Literature used for this post:

Grotesque, by Justin D. Edwards and Rune Graulund

Buy this book on Amazon (US)
Buy this book on Adlibris (Sweden)

This post is based on the second chapter of the book mentioned above (the same book as mentioned in my last post). Most of what I’ll write are my own opinions of what is written in the book.

Now, theory might sound extremely boring, but that’s what every academic field does. What I like to call it, at least outside the academic world, is perspective.

We look at a specific phenomena, be it physical or abstract, from different perspectives (through various theories). This ability, to look at something through different glasses, is very useful for life in general – you really should try it, if you haven’t already.

One problem with this book is that it appears to focus mainly on written bodies of work – not visual art, so much.

This chapter brings up four critical thinkers who in various ways adresses the grotesque. Three of these, I know of already (and have read briefly, a long time ago) while the fourt, I never heard of before.

John Ruskin

John Ruskin writes of the symbolic grotesque. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the book does not really adress what this means for a practical approach. I’ll need to read more literature of Ruskin specifically to dive deeper into that.

Let me share some short notes on Ruskin, though.

Ruskin makes a difference between the execution of a grotesque work. The true (noble) grotesque is performed by an artist who can imagine something within the mind and produce an original piece, while the false grotesque is decorative and/or entertaining on a level surface.

What he fits into the true grotesque is distortion, a gap between imagined possibility and reality. To Ruskin, the grotesque is not only a sign of degeneration and decadence, but can also be seen as social criticism.

Connected to social criticism is the idea of grotesquerie as historical – to be understood through it’s own time and culture. This is true for art in general, but considering the psychological aspect of the grotesque, I find this to be extremely important, to the extent it’s possible.

I have read Ruskin briefly, many years ago. Being the book fetishist that I am, I may need to get my hands on some more books by him, just to learn more.

Mikhail Bachtin

Mikhaeil Bachtin is the person who invented the term carnivalesque within the grotesque. What he focuses on is laughter – the ridiculousness of the world.

What Bachtin does is to further define the grotesque. He speaks of the grotesque body, grotesque realism and the carnivalesque.

Bachtin, just like Ruskin, stresses the fact that the grotesque should be understood in it’s historical context. Again, I couldn’t agree more.

It just so happens that the book referred to in this book is Rabelais and his world, which I have in my possession. I will dedicate an entire post to it once I’ve read it.

Michel Foucault

This is where the idea of social and cultural importance grows beyond measure. Foucault reads grotesquerie into societal power over normality, like I mentioned in my previous post.

The idea is that dominant institutions dictate the norm in a society and everyone and everything challenging that becomes abnormal, grotesque.

Institutions mentioned are asylums, hospitals and prisons. The means to normalization are to alter it in some way (cure insanity at an asylum), fix an abnormal body (hospital) or punish a behaviour (prison).

The grotesque can be read into many aspects of this; the abnormal itself, but also on a cultural and societal level. Who is to decide what’s normal and not? And why does a society allow those in power to make these calls?

What I personally find both interesting and positive is that power such as this, automatically leads to counter-actions that challenge these ideas of normality and abnormality.

I’ll need to read more of Foucault specifically to be able to give a more thourough view of his approach to the grotesque. Let me get back to you on that one.

Julia Kristeva

Kristeva is the one of these four that I’ve never heard of before. Her point of view is to look at the grotesque through some sort of feminist perspective.

I admit to being just a bit confused of what is written about her in this book, so I will not present any thoughts on the matter. At some point, I’ll see if I can find literature on her, but that will have to wait – for several reasons, of which finances and preferences are the major.

Having read the chapter on theory, I am both surprised and not, of the fact that visual aesthetics is such a small part of it. Ruskin is the only one who (to my knowledge) deals with architecture, thus has some thoughts on visual perception of the grotesque.

I am sure that, further down the road in my studies, I’ll find literature that speaks more of what I personally find the most interesting; visual aesthetics of the grotesque, and how we are influenced by it.

What I find interesting in this brief introduction to these four authors is that to some extent, their views of the grotesque meet in the importance of historical, social and cultural understanding. They all have different approaches, but that’s where they come together.

The problem, but that has more to do with the longevity of the grotesque as a style, is – how it has changed and developed through the centuries. Our perception of what is grotesque has changed, and as with every art style, this raises the question (at least for me) – can we find grotesque in styles that are not by definition, grotesque?

There are a few more chapters in this book that I am interested in, and I’ll write about them before I move on to Bachtin.


This is me, sharing my fascination with the grotesque, the macabre, the disfigured, the ugly and the dark – mainly in art and literature, but I might quite possibly also indulge into the twists of the human mind.


Feel free to read, share and comment – I appreciate it.