The Ugly History of Beautiful Things
On desire, consumption, and the impossibility of purity with Katy Kelleher
I’ve been a fan of Katy Kelleher ever since she changed my mind about russet. Here in New Hampshire, I’m currently surrounded by various shades of russet, which, before reading Katy’s essay on the golden brown color, had always made me feel a little blue. The burnt toast brown of the dead oak leaves and the umber of the dead grasses felt like harbingers of winter depression. But Katy’s description of russet as a central shade of earth’s aliveness made me reconsider New England November with “a generous eye,” which, Katy writes, “can see the fiery warmth blazing beneath the brown, the homely walnut emerging from the red.”
Katy’s writing is thoughtful, sensuous, and I always come away from her pieces having learned something curious or surprising about the world or my place within in. And Katy always always always considers the duality of things. Russet is the color of dead leaves, yes, but it’s also the color of the soil in springtime. And I mean, if we’re getting literal, the dead leaves eventually become part of the foundation for new life as they decompose! In her book, The Ugly History of Beautiful Things, Katy writes about white porcelain and Nazism; the musk of rodents making our perfumes smell good; the sheen of silk as the impetus for violence. She considers how consumption and desire for beauty can often reveal the impossibility of purity. Beauty can not exist without ugliness. Authenticity can not exist without performance. The self cannot exist without others to reflect the self and inform the self.
I’m so delighted to share this interview (and this photo of Katy’s gorgeous book cushioned in a bed of russet!) We talk about our shared penchant for paint colors, writing ambiguous books, and the allure of binaries. Stay tuned for my musings on a particular example of beautiful ugliness in my own life following the interview.
Sara: Your book’s title is, in my mind, perfect. I’m so curious if the book took shape before it found its title or the other way around. Titles don’t always act as ideal framing devices, but in your case, I feel like it really did? I know you also had a column at Longreads of the same name - did you always intend for your exploration of the ugly history of beautiful things to become a book?
Katy: I did actually think it could be a book—I very much wanted to write a book. But back when I pitched the idea to my editor at The Awl, I wasn’t sure how I was going to make that happen. I didn’t have an agent, I didn’t have any agents interested in me, and I had no real connections to the publishing world. I had written a coffee table book for Princeton Architectural Press, but it was work-for-hire and while I loved making Handcrafted Maine, it wasn’t me. I wanted to make something that reflected my sensibilities even more explicitly than that first book did. So, in the mid-2010s, I started pitching columns. The first one that worked out was my Color Stories series, which I dreamed of turning into a book. (I still do.) Unfortunately, just after I started writing and publishing the color column, a fabulous book on color came out by Kassia St. Clair and I realized, I can’t top that! I can’t compete with her book! It was simply too good.
That’s when I came up with the idea for, as I called it at the time, “Pretty Ugly.” [Editor’s note from Sara - I promise I didn’t know this and did not plagiarize Katy in naming my weekly link roundup or one of the chapters in Momfluenced the same thing!] Silvia Killingsworth, editor of The Awl, said she loved the idea and wanted to publish it. But then, just months later, the site closed down.
Silvia was kind enough to help me place my color column elsewhere (at The Paris Review) and she even helped me find a place for Pretty Ugly, which slowly morphed into The Ugly History of Beautiful Things. I started writing the column for Longreads, and my editor there, Michelle Weber, helped shape and sharpen the format further. Working with Michelle was great. She consistently pushed me to do more research, to further my arguments, and to take a bolder stance in my writing.
The book isn’t the same as the column. The book is more personal. Again, this was shaped by an editor, this time it was my editor at Simon & Schuster, Tzipora Baitch. I was extremely fortunate in how my book came together; Tzipora approached me during lockdown about writing a book, and when I told her I had no time to do unpaid work (i.e. a full book proposal), she helped me create an abbreviated version of a traditional proposal. Then, she bought it. And I was off to the races.
Oh, and yes, I do think the title is perfect. The only thing I’ve noticed, now that it has been published, is that some readers are disappointed that it isn’t a history textbook. It’s a little more wandering and searching than that, and it includes elements of personal essays. That’s not for everyone! Some readers find me preachy, boring, or annoying—so I’ve learned from reading Goodreads reviews.
Sara: I think (and write) about aesthetics all the time. As someone who has strong opinions about paint colors and bowl shapes and wood grains, it is sometimes very difficult for me to disentangle the performance of beauty (or taste) with the experience of beauty. Could you talk about how this tension informs the book and also how it’s impacted you personally?
Katy: Well, I think it’s complicated, because while the “performance of beauty” can be harmful, it can also be revitalizing. By this I mean: beauty can help connect people, appreciation can be contagious, desire can be joyful. Shared experiences of beauty are a positive social experience that can strengthen our bonds. In her amazing book, Easy Beauty, author Chloé Cooper Jones talks about attending a Beyoncé concert and being overwhelmed by the mutual ecstasy that passes through the crowd. Performing beauty, witnessing beauty, showcasing our beautiful impulses—these things can bring us closer together. I recently went with my mom to a John Singer Sargeant exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and it was such a lovely afternoon. I was showing off my art history knowledge for my mom, but she likes it. That makes her proud, and it makes me feel valued and intelligent. Together, we shared an experience that felt calm, generous, and gracious. I was performing for her, but the performance was real. When Beyoncé performs, it’s real. And often, when you show a friend your favorite new thing—the bowl you found at a flea market, the piece of pottery you made in your new class, the dress that fits you just so—you’re not doing it because you expect to be awarded with a higher social status or to lord it over them. You’re doing it because you like being happy and appreciating the material stuff of the world, and you hope they will, too.
That said, there are plenty of ways that we perform taste and sophistication that don’t feel so good. The shirt you bought because you saw girls wearing it on Instagram and it looks horrible on you, but you wear it anyway, the picture you take of your bedroom where you hide all the practical, necessary things that help you sleep, the ways we fake, hide, and obscure our economic and physical realities. I suppose the big question to ask is this: why am I doing this? Am I attending a Super Bloom because I want to take one picture for Instagram and then go? Or am I here to really look at the flowers, to take in the view of a hillside covered in red blooms, and to see the awe on my friends faces as we admire all that glory?
This is a long-winded way of saying: beauty is impure because people are complicated. Rarely do we have one simple motivating force behind our actions. You might be compelled to do something kind because you want to feel kind. It’s still kind.
Beauty is still worthwhile even if it’s performative. Personally, I like to know why I’m doing something. I try to be honest with myself about where my joy is coming from. Does it come from feeling superior to other people? Or does it come from the fact that I’m sharing with others something that feels vital to me? I’m not a saint. I’m wasteful and sometimes really selfish. Sometimes I perform a version of myself who isn’t really me. It’s an ongoing process, trying to be true to myself and good to the world at the same time. It’s not easy. I wonder sometimes: could I do a better job performing good taste and modern motherhood? And if I did this, would I be able to grow a larger audience for my writing, my books and essays? Maybe I’d make more money, which would be nice. But ultimately, I don’t think I could do that. I don’t have the talent for it. I’m good at sharing small things, following my own curiosity, and writing long paragraphs.
Sara: Instagram feels like a great case study of beautiful ugliness. We tell ourselves (or maybe listen to external voices telling us) that we seek connection (beauty) and inspiration (beauty) but so often our [earnest or not] pursuit of such things forces us to contend with consumption (ugly), aspiration (often ugly!), and materialism (ugly). In so many ways, our addictions to image-centric consumption feels like a truly modern concern. What do you think?
Katy: I think that every modern concern has historic precedent. People have always wanted to create representations of themselves that would convey their values. Just look at any portrait gallery. You’ll see women in absurd dresses, draped in ropes of pearls (symbols of virtue), holding lilies or roses (to link them to the Virgin Mary), wearing wigs and crowns and bonnets. The men wear red riding gear, to show how sporting they are, and lace cuffs, to display their wealth. For thousands of years, people have been finding ways to visually broadcast their value (and their values).
This used to be the domain of the very wealthy, but I’m pretty sure even peasants tried to look good, in smaller and more accessible ways. Folk art exists for a reason. It’s the beauty created by common people in their downtime. We like owning pretty things, we like wearing them, and we like to have other people see our skills.
However, the way we do it now on social media—that is new. It’s faster, it’s less personal, it’s more omnipresent, and I think it feels mandatory in a way that’s really depressing. The good news is: it’s not mandatory. It is possible to resist social pressures. We’re all capable of deciding when enough is enough. It feels addictive, but stepping away from Instagram isn’t going to give you delirium tremens. (I don’t mean this as a joke—I’ve seen family members in the grip of alcoholism and I often think of how addictions fall on a wide spectrum. People can overcome great, terrible, physical addictions; I can quit shopping for shit I don’t need or hate-browsing an influencer's feed.)
Sara: Is there any such thing as a pure experience of beauty? You write: “I feel discomforted by my desire for more, always more, even when I know I already have enough. I feel frustrated by how socially constructed my tastes have always been, how conventional. And I’m afraid that my efforts to be better won’t matter in the long run, that I will always backslide, that the world will not change, and that I will someday simply stop caring.” I’m so fascinated by how you interweave your desire for the consumption of beauty with your desire to be good. I’m not sure everyone would see the two as being intrinsically connected.
Katy: I think desire and morality are inextricably linked and often at odds. Desire is unruly, fickle, confusing, exciting, strange. This book focuses on my desire for things, but I think all my desire is like this. Sexual desire can be really weird. I have a strong desire for newness. I find myself chasing novel sensations far too often. Desire is what pushes us forward in life, yet it can feel so foreign, like an outside force that invades our brains and compels us to engage in strange behaviors. There’s a reason we have many myths and fairytales about achieving the “true heart’s desire.” It’s because wanting is so human, so shadowy, so vulnerable. It’s intimate and personal.
In contrast, morality is about doing right by the world. I believe “being good” is a deeply personal thing, and that my standards for goodness aren’t going to be the same as yours, nor should they be. I don’t want to be the moral authority for anyone else. I don’t even want to be the supreme moral authority for my kid. I want to guide her and shape her, but I don’t want her to grow up like I did, scared to death of going to hell. I want her to figure out her own way of living within the world.
While I no longer believe in hell, I still sometimes go into a Catholic church and pray to Mary. It brings me comfort. I like to light candles for the friends and family I’ve lost. These actions don’t make me good, but they bring me peace.
I suppose that is what I’m trying to balance. I want to desire, I want to understand my desires, I want to satisfy some of them, but I also want to feel at peace with my own decisions. Some desires, once satisfied, can give birth to another emotion: disgust. It’s what happens when I vastly overeat and then suddenly the food around me looks disgusting and the smell of an egg cooking makes me want to ralph. It’s so much nicer to feel sated and calm, sleepy. Desire for things is like that, too. I don’t want to feel guilty or gross about the shit I buy.
Of course, I care a little about looking like a good person. I wouldn’t like it if everyone who read my work thought, oh this lady is a stupid hypocrite. But I am capable of ignoring that kind of critique if I know that I’ve been acting according to my own system of morals. I see myself as being responsible for my own inner peace and happiness, and I work hard to create a sense of calm within my own brain.
Sara: I’m sure I’m not the first person to enthusiastically compliment you on your ability to describe color! In your description of turquoise (the stone), you write: “The stone can be many different hues, from cold winter sky blue to glaucous bloom gray-green. It can look as brilliant and lush as a bed of moss in late spring or as fragile and sweet as a newly hatched robin’s egg.” I MEAN. Did you used to fantasize about naming paint samples as a kid (hi it’s me)? Were you always besotted with color? What do you make of the beigification of the Target home goods section and Canva infographics as shared on social media?
Katy: Oh my god, THANK YOU. As a kid, I used to hoard paint samples in my room until I had too many and my mom made me throw them out. I painted my childhood bedroom light pink, then bright yellow, then purple. I have always loved paint and how it can transform our little private worlds. I find color very grounding and rewarding. I like to contemplate colors because I find it really easy to change my own mind when it comes to color. I can start hating a hue then, looking at it more and in different contexts, I come to realize I actually rather like it. (My friend Sophie painted her hallway a color she called “baby poop yellow” and I would never have chosen it, but it looked wonderful. Like dried goldenrod, like late November, like a crackling cold day about to snow. Perfect!)
I think too many consumer goods are beige and gray and I do find it kind of sad. But I also think color trends are really silly and obviously manufactured. I think most people would be happier if they played a little more with color. Let your outfit clash! Paint that wall red! Try a butter yellow manicure! Find the color you hate most and try painting a little watercolor sketch in that hue. Our vision is so incredible, such a gift. We’re so lucky to have bodies and senses, why not use them and challenge them?
Sara: Which ugly history were you most surprised by? And did it impact your appreciation of the respective beautiful object?
Katy: I was surprised by all of them, at various points, but I think the last chapter, on marble, really changed how I look at rocks. One of the most inspiring things I learned was about how the ancient Greeks used to consider marble a semi-living thing. “The exhalations of the earth.” The idea of stone as crystallized breath is so poetic to me. It’s also a reminder of the great systems that are in progress all around us, the natural order of things, it’s nothing short of a miracle.
However, reading about workers in Colorado dying from silicosis—that was awful. I have a childhood friend who works as an engineered stone cutter. He’s an Afghanistan war vet, and he’s been through a lot. He doesn’t wear protective gear when he’s cutting countertops, so he’s at risk of developing lung disease. Talking to him, I gained a new understanding of the scale of our social problems. It’s not just that companies wont give their workers the proper safety gear. It’s that we don’t value collective health and we don’t see bodies as being worth protecting.
I still like marble, to be clear, but I’ll never buy an engineered stone tile or countertop. In my dream house, I’ll have granite or formica or butcher’s block.
Sara: I found myself wondering about beautiful histories of ugly things - there must be some! Did you stumble upon anything like that in your research?
Katy: Oh yes, but I am keeping those close to the chest for a potential future project. For now, however, I can point you to a series I did years ago at the Paris Review. I wrote three pieces “in defense of ugliness”. One was about ugly art, one was about ugly design, and the last one was about ugly fashion. They were SO FUN to write.
Sara: I’ve read recent criticism about nonfiction books failing to offer clear conclusions or even prescriptive conclusions, and while sure, nonfiction books that don’t offer anything curious, insightful, or interesting aren’t great, I adore a book that attempts to clear away the clutter which prevents us from seeing something. I love a book that wrestles with something unsolvable. And your book very much feels like this. I’d describe my book in a similar way. This might be a little off-topic, but why do you think there’s pushback to books that don’t offer a conclusive solution or grand theory?
Katy: Your book totally falls into that category! You write thoughtfully about parenting, influencing, and the pressures of gendered performance. I’m not sure what people expect you to do—are you supposed to condemn every single woman working in this space as a no-good, very bad influence? That would be both cruel and boring.
I think there’s been a recent trend away from radical empathy, an idea that was popular briefly in the 2010s but has fallen out of favor. I think empathy involves a certain amount of ambiguity. In order to understand another person, we need to allow for their contradictions. Everyone is a hypocrite. Everyone is confused. Everyone is driven by forces they don’t totally understand. No one is perfectly logical. No one has all the right answers.
And I suppose this comes from being married to a scientist, but I think it’s also important to remember that most theories are just that: theories. When it comes to the question of, as Sheila Heti put it, “how should a person be?” we can only experiment and theorize. How should society be? Fuck if I know. How should a book be? Well, I like books that are digressive and thoughtful and a little funny at times. That’s the kind of thing I try to write.
Sara: It seems self-evident to me that most objects and ideas and people contain dualties, that for beauty to exist, ugliness must also exist. But I also think there’s a rising desire to identify supposedly pure sources of beauty and goodness. When I think about guru culture on Instagram, often folks gain platforms and capital by arguing that their method/ideology/belief system is right and true and beautiful and that whatever they hold up as the opposing method/ideology/belief system is fully bad and ugly. Why do you think we have such resistance as humans to acknowledging the comingling of beauty and ugliness?
Katy: I think purity is such an enticing idea. I think we’re drawn to extremes—we’re interested in the worst of humanity and the best. We want to find the outer edges of things. Where’s the limit? Who was the best person to ever live? Who was the worst? Then, the next logical question is: where do I fall?
Binary thinking is a shortcut that bypasses all sorts of complicating factors. It is so much easier to discard a “bad person” or avoid a “bad food” than it is to figure out what has caused the adverse behavior or reaction. And I think most of us would like things simplified a little bit. We want to feel good, to be seen as good, to have good relationships, live good lives. When someone comes along with a simple formula for achieving that, well, I get why people want to believe it could work for them. It’s just so much work figuring out how to cook, eat healthy, keep your space and body clean, get the right amount of exercise, take care of your family and friends, ask for help, give help, participate in the community, find time to rest, make enough money, donate enough money… the list goes on and on. But I really believe that these are all things that most people need to figure out for themselves with the help of their immediate, local community. That requires being flexible, adaptable, and generous.
But that kind of advice—talk to the moms around you, ask advice from your parents, be open-minded, try many different types of foods and body movements to see what feels good—is so basic. No one is going to buy it! Gurus have to make up secrets to sell. But we don’t have to buy them.
I don’t know if I always liked living in ambiguity, or if I always felt so comfortable with the comingling of pain and pleasure, attraction and repulsion, beauty and ugliness. But now, I do. It soothes me to remember that change is our only constant, that people are unknowable, strange, and wonderful, and that we all have the capacity to be better than we were yesterday.
Thank you Katy!
I keep thinking about Katy’s mention of “not wanting to feel guilty or gross about the shit” she consumes. I’ve certainly felt like that MANY times throughout my life as a desirer of beauty (and products), but there’s one pursuit of beauty that generates a particularly generous amount of self-loathing. Likely because it’s one that rubs up against performative femininity, white supremacist beauty ideals, and economic privilege. So here’s the beauty practice I feel grossest about, and here’s why.
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