The Strange Lure of the Ugly

It is interesting to note how the value placed on beauty varies from person to person, from region to region, and from time to time. If you were around during the late 60's and 70's, you might remember a distinct trend towards making things uglier. I can point out two independent areas where this is visible.

The first is architecture. Many office buildings erected during the period had the shape of plain cubical boxes, covered in mirrored glass, and with no ornament whatsoever. (As Ayn Rand has pointed out, progess in architecture demands that the ornament of a building should be appropriate to its purpose, not that the ornament should be missing entirely.) Does this "style" of architecture even have a name? Contrast this with the exuberance of the Googie style of the 50's and 60's.

The second, independent trend was in film studio logos. Look, for example, what happened to the MGM lion in 1966:Similarly, Columbia, Warner Brothers, and Paramount all modified their logos to a sketchy joyless cartoon version.

The confluence of similar trends in such diverse areas makes me think these were a reflection of some broader spirit of pessimism in society.

This line of thought was provoked by a recent experience of putting some paper money in my wallet and being struck by the extreme ugliness of the new designs. The currency redesign was motivated by a desire to make our cash harder to counterfeit, which is sensible, but I see no reason why it can't be attractive and harder to counterfeit at the same time. Virtually every element of the design has been uglified: the old lovely ornate borders, which were unique to each denomination, have been replaced by austere boilerplate, the atmospheric perspective engravings of buildings on the back have been replaced by almost two-dimensional elevations, and that is not to mention the tiny little numerals scattered around by smallpox lesions.

Compare all this with a five-dollar bill from 1896:

Whatever else you might think about this note, it is clear that the designer wanted it to be pretty.

My point is not that our currency today ought to look like this. But there must be something appropriate to our era that could be pleasing or even inspiring to the eye.

Kyoto, PA

Photo by embleton_s

If you've seen a Rocky movie then most likely you've seen the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It figures promininently in the training montage when he runs up the steps leading to the museum and galumphs about at the top.

Guidebooks will tell you about the various collections: Asian art, Dutch masters, modern art, armor and weapons, as well as the impressive building that houses the museum. But my favorite musueum experience is not mentioned in any guidebook.

Some of the most interesting items in the museum collection are reonstructed buildings and rooms from a variety of cultures and time periods: a mediaeval French cloister, a Chinese scholar's study from the Qing dynasty,... and a 14th-century Buddhist temple from Japan. If you go there, be sure to seek out this last.

Now: before you leave, close your eyes and inhale deeply. What you smell is the aroma of incense that has seeped into the wood over hundreds of years. It's the atmosphere that surrounds you as soon as you enter the great hall of any temple in Japan. It's a wonderfully evocative experience, and as far as I know this is the only place you can taste it on this side of the Pacific.