The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

America—& What Unions Are About

Dear Unknown Friends:

With this issue we conclude our serialization of Shame Is in How You Do Things, by Eli Siegel. Given on May 28, 1971, it is one of his great Goodbye Profit System lectures. In these, week after week, beginning in 1970, he explained that the world has reached the point at which economics based on contempt could no longer flourish; it had failed, and was showing its failure. An economy motivated by profit, by “How much money can I, the employer, get out of that guy and his work while paying him as little as possible?” “How much money can I, the seller, force that woman to pay for something she needs?”: this is what we’re used to. It has gone on for centuries, but was always ugly and cruel. In the 1970s, however, Mr. Siegel described a new situation—which exists even more intensely now:

The old motive in economics is not working well any longer....Good will in its full, deep, wide, keen meaning [must now be] the chief thing present as man produces, distributes, sells, works, is paid. [TRO 213]

Earlier in the lecture we’re serializing, Mr. Siegel discussed an article in Fortune magazine: “Don’t We Know Enough to Make Better Public Policies?” by Max Ways. On the pages of that bastion of profit economics, Ways says there is a “crisis of confidence” in our nation, a mistrust and sense of failure about American economic life in its various aspects. Mr. Siegel explains why—and what success would be.

It Became Clearer

As I write, something tremendous and beautiful is taking place in the state of Wisconsin: day after day, thousands of men and women are rallying in support of unions and the dignified lives they have made possible for working people. The lecture we’ve been serializing has much to do with the meaning of those demonstrations. So I’ll comment, not about the particular legislation proposed by the Wisconsin governor, but on a certain greater clarity that has come to be in the feelings, thoughts, and also actions of ever so many Americans.

That greater clarity began after Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, encouraged by billionaire business owners, put forth a measure that would do away with most collective bargaining rights of public unions—would undo their ability to negotiate contracts. The ability to negotiate is central to what a union is. Unions negotiate on behalf of their members not only wages, but grievance procedures, so a worker can’t be punished or fired on the mere whim of the employer; sick pay; overtime; working conditions and rules, and more.

There will be this month the hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Fire. On March 25, 1911, a conflagration broke out at a shirtwaist (or blouse) factory in New York City. The exit doors had been locked to keep employees from leaving anytime during the long workday. So 146 garment workers, mostly young women, were killed: either burnt to death in the fire, or smashed to death on the sidewalk when they leapt from windows. That is a historic example of why unions are necessary: everything that’s fair to a worker cuts in on a boss’s profit—from a living wage; to good ventilation; to bathroom breaks; to safety rules so working conditions won’t cause disease, maiming, and death. All these instances of increased fairness came chiefly from one cause: unions fought for them.

Without unions, a boss, impelled by the profit motive, will sacrifice the well-being, even the very lives, of workers in order to make as much money as he can. Also—without real unions, a right-wing state legislature could annul regulations protecting workers—regulations that exist because of the courage of unions.

In recent years, unions had been making concessions, largely about wages and benefits. But when Walker and the Wisconsin Republican legislators said they would undo so much of what unions are—something became vivid to many people. What they saw is part of what Aesthetic Realism has been explaining these years: that the aim of those desiring huge profits for the wealthy is to destroy unions altogether, make them not exist at all. What still needs to be seen is this, described by Mr. Siegel:

If unions are honest, if they cannot be beaten down, and also if they will increase in power, the profit system...—which is the ability to employ labor on terms...presented by ownership—the profit system will not be able to go on. [TRO 1358]

It’s one or the other: either unions—which mean decent lives for Americans—or an economy based on using people for profit.

The Meaning of Wisconsin

While unions (whether wisely or not) made many concessions these years—no real union leader or member could consent to give away what a union is. This fact was not grasped adequately by those with a national strategy to kill unions. Various right-wing moneyed-ones, and the politicians they’ve funded, thought that since unions had given away so much they wouldn’t put up a real fight to keep their right to negotiate. The plotters did not understand what is really in a union person. They didn’t understand that—with all one can criticize—those who care for unions have a feeling that’s deep about what a human being is and deserves. At the threat to annul the right to negotiate in behalf of justice to workers—a right that men and women fought, bled, and died for—that feeling deep within people showed as the passion it really is.

What the American people need to be told clearly is who, or what, is really to blame for America’s economic suffering, job losses, government deficits. They’re being told unions are to blame, because unions have been able to negotiate for their members some of what all people deserve, including pensions and health care. If unions thrive, all Americans can have these, and more. Unions stand for all of us. The cause of our economic trouble is 1) the persons who are using, and want to continue using, America and her workforce for their own private profits; and 2) governments’ funding those persons and their businesses, with the people’s money—through tax breaks, subsidies, and outsourcing public work to private companies.

What is happening in Wisconsin stands for all unions, but it is immediately about public sector unions, workers employed by government. In the lecture we’ve been serializing, Mr. Siegel says the purpose of government has not been seen clearly enough. Is the purpose of government “to promote the general welfare,” as the Constitution says, or to subsidize private businesses and the individuals who profit from them?

In the part of the lecture published here, Mr. Siegel speaks about the need for a nation and its economy to be aesthetic: to put opposites together, as art does. We’ve reached a time when America cannot prosper and be proud until our economy is a oneness of the opposites he speaks of: freedom and accuracy or justice. He wrote in a note to a poem of his: “Perhaps...we should change a well-known term to Free-and-Accurate Enterprise; or, perhaps, Free-and-Just Enterprise; or, even, Free-and- Beautiful Enterprise.” That is what unions are about.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

What Is Doing Well?

By Eli Siegel

To exemplify the title of this talk, “Shame Is in How You Do Things,” I go to the “Home Forum” page in the April 1 issue of the Christian Science Monitor. We’re ashamed of how we’re doing because we may not be doing something well, but also because it doesn’t represent what we want. In the meantime, on this page the world as value and desire is present.

There is an article about Sir John Soane’s Museum, at 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London. We are told the following:

In 1802 when Elizabeth Soane bought the eight paintings [by William Hogarth] comprising the “Rake’s Progress” series and paid a mere £570 for them (then $2,850), Hogarth’s genius was little recognized....Today...a single canvas may well realize over $50,000.

In every field there is the matter of doing well or doing ill. America at various times has been described as doing ill. For example, in a poem by William Vaughn Moody, “Gloucester Moors,” at the time of the Spanish-American War, there is a criticism of America; also in his “Ode in Time of Hesitation.” There is a feeling now that America is doing ill. Is there something in common between a country’s doing ill or well and any other thing’s doing ill or well? What does it mean to do well? What does it mean to do ill? There’s one thing in common between Hogarth and Dürer, or Hogarth and Picasso: there’s a feeling they did well. They’re quite different.

“In 1802...Hogarth’s genius was little recognized.” That isn’t wholly true. He was popular pretty much from the beginning. Hogarth did meet a desire, and his work is now looked upon as having great value. We have to ask, what desire did Hogarth meet in people? There are two, and they correspond to love: he met the desire for honesty; and he met the desire for grace, or beauty. This is what the United States has to meet. We have a desire for honesty and a desire for beauty. If the United States government does not meet these, it is inefficient. I’m presenting a further consideration of aesthetics as the only success for government and people.

$50,000 is mentioned in this passage, and £570. Money represents desire. What happens in this article is what didn’t happen in the Fortune article: desire and finance are made very close here. That means ever so much.

Care for the Environment

There is a desire in man which has become a political issue now: he likes green more than motor fumes. The desire that we find in the ecology or environmental movement is the most notable incursion of aesthetics into politics. The feeling is that when we go out, not just around our home or garden, but wherever we may walk or ride, the country should look good. The country, as Sandburg said, should smell good. This is something in a sense new, but it is interesting to see that there was such a feeling in earlier centuries. We have the following, about Lincoln’s Inn Fields:

Then as now the area was bounded on the east by the ancient quarters of the lawyers of Lincoln’s Inn....When in 1376 the lawyers’ right of access to the adjoining Fields was disputed, they appealed to the king and a royal decree stated roundly that “any device to interrupt or deprive such clerks and citizens of their free common walking and disport there, is a nuisance and offence punishable by the king.” In the early 1600’s the great Inigo Jones had been deputed to plant trees and lay out Lincoln’s Inn Fields with walks and lawns. It was to be a perpetual pleasure ground for the people.

Desire is here. The desire to have the world a certain way meets the desire to have Lincoln’s Inn Fields look good. Such a desire has always been, and it is becoming more conscious now. Human beings are saying more than ever, “I want to look good, ethically, to strangers, let alone the people I know.” That is part of respect. They also hope more than before—which is a part of good will—that other people look good to them. At one time, they didn’t care. To be sure, in a large way they don’t care now, because contempt is still an immeasurable industry. Everybody is lapping up contempt day after day, and getting a false importance from thinking less of other people. I do not want to minimize the ubiquitousness, the multitudinousness, of this desire. I do say, however, that with all its manyness, the desire for contempt is a little more questioned than it used to be. And that is a fine thing.

It’s hardly been defeated; it’s much too attractive. We can get satisfaction from seeing a world that looks good and also from seeing a world that doesn’t look good. The best thing about ecology, as it’s called, or environmental care, is that man’s desire to have reality look good is more insistent than it used to be. At one time if you saw one bit of sloppiness after another, you could get your inward rewards of conceit.

John Soane’s great opportunity came with his appointment as architect to the Bank of England....Light had to be provided without windows which would give intruders an easy access. Soane solved this problem by means of top lighting which he introduced in many ingenious and picturesque ways.

There’s the Bank of England—and this person who collected paintings, was an architect himself, and knew something about how light can come. Whenever we know something, we are nearer to doing something. And if we do something that is in keeping with ourselves, so much is the big shame that we all have less. There is an immeasurable amount of shame in everybody. Jonathan Edwards spoke of there being a sizable, one can say immeasurable, amount of sin. Sin can be defined as the feeling that one is not in the perfect relation with whatever else is. It is an apprehension of imperfect relation with whatever we can be related to.

The Opposites in Poetry, a Nation, a Self

One of the things necessary in order to see what doing well is, is aesthetic criticism, poetic criticism. I don’t believe anybody can ever judge whether humanity is doing well or not if that person isn’t interested in whether a poem does well or not. The reason is that whenever persons are not doing well, where they are not doing well can be described in the same way as a poem’s not doing well.

On the same page as the article on the museum, there is a poem. And what is amiss with it is like what I talked about earlier in relation to the Max Ways article: the feeling that the country doesn’t have a grip on itself, doesn’t have that tightness and flexibility which is equivalent to beauty. Being hard and soft at once makes for a feeling of beauty. That is so about a pear or peach or apple, anything that has texture. There is a way velvet, through these opposites, gives a feeling of something beautiful; and, of course, in the very deepest sense, so does the human body. In sex there is a desire to see the world as both firm and soft. Well, we look at this poem, “It Was Quiet There...,” by John M. Cuno:

As a child. Somewhere in thought.

Like a flute song, it was spring

suddenly in a rush of wind. It

was summer in the heart

before the leaves.


The times we drove

to the lake taking sandwiches.

The sun on the water.


It’s summer

in the heart now. And what then?

I’m reading this because it exemplifies that of which there is a plenitude. It is an example of what human desire does not go after. That is, human desire goes after definition and complete freedom. It goes after that which is in motion and is firm in its own right. What is wrong at the moment with the way this land is going, is wrong with this poem. The lines are too separate from each other. There’s a certain sleaziness, to use a word I used earlier. That is not desired, because when we meet things and there’s a feeling it could be this way but on the other hand it could be another way, that appeals to our contempt and our desire for division but has a very bad effect on us.

This poem has the feeling yes, the words are this way but then it could be another way. It doesn’t have that oneness of complete inevitability and complete freedom which is deep as desire in human beings and is part of liking reality.

When something is to be criticized in a person, it always is related to what one can see in a poem. Let us take a woman who is married and wants to hold a man very closely, almost clutchingly, to herself, and at the same time forgets about him. This is the constant defect in poetry. There’s a certain kind of stridency and insistence, and then also there’s a certain kind of looseness, or, as I have said, sleaziness. To trace this sleaziness and also see something which is consistent in a bad way, to see the clutch, is very necessary. It occurs in hundreds of fashions. This poem is a study in sleaziness and clutchingness, which are two things against beauty.

The Greatest Success

Whatever else the Max Ways article does, it gives evidence that America is ashamed. It is very necessary, very wise, to know where we are ashamed. The greatest success the human mind can have is to see clearly where it is ashamed. It is a glorious doing, a glorious success.

The economics, the politics—the moving structure of American life—is something that people in America are not pleased with, not proud of. They don’t know wholly the reasons, but one reason can be given: the purpose of government itself is not seen beautifully enough, clearly enough. And whenever our purpose in doing anything is not seen clearly, while we may do some things that are correct, we cannot be wholly correct. Since we do not see our purpose as beautiful, a problem that arises in this late May of 1971 is: is there a possibility of seeing our purpose as beautiful? Aesthetic Realism says: Yes, we can see our purpose, as one person, as being beautiful. We can see the purposes of people we know as possibly beautiful. And we can see the purposes of the people represented by what is called the United States as beautiful.