Hello friends! I’m back after a long hiatus with a topic I’ve wanted to talk about for a while. I want to touch on something that a lot of people don’t like to discuss when we’re talking about art, and that is ugliness.
By that I mean deliberate ugliness. Art is a lot of things to a lot of people, and of course people have different aesthetics. Different styles, forms, and expressions of art will always leave people divided (art nouveau or art deco? Opera or Grand Ole Opry?), but I’m not talking about people’s preferences. I’m talking about art that pushes beyond the limits of “good taste,” art that is intentionally trying to push your buttons in all the wrong ways. Art that is trying to be ugly.
It’s a difficult thing for people to swallow. For many, art is meant to be beautiful. Perfectly reasonable. Most dictionary definitions of art point to two qualities that define the concept: beauty, and expressive power. But I think as a culture most of us gravitate to the art we love for a marriage of the two. Art is something beautiful and expressive, or even better, something that expresses beautiful things. That art should express ugly things is difficult to swallow. That art should be ugly to express ugly things is even more problematic.
I understand that. I understand that after a long day the last thing most of us want to do is contemplate something unpleasant. It’s tempting to brush this kind of art aside and forget about it.
I understand. But I don’t agree.
Above is a painting by Francisco Goya. Wikipedia tells me was the “last of the Old Masters and the first of the moderns.” His style evolved throughout his life, and as he aged, became darker and more expressionist. The above painting is Saturno devorando su hijo or Cronus Devouring His Son, though Goya never gave it that name. The painting now resides in El Museo del Prado, but Cronus was never intended for public display. It comes from a set of fourteen works collectively called the Black Paintings painted directly onto the walls of Goya’s Quinta del Sordo residence at the very end of his life. They were the artist’s private expression of what had come to be a bitter attitude toward humanity. All of the paintings feature dark subject matter, but for me, Cronus is the most haunting.
I had the opportunity to see the Black Paintings when I visited Madrid two summers ago. The first thing that strikes you as you enter the dimly lit gallery is the sheer size. Cronus measures nearly 3′ by 6′, and it isn’t even the largest painting. To stare into the crazed white eyes of a creature nearly as large as you are is a disturbing experience.
It is ugly, yes, but ugly art does not mean bad art. On the contrary, the painting is brilliant in composition and execution. From a deep, deep black background emerges a grotesque figure in muted browns and greys. Nothing about the subject’s complexion is healthy or wholesome. The brightest parts of the painting are the deathly pallor of the corpse, the knuckles, white from grasping, the blood, and the mad eyes. You are drawn to the most terrifying details of the painting by the skill of the painter.
At the time Goya was creating the Black Paintings, Spain was in an era of unrest, of war and revolution. Some have interpreted the painting as an allegory for Spain devouring its own future. I can see widening the allegory to all of mankind. But why Goya painted Cronus will remain a mystery. We can only say that whatever dark demons he dealt with at the end of his life found very personal expression in this set of paintings. Any other interpretation must be left to the viewer.
Dealing with the healthy expression of negative emotions is a topic humans have dealt with since antiquity. The ancient Greeks even gave it a word: “catharsis.” The idea is that negative emotions like fear, anger, and sadness need to find some sort of release for people to live healthy emotional lives. “Catharsis” means “cleansing” or “purifying,” and was specifically related to the purging of emotions through interaction with art.
During my time as an undergraduate I met a composer who introduced me to Francis Bacon (the painter, not the writer). Bacon was a British artist once described by Margaret Thatcher as “that man who paints those dreadful pictures.” And they are dreadful. But that doesn’t mean they’re bad. Like Cronus Devouring His Son, Bacon’s paintings are skillfully rendered to deliberately provoke the viewer. Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) is a prime example of Bacon at his best (or his worst)
The “figures” of the title barely even deserve the label. Vaguely human, the creatures have just enough features for the viewer to identify with, but few enough that they seem alien and frightening. Their skin is a sickly corpse-grey, and the lack of limbs makes them both more pathetic and more repulsive. And yet they have faces, which we are hard-wired to identify with. We automatically analyze the figures for expression, and Bacon delivers by supplying the most horrific faces imaginable.
The first figure is the only one with hair, which shields it from the viewer and gives a “mourning” aspect. It helplessly sits on a stool, the tiny suggestion of arms only highlighting the creature’s powerlessness. The second figure has an even more amorphous body, and is clearly blind. The bandage may either cover where eyes should be, or where they used to be. Despite this, it is unsettlingly clear that the figure is looking out at the viewer. The leering mouth seems ready to snap at us if only we would come close enough. The third figure is the most disturbing. The ribs are clearly defined, and part of the creature’s body is sticking into what appears to be a bed of spikes. This figure has the clearest facial features too, crafted into an agonized, tortured scream.
The figures are incarnations of sadness, anger, and pain. We are meant to recognize and empathize with these expressions, even if doing so frightens us. Especially because it frightens us.
I could go on and on with examples from other disciplines of art. Various poems, novels, and films come to mind. But I’m a musician, and I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight musical examples. Music especially is an art form where people object to ugliness. Unpleasant subjects in film and literature are almost a matter of course (in fact, they’re often the ones that win awards). From the examples above, it’s clear that ugliness in the visual arts is also an established and accepted fact.
But music is different. Ugliness in music is hard for people to bear. We listen to music for many reasons: to have fun, to dance, to set a mood, to enjoy its beauty. It’s common to seek out music for its relaxing properties, but rarer to seek it out to confront and process things we’d rather not think about. To confront the ugly.
My personal theory is that ugly music is harder to engage with because music is one of the only art forms that is inextricably joined to time. You can put some kind of distance between yourself and a piece of visual art. You can take a step back, turn away. But music is experienced in the moment, and if you take the time to remove yourself from the moment, it passes and you’ve missed it. Music exists as a sum of individual moments, and only after the last notes settle can you start to appreciate the totality of what you’ve heard. Only then can you evaluate the true impact of the process of listening.
And it’s the process part that makes music so powerful. One of my friends recently published a post on his blog about an interview with Minnesota Orchestra’s assistant conductor Roderick Cox. In response to a question about how music can improve people’s lives, Cox said, “it’s important for people to have a way of expressing themselves, and if they don’t, they act out in violence and other negative forms of expression.”
I think there’s something very true and very powerful about that. I certainly find it true in my own life. People need a conduit to deal with negative emotions in a way that can release those emotions without being harmful. Listening to music provides that conduit for me.
In 1802, Ludwig van Beethoven–musical genius, pianist extraordinaire, respected composer–was at the lowest point of his life. He had been slowly losing his hearing for six years, and had withdrawn from society. After considering suicide, he found it necessary to draft a last will of sorts. That document, now known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, shows a man struggling to maintain his will to continue as an artist.
Fortunately, he did. And the compositional period after Beethoven’s return from the brink marks the beginning of his middle period, which, for music history, marks the turn toward Romanticism.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Op. 55 is subtitled “Eroica.” Its first movement acts as a musical depiction of the struggle to overcome great odds. There are essentially two motives at play: the triadic “hero’s theme” which opens the piece, and the destabilizing offbeat accents which follow (:59). I’d love to do an analysis of the whole movement, but now is not the time or place. Instead, I want you to listen to the contrasting characters of these two musical ideas. The “hero’s theme” has a regular meter (3/4), and on the whole is consonant and confident. The “offbeats” are generally more dissonant, and threaten to derail the whole movement by obscuring the meter (2/4 against 3/4). This movement is cast in sonata form, so for the first few minutes enjoy the exposition. However, notice the tension of moments like 3:07 where the offbeats return.
The real meat of the movement lies in the development, which begins in earnest at 7:10. If you’ve so far been wondering why this piece is included in a post about ugly art, you’re about to find out. The development begins by passing around motives from the first tonal area of the exposition, then takes a dark turn by setting the “hero theme” in minor mode. Things become more agitated as the development spins on. At 8:35 we get a moment of fughetto (woo, counterpoint!) which propels us into a section of anguished sighing gestures (8:44). Then, at 8:49, real darkness descends. The strings, against dissonant chords, strive upward with the offbeat motive. Tension grows, volume and range expand. The violins leap up from deep, violent hits in the basses and cellos, until at 9:25, just when you can’t bear it anymore, Beethoven unleashes a chord scored with blaring half steps crushed against each other.
If I seem dramatic, it’s because 1) I love this piece, and 2) I’m trying to paint a picture of how dissonant this would sound to Beethoven’s Viennese audience. The kind of chord employed at the climax of the development is purposely shocking. It’s the closest our “hero” has come to defeat, and Beethoven wants you to cringe, to feel it. The rest of the development is spent trying to rebuild our hero by casting them in various tonal guises, and the recapitulation creates a more secure and triumphant version of that theme. “I made it,” Beethoven is saying, taking us along on a musical journey paralleling his personal one. The effect of the whole (please listen to the rest) is immensely satisfying. BUT, the great height the movement ends on is only possible because of the dark, dissonant, ugly path we took to get there. As with much of Beethoven’s middle period, you earn that final cadence.
My music history professor described Charles Ives with one word: “maverick.” She was blissfully unaware of any current political use of the word, and simply meant that Ives composed exactly how he wanted in his own way. The Unanswered Question is one of my favorite Ives works, and is also a great example of ugliness with a point.
The piece is built in three layers. First, the strings play long, sustained, consonant chords. The expansive quality is created by a five octave spacing between the basses and the violins. Ives thought of these serene, pristine chords as symbolizing “The Silence of the Druids.” Ives is painting a picture of the universe as beautiful, profound, and unchanging.
The second layer is the trumpet, “The Question.” This motive is completely unrelated to the tonality of the strings. In fact, the question isn’t tonal at all. It is an unmistakably searching motive posing “The Perennial Question of Existence.”
The last layer is the woodwinds, which give “Fighting Answers” to the question each time it is posed. As the piece goes on, these answers become increasingly complex, dissonant, and fraught. Finally, they mock the question and give up on answering altogether in a peevish cluster chord (4:53).
The solo trumpet asks the question one last time, and this time it is left unanswered but for the strings, which have remained unchanged throughout.
The first time I listened to a this piece on YouTube, I decided to read the comments. Many were complimentary. Many were from twelve year olds trying to be profound. And many asked a question of their own: “Is there a version with just the strings?”
Talk about missing the point. I’m sure there are differing interpretations of the piece according to your worldview. Are humans the questioner? The fighting answerers? Both? Is the calm, unchanging nature of the background music comforting, or is its indifference to the question and answer cold and merciless? I leave these to you to ponder, but that’s just it: you can’t walk away from this piece with a happy little answer. It’s asking us to confront something uncomfortable, but it is precisely through questions like these that we grow and define ourselves. Doing either of those is seldom comfortable, but we are always better off for it.
This last piece is very personal for me. For being a classical saxophonist, I’ve talked surprisingly little about saxophone music on this blog. But this is one of my favorite pieces of music period, and one of the strongest works in the saxophone repertoire. The second movement of William Albright’s Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano is entitled “La follia nuova: a lament for George Cacioppo.”
Albright decides to set his lament in a very old form, the chaconne, a type of baroque piece we’ve discussed here before. He even hints toward a descending lament bass. The piece opens with a soft statement of the chaconne theme, then a first variation before the saxophone enters for the second variation at :43. It’s a beautiful moment, with the saxophone closely echoing the piano. At 1:20, Albright asks the pianist to capture the resonance of the notes after a hard attack, creating a harsh “stabbing” effect against the soft chaconne theme. At 1:36 the saxophone begins a rising motive, which becomes a beautiful upward line into the altissimo while the piano descends into the lower register. The low bass and brittle upper chords in the piano against the sustained altissimo in the saxophone is a heartbreaking sound. The saxophone plunges down at 2:32, and the chaconne theme returns to ground us after this surge of emotion.
But it’s not the same stable chaconne we had earlier. The theme is interrupted by dissonant notes and the persistent crescendo of the saxophone pushes us on (3:05). We rise again, pushing to a unison between the saxophone and piano surrounded by harsh chords. And then the chaconne is gone. We’ve lost our moorings in both tonality and form. The figures here are built off of dissonance, wandering, aimless, and unsure.
At 4:22 the chaconne briefly returns before the saxophone leaps to a pulsing high note, like a heart desperately beating. The saxophone then takes the theme up an octave as the piano insistently punches cluster chords around it, and finally, when we can’t take the tension anymore, the saxophone leaps up in a scream of despair (5:12) before melting back downward to the chaconne. But the return feels hollow, and the music peters out before evaporating in the upper reaches of the piano.
In the last part of the piece, the saxophonist is instructed to play into the piano, as if to oneself (6:13). Here is a bare statement of the bass line with the saxophone playing a baroque lament over it. It’s a poignant and austere moment at a point when both audience and players are emotionally exhausted. The movement ends with with a defeated octave drop in the saxophone and then loud, repeated funeral bells. It’s brutally dissonant after the serenity of the baroque section, and the final tolling always makes me wince. And it should.
It’s ugly. But there are times when grief is not beautiful. This is not “take a sad song and make it better” type music. There is a time and a place for that, but there is a need for music that acknowledges that sometimes we are not okay, sometimes emotional healing does not come at the end of a few minutes worth of music. To me, Albright is pushing against the idea that there’s an easy out. The chaconne is a set of gestures used to portray grief, and by using the form and then breaking from it, by letting it disintegrate and fall apart, I think Albright is trying to make a point about formalizing and ritualizing our emotions. Depression, anger, and pain are not pretty, and trying to force them into a rigid mold is a betrayal of the depth and uniqueness of those emotions for each individual. At least, that’s my take.