Ugliness should be the true goal of art. We can trace a minor literature of degeneration from the work of Alfred Jarry and Baudelaire, modernist primitivism, Futurist noise, art brut, to The Residents and Devo. Notions of completion or perfection are deceptive. Instead, we might be better served by drawing our attention to what is partial, deformed, decayed, maculate, and violently in-process.
To find aesthetic theories of ugliness, one need not look very far. Baudelaire viewed degenerate art as the one of the greatest aristocratic privileges: the right to refuse pleasure to others. Luigi Russolo, the protopater of noise music, saw in unpalatable and offensive art a startling contemporary realism, much in the same way Ezra Pound’s “cult of ugliness” operated with a sort of artistic sangfroid bordering on the objective. Clement Greenberg famously said of Jackson Pollock’s work, “all profoundly original art looks ugly at first,” foreshadowing Hartley’s Advanced Genius Theory.
Gretchen Henderson’s excavation, Ugliness, on the cultural meanings of repulsion joins a number of other great texts on the subject — all variations of the same title — by writers such as the late Umberto Eco and British critic Stephen Bayley. Her treatment, however, spends more time on ugly sounds, and the history she traces is fascinating. From Pythagoras’s centering of musical harmony in his religio-philosophical system, Plato’s conflation of music and astronomy as perfect mathematical sciences, and Aristotle’s belief that music can influence temperament, the classical conception of music drew together harmony, rationalism, and order into sonic expression. The sounds one listened to were of no less than cosmic importance, each note corresponding to celestial mechanisms that held influence over the whole of creation. The infamous tritone was considered by medieval composers a work of the devil and that its deployment would engender degeneracy. Sound must be beautiful so that we may be beautiful. However, as Bakhtin’s carnivalesque reminds us, our actions and processes are ugly, therefore so are we.
As inheritors of the carnival tradition of degeneracy, Macula Dog advances some of the most beautifully ugly music this year. Last year’s EP for Haord Records was a demented, screw-faced attempt at pop music, and Why Do You Look like Your Dog? continues this grand tradition of grotesquerie. Reminding us of how much nearer we are to deformation than perfection, the music swells maculate and mongrel, debasing pop and experimental electronic in the most tender, loving way possible.
After all, the album’s title is itself an interrogation into hideousness. The question is not “why does your dog look like you,” but the other way around, implying a departure from the human rather than an anthropomorphization of the bestial. Our fixation on La Gioconda obscures the fact we are all of the cynocephali. “The Dig Down” begins with a short passage of grainy, mangled moaning before voices vocodered to the cusp of comprehension chant, “And it was good,” an animal disfigurement of Genesis. The short record is filled with sounds mimicking bodily functions, whether it be a noisy gurgle, a synthesized fart, or distorted babbling. “Grayed Out” asks us to wade through “lakes of phlegm” and a droning voice presents “aged plastic and fecal matter” on “Tone Pig.” In the hands of other artists, the pitched-down slo-mo voice becomes a signifier of the non-human/non-natural, but in the mouths of Macula Dog, it becomes a protracted belch and an earnest plea: “looking for a body on the weekend.”
Body, not beauty, is the concern. The beautiful in Macula Dog is purely accidental.
Macula Dog’s most notable precursor is not Devo or The Residents or Pee-wee Herman, even though sonically and/or conceptually they are all closely aligned. Rather, the true progenitor, Typhon to a great cast of monsters, may in fact be the 17th-century Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher. Renowned as a polymath, he also maintained a museum within the Roman College. On display were all manner of curiosities — marine creatures, ancient manuscripts, experimental devices — but perhaps most notable were his catoptric machines, inventions that could create monsters out of men. Relying on mirrors and projections, these devices could superimpose the head of an ass or deform the shape of the face like modeling clay. Kircher writes of “this machine which has rapt everyone in great admiration when they see instead of their natural face, the face of a wolf or a dog or another animal.” That is the experience of Why Do You Look like Your Dog: displacement, deformation, degeneration, devolution.
The entire record is shot through with imperfections: noisy bursts, aimless passages, buckled rhythms, and undecipherable voices. But that’s the point. It falls apart and decays and picks itself back up again because, in its refusal to recognize perfection, it refuses to recognize termination. The two most sonically similar groups, The Residents and early Devo, contextualized their work with a variety of theories and conceptual maneuvers, all of which accounted for the artists’ lack of structure. As Devo so forcefully claimed, “In the Beginning was the End,,” and by collapsing distinctions between start and finish, their work had no ideal to asymptotically approach, no standard to meet, and no fetter to keep them in check. Retrospectively, perhaps we can say that both of those artistic ventures were later compromised, but their earlier work was filled with ugly beauty that simultaneously debased and fêted humanity.
Macula Dog has not had the weight of history brought to bear on their shoulders. Even the tradition in which they operate is not as much a lineage as a conceptual association mediated largely by the advancement of the calendar. However, in this time when the distinction between human and machine is thinning and the larger part of our memories and identities exist as code coursing along a decentralized network of virtual channels, a reminder of the animal that therefore we are is perhaps needed.
Peeling away the glossy minimalism of an uploaded universe, Why Do You Look like Your Dog? invites us to babble and burble, groan and growl, slurp and suck. We are multiform, varicolored, erratic, nonsensical, and streaked through with imperfection; not merely cyborgs, we’re mongrels. By our very nature, we are not fully anything, and we would do well to remember that.