Beautiful Democracy: Aesthetics and Anarchy in a Global Era

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Overview

The photographer and reformer Jacob Riis once wrote, “I have seen an armful of daisies keep the peace of a block better than a policeman and his club.” Riis was not alone in his belief that beauty could tame urban chaos, but are aesthetic experiences always a social good? Could aesthetics also inspire violent crime, working-class unrest, and racial murder? To answer these questions, Russ Castronovo turns to those who debated claims that art could democratize culture—civic reformers, anarchists, novelists, civil rights activists, and college professors—to reveal that beauty provides unexpected occasions for radical, even revolutionary, political thinking.


Beautiful Democracy explores the intersection of beauty and violence by examining university lectures and course materials on aesthetics from a century ago along with riots, acts of domestic terrorism, magic lantern exhibitions, and other public spectacles. Philosophical aesthetics, realist novels, urban photography, and black periodicals, Castronovo argues, inspired and instigated all sorts of collective social endeavors, from the progressive nature of tenement reform to the horrors of lynching. Discussing Jane Addams, W.E.B. Du Bois, Charlie Chaplin, William Dean Howells, and Riis as aesthetic theorists in the company of Kant and Schiller, Beautiful Democracy ultimately suggests that the distance separating academic thinking and popular wisdom about social transformation is narrower than we generally suppose.

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Editorial Reviews

Choice

"Eclectic and sometimes elusive, this richly written, exhaustively researched work ultimately yields a well-woven thesis."

Journal of American History
The lesson is that democracy in this formative period was deeply concerned with questions of aesthetics and beauty. . . . For those interested in aesthetics . . . and in a rich, theoretical treatment of the complicated symbolic economy of democracy, the payoff can be great.

— Jeremy Engels

J. Modern Language Quarterly
Beautiful Democracy is an essential book for all who are committed to cultural studies.

— Martha Banta

Lawrence Buell
Beautiful Democracy is a highly original and mind-expanding critique of American literature, art, philosophy, and cultural criticism from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century that demonstrates as never before the profoundly disquieting admixture of idealism and violence that has tended to shape—and misshape—initiatives undertaken in the name of the aesthetic.”—Lawrence Buell, Harvard University
Paul Giles
“Although Castronovo’s specific focus is on U.S. culture between 1877 and 1936, his arguments about the interrelationships between art and politics, between aesthetic forms circumscribed by national ideals and more amorphous global horizons, carry a much wider resonance. This is an important book.”—Paul Giles, University of Oxford
Donald E. Pease Jr.
Beautiful Democracy is an elegantly written and conceptually innovative account of the contradictory roles that aesthetics historically played in the Americanization of the globe. Through careful readings of a range of cultural artifacts and geopolitical tracts, Castronovo convincingly demonstrates how American writers, politicians, teachers, and artists have deployed the ‘aesthetics of democracy’ either to generate harmony or to mobilize the anarchic impulses of the social formations they addressed.”—Donald E. Pease Jr., Dartmouth College
Journal of American History - Jeremy Engels
"The lesson is that democracy in this formative period was deeply concerned with questions of aesthetics and beauty. . . . For those interested in aesthetics . . . and in a rich, theoretical treatment of the complicated symbolic economy of democracy, the payoff can be great."
Modern Language Quarterly - Martha Banta
"Beautiful Democracy is an essential book for all who are committed to cultural studies."
Choice
"Eclectic and sometimes elusive, this richly written, exhaustively researched work ultimately yields a well-woven thesis."
Choice

"Eclectic and sometimes elusive, this richly written, exhaustively researched work ultimately yields a well-woven thesis."—Choice

Journal of American History

"The lesson is that democracy in this formative period was deeply concerned with questions of aesthetics and beauty. . . . For those interested in aesthetics . . . and in a rich, theoretical treatment of the complicated symbolic economy of democracy, the payoff can be great."—Jeremy Engels, Journal of American History

— Jeremy Engels

J. Modern Language Quarterly

"Beautiful Democracy is an essential book for all who are committed to cultural studies."—Martha Banta, Modern Language Quarterly

— Martha Banta

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226096285
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 9/15/2007
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Russ Castronovo is the Jean Wall Bennett Professor of English and American Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.  

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Table of Contents

Illustrations
Acknowledgments

Introduction                  Aesthetics and the Anarchy of Culture
The Cultured Few
Aesthetics 11
The Popular Rage
Artwork Essays at the Antipodes
 
Chapter 1         Flowers and Billy Clubs: The Beauty and Danger of Ethical Citizenship
Beauty and Civic Identity
Beauty and Science
Beauty and Crowd Control
Beauty and Danger
 
Chapter 2         American Literature Internationale: Translation, Strike, and the Time of Political Possibility
Translating Aesthetics to the Common
The Time of American Literature
1877: The Time is Now
Art for the Post-Revolution: Whitman and Santayana
The Hazards of New Translation
Novelists for (against?) Change
 
Chapter 3         Beauty along the Color Line: Lynching, Form, and Aesthetics                                       
Aesthetics versus Art
Aestheticizing Violence
Organized Propaganda
Gendering Aesthetics
Alternative Aesthetics  
 
Chapter 4         “Bombs of Laughter”: Motion Pictures, Mass Art, and Universal Language       
Classic Beauty for Modern Times
Du Bois at the Movies: Ugliness, Endlessness, and Jim Crow
The Sound of the Image: Chaplin and International Laughter
Esperanto of the Eye: Anarchy and Internationalism
 
Chapter 5         Geo-Aesthetics: Fascism, Globalism, and Frank Norris
Worldwide Unity and Formalism
Art and Terror
Literature “As Such”
Geo-Aesthetics

Afterword
Notes
Works Cited
Index

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