Ugga: Ugliness and the right to exist

It is uncommon for one to think about the concept of “ugliness” as a synonym of “fearfulness”. Most likely, one associates the ugly with repulsion and disgust. When one looks at someone or something ugly, one considers it/them almost as an offense to the sight. Therefore, the ugly is unsightly, that is, it is not worthy of being seen. Nonetheless, one needs to ask; to whom is the ugly offensive? To whom is it unsightly? (…)
It is clear that a key issue to define ugliness is its surroundings, which implies that it has a lot more to do with that which is not the ugly itself. For example, when one says that the ugly is offensive to one’s eyes, there is always already a structure of morality that precedes the contact with the ugly. Offensiveness implies connotation, as opposed to denotation, as well as insertion in a given context. The offended, who are also the ones who possess the power to define ugliness, place on the ugly the weight of the responsibility of their own condition. “You should be like us, shame on you.” “If you were normal, people would not hate you.” “Tough luck.”, they say. However, the surroundings of the ugly are the ones who define not only what it means to be ugly, but also who fits into the concept of ugliness. Therefore, there are two options: either the ugly changes and ceases to be ugly or the non-ugly change when confronted with ugliness. Assuming the first option, one is not only reassuring the non-ugly that they are right but also giving them the power to define what is acceptable before the society and reinforces the ugly’s accountability for its own condition. Concerning the latter possibility, the concept of ugliness is redefined by providing the ugly and the non-ugly with a space for confrontation, where a new meaning of ugliness can be born. And why is it relevant to rethink ugliness? The answer is simple; due to its consequences on people’s lives. I would now like to focus on the etymology of the word “ugly”, that comes from the Old Norse uggligr i.e. “to be dreaded”, and from ugga “to dread” (1). This means that what/who is considered ugly is also feared. Fear is a strong emotion that provokes a reaction of fight or flight on the people who experience it and drives anti-social behaviour. Therefore, the consequences of finding someone ugly can be utterly grave. It has been established that ugliness is not a self-identifying quality, rather one defined by the ugly’s surroundings. There lies the power, in the non-ugly, who are fearful and disgusted by their counterpart. As far as they are concerned, the ugly individual is not deserving of being seen. The non-ugly fight using resources that they control, which are usually related to institutional power and pressure in social structures. Thus, ugliness relates to gender, sexuality, ability, race, class, age, health, body size, and everything that may create power dynamics that lead to prejudice and discrimination. However, “ugly” is not merely a label that one ascribes to a person. It is a whole process that conveys the said person with “notions of worth and entitlement” (On the Politics of Ugliness, pp. 2). The allegedly inferior ugly person, just by simply belonging to a certain identity group that is considered abject and fearful, always already has their life determined to a certain extent, or at least their possibilities/life choices. That being said, the perceived ugliness of a person changes the way in which they can navigate the world and experience their own existence. The power structures that proclaim someone as ugly hurt people in the sense that they limit their liberty, or at the very least, the liberty to feel as free as their non-ugly counterparts. Society, blind to the ugly, makes their lives virtually non-existent. Ultimately, finding someone ugly is like telling them they are wrong, that their very existence is wrong. The body of the ugly individual is considered a form of aggression to the sight, a trigger of pollution of the public space, the culture, the economy, of everything that exists in contemporary Western society. The lives of those who are deemed ugly are, to use Judith Butler’s words, less liveable lives, which means that their existence is not justifiable in the normative social scenario. Ugliness becomes a form of visual injustice, which is a way to discriminate by “relying on the politics of appearance and visuality to render and deny privilege, access, and resources, including power, money, work, and love.” (On the Politics of Ugliness, pp. 4). All in all, there is always a power relation rooted in hegemonic structures that make the subject of ugliness a political one. There is a separation between the worthy and the unworthy, the entitled and the ones who subjugate to them. But where are the boundaries between these dichotomic notions and how do they work and evolve?  (…) At this point, I would like to refer to Julia Kristeva “Powers of Horror: An essay on abjection” (1980). In the book, she mentions that the abject creates in the beholder two seemingly opposite feelings: that of fear, and that of desire, in the sense of fascination. When one looks at the abject, one can see themself reflected on that body, only enough to develop feelings of familiarity and affection. However, one can equally dissociate themself enough to feel uncomfortable due to the lack of knowledge that one has. Sentiments of uncanniness may arise from this situation.  (…) Furthermore, the abject position is a valuable one, and even powerful, should one think about it. If the subject that regards the abject is more inclined to the feeling of fascination, then it may be that the abject contributes for the existence of an added layer of subjectivity. On the other hand, if the subject focuses more on the dread that makes itself felt by the presence of the abject, they will react driven by fear and create laws that reinforce the “cleanliness” of the public space, aggression and assault on certain minorities, and intellectual and moral censorship. (…) All in all, UGGA is an exhibition about subjectivity, visual justice and the right to exist. It relates the ugly to their surroundings and explores the ascription of the property to bodies and places, relating it to social expectations. (…)

Mafalda Duarte Barrela

(Excerpt from UGGA’s exhibition catalogue)

Arya, R. (2014) Abjection and Representation. An Exploration of Abjection in the Visual

Arts, Film and Literature. (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan UK);

Butler, J. (2004) Precarious Life (London: Verso)

Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and Danger. (New York: Routledge Classics);

Kristeva, J. (1982) Powers of Horror. An Essay on Abjection. (New York: Columbia University Press). [Edição original (1980) Pouvoirs de l’horreur. An essai sur l’abjection. (Paris: Éditions de Seuil);

Przybylo, E. and Rodrigues, S. (ed). (2018) On the Politics of Ugliness. Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan (UK).