Loving Ugly: Origins and Limitations

| 12 min

“No reflection without art - no art without reflection.” - Seismograf

“No art without reflection without art without reflection.” - me

Assorted reflections on my own piece, “Loving Ugly.”


1. Origins

I’ve been thinking about art for a long time. I know I’m not unique in that, but - I just have not been able to kick this feeling that something is really, really wrong. Is it capitalism? Yes. Colonialism? Absolutely. Supremacism? Of course. But none of these isms fully address my unease. I mean, wtf even is art?1 What is it for? Why is it a thing? (Why do I care?)

So, largely in private, for years I have continued to wrestle with these annoying questions, addicted to the puzzle, a bad habit, like what I imagine it’s like for people who chew their nails or watch One Piece.

Recently, I remembered that I have actually written publicly about art before, in a General Manager’s letter included in the Spring 2017 edition of college radio station WRFL’s zine, the RiFLe. At the time, in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election, I was preoccupied with “political” art, and its failures:

Many of us think about art as an object, a process, a performance. Others think of art as craft or decoration. […] But it is clear that even the most political objects and performances usually have little or no impact on the system, and sometimes even further the aims of the ruling class.

I quoted Hito Steyerl, who I was into of course:

“Contemporary art feeds on the crumbs of a massive and wide spread redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, conducted by means of an ongoing class struggle from above. It gives primordial accumulation a whiff of post-conceptual razzmatazz.”

…and Jonas Staal, too, who I had run into while researching micronations (a minor preoccupation of mine at the time):

[Staal] concurs, arguing that contemporary culture has “fallen prey to demagogues and populists, who utilize the spineless landscape of capitalist democracy and its art as an open field for ideas.” Today’s art is…too quickly absorbed by the capitalist machine and sold to the highest bidder.

I was coming to terms with the fact that the monetary value placed on art in the centuries-old, Western-led “art world”2 comes from a market, from speculation, and it always has. At the lower price points, art objects compete with mass-produced home-goods, and rarely recuperate the real labor cost by the artist. In the art market proper, art objects serve as investments. To destroy the idea of art as an investment, we must abolish both the idea of investment and of art.

Even though I was skeptical of art at the time, and political art in particular, I still believed that, somehow, a collective political art was possible that could succeed in “changing the world”:

Staal calls for a fundamental change in artmaking: “We are in need of a proactive politics and a proactive art, which are to serve a truly ideological project.” I believe the art he speaks of, political art which seeks to imagine a new world, is well within our reach, but only if we do it together.

To think a single artist can change the world is a fantasy…In truth, none of us can do this alone. It is up to all of us, not just artists, to try and conceive of what this art might look like and to support each other, working together as we explore.

We need art that initiates real, tangible change: art which would have its origins in collective action.

It’s a little cute, looking back. I’m giving my past self a little pat on the head - “soon you’ll learn…” - but at the same time, I can see in these words the seeds of my present thinking.

By this time, I’ve already discarded the idea of genius. I’ve started, with the help of mentor Ben Allen, to recognize that everyone has their own genius within them, and through art history courses at the time with Anna Bryszki, to understand that we are part of a dense, interconnected system, constantly influencing one another. No one’s genius is solely their own.

You can also see the early tendrils of Loving Ugly’s liberatory aesthetics:

This art is open, DIY, “organic,”3 and social, reaching out - and not just through the echo chambers of social media.4 It leaves the glamour of galleries and concert halls behind, even transcending the reactive qualities of zines, house shows, and punk bands (though they may be elements of it).

And although I do not presently place much hope in collective political art, specifically, as I did then, I do still (naively, it feels at times) believe in conventional collective political power, broadly speaking. With some minor modifications, in brackets below, I still stand by the letter’s closing words:

As difficult as it is to imagine a world different from the world one in which we currently reside - or a truth which we do not already know - I still believe that [we]5 can, indeed change things. It is only through the process of experimenting with collective, ideological [action],6 and through the failure of these acts, that we may be able to someday construct something different and achieve radical change for our7 land.

In the following years, the question of what art can or should do was still at my heels. I wrote in a now-defunct blog in early 2019:

[…] in a world that cares only for appearances, rather than realities, [can] sound contribute to an authentic revolution, or is it forever to be a tool, unable to focus, its meaning lost in ambiguity?

Making apolitical ambient music at the time, I was dismayed at how little it had to say - politically, at least:

The reality is, sound does not speak. My sound says the same thing to both Antifa and Neonazis, and everyone in between: be calm, everything is everything, it’s going to be alright. In this Twitter-ridden world where every word has an impact, my music was hardly saying anything at all.

I still had not let go of the idea, absorbed in the academy, that art must be political - an idea that was less about political change and more about “taste” at the university and in NYC under the Trump administration. I latched on to the theory that music could be something more:

The ideas of G Douglas Barrett’s After Sound gave form to those that had been bouncing around in my head. In the book, Barrett envisions a critical musical practice unencumbered by the absolute music tradition, expanding far beyond the limits of sound. By re-embracing the premodern musical concept of logos in art and experimental music, I can create meaning within my work. Even more importantly, where I critique the medium of sound itself, I can incorporate contemporary strategies such as conceptualism and social practice to engage a far wider variety of political, cultural, and aesthetic subjects. 

The difference in approach advocated by Barrett can be summed up in a new definition of composition, not tied to the page, but to the entirety of the work, and beyond. Music can “become untethered from sound as an autonomous medium” and even leave sound behind in order to prioritize “the wider methodological scope necessary to formulate music as a critical art practice.” These ideas refigure music as a “critically engaged art form in which sound appears as one resource among many.”

This shift in thinking can be seen in my work itself, both in music and in activism. I shifted from the electric drones of That Sacred, Electric Sound to the cold programatic fury of FM 3-24 MCWP 3-33.5, and from a focus of “changing the world” through nonprofit work to a focus on activism.

After my first forays into serious activism and political music, however, art started to separate from my politics. I released non-political ambient music, and let it have its own purpose. And the ideas found in “Loving Ugly” truly began to take shape.

So, there’s my journey. But the journey is not done. Just because I wrote a blog post doesn’t mean I completely believe in it! I mean, if I had to go into poetic form to get it out, can it really hold muster? I just wanted to get it out there, and now we can play with it.

There are plenty of things about this theory that don’t quite work…

2. Limitations

Here are some problems I can think of. I am sure there are more.

Loving ugly is impossible

We all stuck in our own brains, our own lives - our own taste. Despite my best efforts cultivate an open, liberated mind, I still often judge work harshly, and still have favorites; I still think that some art is good, and some art sucks. I still want to be seen as cool, sometimes, to be seen as higher on the social ladder, and to make friends with similar taste that affirm my sense of superiority.

Loving ugly does not help artists

While I have supported and will continue to support artists as described in the WAGE Wo/manifesto and elsewhere, I do believe that focusing on artist compensation in today’s world, without systemic change8, is a Sisyphean task, overlooking the core issues at play. Such efforts, as much as I love them, have limited effect on our winners-take-all world.

That said, “loving ugly” is not about systemic change either. It is just an idea, a thought experiment. It is not compatible with the labor movement, or with professional artistry, and only indirectly part of any political movement. It is not for the “now,” and although I can hold both the contradictory needs of the now and the future, I would not want to overstate its effectiveness. It cannot bring itself into being.

Art people aren’t evil

The people I demean in Loving Ugly are my friends. I do not dislike them! I dislike the system they are swimming in..there is not enough food in their tank. There aren’t even enough sharks for all the little passengers to mooch off of.

The world is ugly enough already

Some say that 90% of things are crap. I say it all is. We think we’re better than other people. Really, we’re all pretty average. (There is a a lot of art out there you haven’t seen.)

But actually, in my view, by loving ugly we are not doing away with the idea of beauty9, but remembering what anyone who goes to a museum is reminded of: art is in the eye of the beholder. You don’t always agree with curators and critics, so why is their taste elevated above yours?

All of us see beauty in different places, and in different ways. We can let all those little differences, the natural aesthetic likes and dislikes, just sit there untouched, without emphasis and without hierarchy - they aren’t worth worrying about - and celebrate that we all see beauty. Anywhere you look is beautiful to someone. And as soon as anyone says something is art, it is. What we have to do now is teach each other how to love the things we see as beautiful that others see as ugly.

Is art even a “thing” anymore?

I believe that there can be art in anything done with purpose and focus. In that way, art is knowing, art is understanding, art is being, art is breathing. The art of sweeping a floor, or shuffling a deck, or smiling at a stranger. Artistry resides in all of us. It is lived as much as it is made. This is cheesy, and totally overwrought…but still, I believe it. I have to.

(Historical preservation still has a role. But it, too, must change. An essay for another time, or another person.)

There will be no more “progress”

Loving ugly also means letting go of the over-importance of originality. And I think that is okay.

Folks following knitting patterns know what I’m talking about. And artists who are famous know that there are hidden patterns within artmaking, even at the highest levels. There are moments of novelty and originality, yes, but often, the art world chooses the winners and then pretends that they came up with things out of nowhere, all on their own, and as if there were not already patterns of some sort that they were using.

The art world sucks, but I love New York

How do we balance doing “art” for no reason with doing it for other people and doing it to feel good and doing it to be interesting and doing it to make a difference and doing it to earn a living and doing it to earn recognition and doing it to become famous and doing it to feel fulfilled? We can’t. We have to let go.

Cities, as nodes, form a center of “care” for artists - a place that provides a larger number of opportunities for them. This can be really fun, even if you are competing against your friends and lovers for table scraps and have to survive outside institutions. Loving ugly would do away with this - both the “hard” and the “fun” of places like New York.

The impact would not be limited to cities themselves. Rural communities also “rent” artists. Such rentals always create underwhelming experiences, as the real benefits of art come through prolonged contact, relationships within the community, and integration of local thought and action. People think the fix is more professional artists, but the real fix is loving ugly: allowing everyone to be an artist, in whatever way feels right to them.

Loving ugly isn’t actionable

Well, it is for the individual, as a practice. But how might it manifest collectively? Abundant arts education, detached from art history? Free improv music classes for the untrained? Finger paints for adults. Noncompetitive art spaces of all kinds. Prohibitions against sale - only trades. Organized resistance to the art world, and any attempt to eat “loving ugly” up. Let’s go wild.

Three painted rectangles denoting the end of a path.

  1. Defining what art is is a futile effort in general. Endeavoring to exclude something from falling under the definition of art comes from competition, to further one’s own position by the denigration of another. ↩︎

  2. Kendell Geers: “There is no such thing as an art world. There are many art worlds overlapping, and it has become a bad habit to imagine that the exclusive club of auction houses and investment art is anything but the folk art of a small but powerful economic and social elite club.” ↩︎

  3. I appreciate that my past self decided to put this term in scare quotes, since it is close to meaningless tbh. ↩︎

  4. My departure from Facebook and Instagram was always going to happen. ↩︎

  5. I have replaced the word “art” with the word “we.” ↩︎

  6. This used to read “art (action)”. ↩︎

  7. I now have a deeper understanding of the fact that this is not “our” land. And land is not something to be ignored: look at “artwashing” and “creative placemaking” - those owning land control what is “tasteful” and use art to justify their landgrabs and greed. ↩︎

  8. I don’t always believe a liberated world is possible. But I was formed by this one. Most of the time, I can barely see beyond my own nose. Octavia wrote that “the only lasting trust is change,” and it is up to us to shape it. ↩︎

  9. Beauty exists whether we see it or not. (Yes, the tree makes a sound.) ↩︎