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That's Disgusting!

DON'T LOOK AWAY! You might want to, given the title, but read on. It will be interesting and maybe 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.


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 it persists through life. Starting as an involuntary emotional 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.


It's an individual reaction, too. 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. (I regard them now as interesting curiosities.) But 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.