Dare You To Look!
DON'T LOOK AWAY! You might want to, given the title, but read on. It will be interesting and perhaps even fun.
I love all things beautiful and never thought I'd be writing a post about what's disgusting. It's like focusing on what's gross or ugly. Who wants it? Yet much of art now and for centuries has depicted the ugly and brutal as well as on the beautiful and sublime. If you're curious, you can search art images using "disgust" as a key word and see works meant to be disgusting or gross throughout history.
What Is the Disgust Reaction?
Disgust is one of the worst reactions we can have. It repels us, forces us turn away. We want to vomit. It's clearly visible in infants’ reactIons and often involuntary. And it persists through life as a -physiological reaction.
Starting as an involuntary emotional-physical response during infancy and hardwired into our facial expressions, disgust functions to defend us from something unpleasant while also alerting others. Charles Darwin thought it was a universal human reaction to something revolting, noted primarily via taste. Disgusted faces clearly look like they want to prevent intake, or promote expulsion, of something bad. Though it originates in response to food that endangers our survival, Darwin thought disgust reactions could also be associated with visual and other sensory input.
Disgust varies in individuals as well. We each have our preferences and "tastes". I remember visiting an art museum as a child and turning away in disgust after seeing the cleverly concocted portraits by Arcimboldo (shown above) I regard them now as interesting curiosities.
Disgust and Art
The realm of visual art, like other forms of human inquiry and imagination, explores all aspects of experience and expression. It’s not just the positive side of human experience merits artistic attention. Tasteful art soon gets hackneyed. We stop looking because it's predictable and fits in too well with our decor. Avant-garde art movements typically appear ugly and gross to traditionalists - until they, too, become the norm.
I've included two old drawings of mine: Gross Consumption and Judith (after Caravaggio's Judith Beheading Holofernes). Both deal with themes of disgust, but there's also beauty in one of them.
Disgust Elevated to Museum Status
Each epoch has its own varieties of the ugly, gross, and disgusting. We've been avant-garding this trend of the aversive for a while now. Disgust now even merits its own museums. The first, located in Malmö, Sweden, the Museum of Disgusting Food challenges the concept of taste quite literally and dramatically by presenting and inviting us to eat foods we presume to be disgusting. Opened in 2018, there are now other such museums.
We can dither about artistic taste, but this museum challenges the concept of taste quite literally. It presents visitors with disgusting foods to eat. These include freshly served, often smelly items native to different regions of the world: poop wine, fish heads, rancid shark, Spam, stinkbugs, dog meat, kosher fried locusts, worms, chilied grasshoppers, and durian (a delicious custardy fruit I was able to eat in Singapore only after months of habituation and only when its repelling smell was altered).
People at this Museum try out more foods than they initially expect they will. Some taste surprisingly good, if one gets past a pre-formed idea of them. On the other hand, the museum has also been rebuked as culturally insensitive, even racist. I've not been to this museum so I can't speak first-hand to its emphasis or impact. Thinking about it, considerations of beauty (or ugliness) across time and cultures are appropriate in art and cultural anthropology, why not the same for disgust?
Disgust, Culture and Biases
Cultures and socio-cultural groups have their own taste delicacies and taboos. Foie gras may ignite one person's tastebuds and another's outrage. Necessity, of course, even more clearly and dramatically trumps appetite and taste preferences. We aren't fussy eaters when starving! In a less forceful way, education of all sorts can moderate what we consider disgusting. Especially for the curious, travel outside our comfort zone, challenges our taste preferences. Curiosity helps us engage with challenges, and any inclination to assimilate new knowledge helps us to learn quickly. We acquire new tastes, expand our preferences and opinions. Not everyone chooses this, and not everyone is equally curious. Thankfully, no one forces us to eat worms or to like what we find disgusting. But experiencing what other cultures find tasteful (or disgusting) may moderate our biases.
This foray into Disgust applies to the art of creative living. Anything can be weaponized for either malice or political correctness. I'm for individual exploration and whatever enlarges our experience by adding to the dimensionality of our views... and the diversity of our tastes.
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