DEMOCRATISING BEAUTY IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY BRITAIN: ART AND THE POLITICS OF PUBLIC LIFE by Lucy Hartley, Reviewed by Elizabeth Helsinger
 

DEMOCRATISING BEAUTY IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY BRITAIN: ART AND THE POLITICS OF PUBLIC LIFE
By Lucy Hartley
(Cambridge, 2017) xii + 296
Reviewed by Elizabeth Helsinger on 2017-12-06.

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Lucy Hartley's new book is both bravely committed to an admirable project and at times tendentious in pursuit of it. She sets out to show how the art theories, art criticism, and art politics of six influential Victorian writers on art responded to a new political ethics based on interest. According to Hartley, interest (in its economic, legal, and psychological senses) had replaced the older republican ethics based on virtue: an ethics described by J.G. A. Pocock in Machiavellian Moment (1975).

Later nineteenth century writers on art, she argues, faced a society in which interest was considered the moving principle for social as well as individual relations. In response, they struggled to forge a new aesthetic theory. Hartley draws productively on Albert Hirschman's The Passions and the Interests (1977), which makes a similar argument about the recalculation of economic interest in light of the passions. According to Hirschman, this recalculation stimulated new theories of human behavior important for nineteenth century liberalism, particularly the idea that self-interest should be not just repressed but rather harnessed to social purposes. Hartley applies this insight to Victorian art criticism. Examining the writings of Charles Eastlake, John Ruskin, Walter Pater, Edward Poynter, William Morris, and John Addington Symonds, she asks how (and how successfully) each man confronted the challenge of linking aesthetic interests -- a love of beauty, particularly in the visual arts -- to the needs of a liberal, increasingly democratic state in an age of capitalism.

Her choice of subjects includes three -- Ruskin, Pater, and Morris -- whose public writing on art has rightly received a good deal of scrutiny. Reading their writings from a fresh perspective, Hartley asks how each man helped to shape an aesthetic theory that could make the arts important for a democratic society. In this light she also considers the published essays and lectures of two prominent artists -- Eastlake and Poynter. Yet while both became leaders in forming art policy and establishing institutions for the support of art, their writing about art can feel thin. Her sixth subject, Symonds, is a more unusual choice. Though he had far less public influence than any of the others, he came closer, Hartley believes, to imagining an equitable relation between art and democratic values. She cites not only his multi-volume history of the Renaissance but also, particularly, his later work on the cultural implications of evolutionary theory and a late essay on Walt Whitman. In these works, she contends, he approached a new aesthetic theory: the individual cultivation of art for its own sake promotes a democratic public polity. Yet finally, Hartley judges, none of these Victorians succeeded in reconciling the contradictions between individual interest and the demands of a common good. All stop short of imagining a workable democratic theory and politics of art.

Indeed, as Hartley seeks intimations of such a theory in the writings of each of these men, problems only proliferate. She finds Ruskin, particularly in Modern Painters, much closer to older ideas about beauty--that the pursuit of beauty is itself a virtue. But this moral position, she believes, does not address the more particular questions that the Victorians--or we--have raised about the political value of art. The work of Pater prompts still sharper objections. Though Hartley probes not only his Studies in the History of the Renaissance but also a number of his earlier and later essays connected with it, she (not surprisingly) finds something less than a theory of beauty. More damningly, in her judgment, Pater shows hardly any interest beyond cultivating the sensibilities of the individual. Poynter and Morris do better in this regard, but only to fail in other areas. Poynter makes the study of the male nude--the male working body--the basis of all art training, and Morris defines the male art workman as a creator of aesthetic and social value for himself and for a more equitable society. But neither Poynter nor Morris is fully inclusive. Poynter retains elitist class assumptions, and Morris thinks only of men. By comparison with Eastlake, who links his art advocacy to a suspect nationalist glorification of England, Morris sees more clearly how Britain's imperial policies oppress traditional hand industries producing well-made goods in India and the Middle East. But even though Morris advocates equality of conditions for all men, Hartley concludes, he leaves women out.

Generally speaking, Hartley foregrounds ideas, not their artistic embodiment in prose or paint. Though the book is extensively illustrated, the text seldom treats in detail the paintings reproduced with it. But Hartley makes good use of paintings by Poynter (especially The Catapult, c. 1868-72, reproduced on the cover), Michelangelo, and Simeon Solomon. Her discussions of these help us understand how Poynter's highlighting of the nude male human body continues to reflect the ingrained prejudices of class. Less effective is her analysis of Ruskin's praise for J. M. W. Turner's Slave Ship, first exhibited in 1840:

J. M. W. Turner, Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In arguing (like several other recent critics) that Ruskin's analysis of this painting exemplifies his insensitivity to the horrors of slavery, Hartley seems inattentive to both the painting and Ruskin's prose. Her black and white reproduction of the painting, alas, keeps us from seeing how the allusive prose of Ruskin's extended description (which she does not quote) lets the horror of a bloodied sea gradually emerge. In other respects, however, Hartley can be a more careful critic. She is very good, for example, in explaining what Ruskin aimed to do for art in the 1850s and 60s: through lectures and other occasional writings that go beyond Modern Painters, he tried to build counter-publics for art outside state institutions. She also shows how her chosen writers could change their minds. Charting shifts in their positions as she takes us through the writings of each one, she draws our attention not only to Ruskin's work in other non-fiction genres but also to the steps by which Morris came to embrace socialism, or the differences between Symonds's late essays and his early ones.

Her treatment of her materials, however, leaves me with several general reservations. In the first place, she limits herself to extracting explicit arguments and ideas from non-fiction public writing. Though it may be helpful to eschew the seductions of Ruskin's prose, or Pater's, this move may also lead to genuine misapprehension. By restricting herself to non-fiction, she also leaves out important resources for assessing Pater's or Morris's attitudes toward the aesthetic. If her chapter on self-interest in the essays of Pater, for instance, had included his Imaginary Portraits or Marius the Epicurean, would it have reached the same conclusions? And would her judgment of Morris's slighting of women have stayed the same if she had considered the role of women in works like A Dream of John Ball and News from Nowhere, or in the late prose romances? In the second place, as I've already suggested, close intellectual engagement with Ruskin's, Morris's, or Pater's prose is more rewarding than close reading of Poynter's or Eastlake's. . Perhaps more troublingly, I am often startled by her efforts to state succinctly what a given piece of writing has said after she has extensively described it. The short concluding summary can come as a surprise unless one remembers Hartley's overall strategy: in these conclusions, she narrows her focus to judge whether or not the writer's interest in art as it serves the self has been successfully harnessed to promote a public, democratic good.

For these reasons, I am not sure how far to recommend this study for those who don't already know a good deal about the writers and works discussed. On the one hand, Hartley sheds fresh light on Victorian aesthetic criticism. She offers a potentially clarifying way to think collectively about the writers and artists she treats, and as she suggests, her approach could be applied to other Victorians engaged in the public advocacy of art, including some women. On the other hand, in focusing so exclusively on the place of art in a democratic politics, she paints a necessarily incomplete and perhaps occasionally distorted picture of what Ruskin, Pater, and Morris wrote. Though she treats her selected texts extensively, she does not encourage us to read her authors for ourselves to discover how their work might be valued today.

Oddly, Hartley's book is actually quite Ruskinian in this respect. What counts as virtue in art politics or aesthetic theory is different for Ruskin and for Hartley, but they both address the importance of art for society as a moral problem. Like Ruskin's many writings, The Democratisation of Art is driven not only by Hartley's interests (her curiosity, concern, and commitments) but also by her keen sense of the virtues -- particularly the negative virtues of freedom from class, gender, or nationalist inequities -- necessary for a truly democratic theory of art. Whether or not she intended it, Hartley writes in a grand Ruskinian tradition that takes the making, viewing, and buying of art as a serious ethical question for a modern democratic society.

Elizabeth Helsinger is John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor Emerita in the Departments of English, Art History, and Visual Arts at the University of Chicago. University of Chicago.


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