The Art of Disgusting

Disgust, an aversion triggered by something highly distasteful, is a basic emotion universally experienced in all cultures. It is no surprise, therefore, that art that mandates an enjoyer’s response of disgust exists nearly as long as art itself. However, it has broadly been neglected by art appreciators and critics for a long period of time. Pleasant emotions have always been thoroughly examined, but many other unpleasant ones, such as anger or sadness, have also been discussed a lot more often than disgust.

The issue of disgusting art was discussed by aesthetics with some systematicity, mostly in German-speaking circles in the 18th century. Johann Adolf Schlegel, his brother Johann Elias, Moses Mendelssohn, Gotthold E. Lessing and Immanuel Kant all expressed a negative opinion according to which disgust, different from other unpleasant emotions, does not possess real aesthetic value—in most cases. (1)

19th and 20th century philosophical aesthetics followed in the footsteps of their predecessors and continued to neglect the art of disgusting. In the 20th century, some branches of contemporary art history, criticism and theory started to include disgusting art into their studies. As a matter of fact, disgust became be a noticeable presence in the contemporary world of art. 

Practically all art periods have artists that intentionally contradict the leading artistic traditions of their time, or those that depict topics typically considered disgusting, shocking or taboo. In most cases, these works of art were forbidden, damaged, or publicly condemned. On the other hand, they made a huge impact on art history, opening the door to freedom of creativity and expression, and inspiring artists throughout the centuries. 

From Francisco Goya to more contemporary artists like Francis Bacon, disturbing art deals more with what it evokes in the viewer than with what it looks like or what it stands for. By stepping into forbidden territories, these works of art upset and even insult the audience by forcing them to leave their comfort zone and step out of what they think is socially acceptable. 

By illustrating fetishes, deviant behaviour, upsetting imagery and controversial ideas, disgusting and shock art tries to respond to today’s culture of sensationalism. This kind of art is aimed at distorting the audience’s notions of art and criteria of morality by exploring the borders of the appalling.

(1) Contesi, Filippo. (2016). The Meanings of Disgusting Art. Essays in Philosophy. 17. 68-94. 10.7710/1526-0569.1544.