When the question of aesthetics and politics is addressed, it is usually in the context of the Marxist and Frankfurt school debates. Nonetheless, what we think of as the well-rehearsed, and to some thinkers, transhistorical, polarity between art and activism is actually a fairly recent and exceptional account. At least since the eighteenth century rise in aesthetic philosophy (and arguments could be made farther back than this), the relationship between the aesthetic and the political sphere, however each of these was defined, was a fairly conventional and even assumed one. Rebecca Harding Davis’s 1861 novella Life in the Iron Mills presents an apposite case study for the constitutive relation of art and politics in the nineteenth-century American context. The text’s efforts culminate in its central figure: the korl woman statue carved by Hugh Wolf out of the waste material of the manufacturing process. The sculpture represents Wolf’s thirst “to know beauty,” a knowledge that would allow him to become “something other than he is.” The explicitly feminized art object is what seems to quench this thirst insofar as it transforms his experience of deprivation into form, turning hope into “a real thing.” But the sculpture—described as “rough” and “ungainly”—in its atypical expression of the feminine simultaneously disables any easy aesthetic distance that would result in the attribution of beauty normatively defined. Instead, its particular non-normative form of femininity formalizes an aesthetic of refusal that brings into view an alternative literary historical trajectory of the politics of ungenre.

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