Democratising Beauty in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Art and the Politics of Public Life.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017 (Series: Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture). 296 pages, 35 b/w illustrations. 75 [pounds sterling] hardcover. ISBN: 9781107184084
Lucy Hartley's Democratising Beauty in Nineteenth-Century Britain sets out to examine changing conceptions of beauty in a society characterized by galloping industrialization and unsteady progress towards a fully democratic political system. Beginning in the 1830s, Hartley proposes, "a new language for speaking about beauty begins to be articulated [in Britain], distinct from traditional philosophical understandings of the aesthetic and instead linked to emerging democratic ideals of equality, liberty, and individuality" (2). It is this language that she aims to tease out. In the process, she also addresses a question that generates a broader relevance for her project: "Could the self-interested pursuit of the pleasures of beauty establish the moral and political norms that enable democratic society to flourish?" (12) She is interested, in other words, not just in how people talk about beauty in nineteenth-century Britain, but in why it matters.
Hartley pursues her inquiry across an impressive range of sources. Her primary evidence is drawn from the writings of six art-world figures, three of them (John Ruskin, Walter Pater, and William Morris) quite well-known, and three (Charles Eastlake, William Poynter, and John Addington Symonds) less likely to be recognized outside the world of nineteenth-century British studies. In several cases she goes beyond their writings to examine works of art that they created or commissioned, and on occasions she also considers the visual culture of the period (especially cartoons from the satirical magazine Punch that show how debates about art penetrated the public sphere). Hartley's theoretical foundations are broad-based, too. She traces many of her most important ideas back to political scientists like Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill, and she derives a key thesis that structures her account--namely, that "interest replaces virtue in nineteenth-century discussions of beauty in nature and art" (3)--from the literature of political science.
In spreading her net so widely, Hartley overreaches many of the most significant studies of the links between cultural and political life that have come down to us--for example, Raymond Williams's Culture and Society, 1780-1950, a book whose influence she openly acknowledges--and while the scope of her work is impressive, it sometimes weakens the overall impact of her argument. The range of opinions that her key authors hold is already very wide, and as she sets out to weave them into a contextual net she sometimes makes argumentative leaps that are hard to follow, and draws conclusions from individual pieces of textual analysis that seem unwarranted. This is exacerbated by an occasional tendency to slip between discussion of the role of art and discussion of the importance of beauty as if these were one and the same thing, which is problematic in a book whose title promises a focused examination of beauty.
This reservation aside, the book provides a rich series of insights into the ideas that shaped the nineteenth-century British art world. The first chapter focuses on the debates over what kind of paintings should be commissioned to decorate the Houses of Parliament, rebuilt starting in 1837 following a devastating fire. Hartley's protagonist, Charles Eastlake, played an important role in these discussions, not just as Secretary to the Royal Commission on the Fine Arts that oversaw the process, but also as an art historian and art critic, and (from 1843) as Director of London's National Gallery. Eastlake championed the idea of commissioning historically-themed fresco paintings modeled on the works of the Nazarene group in Germany. As Hartley details, such a program raised important questions about the remit of works to be placed in a public location of great political import: should the themes of the paintings be universal or more strictly national in their concerns? Was it acceptable to draw inspiration for the program from a foreign group? Fully worked-up watercolor studies for two of the resulting works--William Dyce's Baptism of Ethelbert and Daniel Maclise's Spirit of Chivalry--are reproduced. They are unappealing paintings, deserving of John Ruskin's dismissal of the program as "sickly modern German imitations of the great Italians" (quoted in the following chapter, 71), and it would have been instructive to hear more about their reception. Although Hartley does refer on several occasions to the anticipated audiences for these works, she does not systematically examine their role in efforts to make art "a Teacher of the many, and not of the few," as Samuel Carter Hall put it in 1857 (18). As a result, the relationship of this project to her main theme is not fully clarified.
Chapter Two traces Ruskin's ideas about the evolving relationship between art and its public through the Modern Painters series (five volumes published between 1843 and 1860), The Seven Lamps of Architecture, The Stones of Venice, and several public lectures. Ruskin's relevance to the theme of the book comes from his efforts to wrest the visual arts from the grip of the Royal Academy and make them more widely accessible--in Hartley's terms, to democratize art. Her analysis, however, suggests that there are several obstacles to seeing Ruskin as a genuinely popularizing figure. His commitment to "restore moral and theological value to art" (66), and his linked understanding that art needs safeguarding by a clerisy (to use Coleridge's term) of "competent judges" (69) both hint at an elitist position. And, as Hartley observes, the public that he claims to want to enfranchise becomes in his writings "a placeholder for a number of different constituencies and a shifting set of interests" (67). Indeed, as Hartley develops her argument, Ruskin emerges as a rather conservative and paternalistic figure, inveighing against "that treacherous phantom which men call Liberty" and arguing that "Nature abhors equality, and similitude, just as foolish men love them" (82 and 87).
If Ruskin is to some extent a stealth elitist then the subject of Chapter Three, Walter Pater, at least has the benefit of being openly snobbish. As such, he is a strange choice for a book dedicated to the democratization of beauty. Hartley seems to acknowledge as much early in the chapter, noting "I do not want to suggest that Pater advocates a program for cultural change through his aesthetic criticism, nor do I want to suggest that his aesthetic theorising can be taken as a straightforward endorsement of the political project of liberalism" (110). Instead, she analyzes Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance and numerous related essays, concluding that they constitute "something like a catalogue of passions" (146). Oddly, she does not then relate this back to Albert Hirschman's The Passions and the Interests (1977), cited in the introduction as an important influence on this book, which might have allowed her to connect Pater's ideas more convincingly to her main argument.
The immediate reason that Hartley pairs the two figures discussed in Chapter Four, Edward Poynter and William Morris, is that both helped to decorate the refreshment rooms added to the South Kensington Museum in 1866. But it quickly emerges that the two men had more in common than this. They shared the conviction that the proliferation of machine-made decorative arts had proved destructive of beauty, a loss all the more troubling because beauty is, in Poynter's words, "of use as far as our happiness in this world is concerned" (157). Where they differed quite radically was in the ways that they tried to address this situation. Poynter first came to prominence as a painter who had trained in the French academic system under Charles Gleyre; only later did he take up the position of Slade Professor of Art at University College, London that qualified him to deliver the "Ten Lectures on Art" on which Hartley focuses. His academic training remained a powerful influence both on his art (for example The Catapult, c. 1868-72, reproduced on the cover of this book and analyzed carefully in the text) and on his plans for resurrecting beauty. The latter revolved around a return to depicting the heroic male nude, revitalized by a twin emphasis on drawing from the live model and studying the greats of the Italian Renaissance. It becomes increasingly clear, too, as Hartley elucidates his position that he was no democratizer. His vision of beauty was both highly gendered (though, to be fair, the same turns out to be true of all the figures she studies) and dismissive of the need to create art that can be appreciated by "minds incapable of large sympathies" (161), which seems to mean those outside an educated artistic elite.
Morris, on the other hand, was profoundly (and famously) committed to the democratization of art, pillorying the "few exceptional men [that despise] those beneath them for an ignorance for which they themselves are responsible," and calling for "an art which is to be made by the people and for the people, as a happiness to the maker and the user" (176). Before 1884, Hartley argues, he was deeply invested in reawakening an interest in beauty, but after that date he came to believe that the conditions of labor needed to be revolutionized before "the case can be made for the production of more beauty" (182). This is a telling moment for Hartley's argument, as the author who most squarely fits her theme answers the question "Could the self-interested pursuit of the pleasures of beauty establish the moral and political norms that enable democratic society to flourish?" in the negative. Instead, he concludes that "socio-political conditions precede the process of beautifying life and depend on the realisation of pleasure in work" (189).
Coming on the heels of her engagement with Morris's deeply-felt populism and his passionately political understanding of art, Hartley's turn to the work of John Addington Symonds in her final chapter feels disconcerting. For most of his career, Symonds's interest in the masses appears to have been rather abstract, rooted in an interest in milieu drawn from his reading of Hippolyte Taine. Only towards the end of his life did he abruptly develop a yearning for "an art for the people, of the people," expressed in an essay titled "Democratic Art" (219). Hartley's analysis of this work suggests that it is a distinctly eccentric piece that only became odder once Symonds recast it as Walt Whitman: A Study, published shortly before his death in 1893. As her observation that the book "presents an opportunity for Symonds to consider democratic art primarily in terms of the masculine emotion of comradeship and principally via chivalry" (219) indicates, we should not look here for a serious attempt to elucidate the relationship between beauty and democracy.
And that, ultimately, is my most serious criticism of Democratising Beauty in Nineteenth-Century Britain. It covers a great deal of ground--some of it unfamiliar, and some of it intriguing--and it dissects several positions that turn out not to be as democratic as they sound at first. But in the process it frequently loses sight of theories of beauty and arguments about how beauty might serve to foster democracy. It offers many rewards, but they are rarely the rewards promised by the title.