The Promise of Beauty is concerned with beauty in crisis—about the conditions beauty requires to flourish, with and against the threat of its disappearance or destruction; and about the transformation of those conditions to sustain such life that the beautiful promises to us. Consider as just one example these words in a 2003 Vogue feature about burqa-clad Afghan women under the Taliban, and their “liberation” under US occupation, which gesture so economically at the premises above: “Those [women who] survived relied on the only things they had left, their self-respect and their ability to maintain what dignity they could by making themselves beautiful.”
In proposing a theory of beauty in crisis, this talk focus on three matters. The first is the very promise of beauty as an entry point into thinking history, and life. The second is the scene in which a thing of beauty is imperiled, and in this way appeals to (or appears to) a collectivity of observers to protect or otherwise prolong the life of the beautiful, whether object, person, or life-world. The third is the intuitions and institutions that secure this promise to beauty, and yet in doing so might produce occasions for violence that go by other names—such as freedom, resilience, or democracy.