Editor's note: The following article was rekeyed and reprinted on December 17, 1998 in Resource Library with permission of the author. Prepared for the column Dunbier on Fine Art Valuation, Dr. Dunbier writes on issues regarding the valuation of fine art. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, please contact Lonnie Pierson Dunbier in Scottsdale, AZ, at ldunbier@mac.com.


Ugly Is Beautiful

By Roger Dunbier, PhD


It is well known that in the company of art insiders one should be careful not to use the word "beautiful."  The term "ugly" is subject to the same proscriptions unless used as an obvious term of approval much as "bad" is meant to be understood as "good" on an inner city basketball court.

Among the art critics professional or semi, any and every adjective has been put to frequent use except those two words most used by the average man, woman or child. Assiduously avoiding the morass of aesthetic definitions and philosophy, your correspondent would like to venture a few observations on the beauty/ugly duality.

It was observed well over two hundred years ago by Emanuel Kant among others that a painting thirty inches on a side described objective reality. In contrast, the judgement that a painting is beautiful does not refer to any property of the work in an objective sense, but is the product of the mind.  It is this last consummate insubstantiality which gives value, economic or otherwise to a painting that "objectively" has no utility.

Now I understand that from the earliest days there has been much more in the subjective value of painting than beauty taken alone, story telling or narrative being the most obvious. But beauty has always ranked prominently in its appreciation and economic value.  Among the general population when asked what do you like about a picture, the most used term is "pretty" or some variation on that reference to beauty.

"Ugly" is the most frequent term of disapproval among the ninety-nine percent of the population outside the "art world" fortress. Inside it will please the select minority not to use the words "beautiful" or "ugly" except as cultured code words. It is the ugly side of the commonly understood polarity which concerns us here. What transpires in a world wherein the great majority understand and take actions determined by avoiding the ugly and the minority refuse to even tolerate the word or even its perceived reality. The interface between these two cultures expresses itself in several ways.

One of these expressions feeds into the Pat Buchanan syndrome which he terms a culture war. Disregarding his political slant and quasi-religious polemics involving pornography and blasphemy as art, there is an ever present underlying disgust manifested in his reaction to the ugliness of modernism. All of this he has used to verbally belabor the elite as he defines it. In his view, ugly art equals an ugly class.

On the other side an equally simplistic mentality prevails wherein recently produced art, particularly painting, has to be ugly to be termed art or at least "fine" art. I must listen to this every October here in Phoenix with the advent of the Cowboy Artists of America show. "How can these pleasant scenes of men and animals in the great outdoors come to disgrace the halls of a major museum like the Phoenix? What kind of hicks are we that allow this kind of retrograde pictorial frosting into and among the dark and frightening works constituting the Twentieth-Century canon."

It is true that I have never heard those exact words but the meaning is always there. "What must they -- those at the Versace funeral -- think of us?" In this kind of thinking ugly art equals "class."

© 1998 Roger Dunbier



About the Author:

From 1982, Dr. Roger Dunbier (1934-1998) combined his professional economics training, research skills, and love of art to develop an easily accessed, 'all-in-one-place' repository of factual information so that buyers and sellers of American art could make decisions based on hard-core data rather than just marketing hype.  With ever-more sophisticated computers, programmed by Charles Lefebvre, his long-time associate, Dunbier built an artist record database, which by the time he died 16 years later, had 17,000 names linked to their respective auction prices, literature and biographies.  Today the result of his dedication lives on as the foundation of AskART.com, an internet site since 2000.  

Dunbier's innovation of computer systems began in 1963, when he pioneered computer mapping on what were then relatively primitive computers.  In 1967, he utilized concepts of 'arbitrage' and 'comparables' in designing the first real estate Multiple Listing System.  Its direct descendent remains in use by realtors across the United States, and he later applied the same underlying principles in building his artist database.  (right: Roger Dunbier, photo courtesy Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, derived from a larger image at http://tfaoi.org/am/16am/16am17.jpg)

Dunbier was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska.  His interest in American art was natural because his father, Augustus Dunbier, (1888-1977) was a prominent landscape, still life and portrait painter and art teacher, whose studio and classroom were in the family home.   Although Roger showed few 'right brained' skills, he did have other talents.  He graduated first in his class and Summa Cum Laude from the University of Omaha in 1955 with majors in economics and history.   He then received a Marshall Scholarship, which led to enrollment at Oxford University in England from 1955 to 1959.  During that time, he was on the Oxford University basketball and track teams, and was a member of the British National Basketball Team.  In 1961, he received a Doctorate of Philosophy, Economic Geography from Oxford.  His dissertation, The Sonoran Desert, Its Geography, Economy, and People, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 1960, and subsequently used as a text book for college geography courses.

After formal education, Dunbier held full-time professorial positions for several years at the University of Omaha and the University of California-Irvine.  He lived most of the remainder of his life in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona, and had economic-geography related jobs including CEO of his management consulting firm that prepared demographic and locational studies; and President of Metro Press, Inc., publisher of over 100 computer generated area directories for Metro Phoenix.  In 1991, he married Lonnie Pierson of Lincoln, Nebraska.

-- By Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, 2008

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