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The Allure of "Ugly" Art

Collecting ugly art is a recent trend.

Key points

  • Some collectors are gravitating toward ugly art.
  • The desire to collect ugly art is rooted in our neuropsychology.
  • Researchers cite the surprise of the unexpected, chosen suffering, and that the negative makes us think.
Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Wenceslas Hollar (1607–1677), Two deformed heads behind a wall.
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Recently, an article in Artsy headlined this teaser, “Why Ugly Paintings Are Winning Over Collectors” (Dozier, 2023). This catchy attention grabber represented an article written in conjunction with an exhibit at the Nahmad Contemporary Gallery in New York City. The show consisted of paintings by artists who purposely use distorted or unpleasant images in their artwork. Normally, one might not expect a large audience for this type of exhibit. However, the display of so-called ugly paintings was so popular that it was held beyond its original closing date.

This popularity of what some might consider an ill-conceived and almost certainly unappealing exhibit brings up the question, Why, when most lovers of art think collectors and museum-goers like "beautiful" art, are they gravitating toward the reverse?

Fortunately, it seems the complicated reasons for this conundrum are recently coming to light.

The Human Response to Ugly in Art

As far back as 1988, Friedrich Schlegel (Dietrich & Knieper, 2022; Behler & Eichner, 1988) designated shock as an aesthetic experience. Schlegel indicated that the surprise of the new or unexpected awakens interest in the subject (in this case, painting). In other words, the shock stimulates awareness and even fascination. Thus, he reasoned, ugliness perceived in art can spark pleasure because it is on the same continuum as beauty, with the attractive on one end and the ugly on the other. In this way, the viewer of the ugly art can bridge the length of the range.

Paul Bloom took this subject up again in 2021 when he talked about suffering being chosen or unchosen. The latter is worse, even unbearable. Works of art that demonstrate suffering or something grotesque, however, are in the category of choice. We don’t need to look at them, but we decide of our own free will to do so. We are in control; we know we can turn away. Thus, viewing ugly art is safe.

Lastly, a prominent researcher in Germany, Winfried Menninghaus, stands clearly as the leader in the field. He demonstrated that art that elicits negative emotions is not only attention-grabbing but also provokes feelings that can result in both positive and negative reactions. It seems that the negative makes us think, perhaps even more than the positive, and this moves us to a higher level of appreciation of art.


A recent exhibit at the Nahmad Contemporary Gallery in New York City showcased artworks with distorted or seemingly unpleasant visuals, challenging the conventional notion of what's considered beautiful in art. This exhibit became immensely popular, prompting questions about why art enthusiasts are increasingly drawn toward "ugly" art.

Historically, Friedrich Schlegel had associated shock or the unexpected with aesthetic experience in art, suggesting that ugliness can evoke pleasure because it's on the same spectrum as beauty. Paul Bloom emphasized the idea of chosen suffering in art, where viewers have control over their exposure to disturbing or grotesque imagery, making the experience safe. Winfried Menninghaus further supports these ideas by demonstrating that artworks evoking negative emotions can result in both positive and negative responses from viewers, potentially leading to a deeper appreciation of art.


Ayanna Dozier. Why “Ugly Paintings” Are Winning Over Collectors. Artsy. July 19, 2023.

Dietrich, P., & Knieper, T. (2022). (Neuro)Aesthetics: Beauty, ugliness, and ethics. PsyCh Journal, 11(5), 619–627. Schlegel.

E. Behler & H. Eichner (Eds.), (1988). Kritische Schriften und Fragmente. Studienausgabe in sechs Bänden [Critical writings and fragments. Study edition in six volumes]. Brill/Schöningh. (in German).

Bloom, P. (2021) The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning. Ecco Press

Menninghaus, W., Wagner, V., Hanich, J., Wassiliwizky, E., Jacobsen, T., & Koelsch, S. (2017). The Distancing-Embracing model of the enjoyment of negative emotions in art reception. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 40, E347. doi:10.1017/S0140525X17000309

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