Athenaeum Library Art History Lectures

Art History Lectures

The Beautiful and the Ugly: Who Judges, Who Cares?

Beautiful Things and Just Ugly

Presented by Derrick Cartwright


Tuesdays, April 3 & 10, 2018 

All lectures begin at 7:30PM


The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.

                                                                          —Pablo Picasso


This pair of lectures explores a set of judgments about Beauty and Ugliness. Unlike assessments of Good and Bad, which have distinct instrumental associations, the beautiful and the ugly operate on a different level. Since antiquity these terms have been used to describe, and deride, various forms of artistic labor. But, what does it mean to identify a work of art as “beautiful” and, by contrast, how does conferring the label ugly on any object carry different meaning. Philosophers of aesthetics have debated these ideas, but recently art historians and critics have become preoccupied with them too. One thing seems sure: when it comes to art of our own time, the place of the beautiful and the ugly in contemporary practice has yet to be fully charted.


In the first lecture, titled “Beautiful Things,” Cartwright reviews pertinent philosophical and historical arguments. He will also examine specific works of art that have been, by consensus or by individual decree, called beautiful. He will then ask, “Are these timeless designations?” Other questions proliferate from this point: “Was the beauty of a still life or portrait by Paul Cezanne always self-evident?” “Who gets to decide whether a nocturne by James Abbott McNeill Whistler is sincere—or not?” “Is beauty a function of artistic ability, or of community taste?” In posing these questions, the assumption that beauty naturally corresponds with the faithful representation of observed reality will be tested, as will a set of fixed notions about the nature of idealization within Western art historical traditions.


In the second lecture, “Just Ugly,” our somewhat eccentric survey continues, but with an emphasis on what is at stake when something is judged to be much-less-than-beautiful. We will complicate the supposed opposition of “beauty” and “ugliness” by looking at the long history of works that viewers have found troubling and difficult to behold, with an eye toward identifying their potential merits. “Is ugliness fleeting?” we might wonder. This lecture will wrap up by considering why some contemporary work that is thought to be without redeeming value by self-appointed critics may have profound, historical value. Stressing types and versions of the ugly, rather than collapsing their differences into a blanket rejection, may help us understand the utility and even the “justice” of nonbeautiful representations in our midst.


A bibliography will be available for interested attendees at each lecture. Derrick Cartwright is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of San Diego, where he is also Director of University Galleries.


Joan and Irwin Jacobs Music Room

Athenaeum Music & Arts Library

1008 Wall Street

La Jolla, CA 92037



Series tickets: $24 for members / $34 for nonmembers

Individual tickets: $14 for members / $19 for nonmembers




Online tickets are subject to ticketing fees.