What Does Politics Have To Do with Beauty?

Part of the answer can be found in the impact of showman P.T. Barnum, naturalist John Muir, and auto designer Harley Earl, who gave us the ’57 Chevy. But why these three?

Efflorescence is a word that Timothy Lukes uses often in discussing the evolution, or flowering, of beauty in America. Part of the answer can be found in the impact of showman P.T. Barnum, naturalist John Muir, and auto designer Harley Earl, who gave us the ’57 Chevy. They helped define aesthetics in the past.

Lukes is a professor of political science and the author of the study Politics and Beauty in America: The Liberal Aesthetics of P.T. Barnum, John Muir, and Harley Earl. The United States was founded as an upstart nation, he notes. Survival here—physical, economic, political—was never guaranteed. Early expressions of beauty—seen in portrayals of women, wilderness, and machines—betrayed a utilitarian streak. We’re pretty well established now; time for new approaches, Lukes says.

Naturalist John Muir. Photo by Getty Images

With that in mind, here are a few questions we posed for Lukes.

You write that Barnum, Muir, and Earl each championed an aspect of beauty—women, wilderness, and machines, respectively. How so?

These powerful cultural entrepreneurs pioneered this interesting aesthetic synthesis of utility and the exquisite. Barnum’s entire career had a cohesive attention to disrupting the reputation of women with the help of some very interesting, and powerful, women and replacing it with this capable, enterprising entity that singer Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” represented in America.

You’re a political scientist. Why a book about beauty?

I like to examine the interface and synthesis of art and politics. We live in an era in which, especially in academia, artistic expression is often subjected to political influence—and artists often feel guilt if their art doesn’t express a particular political influence. In my class, we explore alternatives to that. We explore Dadaism and romanticism and modernism, and various movements which see that interface in a different light.

What cost does society pay if artistic expression emphasizes what you call the “intrusion of utility”?

Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale” Photo by Getty Images

I’ve been fortunate to live in other cultures; Italy in particular. So I have had the great privilege of being exposed to great works of art, and a culture that appreciates them for reasons other than they’re immediately accessible. I’m sure that reinforced all my inclinations to live a life that offered me something other than mere sustenance.

Studying political philosophy, you start to understand that the United States is the quintessential enlightenment polity. We have embraced John Locke, who is the political arm of the Enlightenment, so we have a very strong devotion—maybe even obsession—with self-preservation and the priorities of survival. With those priorities—as successful as we’ve been, and as appreciative as I am of being an American—there are always unanticipated consequences. And one of them involving the success of liberalism has been, I think, the dilution of those exquisite moments that beauty offers us.

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