Beautiful Democracy: Aesthetics and Anarchy in a Global Era

Beautiful Democracy: Aesthetics and Anarchy in a Global Era

by Russ Castronovo
     
 

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

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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."

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780226096292
Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
09/15/2007
Edition description:
New Edition
Pages:
272
Sales rank:
1,230,875
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

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