Jonathan Johnson: Aesthetics, Ugliness and East Asian Art

The concept of ugliness has understandably received less attention than the more attractive notion of beauty. In fact, beauty has traditionally been the aim and aspiration of aesthetic practice in the arts, and the chief object of interest in aesthetic philosophy. But there has been a recent revival of interest in the topic of ugliness, and research on the experience and meaning of ugliness is growing.

In analytical aesthetic philosophy, the discourse has centered largely around what we mean when we describe something as ugly. This is a pursuit of ugliness’ definition, and its meaning as a term. For historical reasons, Immanuel Kant’s scant comments on ugliness, disgust, and sublimity have factored large in this discussion, alongside cognitive concerns. On the other hand, in more hermeneutical, and phenomenological aesthetic philosophies, the discourse has focused on historical examples of ugliness in the arts and culture. This is a pursuit of ugliness’ significance, and its meaning in our experience. In this stream of discourse, attention has focused on collating instances of ugliness and uncovering its subjective vagaries.

But what of ugliness in contexts outside of the Anglophone or European sphere? Might our conception of ugliness be enriched, or perhaps rewritten, by exposure to other cultural perspectives? Whichever of the two streams of philosophic discourse are used, surely philosophies from ‘outside’ might bring clarity, or at least novelty. Furthermore, what of the artistic and aesthetic practices of other cultures? Might these supply new examples of what it means to be beautiful and ugly?

Jonathan Johnson, an artist and aesthetic philosopher living in Hong Kong is pursuing answers to these questions. With an eye towards East Asian art practices and Chinese aesthetic philosophies, Jonathan’s art and writing seek to describe our universal experience of ugliness as enriched by intercultural aesthetics. 

Excerpts from Transcript:

Interviewer: Jonathan Farrell (J.F)

Interviewee: Dr. Jonathan Johnson (J.J)

J.F: What is it about the aesthetics of ugliness that interests you as an artist?

J.J: The aesthetics of ugliness has been somewhat neglected, when compared to beauty. Despite ugliness being a rather vague concept, everyone knows instinctually what ugliness is, and everyone has the experience of ugliness – it is inescapable! Although it is an elusive idea, conceptually, the phenomenon of ugliness is powerful and can be moving.

Some of my own work as an artist has been done in the realm of illustration, where ugliness is often part of the picture – as in some of my work in entomology or medical pieces. Where someone might shy away from doing a intestines or trachea, locusts or beetles, I find a lot of satisfaction in finding the beauty in an ugly object or depicting the ugly beautifully. In my more aspirational pieces, I incorporate elements of everyday ugliness, whether at a conceptual level or in the form of the way the art is done. I believe negative aesthetic experiences to be an essential ingredient in the general tragedy of life. In a way, a reconciliation to ugliness is a commitment to realism, whether in ‘difficult beauties’ or challenging encounters.

Cover illustration, “Toad”, for Sur La Ladeur: Actes du symposium On Ugliness, ed. Bertrand Naivin, Paris: Editions Complicite, 2018.

J.F: You completed your PhD in Aesthetics at Hong Kong Baptist University, where you now teach. How has your understanding of ugliness changed and evolved as a result of being in an Asian context?

J.J: I’ve lived in Asia for well over a decade now, and it has been a wonderfully enriching experience. Encountering East Asian aesthetics has allowed me to realize not only how complex the history of art and aesthetics is, but how historically framed concepts, like ugliness, can be informed by global contexts. I continue to research and be inspired by East Asian ideas, and artforms, such as scholar stones, potted landscapes, bonsai, and the unusual formal qualities of these. Some of these objects and forms, which might be call ugly, grotesque, weird or strange from one perspective are prized as beautiful and deeply significant here in Asia. Yet amid the real aesthetic diversity, I have been encouraged to also find a common humanity in the arts and universality in aesthetic principles. Though ugliness is diminished or denied existence in some western discourse, at a primal level it exists, and intercultural explorations bear this out.

J.F: How has your exploration into East-Asian art forms and practices impacted on your own work as an illustrator and artist?

J.J: Before exploring aesthetic philosophy, my basic studio art training exposed me to the formal and the abstract qualities of artworks and aesthetic experiences. Classic East Asian art forms, in my opinion, forefront an appreciation of the abstract elements and pure forms, and I have tried to develop my artwork to simplify it in this way, even if my former self might’ve seen it as ‘unfinished.’ And though at some level the unfinished or ugly bits remain, I find myself (and hopefully others) seeing the beauty in the relation of these forms to the gestalt, the whole.

Being in Asia has also taught me to tackle themes that are much more challenging, complex or we might say, ugly, in terms of content as well. Currently I am working on a mixed media piece which is using a butcher block to illustrate a scene from Zhuangzi’s writings – the famous ‘Butcher Ding’ passage. I’m essentially using paint to depict blood, which in turn is depicting the figure’s dance with the Dao – at least, I hope it does! So even in my use of media and content, I am now countenancing and conversing with more negative aesthetic elements.

Butcher Ding: 養生主 – 庖丁” by Jonathan JOHNSON. The story of Butcher Ding is found in 莊子 – Zhuangzi, 內篇 – Inner Chapters:
養生主 – Nourishing the Lord of Life.

J.F: What’s next for your journey in ugliness? Are there any specific projects you’re working on?

J.J: In addition to the art projects with inspiration from Daoist texts, I am exploring depictions of scholar stones (供石). On the research side I’m trying to translate a few foundational articles on ugliness from Chinese into English, whilst also increasing some of the general writings on ugliness itself. Some of my publications are on Kantian ugliness and the ‘sublime’ in East Asia, and I am finishing up combinations of these. Lastly, I hope to be able to incorporate some of the more fundamental aesthetic practices that comes from design schools and studio arts training to reintroduce the insight of artists to the realms of aesthetic philosophy. For this goal, and on negative aesthetics generally, I hope to set up some reading groups and conferences here in Hong Kong to exchange and enrich views on these topics.

A scholar stone from Jonathan’s collection

Jonathan Farrell is an MA Philosophy student at KCL. He is also a freelance researcher, having previously worked on projects focusing on the history and heritage of Hong Kong.  

Dr. Jonathan Johnson is a lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University, as well as a freelance illustrator and artist. His aesthetic research in focused on negative aesthetic judgment (such as ugliness), and intercultural explorations of Chinese aesthetic texts and practices.

Further reading:

On ugliness:

Umberto Eco. On Ugliness. 1st ed. New York: Rizzoli, 2007.

Jonathan Johnson, “Understandings of Ugliness in Kant’s Aesthetics” in On the Ugly: Aesthetic Exchanges, ed. J. Forsey and L. Aagaard-Mogensen. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2019.

Andrei Pop & Mechtild Widrich. Ugliness: The Non-Beautiful in Art and Theory. London: I.B. Taurus, 2014.

On Chinese aesthetics:

Zehou Li. The Path of Beauty: A Study of Chinese Aesthetics. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Yutang Lin. The Chinese Theory of Art: Translations from the Masters of Chinese Art. New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1967.

Jiehua Wen. Issues of Contemporary Art and Aesthetics in Chinese Context. Chinese Contemporary Art Series. Berlin: Springer, 2015.

Chinese philosophical texts:

Laozi., Lau, and Lau, D. C. Tao Te Ching. 1st pbk. ed. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2001.

Burton Watson. Zhuangzi: Basic Writings (3rd ed.). New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.