Canonical Beauty – Aesthetic Criteria and the Origins of Racism

  • Vladimir V. Mihajlović Institute for Balkan Studies SASA, Belgrade
racism, classical canon, anthropometry, socio-cultural evolution, history of archaeology


The term race has had a number of often mutually opposed meanings – it has been used to denote ethnic, linguistic, social, territorial, as well as other groups. The aesthetic criteria have played a very important role in the establishment of the idea of race, itself being not a cause but an expression of racism. This apparently neutral measure has been chosen deliberately, with the aim to confirm the supremacy of the European white race. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the required aesthetic role models were recognized in the treasuries of Classical Greece. Ancient Hellas – as established in the writings of J. J. Winckelmann and his followers – was the fount of all virtue, wisdom, and everlasting beauty. Thus the somatic characteristics were linked to intellectual and spiritual values, through a scientific and seemingly neutral process of measurement. The theory of evolution, as well as numerous reactions to it, enabled the representation of the differences between “races” as almost unsurpassable, in spite of the faith in the common ancestry of mankind. As the final outcome of the process, cultural differences became biological, and the domination of the Western societies was furnished by the scientific proof and legitimacy.


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