Essay//Reconsidering Goya in Terms of Adorno’s Aesthetic: A Critical Analysis of the Function of “Ugliness” and “Grotesque” in Writings on Goya’s Late Work.

Essay//Reconsidering Goya in Terms of Adorno’s Aesthetic: A Critical Analysis of the Function of “Ugliness” and “Grotesque” in Writings on Goya’s Late Work.

Francisco Goya
Fig.1 Francisco de Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son,1819-1823. Oil on Plaster Mounted on Canvas, 146 x 83 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Beauty is often linked to order, rationality, perfection, civilization, truth, and the good; while ugliness is associated with “mundane reality, the irrational, evil, disorder, dissonance, irregularity, excess, deformity, the marginal: in short, the Other” (Nelson and Shiff 281). Francisco de Goya (1746 – 1828) is considered one of the greatest artists of the romantic period. Goya’s late work, the Black Paintings (1819 – 1823) – the name of which is not only devoted to the dark colours used, but also to its dark and ugly subject matter- have received relatively little attention in academic literature. The Black Paintings were designed to be personal mural decorations in his house. They include lugubrious associations of the ugly, for example; witches, old men eating, poor women laughing like witches and a man who is eating his son. Despite the fact that the conditions mentioned by Nelson and Shiff are prominent in both subject matter and style, scholars (Cascardi; Nehamas; Fingesten) have failed to label Goya’s late work as ‘ugly’, and therefore multiple possible functions of Goya’s late work have been neglected. In this paper, questions such as ‘what is the function of the ugly in his Black Paintings?’ and ‘why are ugliness and its function being marginalized in dominant discourse?’ will be answered.

This paper will argue that the function of the ugly is of social significance because “historically the dialectic beauty/ugliness was shaped by issues of hierarchy, value, and power” (Nelson & Shiff, 283). This paper will argue that Goya used the ugly in his painting in order to give voice to the repressed in society. In order to make this case, Goya’s Black Paintings will be framed in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, in which he states that the prohibitions, poor, and taboos in society are part of the category of the ugly (47). This kind of framing has not been done before, and will contribute to the academic discourse on Goya’s later work. Additionally, there seems to be a marginalization of the function of the ugly in literature, which contributes to Adorno’s Marxist argument that the elite academic class represses notions of ugliness in art. It is therefore highly important that an examination of the marginalized ugly in Goya’s late work will take place, since most literature fails to do so. In this paper, it will therefore be argued that dominant discourse in art history marginalizes a possible function of the ugly, associated with class struggle and the provocation of a moral shock towards the elite, in Goya’s late works (Nehamas; Cascardi; Fingesten; Museo del Prado). First, Adorno’s theory of ugliness will be explained and framed into a possible function of Goya’s use of the ugly, second, literature concerning Goya’s intentions and aesthetics will be summarized and criticized based on their marginalization of the ugly and its function, third, this repression of ugliness in dominant discourse will be explained and evaluated.

Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory of Ugliness

In Aesthetic Theory, Theodor Adorno (1903 – 1969) is concerned with the relation between art and society. He follows the Hegelian tradition of art, which assert that art is an expression of a society or culture and combines this with Marxist theory by including art’s capability to transform or revolt society. In fact, Adorno states that there is a social hierarchy in the dialectic of beauty/ugliness, where beauty is part of an elitist and oppressive class whereas the repressed and low class people are associated with ugliness. He takes it a step further by claiming that the beauty rises out of the ugly (Adorno, 46-50), like form rises out of formlessness. “Beauty is not the platonically pure beginning but rather something that originated in the renunciation of what was once feared, which only as the result of this renunciation […] became the ugly” (Adorno, 47). Similarly, in the earliest form of society, the relations of production were simple, shared, and formless. Notions of agriculture and property caused separation of classes, the bourgeoisie -the beautiful- and the proletariat -the ugly. Academics, philosophers, and art historians are all part of the superstructure that aims to control and dominate the struggle between classes by imposing their ideology, or in the words of Marx and Engels “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas” (Pals, 123 – 131). As Adorno was a Marxist, he assigned the ugly to revolt against the dominant class of the beauty, in order to regain the voices and the honest formlessness of the marginalized ugly (Nelson and Shiff, 283). In the following section, Adorno’s aesthetic will be brought to the frame of the function of the ugly in Goya’s late works.

Framing Goya’s Function of the Ugly in Adorno’s Aesthetic

In this paper, Goya’s function of the ugly is associated with class struggle and a provocation of a moral shock towards the elite. This is different from other artists from later periods, such as Gourbet, because Goya’s Black Paintings are both ugly in terms of content and how they were made. They were made in the last years of his life in solitude and resigned from society, as decoration in his house in the woods. Originally, the fourteen Black Paintings were painted on the walls of Goya’s house, the Quinta del Sordo (House of the Deaf Man), far away from society’s change into a monarchy (Glendinning, 467). The murals were painted in his last years of life, while he was suffering from serious illness. Goya painted them in ugly times of his life; he wanted them to be ugly. Just imagine his house, where the walls were filled with those dark and horrific depictions of the poor, irrational, and immoral, one every wall, wherever you rest your eyes. How the Black Paintings were made contributes to the original intention of the murals to depict ugliness in an ugly context.

In Adorno’s aesthetic theory, there is a social hierarchy in the dialectic of the beautiful and the ugly. For him beauty “was an exclusionary, elitist, and oppressive category forged by the dominant orders and forced on people” (Nelson and Shiff, 283). In general it is argued that the ugly is a deviation of the beautiful. Adorno, however, argues for the reversal of this genealogy. Initially everything was ugly. Beauty originated in the ugly, like form arises out of formlessness, like civilization emerges out of primitivism (283). This is according to Adorno a violent and oppressive means of change, where the ugly carries the voice of “the repressed who side with the revolution” (Adorno, 48). As Adorno believed that art had the capability to change society, he gave the ugly a task: “to foster sympathy for the degraded, to reverse social inequity” (283).

After his death, the decorations of the Quinta Del Sordo were transferred to canvas, in order for placement in museums, where they would be exposed for aesthetic pleasure. The intentions of the artist, the here and now, its aura, have been stripped away from the Black Paintings. The realization of dissonance is exchanged for aesthetic judgement of the works to be beautiful (see page 11 ). Indeed, the beauty, derived from aesthetic organization of the museums, of the Black Paintings originated in the ugliness of the original context of these murals.

Additionally, Goya started of as a portrait painter for the Royal Family of Spain and ended, later in life, by including the lower classes of society in his painting. First he focussed on the elitist dominant and beautiful class and after he chose to bring the repressed ugly forward. He gave the marginalized a voice by portraying them instead of the bourgeoisie. This change in style and content must not be disregarded, since it could indicate his interest in social revolution and provocation.

In short, the function of Goya’s ugliness could be framed into a Marxist context of class struggle and a provocation to a moral shock because the original context of and how the Black Paintings were made was ugly. In the following pages, it will be argued that any possible function of the ugly in Goya’s late works has been repressed and marginalized by the dominant art historical and museum discourse, which demonstrates the social hierarchy of the beautiful and the ugly as described by Adorno (46 – 50).


Many terms have been used as either synonyms or attributes of ugliness, such as “abject”, “horrific”, and “grotesque”, the latter being the most common alternative for ugliness (Nelson and Shiff, 282). According to Nelson and Shiff, grotesque is derived from the Italian grotto –cave- since it entitled the fantastic decorative designs that were found on the walls in the underground Roman temples and caves. Grotesque designs were found to be unnatural or going against natural law (282). Fingesten is one of the only scholars in literature who associates Goya’s Late Work with the grotesque (425). Fingesten, however, regards the grotesque as a genre instead of an aesthetic or style, and he claims Goya’s Saturn Devouring One of His Children (Appendix I, Fig.1) to be a “masterpiece of the grotesque genre” (422), where he defines the grotesque as;

“[…] a symbolic category of art that expresses psychic currents from below the surface of life, such as nameless fears, complexes, nightmares, Angst. It is a dimension of intense and exaggerated emotions and intense and exaggerated forms. […] In genuine grotesques there must be a congruity between subject matter, mood, and the visual forms in which they are cast” (419).

In other words, Fingesten argues that a painting is grotesque only when form and content are congruent in their grotesqueness, and according to this paper, Goya is the master in doing this, since he also experienced such horror (426). Indeed he states that “[…] ‘Goyaesque’ could often serve equally as an adjective for grotesque, but then not all grotesques are Goyaesque” (425), indicating that he recognizes Goya as being one of the masters of the grotesque genre.

Although Fingesten is the only scholar found in this literature review to explicitly state that Goya is part of the grotesque genre in terms of content and form, he fails to include a possible social function of this genre. If, according to Fingesten, the grotesque expresses emotional content such as “nameless fears, complexes, nightmares, Angst” (419), then why would Goya have chosen to do this? It could be argued that Adorno claims that this use of the grotesque exposes taboos and prohibitions of society, created by the superstructure. The point is that Fingesten does name the function of the ugly.

Additionally, Fingesten states that “the grotesque is not a style but a genre” (425). This is problematic, since the grotesque is one of the greatest alternatives for ugliness; however, it is now called a genre, a genre of ugliness. Beautiful art would not be called a genre, instead, beauty is linked to aesthetic experience. It is problematic that ugliness is not part of an aesthetic judgement; it is rather systematically generalized into categories of art. Indeed Adorno states that ugliness is marginalized in literature on aesthetics, while beauty is considered as the main indicator (50). The ugly should be investigated in terms of aesthetics instead of being set aside as the formal Enlightenment grotesque genre. Because beauty originated in ugliness (Adorno, 47), the ugly needs to be included in aesthetics since it marginalizes and neglects its possible functions.

A Misinterpreted Ethical Significance


In The Ethics of Enlightenment: Goya and Kant, written in 1991, Cascardi attacks the assumption that Goya’s late work is simply a rejection of the Enlightenment period (189). He argues that internal contradictions about reason, society, history, and society, are embedded in Goya’s Los Caprichos and Black Paintings. Not only are these works of art important for the Enlightenment culture, they are of ethical significance (190). Cascardi suggests that

“[…] Goya may be described as the first artist principally responsible for the “destruction” of the ethics of painting itself […] the ethical ambition of Goya’s work is to draw us consistently outside the frame of painting (i.e., of “painting itself”), toward a critical reflection on history, society, politics, and desire, as the fields in terms of which the obligations bearing on the subject of enlightened modernity were constructed” (207).

Cascardi devotes Goya’s ethical significance on art and culture firstly on Goya’s success in conquering the autonomy of art by addressing the individuals outside of the painting itself. Secondly, Goya has succeeded in pointing out “a fundamental instability embedded within the very notion of a rational ‘critique’” (Cascardi, 193). In other words, providing rational critique on things is an intrinsically flawed process because the realm of imagination is too big to grasp. This means that full rational critique can never be possible, which is shown in Goya’s late work, according to Cascardi. All by all, the main point of her complex argument is that Goya has an ethical significance because his work provokes a critical thought on modernity and its products, as those have their basis on rationality.


In contrast to Fingesten, Cascardi recognizes the social significance of Goya’s late work, however he fails to include notions of the ugly or related concepts into his argument. It is interesting though, that Goya’s Black Paintings and Los Caprichos are considered to be of ethical significance, although, the ugliness or dissonance of these works is not named, and the obvious change of style as compared to his other works is not taken into account. In his early and middle works, Goya mostly painted religious related themes and portrayed the elite, which is beautiful or ‘superstructure’ related subject matter. His interest in more dark and provocative, or ugly, subject matter was already visible in some of his works, for example in Yard of Lunatics (1793). But this was more prominent in his final works. Cascardi therefore incompletely describes the ethical significance, since notions of ugliness and its possible functions are marginalized and because he uses an ahistorical perspective. Not using notions of ugliness is especially significant because romantic ugliness is often politically charged in order to provoke a moral shock (Nelson and Shiff, 289).

The Coexistence of Beauty and Ugliness


In the article “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” Alexander Nehamas aims to provide the reader with an alternative interpretation of the etching part of Goya’s Los Caprichos that has the same name as the article (Appendix I, Fig. 2). He argues that the traditional Enlightenment interpretation is too optimistic and rationalistic. His interpretation is as follows:

“The sleep of reason produces monsters, but the sleep of reason does not represent the imagination’s taking over. On the contrary, reason is asleep when the imagination deserts it. For if, as a contemporary description of the work puts it, “imagination forsaken by reason begets impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the source of her wonders,” exactly the same is true of reason itself: their relation is symmetrical. It is only when both work together that each is fully awake.” (Nehamas, 38)

In other words, reason does not cancel out imagination, in fact when both are active then one is awake. Reason is asleep however, when pure rationality, the lynx, awakes (38). When reason and imagination are separated monster are produced, however, when they are working together a thing of beauty is created, Los Caprichos (41). Nehamas states that Los Caprichos are beautiful since it perfectly “claims that monsters –folly, malice, prejudice, exploitation- are always with us” (41), in other words, we all have our own monsters. Goya was able to depict the fearsome irrationality that is innate to human beings, even in those that are enlightened.

“Not that the world isn’t ugly […] Nothing may justify the cruel beating of the little boy in Yes, he broke the pot (Appendix I, Fig. 3), but poverty and lack of education—both of which Los Caprichos expose and indict—are enough to account for his mother’s anger and explain her reaction; she, too, is in the end one of the victims Goya’s etchings depict. Poverty and lack of education, however, are not enough to turn her into the beastly creature whose heartless pleasure in the beating of her boy gives the act its air of truly extraordinary savagery. One of the contemporary manuscripts that accompany Los Caprichos asks, “the child is mischievous and the mother bad tempered. Which is worse?” But the mother is worse than “bad tempered”: her crouching posture is feral, her lined face an almost impossible combination of fierce intensity and bestial indifference. There is hatred in the hand that held this stylus […] And yet that hatred does not prevent Los Caprichos—not even this particular etching, which, if anything, it makes more complex and worth contemplating—from being a thing of beauty” (41).

In this quote, Nehamas acknowledges that Goya’s Yes he broke the pot depicts ugliness, however, the etching is still beautiful. Ugliness does not exclude beauty; in fact they live in coexistence. He makes this claim by saying that “nothing can be ugly or without aesthetic value on account of features that it shares with other things. It follows that the moral features of art are irrelevant to it aesthetic value” (48). He is implying that the very same features could be both beautiful and ugly, relative to the individual. “I may find beautiful what others consider disgusting and ugly, I may be tempted to find beauty in something which I am myself of two minds; or I may have just made the wrong choice” (Nehamas, 395). So, both pleasure and displeasure could be derived from the same feature (44). For Nehamas, in contrast to Kant, beauty or aesthetic value and the judgement thereof, therefore cannot be universally shared. He argues that Goya’s Caprichos are beautiful and ugly at the same time, because Goya beautifully depicts the moral ugly (Pop, 177).


Although Nehamas critiques Kant in terms of universal aesthetic value and a rigid form/content distinction, Andrei Pop argues that Nehamas performs a straightforward Kantianism.

“That the same artwork can be morally repugnant, and thus ugly in content (the ugly humans it exposes to ridicule) and in treatment (the implicit violence which the author does to them), and at the same time intellectually beautiful (let us say, the cruel treatment of cruelty lends it a form that is both morally substantial and breath taking) is well shown by Nehamas’ account on Goya” (177).

According to Nehamas, regardless of the ugly and immoral content, Goya has succeeded in rightly imagining and depicting such ugliness, which makes the work of art beautiful in its form. This is indeed related to Kant’s account of the beautiful, where something can never be beautiful in terms of subject matter; it can only be beautiful when the form is purposeful.

Nehamas marginalizes notions of the ugly by equating it to the beautiful. The function of the ugly in Goya’s late work is lost because of this indifference. In aesthetic interpretations of his work the ugly is marginalized since aesthetic value apparently always has to be accompanied by notions of the beautiful. By neglecting the notion of ugliness as being prominent in Goya’s late work, its possible function and meaning, as described by Adorno, is neglected as well. Indeed Adorno states that the beautiful is just as prominent in the discourse of aesthetics as society is in the sociological sphere (50). Through a creationist tale, Adorno argues that the beauty originated in the ugly, however, in dominant discourse the ugly is marginalized. Meaning could therefore be lost, since it does matter whether a work of art is intended to be ugly or beautiful, since it could have a provocative significance. Nehamas’ interpretation neglects the function of the repressed ugly, by assigning Goya’s work to the elite beautiful class, which illustrates marginalization of the ugly by the elite.

Marginalization of the Ugly in the Black Paintings in Dominant Art Historical Discourse

How is it possible that notions of ugliness in Goya’s late works are marginalized in art historical and museum discourse? In order to explain this correctly in relation to Adorno’s theory of the beauty and the ugly, other theories from the Art of Art History will be brought to the frame. As mentioned above, the Black Paintings were originally personal mural decorations, later they were transferred to canvas and brought to a modern aesthetic museum. “The isolation of objects for visual contemplation […] has remained one of the outstanding features of the aesthetic museum and continues to inspire eloquent advocates” (Duncan, 430). In other words, museums are the promoters of the aesthetic approach to art due to the isolation of the objects. Accordingly, Goya’s Black Paintings are currently organized for aesthetic judgement in such a way that people will regard them as beautiful (Adorno; Nehamas). Due to these bureaucratic and oppressive processes, the original ugliness of the Black Paintings and feeling of abject while looking at them is being exchanged for an academic domination to regard them as beautiful.

The Black Paintings were not supposed to be in a museum, where they could massively and aesthetically be enjoyed in terms of the beautiful by the elite. The paintings were made for and of the individual and the ugly in society. Having them exposed in isolation on the beautiful walls of Museum del Prado, instead of collectively on the walls of his house, might have caused the paintings to lose their original meaning. The dominant and elite ideology of museums and art historians repress art of dissonance by dominating the aesthetic discourse. Two processes characterize this repression; the aesthetical discourse is mostly held in terms of the beauty, almost never in terms of the ugly; and the objects are placed in isolation for aesthetic experience to be consumed.

On the other hand, Nehamas provides the perfect example of the success of Goya’s social revolution. Goya’s late work is now considered beautiful, for whatever reason, and is being considered as very important in the canon of art history. He succeeded in reversing social inequity, since his dark paintings depicting ugliness in a grotesque manner are now considered as significant by the superstructure. The paintings are considered beautiful by the elite, which could point towards the hierarchy of the dialectic of the beautiful and the ugly to be reversed. Did Goya then succeed in Adorno’s proposed mission of art to change society?


            In his final years, right after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, Goya resigned from the public sphere and made The Black Paintings in solitude on the walls of his private house, withdrawn from society. He had never written or talked about these works, indicating that they were not meant for public, they were private (Glendinning, 465-467). These were sinister and ugly in terms of content and style, or as Fingesten called them ‘grotesque’. Fingesten has been the only scholar found in this research who explicitly states that Goya’s Black Paintings are masterly grotesque, however its function is neglected. Others have made the claim that the Black Paintings are ugly but beautiful in its ugliness, and an ethical significance has been devoted to Goya’s success in conquering the freedom of the artist (Nehamas; Cascardi). All of them fail to explicitly state the Black Paintings to be ugly in terms of form and content, and therefore disregarded its revolutionary significance. Indeed, dominant art historical and museum discourse have marginalized the function of ugliness in Goya’s late work. In this discourse ‘beautiful’ is used repeatedly to describe works of art, it has become apparent that ‘ugly’ is a taboo in the elitist aesthetic discourse, or as Adorno said; a “category of prohibitions”(47). Goya chose to portray the ugly; the poor, witches, unnatural beings, the proletariat, while he used to be a royal painter. In fact, it has been argued in this paper that the function of the ugly in Goya’s Black Paintings could have been dedicated to the exposition of class struggle, the tension between the superstructure and the base, which shows his interest for social revolution and has been marginalized in the dominant discourse of art history and museums.

This research paper is new in two ways; the marginalized function of the ugly in literature on Goya’s work is evaluated and a function is given to his works of dissonance by bringing Adorno to the frame. By framing art into a context, meaning changes according to the frame. The interpreter should keep in mind that this link is not necessarily natural; a context is brought into the frame of an artwork.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Cascardi, Anthony J. “The Ethics of Enlightenment: Goya and Kant.” Philosophy and Literature           15.2 (1991): 189-211.

Fingesten, Peter. Delimitating the Concept of the Grotesque.” The journal of aesthetics and art            criticism 42.4 (1984): 419-426.

Glendinning, Nigel. “The Strange Translation of Goya’s’ Black Paintings’.” The Burlington        Magazine 117.868 (1975): 465-479.

Nehamas, Alexander. “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.” Representations 74.1 (2001): 37-54.

Nelson, Robert S., and Richard Shiff, eds. Critical Terms for Art History. University of Chicago           Press, 2010.

Pals, Daniel L. Eight Theories of Religion. Oxford University Press, USA, 2006.

Pop, Andrei, and Mechtild Widrich, eds. Ugliness: The Non-beautiful in Art and Theory. Vol.   12. IB Tauris, 2013.




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