Umberto Eco in conversation with Paul Holdengräber: On Ugliness, Hot Wars & Media Populism

On Ugliness is an extraordinary road map to the perception of the grotesque over the centuries. Following on the heels of the book, History of Beauty, writer and scholar Umberto Eco considers how we perceive and define the corollary—the depiction of ugliness—the complete absence of beauty—from Ancient Greece to the present day.

Eco begins his fascinating discussion with the observation that the aesthetics of beauty have been defined and documented through the ages by philosophers, artists, and writers, while the same cannot be said for ugliness. Though ostensibly opposites, one thing beauty and ugliness share is the fact that they are defined by the culture and by the times—what is ugly in Paris may be beautiful in Papua, and what was beautiful in the 19th century, may be considered ugly in the 21st. Quoting from Hegel and Nietzsche, Plutarch, Aristotle and Darwin, Eco identifies three different phenomena: ugliness in itself, formal ugliness, and the artistic portrayal of both. As Eco states, “…we can almost always infer what the first two types of ugliness were [in a given time in history, and a particular society] solely based on the evidence of the third type.”

In Turning Back The Clock, Hot Wars and Media Populism, the time is 2000 to 2005, the years of neoconservatism, terrorism, the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the ascension of Bush, Blair, and Berlusconi, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Umberto Eco’s response is a provocative, passionate, and witty series of essays—which originally appeared in the Italian newspapers La Repubblica and L’Espresso—that leaves no slogan unexamined, no innovation unexposed. What led us into this age of hot wars and media populism, and how was it sold to us as progress? Eco discusses such topics as racism, mythology, the European Union, rhetoric, the Middle East, technology, September 11, medieval Latin, television ads, globalization, Harry Potter, anti-Semitism, logic, the Tower of Babel, intelligent design, Italian street demonstrations, fundamentalism, The Da Vinci Code, and magic and magical thinking.

From http://www.nypl.org/research/chss/pep/pepdesc.cfm?id=3435