Ugly truths

Feb 14, 2001 at 12:00 am

Things that are ugly are more interesting than things that are not ugly.

Not all of them, of course. Some ugly things are just that. Ugly.

But there’s this other kind of ugly. It happens whenever our way of seeing a particular thing — a body part, a consumer item, a piece of real estate, an idea — may be about to change. It’s a cultural “out of order” sign, an indicator of new construction on the way.

This kind of ugly turns answers back into questions.

Take shoes, for example, especially women’s shoes. Nobody needs to wear ugly shoes now. There is a limitless supply of the other kind — chic, stylish, in every size and color. Shoes that would break your heart, or else address themselves to some other organ, depending on your susceptibility to high heels — from expensive handmade shoes, the leather pleadingly soft, to cheap, synthetic knockoffs at Target. Heels to flats to boots. Plenty of shoes. Plenty of shoe ideas.

So why does anybody wear Dr. Martens and other shoes like them? How did those ugly clodhoppers and their various plug-ugly offspring get to be hip? With soles thick as slabs (black, of course), and uppers as glum as an asphalt spill, this footwear looks more like an orthopedic appliance or instrument of torture than anything to be confused with style (let alone erotic). They’re shoes so adamantly unsightly they positively shriek.

Or there’s body piercing, which is to the skin what ugly shoes are to the foot and leg. When somebody pokes a hole in their face and sticks a rivet through it, that is ugly. It’s the opposite of the “paint” my great-aunt Minnie had in mind when she’d talk about “fixing her face.”

Piercing is a way to fix things, just like putting on makeup, except it’s adamantly not makeup, just like it’s adamantly not “beautiful.”

And that’s the point, culturally speaking. Ugly makes you have to think about what you see or want to see. Ugly is where desire confronts itself objectively, by being refused, which is what makes things interesting.

I wonder why I don’t like seeing a safety pin through a nostril? Why do platform boots make me want to watch TV instead? Interesting questions, where no questions existed at all. Until ugly happened.

Ugly is a means, not an end, at least the kind of ugly I’m talking about here. Which is not the only kind for sure.

There are all sorts of stupid, dead-end ugly. Hate groups, for instance, are ugly and stupid in just this way, as is Jerry Springer’s show, or some of Eminem’s lyrics. Or the Pontiac Aztek. Ugly going nowhere.

A lot of nostalgia is stupid-ugly too. Take aqua. Ugly then, ugly now. Or the faux-’50s nerd glasses that got popular again a few years ago, except this time around they cost a lot of money. No reason to bring that stuff back except ugliness. And that’s no reason at all. Not in itself.

Even so, the fact that ugliness overtakes a site — an ugly idea, an ugly car, an ugly color — is evidence that there’s work to be done. It’s a sign of things being out of order culturally, like I said. Skinheads are hatefully ugly, for instance, but they wouldn’t be here except for a fundamental design fault in the culture that brings us together and then keeps us apart. Nothing comes from nowhere, ugliness least of all. But this is obvious. The point is that things don’t have to go on being ugly.

For instance, the VW bug — the real one, not the retro copy, which is just a cute, overpriced one-liner. The bug was so eloquently ugly it made people think differently about the design of things. Not just cars, but the way we imagined cars and value and the brainless, overchromed vehicles we’d been taught to expect to desire.

Ugly made something better seem believable — maybe not better for Detroit, but better for us as a whole. Maybe nipple rivets are like that, and Frankenstein shoes, which are the uglified counterarguments to do-me heels and cosmetic boob jobs.

Ugly raises questions about what we ought to want to see and do with ourselves, and each other. Ugly makes you stop and think in a way that beauty never does. Ugly is the Apple iMac, especially the original almost-aqua, doofus-blue model. Who wants to see inside a computer, especially one that color? It’s ugly.

As things turned out, lots of people wanted a look. Not as an end in itself, though.

“Think different,” the Apple slogan advises. And that’s what happened. People did. The iMac gave rise to the cool, neo-modernist elegance of the G4 cube.

Things didn’t stop there either. Consumers got interested in all the stuff that sits on our desks, as if the design of mundane things (from nostrils to ideas to printers) is something we ought to think about. As if unconscious acceptance is a kind of passive ugliness.

Which is the point of all those comeback “designer” goods from the ’50s to the ’70s, things that got sold to thrift shops back when we realized how ugly they were.

Not that they’re better now. But their retro-ugliness provides souvenirs of an insight — about design and intention — and how the world we live in is not automatic, but one we choose to see. Or not.

It’s impossible to talk about ugly, and choice, and not talk about cities, which is where most Americans, statistically speaking, choose no longer to live — although we lived there once, and not too long ago, before things got ugly.

But that’s when we blew it. Just moved out of town. Bought something new. Missed the point.

Take Detroit, for example. It’s hard to look at. But impossible to turn away from. People have all sorts of designs — now — on the ugliness revealed here. It’s the most American place in this country. So ugly it makes you wonder. I might be wrong about this. But I don’t think so.

Jerry Herron confronts the good, the bad and the ugly for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]