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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1870.—March 12, 2014

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

The Sheer Fight

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are proud to publish “The Serious Aspect of Snobbery,” which Eli Siegel wrote in the 1950s. It is a logical and rollicking, an incisive and delightful, an eloquent and charming essay about a horrible thing. Mr. Siegel defines snobbishness, or snobbery; and he shows that, though it may often seem casual and urbane, it is related to the most brutal cruelty and has the same source. Later in his teaching of Aesthetic Realism he would describe that source as contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.”

As introduction, I’m going to comment on a massive form of snobbishness and contempt. It is snobbishness become a way of economics, something which has hurt, curtailed, crippled human lives for thousands of years. And I’ll comment on a recent happening, because this event, though of a particular time, concerns all of world history and every person.

A Way of Economics

The most awful snobbishness is the feeling that the world, with all its wealth, should belong only, or mostly, to certain people. That is the basis of the profit system. Further, the profit motive is active snobbery. It’s the motive to extract all the money one can from another human being, from his labor or his needs, while giving him as little as one can. It’s the seeing of a person in terms of “How much money can I make from this guy? Is he desperate enough so I don’t have to pay much for his work?” It’s not an asking, “How can I be fair to this person who is as real as I am, whose feelings are as deep?” The profit motive is the desire, not to understand someone, but to aggrandize oneself through him—a desire always accompanied by the assumption that oneself is superior and has the right to look down. From this contempt-as-economics, snobbery-as-economics, have come sweatshops, child labor, industrial diseases, poverty—and millions of men, women, and children leading lives so very much worse, so much less, than they were entitled to lead.

In the profit system there is also a fundamental snobbishness toward reality itself. This snobbishness is the underlying sense, “The world is unworthy of my liking it unless I can own as much of it as possible. I can like the world only if I possess more of it than other people do. I can’t value it unless in some big way it’s mine to manage, grab, kick around, show off with, do with as I please.”

In 1970 Eli Siegel, as historian, explained that the profit system had reached the point at which it was no longer able to succeed. Though it might struggle on for a while, it would do so with increasing pain to humanity. And that is what has occurred. As production has been taking place in more and more nations, it has become harder and harder for US companies to haul in big profits for stockholders. They can do so now only by making the people who actually do the work become poorer and poorer—be paid less and less. That means crushing unions, because it is unions that have enabled working people to earn a dignified wage and be treated with respect.

Unions are composed of individual human beings, and certainly those individuals can be snobs. However, unions as such are anti-snobbery, anti-contempt. They are based on the beautiful, respectful, ethical idea that “My power is inseparable from my wanting—and fighting for—others to get what they deserve. The way I’ll take care of myself, the way I’ll flourish, is by making sure he and she and they are treated justly!”

As big a fight as any going on in the world—indeed, as big a fight as any in the history of humanity—is the fight now taking place between the profit system and unions. It is a fight between snobbery (the profit system) and justice (unions). It is a fight between contempt (the profit system) and respect for humanity (unions). It is a fight that even most union leaders have not seen clearly. We need to see it clearly, because the fight is really a sheer one: For the profit system to continue, unions must be defeated. And if unions and the economic justice they represent succeed, the profit way will be done in, finished, kaput. When that happens it will be (as the idiom goes) good riddance to bad rubbish. There will be a way of economics different from any that has been. It will be based, neither on profit for a few nor on “collectivism,” but on an honest answer to the question Eli Siegel said was the most important for humanity: “What does a person deserve by being a person?”

What It Was About

Last month something occurred that shocked people in the labor movement. It was, and is, a phase of the sheer fight I’m describing, and needs to be used by America—including American unions—to be clear about that sheer fight. The happening is a vote against the UAW at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee.

When the United Auto Workers union went after organizing VW’s Tennessee workers in the ferociously anti-union South, the overwhelming majority signed cards stating, Yes, they wanted the union to represent them. VW, likely under pressure from its German unions, said: We won’t fight unionization, the way American employers do; we’ll sign a neutrality agreement. That meant VW would not tell the workers to vote against the UAW; it would not try to intimidate them; it would not engage in the horrific lying campaigns to which American unions are largely subjected. So the neutrality agreement was signed. And it meant that the UAW, too, was agreeing to something: It would not speak against the employer. Also, it would not engage in the house calls that are a mainstay of successful union campaigns, visits through which union representatives can speak to workers individually.

However, the UAW, it seems, did not expect that there would be a gigantic onslaught against the union from elected (right-wing) officials in Tennessee—including the governor and many legislators. According to the New York Times (Feb. 16), politicians told workers, for instance, that “auto parts suppliers would not come to the Chattanooga area if that meant being located near a unionized VW plant”; that VW executives said “the plant would add a second production line, making sport utility vehicles, if workers rejected the U.A.W.”; that the “Legislature was unlikely to approve further subsidies to Volkswagen if the plant unionized,” which meant the SUV jobs would not materialize. It seems there were big ads threatening workers that unionization would have dire effects—ads paid for by super-wealthy right-wing funders like the Koch brothers.

I am writing about this because of the need to understand the fight of snobbery versus justice, which now has as one of its forms the sheer fight of the profit system versus unions and what people deserve. I think the UAW—with all its historic grandeur, kindness, and power—has not seen what that fight is fully about, and so was not prepared for the onslaught and was shocked on February 14 when it lost the VW election by 44 swing votes. The furious meddling by government officials came because certain persons do see what unions have not seen clearly: that if workers get paid well, the profit system won’t be able to go on. If unions prevail, profits will go to those who earn them—the workers—instead of persons who don’t do the work. And so those protectors of the profit way will fight against unions with every vicious weapon and sleazy trick they can. The UAW thought it had an amicable agreement with VW; it didn’t see that it was fighting the profit system as such, and so it was, perhaps, somewhat blindsided. (There’s VW itself. One can question how much it’s really for unions. You don’t set up a plant in a right-to-exploit state like Tennessee because you want a union.)

In “The Serious Aspect of Snobbery” Eli Siegel shows, thrillingly, that real individuality is against snobbishness and contempt. To see what he explains, that individuality is justice, that our personal glory is our relation to other people and things—that is the beautiful future of America!

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The Serious Aspect of Snobbery
By Eli Siegel

The haughty people of the earth do languish. —Isaiah

Snobbery is the unwillingness to like something unless at the same time it makes one feel more important, or, at least, doesn’t seem to make one’s importance any the less. This means that a person doesn’t want to like the outside world unless one can approve of oneself first, in the way with which one is “familiar”: a way which, likely, is bad. To like oneself first and what may be true or lovely second, is the source of dull evil.

Every evil that shows itself in a minor or frivolous way has a source in common with what seems graver evil. Unkindness is grave and snobbery seems minor, but they come from the same thing. The unwillingness to do justice to a book is related to the unwillingness to do justice to a whole people, or to man in general.

The loveliest thing that can happen to a person is to like oneself through doing pleasing justice to something else. If there is a dislocation or disruption between liking oneself and liking other things, ugliness has been supported; and ugliness is evil contemplated.

Snobbery is the inability or lack of desire to appreciate justly. It is a phase of injustice, therefore. Injustice may show itself in a frivolous form, but injustice itself is not frivolous.

They Would Ask

If persons were wholly alive, and wanted to approve of themselves deeply, the first things they would ask of themselves would be: What do I like? How much do I like? Why do I like what I do?

I can imagine an Aesthetic Judgment Seat where a person would be asked by an Aesthetic St. Peter: So, how much did you like on the earth that God made? Why did you like it? Did you want to see the thing you might like for itself, or did you first make sure you would gain something by liking it, or at least lose nothing in the way of position?

There is an obligation we have to see beauty and meaning wherever they may be, in whatever form they take. The need to be aesthetically just is an ethical need. To see something as beautiful, or to say it is, when it isn’t—because our acquisitive ego saw it as most convenient that way—is ethical ill-doing, along with aesthetic ill-doing. Not to see something as beautiful that is beautiful—because the acquisitive or protective vanity stands in the way—is also ethical ill-doing. When it is felt in this world that there is an obligation we have to see, for ourselves, what has beauty or meaning, a great, fine change will have taken place in the universe.

True Individuality

In a big sense, the true meaning of individuality is against snobbery. Individuality implies the desire to see for oneself whatever is so, whatever is beautiful, whatever has meaning. A person will want to see a thing for what it is, because that way his very self, his complete, uncorrupted individuality, can take care of what it is, come to show itself. We can listen to others—we should. We can get hints; we can acquire data from others. But everything we feel should have a cause beautiful enough, big enough, exact enough for our feeling it. In the long run, however we come to them, our feelings must be our own. When they are truly our own, the structure and freedom of the whole universe will be in delightful, accurate, mighty accord with ourselves.

Snobbery doesn’t work this way. A person with snobbery doesn’t ask, doesn’t keep on asking, whether an object or person deserves a certain attitude or feeling. The question is, What will happen to me if I feel this way or that way, say this or that? In looking at matters this way, the person with snobbery has defiled his own individuality, befouled the true idea of self.

An opinion truly had is coherent with all that is outside of the person having it. All facts go along with a true notion of truth, a lovely notion of loveliness. This opinion or notion is had, it is true, as a unique irreducible thing by an individual, but the very sincerity, authenticity, particularity of the opinion makes it go along with all that is in the world otherwise. Individuality, particularity, uniqueness are not against universality, reality, factuality: they are universality, reality, factuality in the form of one self, one person, one mind. When we reach ourselves, when we meet what we are, when we get to the true depths of our unrepeatable I, we find the universe again, reality again: tremendous and subtle, immediate and unexplainable fact again.

In this matter, our greatest hope is our greatest obligation. We must be true to ourselves by getting feelings which are our feelings, about outside objects, about people, about music, events, poems, books, countries, statements. When we are false to our greatest desire, the desire to see the universe for ourselves, we are false to other people too. This falsity occurs easily.

The person with snobbery, false to his truest feelings, is false to his own individuality and to all else. A person who does not want to see his own feelings as they are can hardly be good for anyone else. The greatest aesthetic monition is also the greatest ethical monition: Find out what you feel, and show it.

Snobbery is, then, a corruption of individuality. It is unkindness—for the unwillingness to be just is unkindness. It is insincerity, for sincerity means first the wish to have feelings based on what things or people are, not on anything else.

All Kinds of Ways

Meanwhile, snobbery shows itself, as in Thackeray’s time,* in all kinds of ways. There is the snobbery of those who want to read only the “great classics” and the snobbery of those who, caring only for the latest bibliographical manifestations, look down on the past, and its devotees. In this field, not the most terrible, there is, as in other fields, mutual contempt, doing no good to either side. There are the persons who keep their ear to the ground of art criticism because they do not wish to, or are afraid to, look at pictures for themselves. There are those who want to see poems only in the dreary coagulated way to which their personalities are accustomed. There are those who look down on anybody caring for poems at all. Even now, there are the persons with snobbery who can’t think that poems may be written after Burns, Byron, and Tennyson.

Snobbery is shown by persons who came to some place by ship or wagon, early. It is shown by persons who, reading the Bible so many hours a day, disdain people who don’t read the Bible with such quantitative fervor. There is snobbery in persons who see too much in New York and in persons who see only bad in the renowned city. There is snobbery in persons not going after money, and in persons going after money. Children have their snobberies and so have parents. Slender girls have their snobberies and so have stolid gentlemen, who would have worn massive watch chains years ago. There is the snobbery of the Southerner and the Southwesterner; of the Pacific Coaster and of the Easterner; and of the Middle Westerner. There is the snobbery of the person who works with his hands and of the person who doesn’t.

People can show their like for music in a way evincing snobbery, and do, every evening. There is the snobbery of the furious searcher for old jazz records—lovely things, though, most of them—and there is the snobbery of him who goes after hearing old stringed instruments in decorous milieus, vibrating with distinction.

Snobbery is connected, as everyone knows, with furnishing a home. You can be snobbish in being “comfy” and snobbish in not being. You can be snobbish about rugs, pipes, birds, blinds, food. Snobbery of course stalks, haunts, delicately glides along the campuses. Every college is an opportunity for a new variation of snobbery.

Snobbery is had by persons close to God, by persons who see God as hovering, by choice, over their breakfast or supper tables. There is the snobbery of those who think they have suffered more than other people. There used to be snobbery within assertive agnosticisms and atheisms. The “scientific mind” of the moment has given the come-hither to snobbery, as has the “non-scientific” mind. Both dogma and the relative have been advocated with snobbery.

Sects have their snobberies. I can’t think of any without. A High Churchman could welcome snobbery in the past, and so could a Quaker, and I don’t see why it should be different now.

Automobiles are in relation to snobbery. Butterfly hunting is. Dancing is. Newspapers are. Giving birth is not unrelated.


Well, by now it should be plain that snobbery is everywhere a person can be. Whether one is alone or in a crowd, one has the chance of welcoming it.

Snobbery is so omnipresent, so ubiquitous, so dazzlingly, oppressively multiform because its source is the desire to like oneself, or what is close to oneself, before truth as such, as it is everywhere, is liked. While we want to be comfortable with ourselves first and to see second, Isaiah will be right. Isaiah said in his prophecies that there is an indisposition on the part of people to like themselves and truth at the same time. Contemporary snobbery shows the indisposition is very much around, long after Isaiah.

If there is any snobbery in this paper, add it to the list. black diamond

*See William Makepeace Thackeray, The Book of Snobs (1848).

Aesthetic Realism is based on these
principles, stated by Eli Siegel:

1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.


2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.


3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

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The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known (TRO) is a biweekly periodical of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner

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TRO: Home |  Current |  Art |  Literature |  Racism |  Education |  Nat'l Ethics |  Love |  Economics |  Memorial |  Site Map
"Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?" by Eli Siegel: a short explanation of Aesthetic Realism
The Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company in New York City. Authors in the repertory include Ibsen, Sheridan, Shakespeare, O'Neill.
Ellen Reiss, Commentaries in TRO:
The Mideast  |  Poetry of Eli Siegel |  Unions
Lord Byron |  Harry Potter |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution
Aesthetic Realism Resources:
Aesthetic Realism Consultations
Two Biographies of Eli Siegel:
[1] Aesthetic Realism Foundation
[2] Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company Site
Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies
Art and Literature:
The Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature

The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method:
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
The Aesthetic Realism Method
Further Resources:
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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