The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Art & Your Life: The Same Subject

Dear Unknown Friends:

With this issue we begin to serialize The Opposites Theory, a work Eli Siegel wrote in the late 1950s. It is a discussion, scholarly and vivid, of the explanation of beauty on which Aesthetic Realism is based—the principle that “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

In The Opposites Theory, Mr. Siegel gives evidence that the oneness of opposites is what all the arts have in common. He shows that in any instance of true art, of any time, any place, it is the putting together of reality's opposites which makes for beauty—which is beauty. Mr. Siegel saw this work of 111 manuscript pages as unfinished. He certainly went on to write and say more on the subject in ever so many other forms. But with the perspective of half a century, it is clear that the book, if not formally completed, has a feeling of entirety: it makes its point with richness, grace, clarity, and without loose ends.

In this issue we publish the opening section, “Art as the Oneness of Opposites: An Outline of the Theory.” And with it is an article by Aesthetic Realism consultant Bruce Blaustein: part of a paper he presented in December at a public seminar titled “Busier Than Ever—but Why Do We Feel Something’s Missing?”

What Makes Aesthetic Realism New?

Other critics have pointed to opposites as important in art, and in The Opposites Theory Mr. Siegel discusses many of those critics. For now, however, I’ll swiftly mention three, in relation to literature. In his Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope speaks about a good poetic line as both vigorous and at ease, strong and sweet: he says we should “praise the easy vigor of a line / Where Denham's strength and Waller’s sweetness join.” There is Samuel Johnson, who said, "Shakespeare approximates the remote, and familiarizes the wonderful.” There is Wordsworth, who said poetry is at once emotion and thought, spontaneity and consideration: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

Yes, many times in art criticism, opposites have been noted here and there—in this painting, in that section of that symphony, in this writer. But the showing that a) in every instance of beauty, opposites are together; b) these same opposites, as one, are the structure of reality itself; c) art, therefore, is the great justifier of reality, because it gives evidence reality is made well, is not a mess; d) the opposites in beauty are also central to our very own lives, and our big need is to put these opposites together: the showing of all this is the accomplishment of Aesthetic Realism alone. It is the accomplishment of Eli Siegel. Not only has he done what critics since Aristotle have hoped for—explained what beauty really is—but he has understood the basis of the human self. And he has shown this self of ours to have the greatest dignity: we are trying to be like art. Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy which explains that aesthetics and our own confusions, angers, hopes are the same subject.

Let us take the opposites Mr. Siegel speaks of in relation to art in the first section of his work: continuity and change. How human these opposites are too! A large reason people are displeased with their lives, feel disgusted, bored, low, is that their lives seem too continuous: days drag on and there isn’t that sense of change, difference, newness, surprise which would bring them excitement, make for the zip they’re hoping for. On the other hand, people feel their lives consist of change without a needed continuity: they go from one activity to another and don't feel there’s a beautiful relation among those activities, a something it’s all about. They feel scattered, agitated, rather empty. People do not know, and long to, what Eli Siegel began to teach in 1941: “The resolution of conflict in self is like the making one of opposites in art.”

Contempt, & the Opposites in Us

Aesthetic Realism also explains what in us is most responsible for having opposites war in our lives. That thing is contempt: the “ think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.” Contempt is a severing of the biggest opposites in the life of everyone: self and world. It’s the feeling I’ll take care of myself, not by being just to what’s not me, not by wanting to value other things and people, but by looking down on them, managing them, beating them out. Contempt is the ugly thing in humanity, the source of every cruelty. And it’s the thing that makes us dislike ourselves, even though it seems, temporarily, to elevate us.

I’ll give one instance of what contempt does with those opposites we’ll soon see Mr. Siegel writing on: continuity and change. Most people feel they have to put on a show in social life, and also business life. They feel that they change themselves for the occasion and for the persons they meet, and that life consists of a series of situations in which you have to conquer, fool, evade—and put forth various arrangements of yourself in order to do so. In a poem of T.S. Eliot, “Portrait of a Lady,” there are lines describing this way of being:

And I must borrow every changing shape

To find, dance 

Like a dancing bear, 

Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape.

I do not see these lines as good poetry, but they do tell of and perhaps satirize a certain procedure in social life. There is contempt in this procedure of changing yourself and putting on an act: a triumph in keeping your deepest self hidden while you trick and manage others. However, with the triumph, you feel you lack that continuity which is integrity; in fact, you feel cheap. There can be a beautiful continuity amid change, if you use the diversity of people and happenings you meet to try to show yourself honestly, know yourself and other things honestly.

In an Aesthetic Realism lesson I attended with my parents when I was four years old, Mr. Siegel composed a couplet for me about continuity and change. Like many children, I was confused by the people I knew because they seemed so changeable: adults could go from smilingness to displeasure in a way that didn't make sense. Here is the couplet:

I looked at a changing rubber band, 

And thought, “The way people change is hard to understand.”

Those lines enabled a child to see that opposites which confused her were also friendly in the world—as that truly remarkable oneness of continuity and change, a rubber band, shows.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Art as the Oneness of Opposites
An Outline of the Theory

By Eli Siegel

The Opposites Theory of art is both objective and subjective. In “objective” terms, the theory states that in a novel, a painting, a play, a musical composition, a dance, there is an arrangement of opposites like sameness and difference, oneness and manyness, rest and motion, continuity and change, which can be felt or discerned, with satisfaction, by a possible reader, observer, spectator. In “subjective” terms, the Opposites Theory states that when a reader, observer, spectator has got the artistic satisfaction, he has felt or seen, even perhaps without knowing it, the simultaneous presence, togetherness, oneness of opposites in reality, like sameness and difference, oneness and manyness, rest and motion, continuity and change.

The arts in general, the Opposites Theory states, find their unity in the presence of opposites in each of them. In a symphony by Beethoven, there is, for example, continuity and change; there is continuity and change in a novel by James; in a painting by Piero della Francesca; in the Hamlet of Shakespeare; in a ballet or modern dance. Meanwhile, it should be noted, this early, that the pair of opposites called continuity and change are commented on, illustrated, intensified by the other philosophic pairs of opposites I have mentioned; and by still others of diverse kinds—some of them exceedingly technical: for instance, design and detail more technically exemplify continuity and change, or rest and motion.

We Can Begin with Beethoven

We certainly can begin with Beethoven. In every one of his works, there is something which persists even as other things change. Persistence or continuity and change at one moment of hearing are central in Beethoven. A deep thing, continuing, is intensified at any one moment by specific auditory happenings—flourishings, deviations, repetitions, even tricks. A symphony of Beethoven is like a tree, with the sturdiness of trunk instantly with and explained by the lightsomeness and changingness of branch, twig, leaf.

And if we take Henry James’s short novel The Turn of the Screw, there is a something which insists, persists, lasts—is ominously sturdy and deep—which all the time is commented on by sentences, phrases, conversations, meditations, surmises. Deeply as art, The Turn of the Screw is like the Ninth Symphony of the musical German. A way that is continuous, is at rest, is the same, finds life in details, in changes, in careful and spontaneous mutations that accompany this depth, explain it, intensify it.

Concerning Piero della Francesca's Resurrection of Christ: something large is in the mind of the visual Italian. He uses sky, soldiers, stones, expressions, fabrics to assert the continuity of this depth. Details in art continue something already begun; and they do that in Piero's work. In Beethoven there is continuity asserted by detail in time; in Piero a thought that continues is asserted by detail on a surface. In Beethoven there is continuity, in the painter coalition; but both continuity and coalition are ideas of details in the accurate behalf of oneness.

A Dance, Too

A coalition and continuity accompanied by details in motion are what one finds in a dance. There is idea in a dance, modern or ancient. The idea is the continuing thing, the same thing—made one, through being its lively self, by the steps, the motions, the attitudes, the gestures, the pauses as detail. A dance, too, shows the oneness and manyness of anything that is real; that is, of anything.

Further, all architecture is like a planned tree. A central, persisting something is widened, narrowed, given space to, obstructed, played with, made heavy by the details of arranged matter. Reality is architectural; architecture is an exemplification of the persistence and heaviness of reality which is also mobile through detail and gracefulness in space.

Why Is Something Missing?

By Bruce Blaustein

In conversations recently, many people I know through my job in the fashion industry told me how busy they are—with work, children, aging parents, the gym. For example: “There’s so much on my plate, I can’t even see the plate. People speak about quality time—I don’t seem to get quality even when I do find the time.”

In TRO 1424 Ellen Reiss describes what can have us not feel something’s missing in our busy lives. “The first thing necessary," she writes, “for feeling the ordinary hours are other than tepid and there is a real tingle in things, is to hope to respect the world.”

How much we want the world outside us to have big meaning for us, is a question in everyone's life. It was in mine from an early age. I was a very active child, busy with many things. At ten, I became interested in old coins—the Indian Head penny, the Buffalo nickel, the Standing Liberty quarter, the Liberty silver dollar. I had pleasure studying their details under a magnifying glass, seeing the feathers of the Indian's headdress delicately etched in hard metal or the gentle swirling skirt of Lady Liberty on the silver dollar. When my father bought me an 1859 Seated Liberty quarter dollar, I was in heaven! I remember wondering about how people in the past had held this very coin: perhaps a Union soldier who would fight in North Carolina had it in his pocket while saying goodbye to his family.

Though I didn’t know it, what I was affected by in those old coins was the oneness of opposites: impersonal and personal; present and past; concentration (a particular, small object) and expansion (history, time, space, people).

But in my everyday life I didn’t look with respect and wonder at the people and things close to me. Yes, I was busy—with my friends, making them feel special, trying to be the central thing in their lives. And while I took part in many activities—piano lessons, saxophone lessons, recorder lessons, drawing lessons, ice skating lessons, Cub Scouts and Little League—each endeavor lasted only a short time, because I couldn't give my continuous thought to any one of them. By the time I was 25, the way I went from one thing to another but was incapable of really giving myself to anything, made me feel old and tired, and I’d think, “There has to be more to life. Is this it?”

I went for having a big effect on people, through making what I thought were charming quips, giving advice, being the life of the party. At one party, while I was doing what a friend called “holding court,” he angrily said, “It’s all about you, isn't it, Bruce?” I knew he was right.

“I Am More as I Look at All This”

Years later in an Aesthetic Realism class, I spoke about my drive to focus on myself—which concerned me very much. Ellen Reiss said: “There are two things in a person: we want to care for what is not ourselves; and then, we want to love what is just ourselves.” We’ll be agitated and pained and always feel something is missing unless these two desires go together, she explained, and asked: “Is there anything in this world that cannot tell you who you are, through your really seeing it?” She quoted a question Eli Siegel asked, about the opposites which we have in common with everything: “The structure of what thing cannot illuminate our own structure?” And she asked me: “Do you want to honestly feel, ‘I am more as I look at all this’?” Yes, that is what I wanted to feel!

The direction of my thought began to change as I learned that every human being and thing is a particular way reality has of putting together such opposites as surface and depth, inward and outward, high and low. I began to ask myself, about people I’d known for 15 years or 15 minutes, “What can I learn about myself and the world from this person?” People became alive to me and the empty feeling changed.

One of them was Lauren Phillips, a beautiful young woman from New Jersey with sparkling green eyes, a keen, critical mind, and a sense of humor that is lovable and kind. For these past 22 years, she has been my wife, and we are parents of a 16-year-old son. Lauren, who is a New York City teacher using the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method, has me see more meaning in people, including schoolchildren. She is passionately for sincerity in me, and I love her for it.

A Garment, the Opposites, & Ourselves

I’ll give an instance of my ongoing education in respecting myself through seeing meaning in reality and people.

A few years ago, I began to design garments for women, something which meant a great deal to me. In TRO 1437, titled “What We Meet, Are, & Wear,” Ellen Reiss explains:

Whenever a person cares for a garment it is because that garment puts together opposites that the person, without knowing it, wants to put together in herself. We are taken by a dress, sweater, pair of shoes, because through it we feel we’ll be more the way we want to be, and that means have the opposites that may mix us up ever so much be, in some way, resolved.

One of the garments I designed was a long-sleeve black beaded gown sprinkled with dark sequins, and I was thrilled when it became a bestseller at Saks. However, pride quickly changed to vanity, and I had an uneasy feeling about my success. When I spoke about this in a class, Ms. Reiss encouraged me to look at the true meaning of the dress rather than see it as a prize to flatter my ego. “What opposites do sequins put together?" Ms. Reiss asked. She quoted the opening lines of a famous poem of Byron, which, she said, was written after he had seen a woman wearing a black gown with sequins:

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies; 

And all that’s best of dark and bright 

Meet in her aspect and her eyes.

“Do you think there is a drama of surface and depth in sequins, dark and bright?” Ellen Reiss asked. They're very popular, she said, and “seem to meet something in oneself. Do you think a woman can feel a question of hers about those opposites is answered through such a dress?” “Yes,” I said. She continued, “Being able to make something that meets a need in people is something you can be proud of”; but as to my other motive: “One of the hazards of trying to impress people is, things don’t have too much meaning for you. And a big purpose of our lives is to have emotions as large and deep as can be.”

I know that through Aesthetic Realism, people can have the emotions, and the logic, they’re looking for. 

Along with being an Aesthetic Realism consultant, Bruce Blaustein is president of a Seventh Avenue dress company.