Frank the Turkey: Some Thoughts on what it is to be Ugly

I would like to dedicate the Ugly Things column to a nineteen-year-old boy who has, unwittingly, become my muse – my younger brother. A long time ago he won a toy prize in The Claw, an arcade game made famous by the aliens in ‘Toy Story’. Like all arcade prizes, the toy was cheap, easily forgettable, and bound to be thrown away. This particular toy had a different destiny, which consequently holds a special fascination for me.

The body of the toy took the form of a plucked turkey ready for the oven; the head, on the other hand,was of a very much alive turkey, complete with beady eyes and a wide-open beak – pretty macabre. To complete this disturbing children’s plaything, the plucked wings and legs had joints so people could move the limbs of their charming new toy into a variety of awkward poses.[1] My brother held on to this toy for a long time, going so as far to give it a name: Frank.

Frank’s very existence caught my imagination: there must have been many people who had thought the toy was a good idea, before it eventually ended up in my brother’s room.  At the very least, there would have been someone who came up with the idea, someone who designed it, and a committee that deemed it suitable for production. Then, whoever fills up The Claw with goodies must have seen it and thought, ‘this is the perfect toy for this game,’ and finally, my darling brother, who won the toy and kept him for many years. This silly toy was perhaps my first foray into design history; through Frank, I realized that most designed objects in contemporary society would have gone through a similar process. For everything that we dismiss as ugly, there were those who thought it was a good idea, whatever their justification, and brought the object into fruition.

There is such a focus on beauty and good taste in society that one assumes everything is designed with beauty or some form of aesthetic perfection in mind. To cite the over-quoted William Morris: ‘have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’.[2] If Morris were in charge of designing and producing everything then poor Frank would definitely not be in existence as he is neither useful nor easy on the eyes. Much has been written in an attempt to outline the qualities of beauty, usually claiming that the experience of beauty provokes a strong emotional reaction. For example, Kant states that ‘in order to decide whether or not something is beautiful, we do not relate the representation by means of understanding to the object for cognition, but rather relate it by means of the imagination…to the subject and its feeling of pleasure or displeasure’.[3]

Less has been written on ugliness as it seems widely assumed that things which are not considered beautiful must be ugly and therefore the opposite of the ‘rules of beauty’ can be applied. The rules set out by these experts, however, do not necessarily hold true in all cases, as there is a third entity: designed objects that do not inspire nor offend the viewer. This type of object seems to slip by unnoticed in our everyday lives. Some would even argue that this is a quality of the best pieces of design: ones that fit into our lives without any form of disruption. Using this line of reasoning, it implies that both beautiful and ugly objects are badly designed. There is definitely something powerful about ugly things – I cannot remember any of my brother’s more run-of-the-mill toys, yet the memory of Frank remains.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, itself, stands as testament to the enduring power of ugly. One of its earliest exhibitions, organized by Henry Cole, was intended to educate designers and the general public on good design and its opposite.[4] The museum acquisitioned examples of both beautiful and ugly objects for display, most of which are still part of the museum’s collections today. It seems ironic that in trying to educate the public on bad design in an attempt to obliterate ugly objects from production, Cole ensured the long lasting care and survival of ‘ugly’ artifacts, which might otherwise have been damaged and lost over the passage of time. I wonder what has become of their mundane or beautiful contemporaries.

Of course, the ‘rules’ of what is considered ugly are transient and change from person to person and generation to generation, but there can be some things that are almost comprehensively accepted as ugly due to (that looming phrase) ‘the media’s presentation of them’.  For example, it is commonly accepted that gnomes are ugly, yet people still collect them (more on this topic at a later date). It would be thought provoking to have a present day design critic look at Henry Cole’s original collections and provide a contemporary evaluation of what would be considered ugly or beautiful by today’s standards. It would not surprise me if the distinctions have somewhat changed, with several objects having swapped categories altogether.

There is something powerful about being conspicuously ugly and it can be used as a sign of rebellion. If beauty and good taste are the convention, or at least something to strive for, then being distasteful and ugly are upsetting that norm. One of the most obvious examples of this was the punk movement of the 1970s. Dick Hebdige perfectly analyses Punk’s drive towards ugliness as attempted ‘violations of the authorized codes through which the social world is organized and experiences have considerable power to provoke and disturb’.[5] In the new millennium punk has lost its shock value and part of its perceived inherent ugliness; yet it is not considered beautiful either. It seems, now more than ever, that ugly is even something to strive for.[6] As a hip teenager, my muse of a brother goes out of his way to wear the ugliest shirts and outfits he can find: green and yellow tie-dyed tee with a massive purple Nike logo? Great.

When ugly becomes conventional, does the hideous thing cease to be ugly? This does seem to be the case. Consider the recent kitsch revolution, a word that by one definition is synonymous with ‘trash’. While to call an object kitsch was once to dismiss it as ugly, (albeit in a sentimental and somewhat condescending way, i.e. as something your slightly batty great Aunt would have treasured in a house you hated to visit) now, calling something kitsch can be a compliment to a trendy friend whose ‘kitsch-chic’ home you secretly envy. The influential music critic John Fuller-Maitland commented on this type of occurrence as early as 1920: ‘Over and over again it has happened that pictures, statues, poems and music which have been held as ugly or eccentric by one generation have been accepted as beautiful by the next’.[7] It is almost as if by making something with the intention of it being ugly it becomes beautiful. If Frank’s designer made him with the intention of him being ugly does that then make him beautiful? Definitely not!

Beautiful Things in Relation to Ugly Things © Joanne Pilcher 2014

Ugly Things in Relation to Beautiful Things. © Joanne Pilcher 2014

In my opinion ugly does not have to be directly compared to beautiful, as there is a third entity which sits between the two. I have tried to illustrate these relationships in the Venn diagrams above. I believe it is possible to write about ugliness without contrasting it to beauty (though this is clearly a challenge, as I have failed to escape beauty in this post). If ugliness is more than just the opposite of beauty, reading theory on beauty and applying the reverse ideas to ugliness is not a sufficient study of what it is to observe and experience an ugly object. I hope that the opinions explored in this column will challenge what has been written in this area and continue the discussion started with this first piece and allow others to contemplate ugly things.

Joanne Pilcher 

 

[1] An online search for a similar toy unearthed an American retailer on Ebay selling one as a ‘Thanksgiving Dog Treat’.  Whether a dog toy or a child’s toy, Frank is still an ugly thing, yet is seems somewhat more acceptable for a dog’s toy to be ugly
[2]William Morris, The Beauty of Life, a lecture before the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design (19 February 1880)
[3]Immanuel Kant, Kant’s Critique of Judgment, translated with introduction and notes by J.H. Bernard (2nd ed. revised) (London: Macmillan, 1914) p. 45
[4]Lucy Trench, The Victoria and Albert Museum (New York, NY: V&A Publishing, 2010) p. 8
[5] Dick Hebdige, ‘Subculture, The Meaning of Style’ in Gelder, Ken, and Thornton, Sarah, eds The Subcultures Reader (London; New York: Routledge, 2005)p. 130
[6] Pretty Ugly discusses this phenomenon. Pretty Ugly: Visual Rebellion in Design TwoPoints.net, ed. (Berlin: Die Gestalten Verlag, 2012)
[7] J.A. Fuller-Maitland, ‘Towards Ugliness: A Revision of Old Opinions’,in The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 6, No 3 (July 1920) p. 317

 

Recommended Reading

Kant, Immanuel, Kant’s Critique of Judgment, translated with introduction and notes by J.H. Bernard (2nd ed. revised) (London: Macmillan, 1914)

Kieran, Matthew, ‘Aesthetic Value: Beauty, Ugliness and Incoherence’, Philosophy, 72 (1997), 383–99

Loos, Adolf, Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays (Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 1998)

Sorge, Julian, (Project Manager), Pretty Ugly: Visual Rebellion in Design (Berlin: Die Gestalten Verlag, 2012)

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