TASTE / TRENDS : HOW UGLY IS UGLY?

Last fall, Channel 2 news (that's the one that claims to treat the news "as if it matters") offered an earth-shaking story: A blind date was being arranged between the ugliest male student in America and the ugliest girl student. Allegedly ugliest, of course.

The man had already been chosen: Bruce Morgan, a 6-foot-3 criminology major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the university (located in--where else?--Indiana, Penn.) selected by "College Book" Lisa Birnbach as home of the ugliest male students. The girl was to come from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, regarded by Birnbach as being anything but a hotbed of attractive female students.

A few days later, The Times reported that the lucky girl, Kate Neidhold, had flown more than 4,100 miles to meet Morgan, who unveiled her by removing a paper bag from her head. Morgan, in gray tuxedo and untied tennis shoes (de rigueur among the "uglocracy") commented after the date: "We might end up getting married and creating a superior race. It wouldn't be like Hitler's Aryans. We'd be fun people." It's a wonderful start to a filmable novel, and I'm not sure I shan't write it myself. (This is one part Bo Derek is not going to get, unless they fall back on the old "ugly girl" cliche of the movies, in which the heroine removes her bifocals and takes out the single hair-clip restraining cascades of lustrous hair, and the hero, eyes popping, gulps: "Why, Miss Smith . . . you're beautiful! ")

Marriage and ugliness competitions have been linked in history. At the end of the 18th Century, English artist Thomas Rowlandson drew "The Grinning Match," writing across the top: "The Frightfull'st Grinner to be the Winner." A cobbler with a horse's collar over his head is standing on a barrel, surrounded by an amused crowd. A notice-board reads: "On the 9th of October next will be run on Coleshill Heath Warwickshire a plate of 6 guineas value 3 heats by any horse, mare or gelding. Also a plate of less value to be run for by asses. The same day a gold ring to be grinned for by men." To the left is seen the man's bride-to-be; and on the back of the drawing Rowlandson wrote: "But what he esteemed more than all the rest, a country wench whom he had wooed in vain for about 5 years before, was so charmed with his grins, and the applauses which he received on all sides that she married him the week following and to this day wears the prize upon her finger, the cobbler having made use of it as his wedding ring." Grinning, or "gurning" matches are still held in rural parts of England today; there is still some cachet in ugliness.

In 1912, Edward Howell edited the minutes of "Ye Ugly Face Clubb" of Liverpool, 1743-53. The motto of the club was Tetrum ante omnia vultum (Before all things, an ugly face). Membership was open only to bachelors, and when you read the other qualifications, you can imagine that most of them were likely to remain bachelors. Every member had to have "something odd, remarkable, droll or out of the way in his Phiz" (physiognomy). "A large mouth, thin jaws, blubber lips, little goggling or squinting eyes shall be esteemed considerable qualifications in a candidate," the rules added. Also, "particular regard shall be had to the length of a candidate's nose," and "a large carbuncle, potato nose shall have the preference of a Roman or King William's."

Each member was described--warts and all--in a catalogue of deformity and grotesqueness. For example, Joseph Farmer had "little eyes, one bigger than ye other. . . . Mouth from ear to ear resembling a shark's." His looks were "extraordinarily haggard, odd, comic and out-of-ye-way . . . in short, possessed of every qualification to render him ye Phoenix of ye Society, as the like won't appear again this 1,000 years." Francis Gildart had an "odd, droll, Sancho Pancho (sic) Phiz" and John Branker boasted a "rotten irregular set of teeth, resembling an old broken saw. . . . On the whole very much like the picture of King Peppin, inexpressibly odd and ugly."

America, too, had its ugliness clubs. One in New York, which met at Ugly Hall, 4 Wall St., in the early 19th Century, was presided over by a gentleman with the title "His Homeliness." The Charlestown (Mass.) Ugly Club had a rule that the clubroom must always be the ugliest room in the ugliest house of the town. "When an ill-favored gentleman first arrives in the city," William Hone recorded in his "Table Book," "he is waited upon, in a civil and familiar manner, by some of the members of the Club, who inform him that they would be glad of his company on the next evening of their meeting."

Behind all these more-or-less comic institutions--campus ugliness competitions, grinning matches and ugliness clubs--lurk the most perplexing questions that philosophers of art can tackle. What constitutes "ugliness"? A question that inevitably leads to "What is beauty?" Keats thought beauty was truth and vice-versa, but that is a cul-de-sac that brings one smack up against "What is truth?," the question that exercised "jesting Pilate" in Francis Bacon's essay on the subject.

If we are talking of mortal beauty, we have to acknowledge that fashion comes into it, and fashions change. The Victorians liked women with a certain embonpoint . (Maybe there was a social cachet in this: Only the well-off could afford to eat enough to get fat.) After World War I, the fashion for flat-chested women came in. It has been suggested that the reason for that was that millions of men had gotten so accustomed to the exclusive company of their own sex in the trenches that women had to accommodate themselves to the reassuringly familiar image.

With men, there was a big change in fashion between the '50s and '60s. The '50s male was a machismo beefcake: If he wasn't, he got sand kicked in his face and swiftly invested in a Charles Atlas body-building course. But then along came the Beatles, undernourished lads from Liverpool, and the Skinny Look came in. At last all the skeletons could come out of the closet.

But there are certain mortals whose beauty has ridden across the centuries, transcending all vicissitudes, acceptable in all times. Roman busts of Antinous (AD 110-130), favorite of the Emperor Hadrian, show a face that could advertise after-shave lotion today; and Michelangelo's David could probably land a part in a Conan the Barbarian film. The ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti (and her hat) would not look out of place on the cover of Vogue.

I have known two of the legendary beauties of this century, both still living. Two years ago I was at the 90th birthday party of Lady Diana Cooper. Men were standing on tables to get a glimpse of her when she entered a ballroom in 1912 , and the classicism of her beauty can still be discerned. Lady Antonia Fraser, author of "Mary, Queen of Scots," who married playwright Harold Pinter after a romantic scandal that blazed in the headlines, is over 50. "I was a Renoir at 15," she mourned to me once; but her flaxen and peaches-and-cream looks have held up so well that a recent magazine caption under a specially sultry picture of her demanded: "Is this your idea of a historian?"

I also knew Edna Clarke Hall, less of a name to conjure with but in her own way as beautiful as either of those titled ladies. Born Edna Waugh, she died in 1978, aged 99. I met her in 1971 when Anthony d'Offay, the London art dealer, held an exhibition of her accomplished drawings. In her youth she had been at the Slade School of Art, London, with Augustus John. That satyr cast his roving eye over her (over what presentable girl did he not?), but she did not have an affair with him, and she married Sir William Clarke Hall. In 1897, when she painted a watercolor of the Rape of the Sabine Women, she was declared an "infant prodigy." One of her teachers told her that she would be the second Burne-Jones. "No, the first Edna Waugh," she replied.

To me the youthful Edna Waugh, whom, admittedly, I know only through photographs, was one of the raving beauties of the age. (The only woman artist who could hold a candle to her in looks was Suzanne Valadon, mother of another artist, Maurice Utrillo.) But that is only my opinion. To Michael Holroyd, Augustus John's biographer, she was merely "very pretty." I doubt that anyone could be found to call her ugly; but could anyone analyze what it was that made her beautiful? An 18th-Century English artist, William Hogarth, wrote a book called "The Analysis of Beauty." He thought beauty lay in "the serpentine line"--wiggles and curves. In other words, his book was simply propaganda for the prevailing rococo style. He was preaching what he practiced. A later artist, such as Jacques-Louis David, sternly neoclassical, would have deplored such a view. The consensus about Edna Clarke Hall's beauty is wide enough to suggest that some criteria of beauty must exist. But when you try to commit them to paper, they elude you. It is like trying to pick up quicksilver with the fingers, or taking iridescent tropical fish out of the aquarium and laying them on blotting paper for inspection. Should this impalpability of beauty worry the aesthete, the art critic and the art historian? No: it is what distinguishes them from scientists. The theories of the latter must be provable; those of the former will always be a matter of opinion. It is the difference between the numerate and the numinous. A scientist is discredited if his theories are disproved, as Georg Ernst Stahl's "phlogiston theory" was discredited by Antoine Lavoisier's "oxygen theory" of combustion. But if the aesthete's theories could be proved or disproved, he would become redundant--his occupation, like Othello's, gone. Vive imprecision! Vive back-biting and internecine warfare between art critics! If laws of beauty could ever be proven--perhaps even enforced --an "ugly" contest might become something more serious--and more sinister--than a student prank.

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