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216 × 138 × 20 mm
240 pages
67 illustrations
01 Oct 2015
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Ugliness A Cultural History Gretchen E. Henderson

‘Ugly as sin’, ‘ugly duckling’, ‘rear its ugly head’. The word ‘ugly’ is used freely, yet it is a loaded term: from the simply plain and unsightly to the repulsive and even offensive, definitions slide all over the place. Hovering around ‘feared and dreaded’, ugliness both repels and fascinates. But the concept of ugliness has a lineage that has long haunted our cultural imagination.

In this riveting book, Gretchen E. Henderson explores perceptions of ugliness through history, from ancient Roman feasts to medieval grotesque gargoyles, from Mary Shelley’s monster cobbled from corpses to the Nazi Exhibition of Degenerate Art. Covering literature, art, music and even Uglydolls, Henderson reveals how ugliness has long posed a challenge to aesthetics and taste.

Henderson digs into the muck of ugliness, moving beyond the traditional philosophic argument or mere opposition to beauty, and emerges with more than a selection of fascinating tidbits. Following ugly bodies and dismantling ugly senses across periods and continents, Ugliness: A Cultural History draws on a wealth of fields to cross cultures and times, delineating the changing map of ugliness as it charges the public imagination. Illustrated with a range of artefacts, this book offers a refreshing perspective that moves beyond the surface to ask what ‘ugly’ truly is, even as its meaning continues to shift.

Ugliness is a provocative book because, while exploring our relationship to that which we brand as ugly (or beautiful), Henderson forces us to reflect on our tastes and fears, our social conventions and our everyday notions of justice. Such a call to attention is always very useful in our prejudiced age it has become essential.’ — Alberto Manguel, Literary Review

‘enjoy Hendersons wide-ranging field of reference . . . Ugliness in Hendersons generous handling, becomes a synonym for whatever is shocking, difficult, displeasing in one moment but reveals itself as containing real value and delight in the next.’ — Guardian

‘Gretchen Hendersons cultural history of ugliness skates, at an entertainingly high speed, across large swathes of territory, cultural, historical and biological, always fascinating . . . The existence and resistance of the ugly is a reminder urgent and intense and necessary that the world does not exist for us alone.’ — TLS

‘Gretchen E. Henderson approaches her topic through an impressive number of examples, spanning disciplines, mediums, usages, geographies and chronologies and including works of fine and popular art, architecture, mythology, cultural moments, historical facts and human individuals and groups. The book offers an anecdotal survey of what people have termedugly in various contexts . . . the author manages to take the discussion of ugliness into its own territory, beyond a mere opposition to beauty. This book provides an engaging and accessible cultural history that is informative and entices the reader to see things in a different perspective.’ — History Today

‘In this wide-ranging survey, Gretchen Henderson looks at the differing perceptions of ugliness. Her exploration ranges from medieval gargoyles to Dr Frankensteins monster and from Nazi perceptions of art and jazz to brutalist architecture it asks whether ugliness is the necessary opposite of beauty and a vital component of diversity, or something more complicated aesthetically and philosophically. In her study, ugliness ebbs and flows and, thought-provokingly, it resists simple definition.’ — New Statesman

‘If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then so is ugliness. For proof, look no further than the concepts own history, most recently traced by Gretchen E. Henderson. Although there are some objectively repugnant moments until the late 20th century, cities including Chicago and Omaha had ugly laws that made it illegal for people with disabilities to appear in public any transgressions that once seemed ugly now look like progress. Among them: the 17th century Chinese painting Ten Thousand Ugly Inkblots, which resembles lauded work from Jackson Pollock, and the music once described as grunts and squeaks also known as jazz. Rather than mere binaries, Henderson writes, ugliness and beauty seem to function more like binary stars. They orbit and attract each other, and we can admire both.’ — Lily Rothman, Time Magazine

‘In her wide-ranging and frequently illuminating study, Ugliness: A Cultural History, Gretchen Henderson traces the connections between aesthetic norms and cultural anxieties, from antiquity to the present day. Beauty does more than simply seduce: it masks and perfumes, freezes moral categories in place. Ugliness with all its seams unconcealed is sometimes the closest thing to the truth.’ — The New Yorker

‘Breaking [Hendersons] lively study into sections ugly ones, ugly groups, ugly senses she touches on an impressive assortment of cultural eras in order to form a rather, well, unbecoming picture of human fears, anxieties and prejudices . . . through this well-illustrated study, she makes a terrific case for how weve regulated the borders of acceptability and mistreated whatever crosses the line.’ — Macleans Magazine

‘Reading this book makes us question our own standards for acceptable beauty, and how often our own bias towards others look mirrors our own insecurities as how we are perceived. Ugliness: A Cultural History is truly a beauty of a book.’ — Shelf Life

‘a multifarious book about ugliness, exploring the subject in its multiple forms . . . Engagingly written and copiously illustrated. Recommended.’ — Choice

‘[a] full-blown examination of deformity through history the medieval gargoyles, monsters, human-animal hybrids in so-called freak shows and the like.’ — Toronto Star

‘The scope of Hendersons work in Ugliness is far-reaching so as to parallel the reach of ugliness itself. Her engagement with ugliness is one that transcends an exploration of the obvious trajectory that, oftentimes, exclusively links ugliness with its representation in art and aesthetics. Henderson works through ugliness as it manifests itself in popular culture, politics, history, as well as art . . . Hendersons work ultimately demonstrates that ugliness is far more than an aesthetic category. Instead, ugliness operates relationally between people, things, spaces, bodies and modes of being, and that it continually negotiates different meanings and challenges its own stasis. It is ugliness, as much as beauty, that makes us human.’ — Popmatters

‘In this brief but expansive cultural history, Henderson removes ugliness from its binary relationship with beauty, probing how the term functions as a signifier of cultural boundaries and sites of transformation . . . Hendersons multidisciplinary approach to the topic makes the book a valuable resource for scholars throughout the arts and humanities . . . the book is a highly recommended addition to academic and art libraries.’ — ARLIS/NA

‘Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder or is it? [Ugliness] asks this central question and answers it in an engaging and exciting way. Accessible and amusing, you need to read it to find out whether ugliness is only a cultural or a brain construct!’ — Sander L. Gilman, Distinguished Professor of the Liberal Arts and Sciences and Professor of Psychiatry, Emory University, and author of Illness and Image and Sexuality: An Illustrated History

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Gretchen E. Henderson is Associate Director for Research at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a cultural historian, literary critic, novelist and librettist. She is the author of Galerie de difformité (2011) and The House Enters the Street (2012).

Introduction: Pretty Ugly: A Question of Culture


Ugly Ones: Uncomfortable Anomalies

Polyphemus: ‘A Monster of a Main’

Dame Ragnell: ‘She Was a Loathly One!”

A Grotesque Old Woman: ‘The Ugly Duchess’

William Hay: ‘Never Was, Nor Will Be, a Member of the Ugly Club’

Julia Pastrana: ‘The Ugliest Woman in the World’

Orlan: ‘A Beautiful Woman who is Deliberately Becoming Ugly.”

Ugly Ones: Uncomfortably Grouped


Ugly Groups: Resisting Classification

Monsters and Monstrosities: Bordering Uglies

Outcasts and Outward Signs: Signifying Uglies

Primitives and Venuses: Colonizing Uglies

Broken Faces and Degenerate Bodies: Militarizing Uglies

Ugly Laws and Ugly Dolls: Legislating Uglies

Uglies United? Commercializing Ugly Groups


Ugly Senses: Transgressing Perceived Borders

Ugly Sight: Seeing Is Believing?

Ugly Sound: Do You Hear What I Hear?

Ugly Smell: A Nose for Trouble?

Ugly Taste: Are You What You Eat?

Ugly Touch: Do You Touch?

Sixth Sense: Feeling is Believing?

Epilogue: Ugly Us: A Cultural Quest?


Acknowledgements and Photo Acknowledgements