- Beautiful Democracy: Aesthetics and Anarchy in a Global Era
The close relationship between aesthetics and violence is one of the more startling discoveries Russ Castronovo makes in this remarkable book. Much of what he writes deals with the several decades prior to World War I where elitist, dominant or governing "collectives" attempted to impose their aesthetic values on less-privileged strata—resulting on occasion in violent resistance. This is what Jacob Riis found out when he tried to demonstrate art and beauty to working-class groups. Riots erupted and police with billy clubs were required to restrain restive audiences. Still, by around 1900, generally accepted aesthetic theory embraced the view that everyone possesses inborn capacities to respond to classical norms of beauty whose chief characteristics stress order, symmetry, and balance. These in turn, it was believed, transfer to one's moral structure thereby producing good citizens. Aesthetic theory, as a consequence, suggests political linkings, even philosophical ones; throughout the book the author indicates many of these ideas derive in one fashion or another from Schiller, Kant, and Matthew Arnold. On the other hand, the author also argues that less-favored groups experienced something more akin to aesthetic satisfaction from immediate visceral mass entertainments—and even at times horrendous "public" events like lynchings.
If, however, everyone regardless of class shares inherent (perhaps unactivated) perceptions of beauty, does this not suggest a kind of universal democracy of human values? To fail these values, to fight them, or to ignore them was to invite anarchy. In all probability, Riis and others like him regarded themselves as democratic proselytizers whose business it was to arouse the masses to their natural aesthetic potential. Yet even in this regard democracy had its limits. Some believed that certain ethnic populations like Germans were more sensitive or responsive to beauty than others. Needless to say, African Americans were rarely considered producers or consumers of artistic blessings. Even W. E. B. Du Bois despaired. He implicitly accepted ahistorical traditional classical standards and saw no value therein for oppressed blacks. Ultimately he came to suggest social "propaganda" (his word) be somehow integrated into works of art. It does not seem to have occurred to him, according to Castronovo, that black music, aside from spirituals and other African American artistic expressions, embodied their own beauty. In a chapter called "Beauty Along the Color Line," Castronovo shows Du Bois struggling with the underlying spirit of the Harlem Renaissance.
An implicit and explicit theme of Castronovo's book is that established aesthetic philosophies contain the seeds of their own destruction. So close are they to governing class ideologies that defiance portends anarchy. Still, theory defines itself not only for what it contains, but probably more importantly for what it excludes. By exclusion, theory paradoxically injects subversive elements into the larger cultural consciousness. [End Page 210] Even inexact translations of radical European literary or political writings, seemingly antithetical to mainstream American thought, introduce foreign elements affecting the larger cultural balance.
Thus despite countless philosophers, university professors, and American authors (among these, Frank Norris, whose "Epic of Wheat" novels are discussed at some length), none achieve the all-encompassing universality they seek. Indeed, says Castronovo, when American twentieth-century aesthetic values extend beyond American borders, they serve to mask economic and cultural imperialism. Perhaps the closest approach of American art to universality came with the advent of silent movies, most notably those featuring iconic figures like Charlie Chaplin. However, once words and sound and dialogue were introduced into films, nonliterate, non-English-speaking audiences were to one degree or another removed.
The above suggests several of the main points of Castronovo's interesting book. Although, as stated, Castronovo focuses mainly on the first decades of the twentieth century, he does here and there reach as far back as the 1870s and on occasion look ahead to the Depression years. Castronovo's research is prodigious. He's read turn-of-the-century professors' books on aesthetics, combed their published lectures, and noted their marginal equivocations. He has...