about Schiele and many of the modernists: they were not trying to create beautiful works of art. In fact, many of them were rebelling against the idea that a work of art had to be beautiful. They were exploring modernity, reality, modern techniques, and the very physicality of the methods of creation they were using. Schiele’s woman was painted to be ugly because she was symbolic of the widely believed moral turpitude of society in the new, urban settings of world war era Germany. She was probably, in reality, just as skinny as she was drawn because she was most likely both poor and hungry. The jerky flow of the lines was because Schiele would often draw the figures without looking at the paper, in one continuous movement from sight to action. Her coloring is borderline diseased-looking because Schiele was exploring the failings of government, the decay of humanity, and the stagnation of society as he saw it. This is more than just a drawing of a naked woman, it is a powerful statement to the reality that he and his models were living in: poverty, starvation, fatigue, and disillusionment.
Back to the exhibition at hand, though. When many people think of Edgar Degas, they think of impressionist-era France, ballet dancers, and bright colors. They think of things that are generally associated with beauty and prettiness. However, the selection made by the curators is of lesser known pastels, monotypes, and charcoal studies. Sketchy, small, works on paper that most people have never seen, myself included. These works and these women are not beautiful and they are not meant to be. So why are we concerned with insisting that they are? The title of the show, “Strange New Beauty,” (which, granted, is a Mallarmé quote referring to Degas’ work) insinuates that these works are beautiful, just in an unusual and modern way, which is why they are not “traditionally pretty.” But, as I previously stated, the great thought of modernity was that a painting did not have to be beautiful or idealize and depict the inherent beauty of nature, women, and the human condition. Manet broke that barrier with “Olympia” who was called a “corpse” by critics at the time and generally considered ugly by the viewing public for decades. But, he painted her to represent a modern woman of the time, someone you could (and many people did) see on the street: young, poor, hungry…just trying to get by. Artists such as Picasso, Goya, Schiele, and yes, Degas too, took up this new challenge and created images – quite often of women – that were edgy, sketchy, blurry, and sometimes grotesque. They explored the medium of the painted canvas, the charcoal sketch, and the wide array of printmaking methods; they explored the visceral nature of their tools through smudging, scraping, and blurring. There is no need to argue for the beauty to be found in these works, to be apologetic for the lack of traditional aesthetics, because they do not need to be beautiful. Baudelaire, one of the great writers and critics of Manet’s generation said: “because the Beautiful is always wonderful, it would be absurd to suppose that what is wonderful is always beautiful” (The Salon of 1859).
We have fallen into this “cult of beauty” and it is brainwashing us. In the cult of beauty, everything has to be beautiful in order to be acceptable – in order to be ok and PC – even if it isn’t actually beautiful. We are constantly being bombarded by images of near perfect, beautiful people (all of whom fulfill socially created standards, mind you, that hold little weight beyond our own imaginations…after all, what is society but a mass, agreed upon hallucination of “reality”?): aggressive workouts and diets, “how to get bikini ready”, Photoshop, makeup artists, hair stylists, once a week manicures, “I can’t leave my house until I put my face on,” etc. I have no specific issue with these things and there can be great enjoyment in playing with make-up and feeling beautiful in an external, socially recognizable way. Photoshop is cool and Instagram filters are a lot of fun. What concerns me is how so many people feel that these things are necessary to a happy life; that you need to make yourself become either this one standard of beautiful or you MUST BE beautiful in some way in order to be happy, whole, and desirable. Beauty is relative, A), but beyond that beauty is not all that there is and not everyone has to be or wants to be beautiful.
When someone doesn’t live up to this standard, they are immediately defended or shunned. Apologists claim that you do not have to fit this ideal to be beautiful. Beauty at any age, beauty at any size, beauty across cultures, genders, and norms. But the focus here is still beauty. What about, “you do not have to be beautiful”? Instead of creating and generating excuses like, “they’re tired,” “it’s been a long week,” and “this is my winter body.” What if we did not have to fulfill this expectation of beauty? What if it was ok to not be beautiful or to not be striving to be beautiful? Not just for ourselves, but for others. Why, when I see the ugly image of Schiele’s women, do I feel the powerful need to defend their beauty? Why can they just not be beautiful and have that be ok? Why are they not allowed to be ugly? Ugliness has its own power, it is not inherently bad, we have just made it so. Why must everything be in some state of beauty? Is it because we label ugliness as a judgement BECAUSE it is so objective and when someone calls something ugly we instead hear that they are deeming it below respect, unworthy, and unliked? Why is ugly not a fact but a judgment? I
think it is high time we reclaim the word ugly and lift it from the social taboo as some sort of bad, unfortunate thing. Or, at the very least, leave off the labeling of beautiful and ugly and accept other terms to be used in their stead…not replacement words but the full spectrum of things that a person or a thing can be: smart, kind, interesting, vivacious, whatever – anything except just beautiful or ugly. The world we live in does not have to be couched in terms of beauty. There are more ways to see things, more powerful things to be than beautiful. We are limited by the very concept of beauty. We are limiting these works by forcing them into the limited confines of “beauty.”
Therefore, I further posit that it is ok for something to be ugly, that there is still the potential for appreciation in the ugly and the grotesque: a life lived, wisdom gained, experiences had, dangers survived, lessons learned. It is ok to overcome and deepen something beyond its surface; we should deny the cult of beauty and accept that some things really are ugly and that, too, is ok. Degas’ women are ugly. They are misshapen, heavily shadowed, obscured…they are not striving for beauty and I do not believe that he was looking for the hidden beauty in them and their situation. His dark shadows that cover the faces and bring forth a freakish aspect speak to the dark side of their lives. The bright, garish highlights talk to the beautification of the surface of their industry, the façade of youth and strength and the desirability of that form of beauty, but the darkness battles the light. The women are both, they lived hard lives but they were still people with thoughts, feelings and dreams. The shadows live alongside the light, sometimes overpowering, sometimes fading, and sometimes just existing alongside.
The women exiting baths, their bodies contorted into impossible shapes, are flailing and awkward. No longer the idealized bodies of David, Rembrandt, Titian, and often Lautrec, Degas has taken his women a step farther than Manet. They are allowed to be more than a symbol, an idea, an idol of feminine beauty and mystique. Their awkwardness and slips are not made acceptable by being made funny and they are not erased to make the women perfect, graceful creatures; they are accepted as a fact of life. Sometimes we fall down and it does not have to be funny or sad, it just is. These women are human: they fall, they flail, they shit, and they can be ugly. Through their ugliness, he has freed them from the pedestal – the golden cage – that art history has placed them in. The prostitute, the dancer (the rat), that cabaret singer are no longer these symbolic epitomizations of sensuality. They are revealed for what they are: damaged, dark, tired. Perhaps in this way their due is finally given as the rigors of their professions, their lives, their fate is not only revealed but allowed.
I want to reclaim the word ugly. I want to remove it from the realm of dirty words and mean things that we cannot say to other people. It is not the antithesis to beauty, it is not the insult on the other side of the compliment. It is a fact of life, neither good nor bad. It is exhausting constantly being concerned with being beautiful. When I was little, my mother would sing me a mantra of praises before I went to sleep. A feminist who wanted me to be a strong woman who did not see beauty as my only option for worthiness, she told me I was strong, funny, kind, smart, loving. Everything but beautiful and most nights, after she completed her list, I would ask her if I was beautiful and she would tell me “yes.” Despite her best efforts, society held its sway and I wanted nothing more than to be considered beautiful above all else. That desire stands in the back of my mind to this day. A small voice begging to be acknowledged despite my best efforts to quiet it. It is exhausting constantly fighting that urge. I want it to be ok to be ugly and have that not be considered a failing. I don’t want beauty to be the given standard, the price to be paid for just participating in life. Everything does not have to be beautiful. Allow me to be ugly….or better yet, allow me to not be beautiful.
 Do not take this as an excuse to be an asshole though, like saying that you can say truly mean things because “I like to tell the truth.” There is a line between being honest and being a dick and we all know it, so stop pretending that that is an acceptable excuse.