Kevin Tervala, associate curator of African art at the Baltimore Museum of Art, describes the new "Subverting Beauty" exhibit. (Brian Cassella / For The Baltimore Sun)

The artwork on view in a new exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art is intentionally ugly. The pieces could fairly be described as disturbing, distorted, unnatural and weird. They may make your skin crawl.

That’s precisely the point.

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“Subverting Beauty: African Anti-Aesthetics” is a small exhibit that raises lots of big, fascinating questions. As viewers go eyeball to empty eye socket with a figurine from early 20th-century Nigeria, they may wonder what exactly beauty is, what evolutionary role the preference for beauty might play, and whether we’re talking about the same thing when we describe a work of art, landscape or gorgeous face as “beautiful.” The show runs through April, so visitors will have plenty of time to ponder.

The exhibit showcases about two dozen objects created in Africa between 1880 and 1960.

“We have 2,500 works of African art in our vaults. In the past, we’ve shown works that are graceful and symmetrical and correspond to ideals of beauty held by societies all over the world,” said Kevin Tervala, the museum’s associate curator of African art. “But there is this entire class of amazing objects that deliberately violates these ideals and that are crude, uncanny and disproportionate, raw and unrefined.”

Mostly, Tervala said, that’s because in Africa, historically, artworks have a practical function, often one involving spiritual healing. For these masks and dolls to fulfill their mission (such as driving evil forces from a community), a terrifying appearance might be necessary.

But as the show’s title suggests, “Subverting Beauty” can also be seen as an investigation of the subjugating power of physical loveliness.

“Beauty,” Tervala said, “stops us in our tracks. It can make us speechless. Sometimes, it overwhelms us.”

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Nancy Etcoff, an assistant clinical professor at the Harvard Medical School says that many words used to describe an encounter with beauty express the fear of being torn apart or even killed. A beautiful vista is “ravaging” or “stunning.” A lovely face is “breathtaking” or “drop-dead gorgeous.”

Yet, as Etcoff wrote in her 2000 book, “The Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty,” attempts to reason ourselves into feeling differently by attacking good looks as morally suspect — as implied by the saying “beauty is only skin deep” — are notoriously ineffective.

In his book “The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution,” the late philosopher Denis Dutton theorized that our reaction to beauty isn’t learned but biological and hard-wired into humans because over millennia it helped us survive.

“I personally have no doubt whatsoever that the experience of beauty with its emotional intensity and pleasure belongs to our evolved human psychology,” Dutton said in a 2010 TED talk. “The experience of beauty is one component in a whole series of Darwinian adaptations.”

Here’s one small example: When children around the world were shown photos of different landscapes, they expressed a strong preference for the same one — an open, grassy space interspersed with trees and evidence of wildlife and water. This vista is strikingly similar to the savannas of East Africa during the Pleistocene era, the environment from which modern humans evolved.

Even after 2 million years, a bias towards this survival-friendly topography appears embedded in our brains.

“This landscape type is described as beautiful even by people who live in countries that don’t have it,” Dutton said.

The visceral response to strikingly lovely people and animals might also have biological roots. Experiments conducted in the 1990s by researchers Steven Gangestad, Randy Thornhill and Karl Grammer concluded that people with the most symmetrical faces and bodies consistently are rated as more alluring than people with uneven features.

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“There seems to be a biological basis for our preference for symmetry,” said Mario Livio, a Baltimore astrophysicist and author of “The Equation that Couldn’t be Solved,” a book that explores the laws of symmetry underlying fields as different as math, physics, music and the visual arts. Livio would go so far to say that in animals the terms “beautiful” and “symmetrical” are synonymous.

He said symmetrical figures and faces might inform potential mates that the animal being evaluated— whether a man or peacock — is young and vigorous, able to fend off disease and likely to pass his robust physique along to his offspring.

“A high degree of symmetry indicates a certain degree of health and that the animal has strong genes,” Livio said. “There are lots of parasites, and after an attack, the animal is no longer so symmetrical. In addition, our faces also become less symmetrical as we age.”

Symmetry also speeds up the learning process. “You only have to see half of the object or animal to know what the whole thing looks like,” Livio said. “In a life-or-death situation, a few fractions of a second can make a big difference.”

Imagine that your ancient ancestor was being charged by a wild boar. Even if he could see only one side of the fast-moving beast, he could calculate exactly how far to the left or right he’d need to jump to get out of its path.

While it’s easy to demonstrate that what today is a desire to cuddle with Tom Cruise might once have populated the planet, it’s harder to explain how gazing at “The Mona Lisa” or listening to Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5” could help humans survive.

But just as the urge to procreate is biologically driven, so too is the human compulsion to learn, scientists say. And, that’s where someone like composer Duke Ellington might be a useful fellow to have around.

Etcoff points to studies that show that liking something and wanting to possess it are different parts of the brain’s reward system. She speculates that works of art, which push and challenge us, might fall into the former category.

“Art expands your horizons,” she said. “It can give you words or images or sounds that help you understand the world and that help you feel understood.”

But learning takes time — a commodity that’s always been in short supply. Paintings and poems that strike us as beautiful and stimulate the “liking” part of the brain’s reward system might motivate people to sit still long enough to absorb what’s in front of them.

As Dutton put it in his TED talk: “Evolution’s trick is to make [things] beautiful, to have them exert a kind of magnetism to give you the pleasure of simply looking at them.”

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But if that’s true, how do we explain the strange charisma exerted by the artworks in “Subverting Beauty”?

These masks, vessels and dolls are grotesque, but their power cannot be denied. They compel viewers’ attention. Each piece seems to take up more space than is physically possible for an inert lump of clay not quite six inches high.

Livio said that intentionally ugly artworks reinforce the underlying importance of beauty and harmony. If we describe a mid-20th-century wooden household shrine figure as “disproportionate” because its arms reach almost to its feet, that implies that we know what the “correct” proportion should be. We’re perhaps unconsciously comparing what we see to our own inner template of the ideal.

“The point is that we couldn’t even be talking about something being ‘asymmetrical’ if symmetries didn’t exist,” he said.

For Etcoff, audiences respond to exhibits like “Subverting Beauty” because these unattractive little sculptures also stimulate our drive to learn.

The 18th-century philosopher Edmund Burke coined the term “sublime” to describe artworks that exist on the cusp between those that are familiar — and that risk becoming boring — and those so removed from the ordinary they frighten us.

Understanding art on the cusp is a stretch, but it’s an achievable stretch.

A wood-and-leather doll crafted by a 20th-century artist in Burkina Faso initially repulses us because it has no face. But we sense that with time, this doll could inspire us to think about questions we’ve never contemplated before. In a small way, it could help us become smarter, more supple humans.

“Good art,” Tervala said, “prompts you how to respond to it.”

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