Karl Rosenkranz, Aesthetics of Ugliness. Translated by Andrei Pop and Mechtild Widrich. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015; 335 pages. ISBN: 978-1-47256-885-4.

Reviewed by Wes Furlotte, Dominican University College/University of Ottawa

Karl Rosenkranz’s Ästhetik des Hässlichen (1853), translated in 2015 by Andrei Pop and Mechtild Wildrich as Aesthetics of Ugliness, is now available for the first time in English. This should be an occasion for optimism because there has been almost no English commentary on it despite its unique historical and philosophical significance. The thesis at the core of Rosenkranz’s investigation is that ugliness functions as the dialectical negation of beauty. While a negative conception of the ugly is philosophically orthodox, Rosenkranz refuses the reductive gesture that often accompanies such convention. Ugliness, therefore, is not reducible to evil or material nature and so retains a distinct positivity that is entirely its own. Indeed, it is this protean positivity that the text explores at exhaustive length, ranging widely in the phenomena it considers from barren landscapes to body abjection, culminating in its original analysis of the bizarre form of caricature.

Historically considered, Aesthetics of Ugliness functions as a transitional juncture in German aesthetic theories of the nineteenth century. Looking backward, it is indebted to the works of German Romanticism that preceded it, touching on the grotesque, the uncanny, and the irrational: those opaque regions of the world and experience explored by Hoffmann, Tieck, and others. Nevertheless, it displays itself as very much of its own decade, complementing, for instance, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857). Lastly, it is anticipatory, addressing themes that would receive extensive treatment in European art and theory in the twentieth century: body abjection, absurdity, and tragi-comedy. Part of the curiosity in reading Rosenkranz is discovering what we might call a genealogy of theories of ugliness: known and obscure analysts who had also sought to establish a foothold in this “difficult province of aesthetics.” (25) It was G.E. Lessing, Rosenkranz tells us, who made a “real beginning” with his Laocoon (1766) by analyzing how the ugly and the nauseating in poetry and painting are capable of evoking emotions relating to the laughable and the terrible. (259) Similarly, as the scholars Margaret A. Rose and Dieter Kliche (2011) have shown, Friedrich Schlegel’s essay, “On the Study of Greek Poetry” (1795), can also be read as a forerunner to Rosenkranz insofar as it discusses the ugly as a moment within the development of modern art that needs to be overcome. Rosenkranz cites Christian Hermann Weisse’s System of Aesthetics as Science of the Idea of Beauty (1830) as the first study which consciously “introduced into science” the concept of ugliness as a relative moment within the idea of beauty thereby introducing dialectical method and systematic concerns to the phenomena of ugliness. (259) Nonetheless, Rosenkranz diverge with his predecessors, in particular Weisse, insisting that the latter conceives of the non-idea (Unidee) of ugliness in an overly spiritual sense, which thereby equates it with the “ghastly, evil, and the devilish.” (259) Such an unbalanced treatment, Ronsenkranz continues, had been passed on to Weisse’s followers as evidenced in Arnold Ruge’s New Primer of Aesthetics (1837), which also overemphasizes the “ghastly” dimension of ugliness while suffering from a lack of clarity and restriction of its analysis to select works by Hoffman.

These preliminary efforts, for Rosenkranz, are arbitrary and incomplete and so he writes that: “the concept of ugliness has until now been handled only in a fragmentary and incidental fashion, or else with great generality, which risks affixing the subject within very one-sided definitions.” (25) Consequently, the task concerning an aesthetic treatment of ugliness becomes comprehensiveness and systematicity. Rosenkranz aims to display the “cosmos of ugliness,” tracing its interconnected features and forms in a self-contained system thereby offering a complete account of it. (25) Just as biology concerns itself with illness, ethics with evil, legal science with injustice, so too, for Rosenkranz, aesthetics must address ugliness. Accordingly, he asks: “An aesthetics of ugliness? and why not?” (25) His approach is to determine the concept of the beautiful, which functions as the presupposition of ugliness, and then track how specific modes of beauty undergo various negations, thereby generating corresponding counter-determinations of ugliness. Rosenkranz’s system involves three sections, each opening onto the other which, when taken together, constitutes a complete systematic treatment of ugliness. It begins with sections on relatively indeterminate forms of ugliness, i.e. formlessness and incorrectness, and concludes with one that results in completely determinate forms of ugliness, i.e. deformity (disfiguration). Rosenkranz significantly extends the scope of applicability of these aesthetic categories. In contrast to Hegel, not only do various natural phenomena, for instance patches of fog, fall under the purview of ugliness but, pace Schelling and Hegel, “all the arts and all the epochs of art among the most diverse peoples” are used to clarify the developments of these concepts and this means that no culture is excluded from the realm of the aesthetic, nor are specific periods or cultures rigidly identified with a specific type of ugliness. (25) Not only does the dialectical quality of ugliness tell us something fundamental about the internal connection between it and beauty it also realigns the focus and scope of German Idealism’s aesthetic theories. Rosenkranz convincingly shows that a range of natural, intellectual, and artistic phenomena, which were once considered beneath serious philosophical reflection, now demand a systematic placement within the aesthetics of beauty. The ugly, by extension, must be situated within the parameters of whatever is to qualify as modern art. While this might seem mundane from our contemporary perspective it misses the fact that, historically considered, such a move was quite innovative. Rosenkranz’s significant realignment of German Idealism’s aesthetics alone makes the text worthy of careful consideration.

As Andrei Pop’s introduction (1–22) points out, Rosenkranz (1805–1879) studied theology and romanticism in Berlin in the 1820s under Schleiermacher, Marheineke, and Neander. (6ff) In the late 1820s he turned to an intensive study of Hegel under the suggestion of two Hegelian teachers, Carl Daub and Herman Hinrichs, who impressed him. He eventually attended some of Hegel’s lectures in Berlin meeting him prior to the latter’s death in 1831. By the early 1830s Rosenkranz had already written a dissertation on the history of German literary theory and generated a habilitation thesis on Spinoza. It was during this time that he broke with romanticism, focusing on the art of the Middle Ages. Already having a post in Halle, in 1833 Rosenkranz was appointed to Kant’s chair in philosophy in the remoteness of Königsberg. The “youngest and most historical” of the Hegelians, he wrote a biography on Hegel focusing on the relationship between the master’s life and system. (9) Although Aesthetics of Ugliness was published in 1853 Rosenkranz was steadfastly preparing for it as early as 1837, having begun a collection of caricatures which were to prove crucial to the position advanced in the final manuscript which was written relatively quickly in 1852. (9–10) It was likely during this period of fermentation that Rosenkranz’s thinking started to diverge with Hegel’s on key issues in the domain of aesthetics. Indeed, the 1835 publication of Hegel’s Aesthetics, as edited by H.G. Hotho, may have been a critical factor in the genesis of Rosenkranz’s Aesthetics of Ugliness. (Rose 2011: 231) Consequently, considering what the former has to say about artistic representations of ugliness, evil, and caricature may offer a sense of some of Rosenkranz’s uniquely divergent views and so motivations for writing his monograph. First, Hegel’s Aesthetics as edited by Hotho offers no extensive treatment of ugliness. Consulting its Index reveals sparse mention of the ugly, in more than twelve hundred pages of text, let alone anything resembling a systematic critique and placement of it.

Second, Hegel’s analysis, as construed by Hotho, is ambivalent as to the aesthetic merit of artworks depicting evil and other “repugnant” moral phenomena. On the one hand, Hegel maintains that depictions of moral crudity are crucial to artistic representations of key motifs of Christian dogma as in, for example, the passion narrative. In the artistic representation of the crucifixion, Hegel tells us, the “inner evil” of the “enemies of Christ” demands “on the external side, ugliness, crudity, barbarity, rage…distortion of their outward appearance.” (Eco 2007: 54) On the other hand, elsewhere in the analysis Hegel seems to want to entirely eliminate moral “crudity” from the domain of aesthetic value. He writes: “evil as such, envy, cowardice, and baseness are and remain purely repugnant…the devil in himself is a bad figure, aesthetically impracticable; for he is nothing but the father of lies and therefore an extremely prosaic person.” (Hegel 1975: 222) Hegel’s ambivalence towards the aesthetic merits of depictions of moral crudity and ugliness in art seems odd and becomes even more so when considered against even a cursory glance at the history of European art: the carnage of Homer, the subaltern of Bosch, the darkness of Novalis, there is no shortage of “envy, cowardice, and baseness” in its creative catalogue. Nevertheless, the qualification “in himself” in the above quote suggests that Hegel is attempting to marginalize works focusing exclusively on “baseness,” independent of broader contextualization that would presumably reveal such content as only a moment within a larger whole and so eliminate it as the source of a given work’s aesthetic value. Despite this ambivalence, Hegel does appear to maintain that works that focus excessively on repulsive content such as evil are “aesthetically impracticable” and so devoid of aesthetic merit.

While this might seem like a pedantic consideration of esoteric nuance within Hegel’s position the truth of the matter is that it helps to bring into focus Rosenkranz’s unique position. Rosenkranz first diverges with Hegel in terms of form maintaining that if an artist brings the ethically ugly, i.e. evil, into “visibility perfectly” then it cannot remain “purely repugnant” or devoid of aesthetic merit on account of the “perfection” involved in its rendering. (214) Although there is no extensive argument for this claim, it is a key idealist tenant at the foundation of Rosenkranz’s position, distancing him somewhat from Hegel, maintaining that ugliness is of aesthetic value when correctly rendered. Rosenkranz then argues in terms of content or what we might call an aesthetics of realism. In fidelity to the imperfections of the material-social worlds it is the responsibility of the artist to produce works that “mirror” those worlds and not only works that offer “moral exhibitions” to the audience. (215) He rhetorically asks: “the representation of the bad…can it not be aesthetically interesting?” (215) The answer, for Rosenkranz, is “yes” and so he would seem to advance the more radical position in that he denies that art must restrict its focus on the basis of morality and instead argues that a commitment to realism entails the artistic representation of the repugnant. Moreover, such realistic works can have aesthetic function and value despite their crudeness of content. Not only does this move challenge our inherited image of Rosenkranz as Hegel’s conservative and conformist apostle, it also further reflects his commitment to broaden and realign German idealism’s aesthetic theory, and so too the parameters of what might qualify as art, in terms of the issue of ugliness which it had traditionally elided.

Third, Hotho’s Hegel identifies the category of ugliness with caricature in a way that violates the dialectical relation Rosenkranz’s analysis establishes between these categories. For Hegel, artworks involving caricature have to do with the “unnatural” repetition of a characteristic which results in distortion. (Hegel 1975: 18–19) Caricature’s “unnatural distortion,” ultimately, is “characterizing of the ugly.” (Hegel 1975: 19) Rosenkranz argues, by contrast, that it is through caricature’s distortion of a characteristic in a way that is nonetheless true to the subject depicted that ugliness undergoes negation. Rosenkranz, therefore, insists on a subtle difference between the two categories instead of Hegel’s reductive identity of them. The negation undergone by ugliness in caricature, as per dialectical method, reintroduces the ideal of the beautiful and this dissolution functions as the source of “endless mirth,” “smiling and laughter.” (33) Caricature functions as the determinate negation of ugliness and is crucial to Rosenkranz’s orientation of the dialectical process that transpires between beauty and ugliness and so his fundamental difference with Hegel in this regard. Caricature can be read, consequently, as radically emancipatory. (Rose 2011: 237ff.) This move does justice to the satirical and political dimensions of effective caricature which, for Rosenkranz, establishes ugliness as empty in the face of the ideal of beauty which it reaffirms. The subtle interconnection Rosenkranz forges between these categories further substantiates his distinct contribution to aesthetic theory and so his continued relevance for careful reflection on these themes.

Despite the intrinsic merits of Aesthetics of Ugliness there are fundamental problems that permeate the investigation. While not irregular for nineteenth century Europe, instances of racism justifiably warrant the reader’s contempt. Concerning the Sans people, on the receiving end of Dutch imperialistic aggression, Rosenkranz writes: “a bushman…whose head is big, whose thigh is thin, whose legs are almost fleshless, wanders already into the apelike mode and thus becomes a caricature of the human form.” (119) While refusing to justify such crudity, Pop’s introductory essay instead contextualizes, correctly noting that such remarks need to be understood to reveal more about Rosenkranz than the subject of such judgments. (Pop 2015: 16–17) This is because, according to the very model Rosenkranz espouses, judgments of ugliness are not just formal but depend upon a socially-historically conditioned standard of beauty that the viewer brings to the phenomenon in question. Therefore, such an assessment of the Sans people can only make sense when framed in light of the ideal of beauty that Rosenkranz’s judgment entails, thereby implicating the problematic nature of his criteria more than any intrinsic deficiency resident within its target.

Similarly, Rosenkranz’s analysis of Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus (1818), written by, as Rosenkranz has it, “Shelley’s wife,” i.e. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, reveals a weak misogyny that also repulses. “Shelley’s wife” prompts the question as to what, if anything, her status as “wife” has to do with the structure and content of the narrative and so its problematic status. Rosenkranz’s patronizing endorsement of Shelley’s novel further instantiates this problem. He writes that: “this confused, femininely overinflated composition has some boldness and depth that makes it attractive.” (211) Rosenkranz goes on to explain, in laboured Hegelian prose, that it is the isolated artificial life that human technology constructs, attempting to rival “the wondrous act of the Creator,” which constitutes that life’s inherent monstrosity. (211) While the upshot of his point remains valid though pedestrian, the patronizing tone which undergirds it has long warranted the contempt of critical reflection and has left women (and others) to roll their eyes while carefully noting the praxis of ignorant sincerity it betrays.

Despite these real shortcomings Aesthetics of Ugliness nevertheless demands a critical examination of the criteria of beauty, and practices surrounding it, as deployed in modern art and German Idealism’s aesthetic theories, in terms of what it had traditionally excluded. It invites questions as to who was excluded, why, and how. Therefore, it makes possible a critical examination of the complex socio-historical processes (economic, political, artistic and philosophical) that were crucial to the exclusion of precise dimensions of the natural and social worlds from so-called serious philosophical reflection as it unfolds within the context of German Idealism’s aesthetics. Anticipating Adorno and Benjamin, it fundamentally concerns itself with the pressing issue of marginalization. This radical gesture, though under-recognized, resides at the core of Rosenkranz’s text and insofar as it might illuminate the history and complex processes involved in the violence of the marginal it remains a valuable resource.


Additional Works Cited

Eco, Umberto (2007), On Ugliness (tr.) Alastair McEwen (Milan: Rizzoli).

Hegel, G.W.F. (1975), Hegel’s Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, vol. 1 (tr.) T.M. Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Rose, Margaret A. (2011), “Rosenkranz and “The Aesthetics of the Ugly,”” in Politics, Religion, and Art: Hegelian Debates, ed. Douglas Moggach (Evanston: Northwestern University Press), pp. 231–253.