The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known /
NUMBER  1360. — April 28, 1999 
(ISSN 0882-3731
Art, War, and the Desire to Know

Dear Unknown Friends: 

     This issue is about art, war, and the desire to know — about the fact that it is urgent for people to want to know. We publish "Questions Making for Aesthetic Dogma," by Eli Siegel, of 1954. The trend then, as now, was to say that beauty cannot be defined — that what makes a Mayan carving in stone beautiful is different from what makes a play of Racine beautiful; that beauty is a matter of shifting tastes; that if criteria exist at all, the criteria for the beauty of a garment, of a Dickens novel, of a bird’s movement, of a fight for justice, are different criteria.

     Eli Siegel, however, is the critic who has done this great, historic thing: he has defined beauty itself. He has shown the coherence of all the different instances of beauty, what distinguishes them from that which is not beautiful. And he has shown what beauty has to do with the personal hopes and tumult of everyone. This principle is the basis of Aesthetic Realism: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." In the questions printed here, is some of the tremendous, clear logic behind that principle.

     And I say with carefulness and deep feeling: that principle is an urgent thing, as human beings in Yugoslavia are terrorized and killed by American bombs or are refugees, suffering. It is urgent because we have now a crying, blazing, life-and-death necessity to see what ethics is. Ethics, Mr. Siegel showed, like beauty, is a oneness of opposites. Ethics is the seeing of justice to what is not ourselves as the same as care for our own selves.

     Mr. Siegel explained that to make a rift between these opposites is immensely common — men, women, and children do it hour after hour — but this disproportion between what oneself is and what other things deserve is Contempt, and all the ugliness and cruelty in the world come from it: whether the cruelty is one child’s humiliating another in a playground or one nation’s incinerating with weapons the land and people of another. He said, with his beautiful logic and passion, "Once you feel what is owing to yourself is more and what is owing to other people is less, you can rob people’s purses, tell lies, keep back things that would do good to people, start wars."

The Thought We Owe
At this time, when our nation is bombing and bombing and bombing Yugoslavia, killing people, destroying the infrastructure of that nation; and at this time when Americans see, on television, so many terrified refugees — I quote words by Mr. Siegel that I think the people of America need desperately to know. They are from the lecture Aesthetic Realism and Evil, which he gave on June 30, 1950, when the Korean War began. I quote at length — because these statements of near 50 years ago about Korea are, in their resounding, kind honesty, an emergency now:
    Aesthetic Realism is not political, but it is ethical....[And] what Aesthetic Realism would ask of people is that they never tire of finding out what is good and what is bad here, or how it happened. This means one has to keep on knowing.

         The thing about the means of information today is this: there is never any appeal to people to look at the other side, to see what the other side could say. There is a feeling perhaps that if one did that, one couldn’t act. But let’s assume one is asked to act and that one acts in keeping with the information one has had. This important thing, the beginning of good: that you try to find it, wherever it may be — that isn’t being called for.

         ... The very fact that we don’t want to ... get all the truth on a certain subject involving good and evil tremendously is already a sign of evil. ... If I heard, in the press and on the radio, statements to this effect: "This is our opinion, and we want you, our good listeners, to find out whatever is the whole truth" — that would be so lovely. But one doesn’t hear that.

         ... If we respect people, we say to them: "Go and find out." If we feel we are talking to people we respect, we think that even if something is called "propaganda," they should see what it is. Otherwise, we look on them as milksops who have to be nursed along just by what we say.

         ... This is what should be said: "Americans, there are beings whom evolution has created, or God has created;...and they are going through something. They are being bombed. They are being shot at. They are running. ... All are being frightened. ... Are we thinking of how it all happened and what they’re feeling?" I know that I’m trying to very much. I would feel ashamed if I weren’t trying to, because, again I say, this has got nothing at all to do with politics.

         Aesthetic Realism is ethics, and it is aesthetic ethics. It says that two opposites, if they make one in ethics, will make a person happy: feelings about oneself and feelings about the world.

         When Aesthetic Realism says feelings about the world, it doesn’t mean just one block: "the world" — it means every person in it. [TRO 348]

Having One's Way
War is like ordinary personal life in that this huge matter has been central to it: the desire to have one’s own way. In an Aesthetic Realism lesson when I was 24, Mr. Siegel spoke to me on the subject, not in relation to war but in relation to love. He explained why, though I had "conquered" a man of my choice, I felt deeply distressed and unsure. He said, "People will give up everything as long as they can have their own way: this is the great peril. ‘Our way’ happens to be something that looks attractive because of power or pleasantness. Miss Reiss feels she’s had her way and it hasn’t made her very happy. You cannot feel your own way is good for you unless it is the way of the world itself."

     That Aesthetic Realism lesson was a turning point in my life; and I love Mr. Siegel for what he taught me then and in all the years I studied with him. I love him for his magnificent honesty; for his unceasing desire to know; for what this desire made for — the scope and grandeur of his knowledge. 

     Governments, like individuals, can want to have their way and can do about anything to get it. They can blow up cities to have their way. There is the desire in Belgrade, of course, to have one’s way. But how much is the desire to have our way the impetus in Washington? As people die and suffer, and as US citizens may soon die, it is exceedingly necessary to ask, what are all this massive weaponry and the horror it can inflict, really in behalf of?

     It is my opinion that NATO’s and the US’s war against Yugoslavia is hideously wrong and should stop immediately. Whatever one thinks of Slobodan Milosevic, he is not, various persons have truly pointed out, another Hitler (see editor James Klurfeld in Newsday, April 8; and columnist Lawrence C. Levy in the April 14 issue of that paper).

     For 45 years, from 1946 to 1991, people of diverse nationalities throughout Yugoslavia’s six republics lived in peace with each other, and mingled as one rather prosperous nation. The beginning cause of the agony now taking place is the desire of the US and other Western powers that there be no socialist country remaining in Europe. They encouraged and evoked the contempt of one ethnic group for another, encouraged and supported secessionist desires. Even if one disagrees with Yugoslavia’s choice of an economy — it is not for the US, Germany, or England to try to destroy a nation whose way of owning land and wealth is different from ours.

Contempt for the Facts
In issue 148 of this periodical, Mr. Siegel wrote, "Having one’s equivalent often to having contempt for the facts not consonant with having one’s way." One of the big things people do to have their way is lie: because if one’s way is not in keeping with what’s true, the facts have to be twisted or annulled, and more suitable "facts" created. In relation to Yugoslavia, I mention a few matters here — many, many more could be mentioned.

     One form of "contempt for the facts not consonant with having one’s way" is to keep using an inflammatory word so as to create an impression, even though that word is inaccurate. This has been done, for example, with the word genocide. Another form is to make false identifications, such as one I’ve referred to: our government links the Serbs with Hitler, when they are a people who fought the Nazis with terrific courage. Meanwhile, we support Croatia, a nation that was definitely Nazi, whose current president, Tudjman, has praised Hitler’s Croatian collaborators, denied the severity of the Holocaust, and is quite fascist himself.

     If the bombing of Yugoslav cities is taking place for the reason given — so that persons need not become tormented refugees — not only have the US and NATO created many thousands more, but they are exceedingly selective as to which refugees one should sympathize with. Since I intend to quote here only from "establishment" sources, I go now to a person with whom I have disagreed very much over the years. A.M. Rosenthal, in his New York Times column of April 16, mentions something NATO and the media usually don’t refer to because it doesn’t go along with having their way: he mentions "the expulsions Serbs have experienced" in recent years, "like the 300,000 Serbs purged from Croatia by the dictator Franjo Tudjman." So NATO’s purpose in Yugoslavia is definitely not to stop "ethnic cleansing," because Croatia’s ruthless "ethnic cleansing" of Serbs was accepted and even welcomed by the parties now bombing.

     Then there is the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) — which our administration backs and calls "freedom fighters." In the April 11 Washington Post, Mark Kramer, director of the Harvard Project on Cold War Studies, uses the phrase "terrorists and extremists" in connection with the KLA. He notes that there has been "ill treatment of Serbs in Kosovo" by Albanians — abuses committed "against Serbian civilians." In the Boston Herald (April 4), Don Feder says, "Prior to Milosevic’s major deployment in Kosovo...[Serbian] villagers were kidnapped and murdered [by the KLA],...a cutthroat gang" with "terrorist" and "crime syndicate" ties.

     It happens that the United States has anointed with the name "Freedom Fighters" some of the most anti-democratic, unscrupulous, murderous people of the 20th century. For example, our government trained so-called Afghan "freedom fighters" and made sure they won. Because we did, Afghanistan now has a government which reduces women to captivity and virtual slavery, and punishes its people by amputating body parts and by stoning to death. And America, so morally aroused now as to bomb Yugoslav cities day after day, recently admitted having trained and backed Guatemalan death squads. Governments in our own hemisphere have tortured, killed, made people "disappear" year after year with no protest from the US. In fact, we consider them our allies.

     I quote now a person whose way of seeing economics I disagree with very much. Ted Galen Carpenter is of the Cato Institute, which believes in free enterprise at its freest, with no governmental restrictions. In his March 23rd commentary on the Institute’s website he wrote that what Yugoslavia is doing is "attempting to put down a secessionist rebellion in one of its own provinces." He says of our onslaught: "Decent Americans need to make a stand when it has reached the point of a full-scale war of aggression against a country that has done us no harm."

     During the Vietnam War, Mr. Siegel wrote in a poem: "There has to be good reason for the killing of anybody. / A good reason has to exist for the giving of anyone pain." With billions of dollars worth of weapons, our country is killing people in Yugoslavia, devastating that nation, destroying the things its citizens need in order to live. Americans have to ask: Is this truly our way?

— Ellen Reiss, Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism

Questions Making for Aesthetic Dogma
By Eli Siegel

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

1. If there are a number of works, successful as art, though of different styles and of different periods, do they have something in common?

     2. Is there something in common in an approving reaction to a work, whether of Greece, of India, of Polynesia, of France, of Holland, of America; and of whatever period?

     3. When one likes a Rubens, is there something akin in the emotion then to the emotion existing when one likes Picasso or Masaccio?

     4. Can any painting whatsoever be successful without composition — that is, more than one thing brought together as one thing?

     5. Has there been any painting without some freedom of expression and some order in expression?

     6. Doesn’t the fact that there are a thousand paintings, and that they are all called paintings, show they have something in common?

     7. If something persists in every painting, and in every successful painting, cannot this persistent thing be considered as an "absolute," or as a permanent thing?

     8. If conditions are present in the production of a painting, and if conditions are present in the reception of a painting, is there something recurrent in these conditions, something related among these conditions?

     9. Is there something in common which impelled Phidias as sculptor, Giotto as painter, Donatello as sculptor, Poussin as painter, Rembrandt as painter, Turner as painter, Rodin as sculptor, or nothing, nothing at all?

     10. If there is something common in the impulsion to art of many artists of many times, how far away is this something from a permanent something making for art?

     11. Is there something in common among a thousand honest, diverse appreciations of examples of art?

     12. In the same way as there can be something nutritive in five hundred diverse examples of food in various historical periods, cannot there be a something present in five hundred diverse examples of art?

     13. Was there any example of art which did not make for excitement and repose at the same time?

     14. Was there any situation in a mind, making for art, which did not have excitement and repose at the same time?

     15. Has there been any example of art which somehow did not have the universal and specific at the same time?

Note.  The serialization of Ownership, Strikes, Unions will resume next week.

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The Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
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Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
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John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
On the Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture, including Literature
"Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?" by Eli Siegel: a short explanation of Aesthetic Realism

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