The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

What & Who Are Important?

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing Eli Siegel’s great lecture Romanticism and Guilt, of 1963. In it he shows that every new movement in art arises from the sense that the world has not been seen with enough justice; things have not been valued; their meaning has not been brought forth! We’re ashamed, we have guilt, when we’re unjust. And an artist welcomes the guilt and feels, I must give to these misseen, undervalued things the form, the beauty, they deserve!

Never was such a feeling stronger than during the romantic movement, at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. Romanticism said: The ordinary things you take for granted have wonder! Things you consider distant from you, strange, even grotesque, can tell you about yourself! People who have been thought lowly have importance, dignity, even grandeur!

The article by educator Leila Rosen that we print here too is on a related subject. It is part of a paper she presented at a public seminar this spring: “Being Important: What Does It Mean, & What Mistakes Do We Make about It?”

The Battle in Us & Economics

In each of us, Aesthetic Realism explains, there is a fight about importance, and it’s the big fight in our lives and throughout history: will I be important through having respect for the world or contempt for it? This fight is central in the economics of the world.

The profit system arose from a notion of self-importance based on contempt, and that contempt befouls the way people are forced to work and live day after day. The profit motive is contempt: it is by definition the seeing of one’s fellow humans in terms of how much money one can get out of them. In the profit system an employer thinks this way: “How little can I get away with paying you and spending on your working conditions, and how much labor can I squeeze from you? I’m not interested in your feelings, who you really are, what you deserve: that would stop me from aggrandizing myself through you. It would interfere with using you for profit!”

In 1970, Mr. Siegel explained that history had reached the point at which profit economics no longer worked and would never recover; it was terminally ailing, deeply dead, though still “drearily wriggling”—and “wriggling can take the place of life.” Today, as I’ve said in this journal, the only way profit economics can continue at all is through making people who work become poorer and poorer.

On July 31 there appeared a New York Times article by Steven Greenhouse about a matter that has much to do with the subject of this issue: what and who are important?; who has value and power? Greenhouse writes:

From New York to several Midwestern cities, thousands of fast-food workers have been holding one-day strikes during peak mealtimes.... [They have] an ambitious agenda: pay of $15 an hour, twice what many now earn. These strikes...carry the flavor of Occupy Wall Street.

First of all, we need to see that these strikes are hugely different (in both “flavor” and fact) from Occupy Wall Street—though certainly they’re not against it. The difference is that Occupy Wall Street was not stopping various corporate owners from making profit. These strikes are. During them, many, many people did not go into the fast-food places and spend money. That difference is tremendous. Occupy Wall Street was not a threat to companies’ operations. This “Fast Food Forward” movement is. The purpose is to show the very tangible, dollars-and-cents power of the workers over the persons who are robbing them: employers, stockholders. And as soon as people working see that they have power, a great deal can happen. There has been a terrific attempt in America in recent years to make workers feel that they have no power.

Eli Siegel was clear, passionately and logically, on the subject. He said: “The most important thing in industry is the person who does the industry, which is the worker....Labor is the only source of wealth. There is no other source, except land, the raw material.”

Though the media coverage of the fast-food strikes has not pointed out their principal meaning, Americans are getting the idea that at any moment some big-name restaurant may be made unable to function. As they see this, they see that workers have power, and they’re encouraged to feel that they themselves have power. A crucial question in terms of power is: during the days of the strikes, how much money did the businesses lose? The restaurant owners and associations will not give a straight answer to that question.

Because of the failing of the profit system, most of the once mighty American industrial base is no more. Ours has become largely a service economy. Well, now service workers are beginning to get the idea—which is true—that our economy cannot function without them; therefore, they should be able to set the terms on which they work.

A Union, Like Art, Makes Opposites One

Though the workers engaged in the selective strikes are being assisted by the Service Employees International Union, they themselves are not unionized. Perhaps they will be. However, they are acting like a union, and that is the main thing. They have that aesthetic oneness of one and many which is the basis of a union: many people seeing that for each individual to get what he or she deserves, all must stand up for it together.

The Times article tells a little about the suffering of fast-food workers. It quotes a representative person, “a father of two who earns $7.40 an hour.” He states, quietly, something terrible: “You have to choose between paying your rent and eating the next day.” The workers want the minimum wage raised to $15 an hour. I’ve heard television commentators ask, But where will that money come out of—are you ready to pay more for your hamburger to cover the increase? That is a phony question. The real question is: who should receive the money brought in by a fast-food restaurant (or other business)—the people who have worked for that income, with their hours of mental and physical labor; or some stockholders who didn’t do the work? The answer is, of course: the first.

That is justice. It’s also the one way our economy can now succeed. America’s fast-food workers, who have shown they can shut down, at least for a time, some mighty operations, are illustrating this statement by Eli Siegel: “The whole purpose of history is to show that the greatest kindness is the greatest power.”

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Art Combats Ego

By Eli Siegel

If romanticism is defined as “l’émancipation du moi” (Brunetière’s phrase), the emancipation of self, or if it is defined as a reseeing of the world, or the renascence of wonder (which is also a definition of poetry), whatever romanticism is called, there’s a feeling that man is asking more from the world and from himself.

A poem by William Blake, included in his long poem Milton, is on the subject. The political matter and the aesthetic matter are joined in these four quatrains:

And did those feet in ancient time

Walk upon England’s mountains green?

And was the holy Lamb of God

On England’s pleasant pastures seen?


And did the Countenance Divine

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here

Among these dark Satanic Mills?


Bring me my Bow of burning gold:

Bring me my Arrows of desire:

Bring me my Spear: O clouds, unfold!

Bring me my Chariot of fire.


I will not cease from Mental Fight,

Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green & pleasant Land.

This is one of the most read poems in the language. It has also been used for labor anthologies. It’s really a call for deep seeing which is also immediate. Whenever something is seen and the seeing is deep, that something was there all the time waiting for the individual who could get rid of his guilt and see it. To be blind willfully is to be guilty.

The point of this poem is that there was a meaning all the time; and the idea of the person who sees is to take the putty, the pulp, the covering off the meaning. Milton is seen by Blake as one of the persons who saw. Whether it’s his feet or God’s, to have “those feet... walk upon England’s mountains green” means that these mountains are more than they seem: there’s a sacredness underneath all the quotidian activity. Bring out the sacredness! Art is an evoker. It takes the ego-stained wraps off. It takes the selfish grease off.

“And did the Countenance Divine / Shine forth upon our clouded hills?” Has God been present in all these clouded hills? And we take them to be places for collieries and investments! “And was Jerusalem builded here / Among these dark Satanic Mills?” Are these factories covering up the real meaning of this geography?

Blake is angry. He’s going to fight something: “Bring me my Bow of burning gold: / Bring me my Arrows of desire.” Our desires are arrows aiming toward something.

“Till we have built Jerusalem / In England’s green & pleasant Land.” Jerusalem can be taken to have two meanings. It can be an England where no child is exploited, where every child has a chance, where everybody has a chance to use earth as he most needs it, where the sharpie and the acutie and the unscrupulous one and the nervy-for-selfy, where all these people will be learning more useful lessons. This is when Jerusalem will be: when man will not make money off man and call it individualism. It will not only be free enterprise, but deep and fair enterprise. That is one meaning. The other is to bring out the art in England: the idea is to get England’s true meaning, which is Jerusalem.

This poem, like the poem of Parnell I read before, is saying something of what romanticism was going to be in England and France and had been already in Germany, of what was going to be in Russia, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, America to a degree, and quite a few other places. I have said pretty often, nothing has taken the place of romanticism except the things that have come out of it. Romanticism in its deepest sense is still around. It is a way of having the self and the outside world inter-assist each other for each other’s power as beauty.

What Does Being Important Mean?

By Leila Rosen

In his lecture Mind and Importance, Eli Siegel explained:

If you...feel that what’s real is important, that other people can be important, and that you are important because you are a particular way of seeing those things; and if through the respect or importance you give yourself, you...give more meaning to what is not yourself—then your importance is good. [TRO 661]

This way of seeing has given rise to everything beautiful in art, every great scientific discovery, and every instance of kindness and justice.

Mr. Siegel also describes the central mistake people make about importance: feeling that “any time you say something is good or important which is not you, you are taking away from your unconscious bank account.” I felt this very much, as is clear from sentences I wrote at 15 on a wet January day:

I’m most sure of myself on days like this. Snow, sleet, clouds, gray sky. It’s one way I feel above something....On days with springy, comfortable weather, the sun, birds, flowers seem to put me down, make me feel small and unnecessary. But today? I’m something!!

Five years after writing those sentences, I began learning from Aesthetic Realism how the reality I’d competed with and made dull had meaning I hadn’t wanted to see, and I became more honestly sure of myself and so much happier. I felt I really mattered in this world.

Good & Bad Importance: Early Instances

“Every time we make ourselves truly important,” said Mr. Siegel, “we are making something besides ourselves important, whether we know it or not.” That is what I was doing when, as a little girl, I read over and over this poem, “Rain,” from my favorite book, Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses:

The rain is raining all around,

It falls on field and tree,

It rains on the umbrellas here,

And on the ships at sea.

So differently from the way I’d later exploit the wet weather for bad importance, I loved imagining people all over the world affected by rain. Reality as warmly close and as wide seemed beautiful to me.

Yet growing up, I was generally insular and unexpressive with people outside the family. That, Mr. Siegel explains, is a way “of being important unconsciously[:] by showing no feeling, maintaining a poker face, going about as if you were a sociological desert with no rain.” When my parents showed they were worried about me, I’d say I was fine, but I also felt important because I could make them be concerned.

My father cared very much about happenings in the news, and when I asked about an event I wanted to understand, he respected my desire to know. I got a good importance then, so different from the importance I got at other times, when I felt powerful in coldly ignoring him.

When I was 12, my mother went back to work. Watching my younger sister, Ronnie, after school and learning to cook gave me a proud sense of responsibility. But I missed another kind of importance—that of my mother’s serving me whenever I pleased. I didn’t care that she wanted to have meaning, not only as a wife and mother, but also for her ability to be useful to people besides us. I was sulky and angry that something else mattered so much to her.

Feeling my parents existed to make me important affected badly how I saw all people, including boys and later men. In junior high, when first Steve, then Greg, wanted to walk with me, I was excited. However, I found they wanted to talk to me about the girl they both liked—my best friend, Debbie. Instead of wanting to understand them and her, I saw myself as wounded. Then I turned the situation into a distinction: I would be the wise and superior counselor who helped others with their problems. Yet I felt like a fraud: who was I to give advice when I was so mixed up myself?!

Around that time, I began to have what I called a “waking dream” at bedtime: I’d go into a world I created, where I was supremely important. A large, dark room had dozens of cots hanging from the ceiling—the nighttime resting places of boys I liked from afar and famous actors or singers. I’d float from one cot to another like a benevolent angel, ministering (in a very patronizing fashion) to the occupants’ needs: a glass of water, first aid, a pillow, soothing conversation, for which they’d humbly express their undying gratitude to me.

I began to understand what I’d been going after with this scenario when, in a class, Ellen Reiss asked me: “Which do you prefer, looking up to people or looking down on them?” My imagining all those people in helpless need of me, showed I wanted to look down contemptuously.

That I’m now glad to see meaning in people—including my friends and family; my husband, jazz pianist and music teacher Alan Shapiro; the students I’ve taught, using the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method—makes me very grateful for what I’ve learned and continue to learn!

Mistakes about Importance in Love

I hoped for love, but also wanted to keep myself unruffled, in control of how much things affected me. So when I was asked in an Aesthetic Realism consultation, “Are you distressed about the men question?” I answered coolly—and insincerely—“Not terribly, but somewhat.” “Do you think to say you’re really concerned about men gives them too much importance” my consultants asked: “they don’t deserve to be so important that they can be a major cause of pain to you?” This was true. Meanwhile, I cherished like a jewel each of my disappointments about men, feeling important that I was so sensitive and unappreciated.

By the time I began seeing Alan Shapiro, I’d changed a lot, but I was still quick to feel hurt. In a class, I said I objected to how Alan would say “Uh huh” when we talked on the phone; I felt he wasn’t listening to me. Ms. Reiss asked: “Do you see this as the Insult Supreme or as instancing humanity?” While there could be something to criticize in a man’s response—did I want to understand him and people, or feel personally wounded? She asked: “Do you think a woman will have less of a tendency to get hurt by a man if she feels the thing that’s going to make her important is to be fair to him—not his making much of her?”

Alan has been a true friend to me, and I love him very much. I’m grateful that together we’re seeing what Aesthetic Realism shows with beautiful clarity: that we’re important when we want to see the world and people as mattering—as having meaning that adds to who we are.