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The Art of Democratic Living: Recovering Alain Locke's Politics of Aesthetics
The famous debate between Alain LeRoy Locke and W.E.B. Du Bois over the proper function of art in society—art or propaganda—is typically read by students of politics as a victory for Du Bois. Against the trends in contemporary literature that adopt Du Bois's penchant for propaganda and assume a strictly instrumental relationship between aesthetics and politics, my dissertation argues for a reassessment of Locke's take on aesthetics as a "tap root" for flourishing democratic living. Locke, I contend, is not merely defending "art for art's sake" as a creative freedom owed to artists, he is arguing for a more robust conception of democratic citizenship and collective democratic life which is predicated on the intelligent deployment of aesthetic sensibilities. The dissertation employs methods of historical contextualization, uses both published and unpublished materials from archives, and engages with contemporary interpretations. For Locke, romantic democratic theory in the vain of Walt Whitman and Frederick Douglass combines with the realism and pragmatism of Williams James, Walter Lippmann, and John Dewey, as well as the avant-garde spirit of Walter Pater and Emile Verhaeren to produce an original account of individual and collective agency, and the peculiar problems of value in democracy. Locke's thought speaks to early-twentieth century grappling with "the problem of social value," to use Christopher Lebron's phrase, or the "value gap," in Eddie Glaude's terminology, that remains in need of attention, response, and discussion today. Recovery of Alain Locke's politics of aesthetics enriches our understanding of democracy's pitfalls and promises and opens new possibilities for thinking about the relationship of affect, aesthetics, and politics in our contemporary moment.