Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 15, No. 5, 2016
  Current Issue  
  Back Issues  
Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
  Contributing Editors
David Solway
Louis René Beres
Nick Catalano
Lynda Renée
Gary Olson
Jordan Adler
Nancy Snipper
Andrew Hlavacek
Daniel Charchuk
  Music Editors
Nancy Snipper
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Chantal Levesque Denis Beaumont
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
  Noam Chomsky
Mark Kingwell
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somerville
Mona Eltahawy
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Navi Pillay
Ernesto Zedillo
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward




Filippo Contesi is an Italian philosopher, currently working on emotions, the arts and linguistic justice. He has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of York. More of his work is available at: Originally published as: Filippo Contesi, "The Meanings of Disgusting Art", Essays in Philosophy, 17:1, 68--94,


Disgust is generally considered one of a limited number of basic emotions, that are commonly considered to be universally hard-wired in humans. It should then come as no surprise that disgusting art (art that warrants an appreciator’s response of disgust) has been around for nearly as long as art itself. Aspects of art that elicit disgust can be found in almost all ages, art forms, genres, and in many different artists. On the other hand, it is perhaps more striking that disgusting art has generally been neglected by aesthetics and philosophical thinking about the arts. Many other emotions, including variants of most basic emotions, have instead been discussed a lot more often (fear, anger, sadness, pity, not to talk about more pleasant emotions).

One period in which aesthetics addressed the role of disgust in art with some systematicity was the eighteenth century, especially in German-speaking circles. The issue was initially discussed in the writings of Johann Adolf Schlegel and his brother Johann Elias, and subsequently by such venerable authors as Moses Mendelssohn, Gotthold E. Lessing and Immanuel Kant. Although these authors showed some differences of opinion, they all expressed the negative view according to which disgust, unique amongst unpleasant emotions, was incompatible with aesthetic value -- at least in the great majority of cases.

Either under the influence of this eighteenth-century view, or, to use Arthur Danto’s phrase, of a general ‘unmentionability’ of disgust, philosophical aesthetics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries generally (continued to) neglect disgust. By contrast, sections of contemporary art history and criticism, as well as of cultural theory, proved more systematically interested in disgusting art. In fact, disgust appeared, and still appears to many, to be a conspicuous presence in the contemporary art world. Such was for instance the opinion of art historian Jean Clair, former director of the Musée Picasso in Paris. As he pithily summarized it, ‘[T]he times of disgust have replaced the age of taste.’ These circumstances have put extra pressure on the defenders of the traditional, eighteenth-century view sketched above.

It is time for a new cycle of serious philosophical engagement with disgusting art to start. Much has of course changed since the eighteenth century. In particular, we now have a significant amount of carefully collected evidence about the workings of disgust (courtesy of the experimental work done in the last three decades in the cognitive sciences). Moreover, philosophical mainstream views about art and value and, to some extent, about common artistic tastes have meanwhile become more open-minded. In particular, it has become difficult to endorse a view of the value of art that would have been common in the eighteenth century, viz. the view that makes artistic value coincide with aesthetic pleasure. For instance, it is easy to see that the value of disgusting art may in many cases reside in rewards that are to an extent extrinsic to the aesthetic-emotional experience narrowly construed. Of this kind are for example the cognitive rewards that for Noël Carroll Carroll are a crucial part of the artistic value that is distinctive of horror fictions. Nonetheless, Carolyn Korsmeyer, in reviving the topic of disgusting art in contemporary aesthetics, has argued against both cognitive accounts à la Carroll and the received eighteenth-century view. My central aim is to offer reasons to doubt the plausibility of Korsmeyer’s account of the aesthetic value of disgusting art.


Arguing against accounts of disgusting art that locate its value in the cognitive rewards that it sometimes affords, Korsmeyer recently advocated a more holistic, integrated account that locates the value of disgusting art in the aesthetic-emotional experience itself. By contrast, arguing against the received eighteenth-century view of disgust as a poor ingredient for great art, she optimistically reaffirmed the potential of disgusting art to achieve the highest peaks of aesthetic value. Nonetheless, Korsmeyer’s account of disgusting art’s aesthetic value is close to the kind of general account of aesthetic value that many in the eighteenth century endorsed. In her own words, her aim is to

emphasize the capacity of disgust to impart an intuitive, felt grasp of the significance of its object. As Paul Guyer puts it in a summary of the contribution of Alexander Baumgarten […] “The particular feature of sensory perception that is exploited for the unique pleasure of aesthetic experience . . . is its richness, the possibility of conveying a lot of information through a single pregnant image . . . ”

The key claim in Korsmeyer’s view is that disgust can be part of aesthetic appreciation, its unpleasantness notwithstanding. This is so insofar as disgust offers cognitive riches that command an appreciator’s interest and attention (or ‘absorption,’ to use Korsmeyer’s term). This is not, she clarifies, simply to say that cognitive rewards compensate for the emotion’s unpleasantness. On her view, the appreciator can ‘savour’ disgust itself in virtue of the ideas that the emotion embodies. She argues that ‘emotions have meaning -- have semantic content -- that is delivered by the bodily changes that define them.’ In a jargon that is more familiar to contemporary philosophical discussions of the emotions, the semantic content that an emotion can embody can be called the ‘cognitive’ content, or component, of the emotion.

In this respect, what for Korsmeyer is most distinctive of disgust, as well as especially apt to aesthetic appreciation, are meanings connected with human mortality. Disgust, she says, ‘means decay, putrefaction, disintegration: death.’ But, she adds, fear, too, is semantically associated with death, for the fearsome also represents threats to our life. Nonetheless, the disgusting and the fearsome are associated with mortality in different ways. Unlike fearsome objects,

objects that disgust pose long-term threats that are all the worse for being absolutely inexorable. Disgust is more of a response to the transition between life and death . . .

On Korsmeyer’s view, then, fear and disgust are both associated with mortality, but disgust’s association with mortality is more specifically an association with the transition from life to death. It is worth noting that Korsmeyer’s argument assumes that there is a one-way entailment between a semantic connection with the transition from life to death and a semantic connection with mortality. For her, fear and disgust both concern mortality but the latter’s association with the transition from life to death is what differentiates disgust from fear. The semantic entailment from life -- death transition to mortality looks plausible enough: whatever transitions from life to death is necessarily mortal (even if, as Christians think of Jesus, this transition might be reversible). However, the conceptual connection also runs the other way: whatever is mortal is such only insofar as it can, and at some point does, transition from life to death. Perhaps, however, Korsmeyer’s notion of a semantic connection is meant to be more psychological than conceptual. In this sense, it would seem as though the transition from life to death more easily (more often, or for more people) brings to mind, or makes one think of mortality, than mortality brings to mind transition from life to death. Nonetheless, this is an eminently empirical issue, which seems far from obviously settled.

There are two ways in which Korsmeyer motivates the semantic connection between disgust and the transition from life to death. One way was already suggested in the passage quoted earlier: ‘objects that disgust pose long-term threats that are all the worse for being absolutely inexorable.’ In the light of the current best empirical understanding of disgust, it is in fact very plausible that disgust evolved to protect us from such long-term threats as diseases. Nonetheless, not all disgust elicitors are threats to our well-being: worms are disgusting to many but are not especially dangerous in terms of human diseases; the same is true of cheese and other dairy products, which to some are disgusting.

The second motivation for disgust’s connection with life-death transition that Korsmeyer offers is that, immediately after death, we rot and become individually indistinct like many disgusting things.

Besides the human corpse, several other common disgust elicitors are putrefying substances and thus bear some resemblance to humans after their death: animal corpses, of course, but also faeces, and organic rubbish more generally. Here again, however, counter-examples can be easily found, as many common disgust elicitors are neither rotting nor individually indistinct: amputated bodies, for instance, but also bodily secreta like spit and mucus.


Some may not be convinced by my appeal to these counter-examples. Beyond threats to well-being and individual indistinctness, these critics would mention additional ways to connect particular disgust elicitors with the idea of mortality or of transition between life and death. One kind of option in this respect is offered by views that insist on disgust’s alleged role in coping with our fear of death. Such views have their most influential instance in Rozin and collaborators’ view of the disgusting (or at least of a proper sub-set of it) as a reminder of our animalness: ‘[a]nything that reminds us that we are animals elicits disgust.’ On this view, one of the functions of disgust is to keep us humans at a psychologically healthy distance from reminders of our own animal nature, and hence of our own mortality. Without disgust, on such a view, we would have been a lot less successful in our evolutionary fight for survival and reproduction, because paralyzed by the prospect of dying.

This view, initially quite influential (partly as a result of the pioneering and landmark status of Rozin and collaborators’ overall work on disgust), has recently lost the favour of much of the scientific community while many other aspects of their overall views and results on disgust are still very much mainstream. It is certainly true that a lot of common disgust elicitors bear some association with animalness, since most if not all of them are organic substances. However, the view that disgust is a defense against the idea of animalness is hardly compatible with the widespread evidence suggesting that we do not have any general aversion to animals. For one thing, as Royzman and Sabini point out, we share very many anatomical and behavioural features with non-human animals and a lot of these are not typically disgusting: legs, arms, eyes, walking, running, breathing, scratching, stretching etc. In fact, we have very favourable attitudes towards several features of many animals: cats and the way they jump, horses and their gait etc.

It is also highly debatable that non-human animals have for us a special connection with mortality. We have ample occasion to witness mortality in our own species. If there is anything that we often associate with animals generally, that is perhaps a lack of intelligence, or elegance, or of civility (even though in the right circumstances even these associations are reversed: and so foxes are cunning, giraffes move graciously etc.).

Although from a decidedly more philosophical perspective, Colin McGinn has also argued for a connection between disgust and human mortality. After putting forward counter-examples to many alternative accounts of the distinctive cognitive components of disgust, McGinn advances his own ‘death-in-life theory.’ On this theory, what disgusts does so insofar as it reminds one, or makes one think of, ‘death as presented in the form of living tissue.’ For the purposes of the theory, however, not any life or death will do, but only ‘the notions of life and death as they apply to a conscious being.’

The three cognitive components here identified by McGinn, i.e. death, life and consciousness, are for him each necessary, but only jointly sufficient, for disgustingness. (For example, death is not sufficient, because, he suggests, bones are not disgusting). On such a very common disgust elicitor as the (human) corpse, McGinn’s theory fares quite well: corpses are disgusting because they make us think of death; but they also make us think of life (for corpses bear some signs of life, e.g. in the form of bacterial activity). Moreover, they make us think of life and death, as these apply to conscious, human beings. Here I understand McGinn’s theory as requiring only a general connection with life and death as they apply to a conscious being. The formulation appealing to ‘death as presented in the form of living tissue’ is certainly more suggestive, but it is also too metaphorical to be handled with ease. Corpses are not literally death. The case of corpses also fits well with Korsmeyer’s idea of a transition from life to death (even if McGinn’s account is not obviously concerned with such a transition).

However, McGinn’s theory has much more trouble with other disgust elicitors. To be sure, the formulation of his theory that I am considering has quite a wide scope. This is it:

(MGD) Something is disgusting if and only if it reminds us of life and death as they apply to a conscious being.

Still, the theory suffers from serious difficulties, including the existence of counter-examples on both the sufficiency and the necessity sides of MGD. Of the disgustingness of faeces, for instance, McGinn says that ‘life and death exist co-presently in’ them. There is death in them because they are the end-product of digestion: ‘the digestive process takes living things as input and delivers dead things as output [...] the rectum is a grave.’ But there is also life in them, insofar as digestion, of which they are a part, is a living process and ‘the very foundation of all animal life.’ Moreover, faeces are organic matter (life) but seem inanimate (death). This characterization of faeces may be thought-provoking as a cultural analysis of some people’s perceptions of bodily excreta. But it puts under stress the plausibility of McGinn’s theory. His reasons for faeces’ being at the same time dead and alive are essentially metaphorical or figurative —and, in fact, involve several different metaphors and figures of speech. Faeces are dead qua end-product of digestion (end-as-death), or they are dead as they do not move (death-as-immobility). By contrast, they are alive because they take part in life (metonymy), but also because they are organic matter (possibly the only literal statement or, in another sense, metonymical).

The appeal to metaphors is in principle acceptable for a theory that relies on associations of ideas, or to what-makes-one-think-of. Think of the limbs of an elephantiasic or of The Elephant Man’s face in the 1980 eponymous Lynch movie: no part of the body in these cases is or appears severed. If anything, the relevant disgustingness seems to arise from excess, rather than from subtraction. Here, too, of course, McGinn might be able to suggest an ingenious connection. As is the case with resemblance, metaphors and figures of speech can pretty much connect anything with anything else. The issue however remains the plausibility of such a connection as a reason for disgust.

Finally, and even less plausibly, McGinn attributes the disgustingness of some insects (those that do not have frequent contact with faeces or with other disgust elicitors) to their ‘lying between life and death.’ They are alive, obviously, but they are ‘also curiously machinelike -- with [their] hard exterior, [their] coolness to the touch, and [their] mechanical behaviour;’ they are ‘close to tiny robots.’ Here McGinn’s suggestion is that machines and robots remind us of death because they are lifeless (another metonymy). And yet, robots are not disgusting because, McGinn adds, ‘they are not organic.’ Fair enough, but then why should the figures of speech stop at this? Why, for instance, does robots’ animation not remind us of life?

Against William Ian Miller’s suggestion that what really disgusts is the life soup, or ‘the capacity for life,’ McGinn himself correctly suggests the following:

what makes certain life processes disgusting and others not? We need an independent criterion of the disgusting to answer that question, since the concept of life itself is too broad to capture the range of objects that disgust us. Talk of soup […] is all well and good, but these are metaphors, in need of literal interpretation.

McGinn’s own account is vulnerable to this very same criticism.


One may still object that the existence of the counter-examples advanced in the previous two sections should not be seen as a problem for Korsmeyer’s account of the aesthetic value of disgust. The semantic association to which Korsmeyer appeals is in fact meant to be part of the cognitive content of the emotion of disgust. As I noted earlier, the aesthetic value of disgust for her does not lie in a merely extrinsic connection (e.g. a co-occurrence) between certain ideas associated with an object, and a certain feeling or emotion directed towards the same object. A merely extrinsic connection would in fact make the aesthetic value of disgusting art best accounted for by a cognitivist theory. Instead, the meanings to which Korsmeyer appeals cannot but be part of disgust’s cognitive content. What this means can be clarified in terms of the notion of the formal object of an emotion.

On a rough-and-ready characterization, the formal object of an emotion is the property that an emotion ascribes to its intentional object (or to the object that the emotion is about). The formal object of fear, for instance, is the property of being immediately threatening (or of being immediately threatening to the prospective emoter or to those that she cares about). Part of what it means to be afraid of something, in other words, is to understand that something as an immediate threat. Similarly, the formal object of anger is thwarting desires or expectations or being a demeaning offense (of/to the emoter’s or those that she cares about), and the formal object of sadness is being a loss (for the emoter etc.).

More generally, emotions have a cognitive content in the sense that they ascribe a formal object to their intentional object. It is only in virtue of such an ascription that Korsmeyer’s view of emotions’ embodiment of meanings can be understood. The meaning that fear embodies, for instance, is necessarily something to do with the threat that the feared thing poses. If this is correct, then Korsmeyer is committed to saying that the formal object of disgust is, or has something important to do with, the transition between life and death. Moreover, since embodied meanings for Korsmeyer work as sources of aesthetic appreciation, the formal object of disgust has to figure, with some non-null degree of awareness, in the experience of an emoter/appreciator. Although emotional experience will not be conscious all of the time, embodiment of meanings without any (even just potential) awareness on the part of the appreciator is not very useful from the point of view of aesthetic appreciation.

As a consequence, Korsmeyer’s view is in tension with the fact, noted earlier, that there are things deemed disgusting that do not have properties importantly connected with human mortality (i.e. worms, cheese, spit etc.). Not only do such things lack the relevant properties, but they are known (by emoters) to lack those properties. Someone who is disgusted by such things does not thereby ascribe those properties to them. In other words, the formal object of disgust -- at least insofar as an emoter can be aware of it -- should not be characterized in terms of anything like human mortality or the transition from life to death.

Another possible objection concerns my earlier characterizing as very plausible the view that disgust evolved to defend us from such long-term threats as diseases. If the distinctive evolutionary benefit of disgust centres on long-term threats, then it would seem that disgust’s formal object would do, too. In fear, after all, the two things are intimately connected: the formal object (i.e. being threatening) and the likely evolutionary benefit of fear (i.e. alerting to and protecting from threats).

However, disgust does not achieve its evolutionary benefit in the same way that fear (and several other emotions) do. Fear achieves it by incorporating a concern with threats in its formal object in the way described. Generally speaking, I am afraid of something if and only if I (more or less consciously) find it threatening. Disgust achieves a similar goal, but does so differently.

On the best scientific view of disgust currently available, each of us has a hard-wired set of things or features of things that we are prepared to find disgusting. As a consequence of such preparedness, each of us will find it easier to acquire disgust towards items in their preparedness set than towards items outside of it. Which things one will be disposed to find disgusting depends on the process of disgust acquisition. Disgust acquisition mostly, typically, happens in an early ontogenetic window, and is heavily influenced by the input provided to the baby by parents or tutors (e.g. during toilet training). Afterwards, one’s list of disgust elicitors can lose or acquire entries. The important point, however, is that, in both early and later life, the main disgust acquisition routes are evaluative conditioning (i.e. stimuli become disgusting by co-occurring often with other, already disgusting, or otherwise undesirable ones) and the law of contamination (things become disgusting through contact with other things that are independently deemed disgusting).

Among other things, this means that disgust is, as some have called it, a peculiarly ‘plastic’ emotion but I am not suggesting that disgust has no formal object. What I am suggesting is simply that, if disgust has a formal object, this cannot be formulated in a way that is both (in principle) accessible to consciousness (and hence directly valuable to aesthetic appreciation) and non-circular (i.e. in a way that does not refer back to disgustingness itself). In fact, contemporary attempts to formulate the formal object of disgust follow two general routes. Either the formulation is circular (i.e. is in terms of disgustingness or of conceptually related properties), or it appeals to pre-conscious determining factors (e.g. is in terms of disgust’s evolutionary design). It is an interesting question, and one that divides scholars, that of whether a characterization of the formal object of an emotion in terms of that emotion is viciously circular. The answer to this question crucially depends on what theoretical work one wants the notion of formal object to do and on how one defines it. I do not want to settle these issues here. The impossibility to formulate a consciously accessible and non-circular formal object for disgust is sufficient for my purposes. If there is no such thing, then Korsmeyer’s appeal to ideas of mortality cannot be useful in an account of the aesthetic value of disgust.


Korsmeyer is wrong to claim that there is an internal connection between disgust and the transition from life to death, or mortality generally, that is relevant to aesthetic appreciation. This leaves open the problem of accounting for the aesthetic value of disgust (including the issue of whether or not there is such a thing). What I have done is, however, to formulate some restrictions and caveats on the kinds of meanings that can form the cognitive component of disgust. These considerations should inform future research.

Also a matter for future research is the role in art of what is often called ‘moral disgust,’ including the plausibility of a mortality account for morally disgusting art. My focus has been on disgust as the reaction that is frequently elicited by such bodily or material things as faeces and corpses. According to the vast majority of contemporary cognitive science researchers, this is the core or original disgust reaction. However, several other phenomena -- some but not all of which emotional or affective -- are also often called ‘disgust:’ from the extreme lack of sexual interest in a potential partner to the profound dislike for certain fashion trends or styles of music. These phenomena are related to (bodily) disgust in various ways, depending on the theories and on the specific cases in question; and the relevant kinds of relationships vary from a merely metaphorical connection to identity.

According to a plausible view, bodily disgust is the evolutionarily primitive affective mechanism that is then adapted (possibly starting from our evolutionary past) to serve functions other than pathogen avoidance in domains such as the sexual (mate selection and avoidance) and the moral (social interaction management). Given the diversity in functions, some, but not necessarily all, components of the bodily disgust response are also part of the responses that are typical of disgust-related mechanisms in other domains.

Moral disgust in particular is an interesting case, because it shares many features of the bodily disgust response, and yet its elicitors are often very different kinds of things from the common elicitors of bodily disgust. Although sometimes moral disgust may be elicited by such bodily activities as gay sex (arguably eliciting in those who feel it a mixture of bodily and moral disgust), frequent moral disgust elicitors are such things as deception, Ponzi-scheme scams or terrorist attacks. Moreover, moral disgust elicitors are often actions or behaviours, rather than objects as is more commonly the case with bodily disgust. On the other hand, there is reliable evidence that moral disgust is sometimes accompanied by many of the behavioural and physiological aspects of the disgust response. Moral disgust is also sometimes accompanied by behavioural and phenomenological responses appropriate to (sometimes even physical) contamination.

Nevertheless, bodily disgust is not the whole story in moral disgust. Judgements of morality are important in moral disgust, but not nearly as much (if at all) in bodily disgust -- and so are anger, indignation, sometimes contempt etc. This is so notwithstanding the suggestion that is sometimes expressed by the characterization of disgust as a “moralizing emotion” (i.e. the suggestion that judging something as disgusting is sometimes sufficient for judging that thing as morally negative). This suggestion does not in fact necessarily concern all (or even most) of what is disgusting. Moreover, the evidence in support of said suggestion is still far from conclusive. The consequence of the complex nature of moral disgust is that accounting for the aesthetic value of morally disgusting art will require a lot of future work. Such work will however be able to build on the considerations concerning bodily disgust.



Email (optional)
Author or Title












Arts & Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the Library and Archives Canada.
ISSN 1718-2034


Help Haiti
Film Ratings at Arts & Opinion - Montreal
2015 Festival Nouveau Cinema de Montreal, Oct. 07-18st, (514) 844-2172
Montreal World Film Festival
Lynda Renée: Chroniques Québécois - Blog
Andrew Hlavacek - Arts & Culture Blog (Montreal)
© Roberto Romei Rotondo
Montreal Guitar Show July 2-4th (Sylvain Luc etc.). border=
2013 Montreal Chamber Music Festival
Photo by David Lieber:
Valid HTML 4.01!
Privacy Statement Contact Info
Copyright 2002 Robert J. Lewis