The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

All the Arts


Dear Unknown Friends:

Aesthetic Realism has tried to make two things clear, both of value to the life of man. The first of these is that all the arts, at their beginning, have something in common; and that this common thing in all the arts is the oneness of opposites, felt and worked with by an individual mind. The second purpose of Aesthetic Realism has been the showing that what is in all the arts is hoped for by every person, for the oneness of opposites to be found in painting, music, poetry, drama, sculpture, the dance, photography, the cinema, and so on, constitutes sanity.

To see the world as the oneness of opposites is to do what one can to like the world, for it is only as the oneness of opposites that the world can be truly liked—otherwise one likes the world because it has been “nice” to oneself, if not to others.

Today, then, once more I shall try to show that there is something in common—the oneness of opposites—in all the arts; and that this oneness of opposites is the same as sanity or inward well-being for an individual.

1. Control and Passion

Control and passion are two opposites that interest everyone, including city editors. These two opposites are equivalent to technique and intensity, management and impetus, energy and grace—and philosophically, to rest and motion, sameness and difference. The opposites remain as they are, as their terminology changes in keeping with some new situation. Rest and motion, for instance, in music, correspond to outline and color in painting.

However, in terms of the lives now being lived in the world, it is well to show how the oneness of control and passion is in all the arts; is in such differing arts as drama and ceramics.

I have come to feel that the most effective way a person can see that control and passion are one in art is through a renowned stanza of Byron’s Childe Harold, Canto III, 1816. The stanza tells of how a ballroom in Brussels, earlier replete with dancing persons, including English officers, was put into apprehensive tumult by news that Napoleon’s army was fairly near: Waterloo was to follow. Here is Byron and the twenty-fourth stanza of Canto III of Childe Harold:

Ah! then and there was hurrying toand fro,

And gathering tears, and tremblings of distress,

And cheeks all pale, which but an hour ago

Blush’d at the praise of their own loveliness;

And there were sudden partings, such as press

The life from our young hearts, and choking sighs

Which ne’er might be repeated; who could guess

If ever more should meet those mutual eyes,

Since upon night so sweet such awful morn could rise!

In this stanza of Byron, the main thing in all art is to be found. This main thing can be described as the impetus of feeling or imagination made one with the control of consciousness or reason. Mind consists of two things always: pleasure or pain and some cognition. The oneness of feeling and cognition, of impetus and control, is in all art.

In Byron’s stanza, we have tumult, hurry, a crowd, motion, horses, war, in one gathering, artfully arranged, of nine lines. We have a tumultuous world be­come a miniature, derived from Edmund Spenser and the romantic possibility of 1816. In more technical terms, we have compression and a sprawling, uncertain material. This is what goes on in art today. The feeling of a man in its intensity and uncertainty becomes precision and proportion. Motion becomes rest; motion and rest are one.

2. Byron and Beethoven

Is what we find in the quoted stanza of Byron akin to what we hear in the renowned Fifth Symphony of Beethoven? Control and passion are one in the noble lord’s immortal stanza. Are control and passion one in the immortal first notes of the Bonn listener to the world? Are control and passion one generally in Canto III of Childe Harold; and are they one generally in the living Fifth Symphony of Beethoven?

However this may be, control and passion are in every poem, as they are in every instance of music man cares to continue hearing. Sometimes, as in Brahms or the Gregorian chant or in Bach, the control is heard first—with the passion later; but even from the beginning, as one lis­tens to Brahms, Bach, the Gregorian chant, one can hear control and passion in the same moment. Control and passion —philosophically speaking, rest and motion—are in all lines of poetry; in all chords of music.

3. Byron, Beethoven, Delacroix

A commonplace of art history is that Ingres and Delacroix represented two contemporary possibilities of painting. Ingres is seen as a person of control who has deep feeling in his work, anyway. Passion has been found in Ingres’s portrait of M. Bertin and his ever so popular La Source. In Ingres, then, we have control and passion with the more sedate opposite leading. In Delacroix, we have control and passion with the less sedate opposite leading. Both opposites, it cannot be said excessively, are present as one in all painting. Hieronymus Bosch has leering passion that is also control. Piet Mondrian has control, with passion implicit. Titian has control and passion looking like each other, as well-behaved equals coming to the feast of visual possibility at the same time.

If we look at a desperate and controlled sea painting of Winslow Homer, we can see passion and control given to black muscles. A landscape of Inness begins sedately with the outdoors of the United States fetchingly composed; but underneath the leaves and the quiet and the height, is the rapture of the American painter, George Inness.

4. Michelangelo Is Remembered

We can be rather certain that however different Byron, Beethoven, Delacroix were, they had all heard of Michelangelo. Michelangelo brings some later persons together. The Pietà of Michelangelo is great mournfulness and control at once. Sculpture is often bulk as passion and contour as control. African sculpture is at one with Michelangelo, for a fearsome god is given miniature, or at least lesser, manageability even while fearsomeness is encouraged through depths, bulges, dips, and rises. The Laocoön of ancient times is like a Polynesian work in carved matter, because in both management can be discerned along with a message of portent, discomfort, worship.

At this moment, Louise Nevelson in her sculpture continues the everlasting presence of passion and materialistic proportion or control. The Saint-Gaudens Sherman on a horse in Manhattan has history, management, impressiveness. The General is control and feeling.

You can do two things with stone, clay, or bronze, sculpture tells us. You can show how craftsmanlike you are, or controlled; and you can also show how much you feel. Feeling and craft are the greatest friends in all the arts; and these correspond to passion and control.

5. A Dramatist and Michelangelo

It is quite clear that a dramatist—say, John Webster—had something of the problem and purpose of Michelangelo. Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, played around 1610, is not the most orderly play. As William Archer pointed out, John Webster, compared to the polished and suave Arthur Wing Pinero, was a 17th-century duffer. Still, one can find the desire to arrange in John Webster that we can see in Michelangelo or Donatello.

Every art asks care from the person working in the art; and every art also asks for adequate feeling or passion. There has not been much comparison of John Webster and Michelangelo; but we can easily see John Webster asking how he should tell of the unfortunate Duchess of Malfi, who chose to love a person her highly placed brothers were against. As in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, there is huddle in Webster’s Duchess of Malfi; but there is also a purpose that does not fail. Shakespeare makes his point in the many scenes of Antony and Cleopatra, roaming about the Asia known many, many years ago. And Webster makes his point, even with all the strange phraseology and the changing tones of his play.

6. Actors

There are two actors noted in the history of the American stage. One is the conspicuously unfettered Edwin Forrest, who stirred America with his portrayal of a sad and expressive Indian chief in Metamora. But Forrest also played the role of Damon, the other friend in the story of Damon and Pythias. Forrest generally stood for passion in the art of acting.

Another Edwin, Edwin Booth, a contemporary of Forrest for some years, represented meditation. Passion and control in acting can be described as Metamora and meditation. Edwin Booth is our most meditative Hamlet and, everything considered, our most successful. Booth earlier was questioned by Edmund Kean, a more decisive Hamlet; and later by John Barrymore, who gave Hamlet a kind of mobility perhaps that thoughtful prince had not come to.

In the history of drama earlier, we have Richard Burbage in Shakespeare’s time manifesting a lively versatility in acting. He likely was a Hamlet given to motion. A later actor, Thomas Betterton, from all we know, was more restrained in his portrayal of the inward Dane.

7. Burbage, the Dance, Cinema

With a little trying, the dance can be seen between the acting of the Elizabethan Burbage and the cinema of the 20th century. Just have Burbage rhythmically walk across a room. The first great cinematic happening in the United States and the world was The Birth of a Nation, made by David Wark Griffith in 1915 or so, There had been notable films earlier, but Griffith took the problem in film of control and passion mightily for himself. He showed many persons riding, some evilly disposed. He showed battles of the Civil War. He showed a Reconstruction legislature confused. He showed anger and Mae Marsh. He showed men firing at each other; a moment later, there was Lillian Gish. He showed Henry B. Walthall calm and impetuous. Griffith’s film made reality wild and restful.

8. D.W. Griffith and Vases

The Etruscan vase is famous. The mingling of continuity and surprise in the Etruscan vase is a refreshing commonplace. We may not know what we are talking about, but it is prudent to think that whatever impelled a vase maker in the Etruria of long ago had that mingling of control and feeling, or proportion and passion, that we see in a film of Griffith. What I am doing is presenting all art as having the simultaneity of personal attitude or feeling, and craft; or again, of passion and control.

The Etrurian vase and D.W. Griffith both point to the possible sanity of mankind. In the world of matter, every object is outline and weight, shape and content, how and what. Every person, too, is a constant mingling of life unshaped and of life possibly shaped. A person is an art problem, cherished and a little feared by himself.

My purpose has been to show that every art is the oneness of opposites seen by a person. In photography, left out so far, Atget or Hine or Evans saw possibility in the moving life of poor people. Poverty, too, can make for passion and control.

In later TROs, I shall do more to have it seen that the one way of dealing with distressed or awry mind is to be found in art. That way is exemplified by D.W. Griffith at his best, by Michelangelo true to his possibility, by Ibsen bravely and gracefully sincere, by Catullus seeing musically.

Artists undergo all kinds of things. They can be as unsure as businessmen in a troubled country. But art is man doing well, even if only for a while. Art can give direction towards justice and sanity in man.

With love,

Eli Siegel