November 12, 2015 9:06 AM EST

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then so is ugliness. For proof, look no further than the concept’s own history, most recently traced by Gretchen E. Henderson. Although there are some objectively repugnant moments–until the late 20th century, cities including Chicago and Omaha had “ugly laws” that made it illegal for people with disabilities to appear in public–many transgressions that once seemed ugly now look like progress. Among them: the 17th century Chinese painting Ten Thousand Ugly Inkblots, which resembles lauded work from Jackson Pollock, and the music once described as “grunts and squeaks,” also known as jazz. “Rather than mere binaries,” Henderson writes, “ugliness and beauty seem to function more like binary stars.” They orbit and attract each other, and we can admire both.

–LILY ROTHMAN

This appears in the November 23, 2015 issue of TIME.

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com.

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