Mencken coined a term for the innate desire of americans for ugly things. Even when the beautiful is easier to achieve, the american will still choose ugliness, and even prefers it. This trait appears to be almost distinctly american, for this libido was less apparent in cultures of the past. Look at the art of the past, the buildings, the ships, furniture, clothing, even weapons of war, the buildings, the churches. Beauty abounded.
But in these modern times, Mencken’s idea is alive and well, spreading faster – and with more gusto. It has become virtually the sole goal of american society.
To begin our tour of ugly look no further than new houses, which are almost all exactly alike. They have the same drab design and are constructed of the same poor quality materials. Thin concrete, chipboard plywood, pressed wood cabinets, and water paint. 3 years after construction they look like they are 20 years old. Not only is the design and build quality of new homes poor, but they are being constructed on smaller and smaller plots of land. There is nowhere to walk, no space, no beauty of the earth to be a part of, no nature but a few sprigs of grass and an ornamental tree.
The suburbs. Shunning beauty, the designers of suburbs went with wide roads and tiny lots. Drive around a suburb and you will see they were built for the motorist to speed around, not for the community of the place. Roads, by their nature, are ugly. No where to walk or bike or golf cart around. No where to let a kid skip to a neighbors or relatives home, maybe through the trees. These are the things that make up a part of a community – the connections to others. The hideous design of the ‘burbs make it almost impossible.
The shopping strip malls. Perhaps this is the most efficient design, cheapest to build and easiest to get approved by building departments. Life to builders and developers is about efficiency -how can we cram the most sq ft on a property to maximize income and how to do it the cheapest possible way? Thus the strip malls were born. Without doubt, a great ugliness. But the investors are happy!
The retention/mosquito ponds. I’ve seen developments with upwards of 50% of the land being used as retention ponds. Who doesn’t like to look at putrid sewer water with trash floating around in it? All new developments are required to have this eyesore. It is guaranteed ugliness on every new building! A built in fail-safe to protect society against beauty.
The corporate sameness that has spread like gangrene across america. The new travel book of america will feature the walmarts, wendys, and nail salons of all the towns in america. Welcome to Boise Idaho, here is our mcdonalds, an architectural marvel. People come from all over the world to see this waffle house, this publix. These companies have taken over modern america and thus we are saddled with the ugliness of these buildings en masse throughout the land. Ugly has gone nationwide. This is a new development since Mencken’s time.
Modern art, what more is there to say? Where are the Rembrandts? Those who might have the talent for true artistic works of beauty go into digital art, designing websites, logos and billboards, drawing comic books. Why? Because in America it’s all for commerce, all the time.
The droll thump of the repeating bass line, the clanging of drums, the shrill screech of the electric guitar. The boorish typecast voice. The same 3 musical chords, the plain melody created by a workman at a computer. Music is made to be local, and distinct, not bland and universal. There is nothing bland about the polka, or Beethoven, or the great choral hymns. All created at different times in history and in widely different places. They were unique and beautiful. They didn’t sell very many albums.
I have to give credit to the man who invented one of the ugliest devices in the pantheon of human inventions. The beeper on construction equipment. Only the most vile of fools would create something so ugly, and only the most vile governments would mandate it on every piece of construction equipment throughout the land. Now, on virtually any square foot of property in america, one hears the shrill, endless beeping of construction equipment. In a civilized society these beepers would be destroyed within 10 minutes of activation. But in america they are mandated, approved. The ugliness must be heard, it must be broadcast over the land, like a great whine ode to ugliness. It is a steady reminder to americans that they live in the land of ugly.
No designer has yet to learn that a light shining in the eyes is an unpleasant light. The light which shines directly down, casting light on the area intended to be lit is a beautiful use of light. Flood lights shining in all directions is ugly. But that is what we have in america.
That which the american has a hand in creating, for whatever reason, maybe for efficiency, or to satisfy the requirements of building commissions, zoning boards and other such swine, is ugly. This libido has not abated since Mencken’s time, but has gained in popularity and momentum. It has been enshrined in the law books, codes and decrees. It has become an everlasting trait of the americano.
But let us not be too sour over the abounding hideousness of our country. This is our america, ugly and repugnant as she might be. There is still beauty. Buildings from the past, even some modern ones. Some churches. Some cities are beautiful. And there is much natural beauty, parts of Maine and Florida, the entire west coast’s cliffs and dunes and beaches. The high mountains and grand forests. Locally, there is still family, and love in the heart.
And so, in the end, to counteract the ugliness of our times, we must develop our own libido for beauty. As Thoreau said, “Perception of beauty is a moral test.” We must be the beauty, in everything we do, in all of our words and actions – our love for neighbors, our homes, our marriage, our very lives. Counteract the ugliness by living to elevate the beautiful.