The body politic of the beautiful: Gender, sexuality, and race in later-eighteenth-century aesthetics
Boe, Ana de Freitas
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This dissertation explores the cultural politics that underwrite British writings on beauty from the last half of the eighteenth century. At the historical moment when the human body is claimed to be the paragon of loveliness and the beautiful is said to be the origins of society, the white female body is valorized as the superlative beauty. At the same time that writers such as Joseph Spence, William Hogarth, Edmund Burke, and Uvedale Price praise white women as the epitomes of loveliness, they depart from Shaftesbury's early-eighteenth-century prohibition against eroticizing aesthetic objects. While twenty-first century critics have noted this sexualizing of aesthetics, they fail to remark upon the specificity of the form of desire that is elevated to status of good taste. When writers commend white women to the man of taste and argue that beauty ensures the perpetuation of species, they are not simply sexualizing the beautiful; they are linking the cultural prestige of the beautiful to heterosexual and racially endogamous structures of desire. Each of the three chapters of my dissertation explores how writers were anxious about the beautiful body's gender and race as well as the man of taste's sexual penchants. The first chapter investigates how William Hogarth and Edmund Burke make the category of male beauty problematic. By situating their unease with the male form in the context writings on the potentially sodomitical desires of both the male beauty and the connoisseur, my chapter makes visible how writers did not necessarily believe that they could trust the man of taste to prefer female beauty to her male counterpart. The second chapter demonstrates how writers attempted to stipulate not just the sex but also the race of the beautiful body. Joseph Spence, Hogarth, Burke, and Joshua Reynolds are careful to stipulate that the male aesthetic subject should prefer a white (and not a black) Venus. The third chapter explores both the continuing cultural currency of claims that beauty enables the possibility of society as well as the ways that British women writers criticize that claim that they are the ne plus ultra of loveliness.