Art and Aesthetics in Action
Written by: Professor Severyn T. Bruyn


Black Tom Jefferson

Art critic Clyde Taylor says that even the most innocent discussions of art have a political implication. He describes how Thomas Jefferson “innocently” discusses What is beauty? in his notes about Negroes and whites in Virginia.

The first difference which strikes us is that of colour. Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?… I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.

Taylor argues that Jefferson’s innocent (keen and articulate) review of what is beautiful tells us something about ourselves. It tells us about how aesthetic theories can lead to violence.

Despite his aesthetic critique of blacks in comparison to whites, Jefferson fathered children from one of his own slaves. 

Black Thomas Jefferson
Black Tom Jefferson

In this bust of Black Tom Jefferson, I see a male offspring of Tom. Can you see it? I can only imagine that some Black Jefferson lived. He might never have known about his ancestry. 

I think this sculpted head does show the likeness of Tom.

African Priestess

Black Tom Jefferson

The Owner of a Hacienda

Native American Pipe

Buddha in the Country

The Buddha in the Wood [detail]

Aristophanes and Euripides