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Beautiful Democracy

Aesthetics and Anarchy in a Global Era

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.

272 pages | 15 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2007

Film Studies

History: American History

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature


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


"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

"Beautiful Democracy is an essential book for all who are committed to cultural studies."

Martha Banta | Modern Language Quarterly

"Taking the reader through an extensive history of American culture from the 1870s to the 1930s... Beautiful Democracy offers a cultural history of aesthetics that is also a cultural history of sociality. Emphasizing the extent to which aesthetics is about human attachment and connection, Castronovo avoids getting lost in the abstraction of aesthetic discourse. Indeed,... he consistently grounds such discourse in the violence of the American fin-de-siecle."

New England Quarterly

Table of Contents


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”

Works Cited

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