Saturday 19 January 2008

Ugliness in context

There are no absolutes. Meaning comes from context - and ugliness is no exception.

This idea that there is no meaning without context is my current framework. Or I could say there is no information without context. I hope to write more about this later, but for the moment, a word about ugliness and Margate, among other things.

Jenny Diski reviews Umberto Eco's book 'On Ugliness' in the current London Review of Books. Part of the thesis - I'm not sure whether this is Eco's or just Diski's - is that ugliness is a much more complex concept than beauty. I'm not convinced that beauty is as simple and uncontroversial as she makes out. I think it helps to remember that both only have any meaning within a context - a context that includes the physical setting, the time (which could mean morning or evening, spring or autumn, 19th or 20th century), state of mind of the beholder... any number of things.

So to Margate. In today's Independent we read that Bob Geldorf is in trouble for calling Margate ugly. As it happens, I visited Margate last year, and walking along the beach I looked back at the promenade with its backdrop of guesthouses and amusment arcades, and I thought it looked rather fine. (I hestitate to call it beautiful. Hmm, not sure what I would use the word beautiful for.) My reaction was that it was seriously marred by a single monstrous* block of flats near the station. What stupidity of the planning authority to allow that. Aside from the flats, there is no way I would call it ugly. But, I'm quite sure I bring to that judgement a whole raft of background issues. Like the fact that I spent a lot of my childhood at Blackpool, that I've always liked the seaside, that I have a fondness for the amateur, that there's a bit of the inverted snob within me... We all know that our opinions of what's ugly and what's beautiful can change. Both for us as individuals and the opinions of society. Who would have thought twenty years ago that there would be concerns over the need to preserve gasometers?

* 'Monstrous' is the perfect word of course, because of Prince Charles' famous 'monstrous carbuncle' quote. There you are, more context.

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