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On Beauty and Democracy

Osita Nwanevu
7 min read
I voted stickers scattered across a surface.
Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Hey all. As I mentioned in my last post, I was recently asked to deliver remarks and appear on a panel about beauty and democracy ⁠— specifically on the question of what we might find beautiful about democracy ⁠— at a Catholic University symposium on a few weeks ago. The event was convened around a report on aesthetics and the sciences. You can watch the panel here. My opening remarks are below.

First of all, I’d like to thank the organizers of the Beauty at Work Symposium for inviting me here. I feel truly honored and humbled to be here, largely because I feel like I shouldn’t be here. I’m not a scientist, I’m not a philosopher, I don’t study aesthetics. I’m really here mostly in my capacity as just some guy ⁠— a guy who, like most people, likes beautiful things but really hasn’t the foggiest idea what beauty is or means.

The report this conference was convened around, of course, doesn’t offer us a definition of the beautiful or a clear consensus from the scientific community about what beauty means. But it does helpfully remind us of the ways that beauty defies clear definition. We can find the beautiful in symmetries and asymmetries; in systems and objects both elegantly simple and impressively complex. Beauty is a word we give freely to very dissimilar things. And even when we come to agreement that certain works of visual art, or pieces of music, landscapes or people are beautiful, we may well differ on the attributes that have earned them that distinction.

All of this is to say I can’t say much at all, with confidence, about the beautiful.

But like everyone else, I do have certain basic intuitions about all this. First off, it seems to me that beautiful things are appealing ⁠— they are pleasurable to our minds and our senses. Not the most interesting observation, of course, but that’s at least a bit of firm ground to stand on. It also seems to me that the things we call beautiful are often rare or difficult to access ⁠— most of us seem quite sure that most art, music, landscapes, and people aren’t beautiful. There are those who encourage us to see beauty in the everyday and the commonplace as though they disagree ⁠— for all I know, which isn’t much, they may well have grounds for doing so. But I think even they would concede that finding beauty in the everyday takes work ⁠— that it’s a way of thinking about your experiences and surroundings that doesn’t come easily. That to stop and smell the roses one does, actually, have to stop and that stopping to observe and admire something for its own sake amidst the chaos of life is hard. The sun’s rise may well be beautiful on all or most days; seeing it, unfortunately, is a rare treat for most of us.

So this is beauty partially sorted ⁠— beauty is either rare or not easily appreciated. Beauty is appealing. But we don’t find the same things appealing for the same reasons. On July 16, 1945, a man by the name of Thomas Farrell wrote in his journal about the extraordinary sights he’d witnessed over the desert landscape in New Mexico’s Jornada del Muerto basin that morning. “The whole country,” he wrote, “was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse, and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined. It was that beauty the great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately.”

That great beauty had been produced, as the physicists here may already know, by the Manhattan Project’s Trinity test, the first ever detonation of a nuclear weapon. And like Farrell there have been many ⁠— sometimes despite themselves, wanting to think or feel differently ⁠— who have found beauty in destruction or chaos, bloodshed and violence; sometimes, as in Farrell’s case, literally in the weapons and wages of war.

Beauty appeals to the senses, yes, but whose senses? Who is the perceiving subject? The wonders of nuclear physics were not experienced as beautiful by those on the ground at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; some of the luckiest of those who experienced those event ⁠— who saw all Farrell saw up close ⁠— never made use of their eyes again. Far less grandly, we might think here about our own dress, all we do to make ourselves presentable and attractive ⁠— a bit more beautiful ⁠— in the course of our everyday lives. It probably behooves us to wonder, when we buy a dress or a shoe that’s fetching to our eye, whether the workers working for half a pittance ⁠— some of them children ⁠— stitching them together by the thousands, day in and day out, see them in quite the same way that we do.

Beauty, in sum, is a troubled tangle. It vexes and beguiles. And it reminds me, in this way, of democracy. We’ve all been wrestling with that word in this country for the last couple of years and the last couple of centuries. Like beauty it’s a deceptively simple one, freighted, despite its attractive features, with a real darkness. We’re all taken, from time to time, with the romance of the protest or the town hall meeting, the excitement of a political campaign, the simple pleasures ⁠— at least for the more civic-minded among us ⁠— of Election Day itself. Going into a church or a school, perhaps, and having your voice recorded as though it really matters. And sometimes it does. But to take democracy seriously as an idea is to acknowledge the ever-present risk that when all the bunting and balloons have been taken down, the smiling volunteers have gone home, and the last “I voted” sticker has been handed out, we might find that we, or our fellow citizens, have acceded to ugly and terrible things. To prosecute wars without reason. To persecute the helpless. To take children away from their parents. To send agents of the state into libraries so that the state might substitute its sense of the beautiful for our own.

Why then, do we persist? What makes democracy worthwhile given all that can go wrong? For me, it’s largely a matter of power, incentives, and agency. If governance is to benefit the governed, it’s best left to the governed themselves rather than authorities that cannot be trusted to act reliably in or be held accountable to their interests. There are some who additionally offer an epistocratic defense of democratic processes ⁠— given all the collected knowledge and the diversity of perspectives we bring to the table when we make decisions together, it’s plausible that the masses are more likely to be right than wrong in their judgments and more right than the few or an individual ruler acting alone would be.

But as much as these views might have to recommend them, there’s an aesthetic dimension to democracy that they leave aside. There was much discussion, upon the death of Queen Elizabeth last year, about the sublime character of monarchies, even ones reduced to figurative status ⁠— the traditions that make the British Royals so important to so many, all of the symbolism that was on display during King Charles’ coronation. And I fully concede that there are things one might find beautiful in all the pomp and circumstance. But to my mind, hereditary monarchy itself, as a system, is a grubby, small thing. The Crown Jewels sparkle brightly, but what you have in a monarchy is a system of rule built around getting the right people to copulate with each other. It’s a simple and sordid business; it never really changes.

Democracy, by contrast, is something at once stranger and more grand. Thousands or millions, in all of their differences and mutual hostilities somehow, implausibly, acting together to collective ends ⁠— a system that is not only buttressed by its own strange rituals and ceremonies, but that often seems quasi-mystical even in substance. Consider the concept of representation ⁠— the idea that people might be chosen to go to some far away place and act in our stead, perhaps as though we ourselves would have. Anyone who’s ever tried to get ahold of their Congressman knows, just as a democratic theorist does, how fraught this idea can be in practice. And part of the trouble is that we’re not really sure how close the resemblance between our representatives and ourselves is supposed to be. Is a representative body ideally a true mirror of the public at large, warts and all? Or are our representatives supposed to be refined and improved versions of ourselves ⁠— the public rendered, in a sense, more beautifully?

These are questions of political theory, but I call them aesthetic ones too because they are, importantly, also questions of perception and formal ideals. And it seems plain today that one of democracy’s main problems is an image problem. I don’t know that most Americans would say democracy as they experience or believe they experience it is beautiful though I also don’t know that most Americans would say that democracy needs to be beautiful. Most people, I think, tend to think about democracy as infrastructure. A good democracy, for most, is something like good plumbing ⁠— a vital system of pipes that ought to be kept in working order but not thought much about besides as we busy ourselves with the business of life. And most Americans today think that system of pipes has gotten perhaps hopelessly corroded ⁠— it’s busted and leaking sewage everywhere, it has interrupted and polluted the business of life. Most Americans just want those pipes fixed. They don’t need to see beauty within them. They just want them to work.

But I think making democracy work takes commitment ⁠— patience, perseverance, a willingness to suffer and sacrifice for the sake of the system. If we aren’t bound tightly to it, it will fail. We will strain for alternatives and those alternatives will be worse. It would be good, given this, if we could develop an understanding of democracy that puts something like beauty at its center ⁠— to see it as more than just plumbing, more than just infrastructure. To develop a sense that it might do grand and extraordinary things for us. Because I think it might. Democracy at the end of the day is about taking responsibility for our own existence, not shoving that responsibility onto someone else. We fail and we learn and grow together; if there’s a way we improve as human beings, that’s it. I don’t know that I would say democracy is beautiful. But it is a well from which beauty might spring.

A Song

"Cybele's Reverie" – Stereolab (1996)