From Some Trick: Thirteen Stories
“Brutto” means “ugly,” “bad,” or “nasty” in Italian. It differs from the Italian word “cattivo,” which implies badness in a moral sense, focusing instead on aesthetic ugliness or unattractiveness. Transparent Language’s Italian Language Blog explains it this way:
Brutto is the direct opposite of bello … and is used to describe an aesthetically unpleasant sensation in relationship to people, animals or objects: una persona brutta (an ugly person), un brutto naso (an ugly nose), un brutto cane (an ugly dog), un brutto vestito (an ugly dress). Because of its aesthetic judgment, brutto refers to things that are unpleasant to the senses of hearing and sight: una brutta voce (an ugly voice), una brutta musica (an unpleasant piece of music), un brutto quadro (a bad picture), un brutto film (a bad film).
Helen DeWitt is fluent in Italian (among Latin, French, Spanish, and at least a half-dozen other languages), so it is unsurprising that she would choose as her title a word that is so appropriate and so precise. Her story interrogates aesthetic ugliness, but with an ironic spin: “Brutto” is about the marketing and selling of ugliness by guardians of the art world who make money passing off unpleasant visual artifacts to a gullible public, and the artists willing to compromise their ideals to cash in.
The artist at the story’s centre is an unsuccessful painter who creates canvases that are entirely white: “The paint is always white, this fat gloopy stuff, and people have never seen anything like it. Sometimes it’s 20 centimetres thick or maybe more, it can take a year before it’s really dry.” DeWitt takes Yasmina Reza’s conceit in her play Art and goes her one better, including a couple who hang one of the paintings prematurely and have a large splotch of paint drop from the canvas onto their new carpet.
The artist gets a chance at fame when an Italian gallerist visits the London studio that doubles as her workspace and living quarters. She is two months behind on her rent and, at forty-nine years old, is one year away from the cut-off age for winning the Turner Prize (at least when the story takes place, which is sometime prior to 2017, when the age restriction on the prize was removed). The gallerist, whose name is Adalberto (or, as the artist’s agent, Serge, declaims in typical DeWitt fashion, “Adalberto!!!!!!!!”), is taken not with her visual art but a suit she created in 1962, when she was working as a dressmaker’s apprentice.
The garment is spectacularly ugly – “che brutto!” as Adalberto puts it. And in his eyes, it is exactly this ugliness that gives it market value. The dialogue between the artist and Adalberto lays out – in a cagey he said/she said manner – their respective attitudes toward the suit and its utility:
He said: I want this.
She said: It’s not for sale.
He said: I want 20 of these.
She said: I am not a dressmaker.
He said: No no no! Who would wear such a monstrosity? What do you take me for? No. You are an artist. I will give you £1,000 apiece.
The artist has no interest in returning to work as a seamstress, and particularly not “in that tradition,” but she is broke and finds the prospect of a large payday and a gallery exhibition in Italy too enticing to turn down.
DeWitt operates on several levels simultaneously in her story, not least of them a consideration of what makes an artifact ugly in the first place. When Adalberto displays the suits in Milan, the public reaction is horror, but DeWitt underscores that this is only because they have expert knowledge that would allow them to recoil from the dresses: “The show could never be so transgressive outside Milan – if you have no sense of style, if you know nothing of design, you cannot see the stupidity of the ugly pocket which only a trained apprentice could execute correctly.”
There is irony here: the original dress was created as the young acolyte’s Gesellenstück – loosely translated, a journeyman piece that she sewed as her final apprentice exam. In other words, it was a sincere display of all the various talents she had learned at the feet of her master. And, given the artist’s own background, there is a disconnect in the notion of the dress sporting an “ugly pocket which only a trained apprentice could execute correctly.” It is the disparity between ugliness and expertise that causes the aesthetes in Milan such combined horror and delight: Miuccia Prada is so overcome she purchases all twenty dresses.
Adalberto recognizes that the same reaction is impossible anywhere else and so must come up with a new hook in order to tour the show. What he settles on is delightfully macabre: he will have the artist “sign” her work by displaying bottles containing her urine, menstrual blood, sweat, and tears at various gallery shows around the world.
“If you have never been there you think it is easy to walk away,” says the artist by means of justification for going along with this bizarre marketing scheme. It is the third time she has said something similar; there is an old rhetorical rule that states if you want your audience to remember something you must repeat it three times, so we can be assured that this is a key line in the story. The artist, who is not of the Damian Hirst/Andres Serrano school of shock art, is blinded by Adalberto’s promises of riches and fame, including the reputed $1 million Prada shelled out for the contents of the Milan show.
Adalberto’s pull is immense – he is on the committee of the Venice Biennale – but he comes across with all the finesse of a charlatan or a snake oil salesman. And he does not display the same insight into art that the main character appears capable of.
Writing in the Paris Review, Andrew Martin suggests that DeWitt’s artist protagonist is not a misunderstood genius, but rather a purveyor of fairly mundane (read: all-white) canvases; at least Adalberto’s weird schemes have some entertainment value. “The dilemma is not between being true to one’s inner brilliance and selling out,” Martin writes. “It’s a weirder, more uneasy question: to remain obscure making one kind of junk or to become well-known making another.”
But there is evidence in the story to suggest that the protagonist is more aesthetically aware than Martin seems to want to give her credit for – and certainly more artistically sensitive than Adalberto. “If you set out to make something ugly, it is like setting out to make something beautiful, you will end up with kitsch,” she muses at one point. And it is kitsch, we understand, that sells – not the kind of art that takes time and patience to appreciate (or, indeed, more than a year to dry before it can be hung in a room).
And she remains essentially loyal to a kind of art that does not pander to a mass audience, despite her less refined desire to be recognized with accolades and glittering prizes. “You keep thinking the tide will turn and painting will stop being unfashionable and then it would be exciting to be shortlisted for the Turner,” the artist muses. “But the Turner selects these things that are exciting for people who don’t know anything about art.” Notwithstanding her disdain for a prize culture based on chasing the latest trends and eschewing a deep appreciation for art, she submits her original dress, along with a jar of spermicidal jelly, to the Turner Prize, thereby making explicit her willingness to trade integrity for renown.
“[F]rom the minute you go to art school you realise there is this need to be canny. There is this need to make a name for yourself.” This is a cynical admission on the part of the artist, who cashes in on notoriety achieved not through a fidelity to artistic principles but a blatant and self-serving hucksterism. Whether the protagonist is essentially a mediocrity, as Martin believes, or something more than that, DeWitt’s story of art and commerce retreats from the noble idea of the purity of art for its own sake, and is all the more honest and bracing because of it.