Beyond Beauty: The Aesthetics of Ugliness in German Musical and Artistic Debates of the Mid-19th Century

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Within both music and the figurative arts, the period following the 1848 revolution was characterized by vehement aesthetic disputes and polarized standpoints. In music, Eduard Hanslick championed the ideal of purely musical beauty (Vom Musikalisch-Schönen, 1854) just as his counterpart in art criticism, Manasse Unger, elevated the ‘purely painterly [Malerische]’ as the highest goal for painting (Das Wesen der Malerei, 1851). This emphasis on medium specificity and the purity of individual art forms competed with the views of critics and practitioners presenting aesthetic criteria as trans-artistic, or seeking to transpose ideals from one art to another (as with Liszt’s notion of the ‘painting symphonist’ composing works simultaneously ‘poetic, musical, and pictorial’), or even advocating the unification of the arts (Wagner). What complicates the artistic debates of this period is that the antithetical positions described above interact problematically with other contentious dichotomies, in particular the conflict between aesthetic idealism and the burgeoning discourse of realism, and between the aesthetics of beauty and what Karl Rosenkranz labelled the aesthetics of ugliness (Ästhetik des Hässlichen, 1853)
In unpicking and scrutinizing these oppositions, this paper explores the functions that ugliness had within debates around music and painting in the 1850s and 1860s. The ugly occupies a highly charged place within the aesthetics of this period, functioning as a means both to affirm and critique the hegemony of beauty within the arts. Within both musical and artistic discourse, the concept of the ugly served as a means to draw boundaries and define limits; as a result, it was conceptualized as something literally foreign, and more specifically French, epitomized by neo-romanticism in music (Berlioz) and realism in painting (Courbet). Within musical discourse, the concept provided a means for opponents of the so-called ‘music of the future’ (Zukunftsmusik) to undercut the claims of the New German School. If these attacks proved effective, it was because Liszt, Wagner and their followers were themselves ambivalent towards realism and the representation of ugliness, criticizing aspects of Berlioz’s pictorialism and presenting it as a defective approach to drawing together music and the other arts. As well as probing the significance of the concept of ugliness for understanding debates within mid-nineteenth-century art criticism and musical discourse, the paper explores how these tensions manifest themselves in practice within the music of Liszt and paintings of Courbet’s German followers such as Angilbert Göbel and Wilhelm Trübner.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMusic and the Figurative Arts in the Nineteenth Century
EditorsRoberto Illiano
Place of PublicationTurnhout
PublisherBrepols Publishers
ISBN (Print)978-2-503-58951-0
Publication statusPublished - 17 Nov 2020

Publication series

NameSpeculum musicae


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