Loving Ugly: An Introduction

| 3 min

Seeking liberation from the tyranny of “taste” (while being just as trapped as everyone else).


Long has it been true that taste descends from power, and the powerful - after writing the rules and tilting the field - accumulate now-and-henceforth-tasteful work to further increase their wealth.

Those who identify as “artists” are left with a troubling conundrum. Survival under capitalism requires that they also accumulate money.

Artists fight each other for the right to create tasteful work for the elite, which requires at least two of the following: 1) luck, 2) familial connections, 3) generational wealth, and 4) lots of student loan debt. Or, lacking those, they can toil away at their practice, in a major urban hub, trying (trying, trying again) and failing to be one of the few left in a game full of cheaters where the winners take all.

Artists that try and fail, or that have intermittent success, can engage with the system in other roles. Tastemakers, gatekeepers, dreamweavers, sharks. They fight for the leftover scraps, and feed on one another.

Some - the brave ones - just give up.

The only way forward is to love ugly. Not because things are truly ugly, but out of a recognition that our taste has been trained. Trained in schools after we recited the National Anthem, hands on our hearts. Trained in dark classrooms, modernist paintings putting us to sleep. Trained through competition, and expectations, and all our little games.

Loving ugly is not hating beauty. Loving ugly is an openness to the new, to the strange and alien. To what we fear, and to what we secretly love.

What “ugly” looks like depends on where you are. In a college radio station, it’s my friend Cam admitting how much he likes Drake. In a New York gallery, it’s admiring a discarded draft. At home, it is (actually) loving a niece’s latest crayon piece.

I’ll caution you: in the art world, loving ugly - the right ugly, soon to be declared beautiful - can be currency. (Yes, I really did see them before they got big. Oh yes, I met them at a party a few years ago in LA.) Tastemakers love “discovering” outsider art and music, wacko zines and “untrained” “savants.” But the goal, here, is not to be “hip.” We seek liberation - at least, what little is available to us. (When we love ugly, no one need know.)

Yes. Most of our “taste” comes from domination, from supremacy, from extraction - from “patronage.” Remove them, and what will we find?


In a liberated world, there are no professional artists.
The boundaries between art and life are blurry at best.
Art is equally in everything:
the ringing of a bell,
the sweeping of the floor,
the building of a home,
the arrangement of a dish,
the planning of a date,
the clipping of a toenail,
the painting on a wall.
The kindness of a friend.

In a liberated world, art cannot be “bad,” only different.
Liking and not-liking have no point.
Pieces, when recognized as such, are not “improved,”
but only touched, and changed.
And then they are different,
in a way that is pleasing for some,
and less pleasing for others.

Do we have our own, inherent sensibilities?
Of course.

Will “talent,” as we understand it, be unevenly distributed?

But remember:
art is in everything.

Each of us
has our own stories to tell,
in our own way,
and the space
and time
to do so.

In a liberated world,
everyone is an artist.

And no one is.


Yes, yes, okay whatever Nathan. But in the real world, there are many artists, tastemakers, teachers, art lovers. Liberation is quite far away, it feels. Where do we start?


We start,
I say,
by loving ugly,
in ways big
and small.

We start by loving each other.
By loving each other’s work.
We start by loving ourselves.
And most challenging,
most tenderly,
the ever-disappointing work
of our own hands.

But the wildest thing,
the craziest thing,
is that

Loving ugly
seeing beauty -
ugly beauty,

It is allllllllllll around us.

Give it a touch,
a touch of love -
and let’s see

how far we can go.


I wrote a response to this piece here.

Three painted rectangles denoting the end of a path.