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Definitions, and Comment:
Being a Description of the World

By Eli Siegel


Aesthetics is the showing of an object in such a way that the difference and sameness of reality as a whole is seen in that object, with difference and sameness as beginning opposites.

      This definition cannot be understood unless the full meaning of difference and sameness is seen.

      Every thing and every person are different from, and the same as, all other things and persons. That which makes a thing different is its specific quality; that which makes it the same is its general or universal quality. This therefore means that showing an object as different and the same, is also showing it as specific and general. Consequently, to define aesthetics as that which shows an object as having the specific and general makeup of reality as a whole, is not against the first definition, and should be seen by no one as against it.

      At this point, it is well to take a specific aesthetic object. If a dish of Cézanne, or of anybody else good the way Cézanne is, is art, it's because while being presented as a dish, it also stands for the world as a whole. This means that the dish, as the successful mighty artist presented it, was itself and all other things at once. This further means that the dish was different from all other things and the same, at once.

      Proceeding further: when one looks at the dish, one sees a whole or oneness which is the dish, and also parts or phases of the dish: the color, the shape, the interior quality of the dish, perhaps something like a chip, the angles and curves the dish has in it, and other "within" situations. All these subsidiary situations go along with the wholeness which is the dish.

      So the dish itself has oneness and detail in it, wholeness and manyness. The wholeness of the dish as such, or its unity, can be seen as sameness; the details or "within" situations can be seen as difference. What this comes to is, there is a third wording of the definition of aesthetics I have given: The showing of an object in such a way that the oneness and manyness makeup of reality as a whole is presented in the object. I hope it is clear that this version of the definition is not opposed to the definition as given.

      Aesthetics and art have also been dealt with in terms of personal and impersonal. It could be said in a fourth version of my definition, that aesthetics is the showing of an object in such a way that the personal and impersonal makeup of reality as a whole is seen in that object.

      We can see in a dish of Cézanne, or some other good man of art, a person or mind present and an object without that person or mind present. A person, mind, has become the impersonal dish. In all art, person becomes something else, too.

      Yet, seen fundamentally, the personal and impersonal are also aspects of the difference and sameness within reality as a whole.—It is quite clear that the personal is more specific than the impersonal, and this means that the personal is different while the impersonal stands for sameness. As soon as something has a purpose, the difference in that thing is affirmed: and difference-with-purpose is a central situation in the personal. Sameness as such is against purpose. For example, the God of Spinoza is sameness as substance, until the God of Spinoza has purpose: and then there is difference within God, and the personal, too. The inanimateness to be seen in nature is with absence of purpose, with sameness, with the impersonal; as soon as nature is seen as a cause of feeling, it is seen, too, with difference and with the beginnings of the personal. In the entirety of reality, in the beginningness and constancy of reality, the human conditions and experience of impersonal and personal correspond to that inevitable quality of being as such, seen as opposites: sameness and difference.

      Reality can be seen as personal; that is, as specific-with-direction. It can also be seen as immeasurably vast, illimitably abstract, inconceivably inanimate. Reality is something intensely specific; it is also something endlessly general. And specific and general are another way of seeing difference and sameness, and another way of seeing personal and impersonal.

      Further, art or aesthetics has been talked of in terms of freedom and discipline, or inspiration and symmetry, intuition and logic, and the like. When the word freedom, for example, is looked at, it will be found to mean something of how a person can be different, if he pleases, and as much as he pleases. A person wants to be different from other people and things, because otherwise he can't feel he is entirely a person, that is: different from what is not himself. The purpose of freedom, then, is to enable a person to be as different as he can be; to roam around in his mind; to go places; to change in any way he wants. But a person also while different, wants to remain as he is. We find in freedom the ability of a person to be as different as he pleases while being what he was. In freedom itself, then, there is the constant existence of difference and sameness. Moreover, in a person's desire to know things, to be related to things, there are difference and sameness. Part of man's freedom, however, is his being able to know things, meet things—his being able to be the same as they.

      In the idea of discipline or order, there is the being of one person like other persons or things: that is, if a person is to have order, he must feel that a true relation can exist between him and other examples of existence. In the idea of discipline, a person—no matter how individualistic—feels: "There is something the same in whatever I can think about, as there is in me." This feeling welcomes sameness.

      Yet, a person wants to welcome sameness, or "discipline." So, in welcoming the discipline coming from his seeing that he has to do with everything, the discipline or order is also freedom. This means that when a person is free by order and orderly or disciplined in freedom, he is also the same and different. And the individuality of a single picture or poem in relation to that whole universe, which includes other pictures and poems, also has to do with individualism and collectivism, freedom and discipline, difference and sameness.

      And when you think in yourself of the problem of freedom and order, you will see that it is like freedom and order, difference and sameness in a picture. In the details of a picture, the parts must seem to be doing as they please, they must seem not constrained. In a poem, the words and lines must seem flowing, graceful, unchecked. This has to do with the freedom of a picture or poem; that is, with the details, so far as they seem to be themselves, unrestrained—different. But that which ties the details of a picture or poem together gives them discipline, or order, or composition. The composition, which is the discipline, is also sameness. —The freedom and order idea, then, in aesthetics, likewise leads to difference and sameness.

      There are other essential ideas concerning the basis of aesthetics. There is the idea of static and dynamic, or rest and motion. That which in a painting or poem or dance makes for rest in the fullest sense, makes likewise for sameness. The motion stands for difference. To feel that things are moving and yet together is to feel rhythm or organization. Rhythm, itself, is that in things, when these things, in moving, accent their rest quality; in changing, accent their pause quality; in differing, accent their togetherness or sameness quality. It is true that motion as such has a togetherness quality, and that rest as such has a difference or separation quality; but in the large sense, motion in art stands for difference; rest for sameness. It follows that in the seeing of art as a matter of movement and composition, dynamic and static, things happening and things continuing—we have, basically, difference and sameness seen as one.


© 1945 by Eli Siegel

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