In a democracy, Tocqueville claims, the useful will always be preferred to the beautiful. When the cultivation of arts is a restricted privilege, an artisan’s skill and high quality is prized; but when everyone can enter any profession, every artisan simply strives to make the most money at the least cost and the consumer doesn’t care that objects are well-made and long-lasting. Democracies always include many people whose desires grow larger than their present fortunes, and who are therefore willing to settle for shoddier commodities.
As he applies his overriding argument about American pragmatism to the industrial arts, Tocqueville attempts to explain the nature of both production and consumption. That is, he believes that the American tendency to prize utility over beauty helps to explain why artisans are less skilled in a democracy, but also why consumers are eager to buy up those commodities anyway.
Tocqueville acknowledges that even in democracies, some will pay for the time and trouble of well-wrought objects; but inferior quality is the rule rather than the exception. The human vanity so characteristic of a democracy leads artisans to feign luxury, manufacturing fake diamonds so well that they can’t be told apart from real ones, for instance.
This is one of the first instances in which Tocqueville mentions vanity as a natural characteristic of a democratic society, though he will later return to this notion. Tocqueville’s aristocratic sensitivity to vulgarity is especially evident here.
The same is true, according to Tocqueville, of the fine arts: in a democracy, there are numerically more artists, but the merit of each work shrinks. While aristocracies produce a few great paintings, democracies produce a huge number of mediocre ones. He recalls having seen small white marble palaces along the East River in New York, but upon inspecting them more closely, he found that they were actually made of whitewashed brick and painted wood.
The anecdote about the “marble” palaces comes to be emblematic of how Tocqueville understands the arts in a democracy—things may look beautiful on the outside, but that’s only a façade. Throughout these chapters, he moves between general characterization of democracies and his specific observations in America.
American artists prefer the Real to the Ideal, Tocqueville notes: they are accurate, but don’t yearn for anything beyond “mere” accuracy, detail, and imitation, as the greatest Renaissance artists did.
Contrasting American to Renaissance artists, Tocqueville indulges in the nostalgia for a lost time that he warns against elsewhere.