Academic journal article ARIEL

On Beauty and the Politics of Academic Institutionality

Academic journal article ARIEL

On Beauty and the Politics of Academic Institutionality

Article excerpt

Abstract: Zadie Smiths 2005 novel, On Beauty, is a work that remains timely as it explores aesthetics in the context of the neo-liberal American university. Art and beauty, removed from the hermetic sites of philosophy and official knowledge, become expansive categories in Smith's text, spilling over into the social world to mark the intimate, everyday, embodied, and sensate experiences of a multicultural cast of characters orbiting the institution and navigating its politics. Tracking the various ways On Beauty's minoritized characters are forced to negotiate the spaces in and around the university, this essay highlights how those routinely excluded from the sites of institutional power deploy aesthetic strategies as resistance. This "intersectional aesthetics" prompts a reconsideration of the foundations of an aesthetic judgment rooted in Enlightenment notions of disinterest and universality, which ultimately prove to be thinly veiled racist and patriarchal requirements for subjectivity and citizenship. Finally, such tactics are the means by which On Beauty's critique becomes not an indictment of the contemporary university but a glimpse at its potential for fostering new ways of engaging beauty that embrace difference and spark vital, often unpredictable attachments.

Keywords: aesthetics, On Beauty, the university, multiculturalism, intersectionality



Halfway through Zadie Smith's well-received and commercially successful 2005 novel, On Beauty) a significant moment occurs between the text's two central female characters as they stand looking at a painting by a Haitian artist that depicts Erzulie, the great Voodoo goddess. Carlene Kipps, the painting's owner, describes the work to her new friend, Kiki Belsey:

It's a Hyppolite. It's worth a great deal, I believe, but that's not why I love it. I got it in Haiti itself on my very first visit, before I met my husband.... She's a great Voodoo goddess, Erzulie. She's called the Black Virgin--also, the Violent Venus.... She represents love, beauty, purity, the ideal female and the moon ... and she's the mystere of jealousy, vengeance and discord, and, on the other hand, of love, perpetual help, goodwill, health, beauty and fortune. (Smith 175)

Beyond the symbolic chaos of Erzulie herself, the ekphrastic passage and the section that surrounds it represent the unpredictable attachments that are made possible through art and provide a generative point of entry for discussing On Beauty's complex engagement with aesthetics, one that ultimately bears on the more obviously political questions of multiculturalism and equality at the center of the novel. At the point of this scene, we already know Kiki Belsey to be the irreverent matriarch of the multiracial Belsey family: witty, beautiful, African-American, large in personality and stature, and extremely kind. Carlene Kipps is, in some ways, Kiki's foil: frail and sickly and also black but Afro-British, she is the demure wife and mother of the conservative Kipps family. Aside from their most visible identity markers, the two women of color are set up to have little in common. On the surface, then, the scene of Carlene and Kiki looking together at the painting of a naked black woman is unremarkable, if surprising: it depicts the blossoming affection between two women who, due to their obvious personal differences and the very public scholarly dispute between their art historian husbands, might be indifferent neighbors or even rivals by association but become friends instead.

One might be tempted to read this initial glimpse of unlikely friendship as a celebratory moment indicative of art's capacity to transcend social and material differences, but as it unfolds in the presence of an artwork that signifies in multiple and often contradictory ways throughout the novel, this scene actually gestures toward a more nuanced aesthetics. While the Erzulie piece is beautiful, it is also, as Carlene says, "worth a great deal," and not only economically. …

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