The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Beauty & Dissatisfaction

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are proud to reprint here two reviews written by Eli Siegel. One is of 1937; the other, of 1926, when he was 24 years old. Accompanying them is part of a paper by Michael Palmer, from a recent Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “A Man’s Dissatisfaction—What Makes It Right or Wrong?”

The Big Critical Question

The 1937 review, of Benjamin Botkin’s The American Play-Party Song, appeared in New Masses, and in the third paragraph Mr. Siegel explains what the “play-party song” is. Both reviews contain some of his early work as a critic. He was, with ever-increasing clarity, coming to the answer to the centuries-old critical question: What is beauty—what is the criterion for art? In 1941 he would begin to teach Aesthetic Realism, which has the answer in its foundation principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

The criterion given in that landmark principle is at once terrifically discriminating and terrifically inclusive. For example, in the 1937 review he speaks about poetry. The review was published in a periodical associated with the left; and I can think of no person who was more progressive than Eli Siegel. But at times in the ’20s and ’30s he angered various “progressive” persons because he said that a poem’s seeming to be for “the people” had nothing to do with whether it was true art or not. He is the critic who saw that what makes for poetry is this, and only this: the writer has seen a subject with such accuracy and fullness, with such a oneness of feeling and exactitude, that the words “take on a music, which is the poetic music.” And this musical structure which is a poem corresponds to the structure of reality itself: it is a oneness of opposites, such as freedom and order, strength and delicacy, motion and rest.

In fact, Mr. Siegel showed that all true art is for justice, which includes economic justice, that all art is completely progressive—because authentic art is always just to the object dealt with and to the world itself.

I have said many times that Eli Siegel was the greatest of critics, and have given reasons. One reason is that the Aesthetic Realism principle I quoted is true for art of every kind—whether the work seems bold or decorous, rough or polished.

About Bad Criticism

The earlier of the two reviews was published the year after Eli Siegel won the Nation poetry prize. He is reviewing Albert Mordell’s Notorious Literary Attacks, which contains instances of the following: quite a few people now seen as great were, in their own time, written of scornfully, angrily, condemnatorily by supposed “authorities.” Mr. Siegel discusses with depth and good nature what he calls those critical “stupidities,” those “malevolences.” Yet he himself, as much as any person of literature and thought, was met with malevolent stupidity.

Nearly fifty years after this review, he spoke in a class about what makes a critic judge wrongly. Of course, a critic can be mistaken because he or she has insufficient knowledge. But the central reason for false criticism, Mr. Siegel explained, is: “A person can use a work of art to love oneself in a spurious way. It comes to this: that is good in this world which pleases me or likes me.” He explained that whenever bad criticism takes the form of wrong praise, it comes from the critic’s feeling that “this work as good would please something in himself.” When it takes the form of wrong condemnation, it comes from the feeling that “this work as good would threaten something in himself.” He said: “Self is the one bad judge in this world—nothing else can go wrong—the narrow self that is not interested in the object.”

That was certainly true about the persons who went at Mr. Siegel himself. They felt his largeness, honesty, and knowledge “threaten[ed] something” in them. They felt his big, new seeing showed them up; and he had the nerve to make them aware that there was much more for them to learn.

In these early reviews we see something of who Eli Siegel was: we see the oneness of feeling and knowledge. And his prose, in both writings, is earthy and discerning, definite and wide.

The subject of criticism is very much connected with the subject of Michael Palmer’s article, dissatisfaction. A good critic is one who is satisfied and dissatisfied truly, beautifully. And the purpose of Aesthetic Realism is to enable people to be good critics of the world and ourselves.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Playing and Singing America

By Eli Siegel

The American Play-Party Song, with a Collection of Oklahoma Texts and Tunes. By Benjamin Albert Botkin. Lincoln, Nebraska

When America plays and sings, it can be realistic; it can also arrive at good poetry. There has been sentiment in this land of ours, and there have been a lot of songs about Sweet Adelines. But when Americans get good and ready they can see with a mean and realistic eye, and sing of what they see. The following lines from Mr. Botkin’s book are from a play-party song of Garvin County, Oklahoma:

Whoop law, Lizzie, pore gal,

Whoop law, Lizzie Jane,

Whoop law, Lizzie, pore gal,

She died carryin’ the ball and chain.


The fact that Americans could use the words quoted for purposes of collective gayety indicates the staggering diversity and contradictory possibilities of the American mind.

People from all over some rural territory would come together in some large room. You didn’t have to be invited. And these American folk would play the play-party, that is, a dramatization to a song known by the participants. The play-party song is of many kinds, all of which are to be found in the present work.

Some of the play-party songs are downright junk. Some are mad. Some are rowdy. Some are simply dull. And some show the anonymous or impersonal or collective American mind at top form—that is, clear and rich, profound and speedy, musical and accurate.

There is “Nellie Gray.” Offhand, it looks like some sweetly appealing composition. But the syllables are arranged naturally and artfully; and what is more, despite all their sweetness, they deal with life in the South not just in terms of the old plantation or the handsome colonel. Whites sang the following lines as far south as Oklahoma City:

One night I went to see her, but “she’s gone” the neighbors say,

“The white man hath bound her with his chain.

They have taken her to Georgia for to wear her life away

And she’s toiled in the cotton and the cane.”

Sometimes the high points of these play-party songs take on a form as neat and delicately resonant as that of Herrick. But, most often, when these songs get places, they are mean and kind of lowdown. There is also the earthy madness of:

Bile dem cabbage down.

Bile dem cabbage down.

I tell you gals dere’s no use foolin’,

And bile dem cabbage down.

In all that mass of rowdiness, beauty, sentiment, cruelty, confusion, dullness, simple madness, and realism that make up the play-party songs of America, one line perhaps sums it all up, as far as America is concerned: “Hind wheel off, and the axle draggin’.”

New Masses, November 16, 1937

Nasty and Important

By Eli Siegel

Notorious Literary Attacks. Edited with an Introduction by Albert Mordell. Boni and Liveright. 1926. New York

Some reviewers of the past have been silly and nasty in important ways. Their stupidities or malevolences are of everlasting interest. They weren’t dumb or mean in a little fashion. These dumbnesses that count are what Mr. Mordell has tried to get in a book; the present book.

William Hazlitt, very well known now in colleges and even in newspaper offices, is here called by William Gifford of the Quarterly Review a person who writes “loathsome trash,” and a “person who seems to like nothing except washer-women.” Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is called, in 1848 by some Quarterly reviewer, “pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition” (the “pre-eminently” is very sweet and nice, isn’t it?). And Robert Buchanan, in his “Fleshly School of Poetry” review, writing of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, says: “Whether he is writing of the holy Damozel, or of the Virgin herself, or of Lilith, or Helen, or of Dante, or Jenny the street-walker, he is fleshly all over, from the roots of his hair to the tip of his toes; never a true lover merging his identity into that of the beloved one; never spiritual; never tender; always self-conscious and aesthetic.” Here the “aesthetic” put against the “spiritual” and “tender” is sweet and dumb, and there are other things in this sentence, a good many of them, funny, stupid and sweet.

But, Lord, we know it; silliness was in Egypt, was in the England of the Plantagenets and was in the England of Victoria, a queen of whom, I’m sure, you’ve heard. There are fashions in silliness and we have ours, and we have ours in literature. Now it is likely that just as Rossetti is most, most funnily said to have been fleshly in his writing of Dante, one will say: “This writer has, it must be said, an obsession for chastity in his verse.” And then we’ll have for fair the Post-Victorian Sentimentality, or the feeling that what is very moral, or Victorian, can’t also be art in the strictest meaning of the word.

Mr. Mordell’s Notorious Literary Attacks is interesting, and it can be valuable in helping one see Silliness on the Move. Silliness is moving. And O, yes, let it go for good.

Greenwich Village Quill, August 1926

Dissatisfaction: Two Kinds

By Michael Palmer

Some time ago when I was in the supermarket waiting to pay for groceries, I saw a woman cutting through the line to get an item from a shelf. I became exceedingly dissatisfied, thinking, “I bet she tries to sneak in ahead of me!” Well, she didn’t. And I was critical of myself for doing something Aesthetic Realism importantly describes: actually hoping to be dissatisfied.

Aesthetic Realism explains that there are two kinds of dissatisfaction, and they come from opposing drives in us. One is right, and arises from our deepest desire, to know and like the world. Dissatisfaction that’s right has made for the finest accomplishments of mankind—in science, art, education, and more.

The dissatisfaction that is wrong arises from contempt, from the desire to feel the world is a mess and will never meet our hopes, that most things and people are not good enough for us, and that our displeasure is a sign of our superiority. Which kind of dissatisfaction we go for is an urgent matter. It determines whether we’ll have a life we can be proud of, or one that makes us dislike ourselves.

Good Dissatisfaction, Seen Early

I remember, in PS 8 in the Bronx, being thrilled learning about American colonists who fought courageously for an independent and fair country. Theirs was a good dissatisfaction—at the tyranny of British rule. And it was given passionate and proud form by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, including in that classic sentence which always excites me:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Most often, though, people are not proud of how they’re dissatisfied. I wasn’t. I got a lot of praise from my parents, and felt I was special and should be completely satisfied with myself. My father would often brag to friends, “Ask Mike any question about baseball. He’ll know the answer.” Whenever I came home, I was greeted with big smiles, as though the most important person in the universe had arrived, and given my favorite food. When I didn’t get that kind of attention from friends and teachers at school, I’d be dissatisfied, telling myself, “These people just don’t know enough to appreciate me.” I kept this resentment to myself and developed a calm, “nice-guy” image.

But as time went on, there were more and more things and people I was dissatisfied with and enjoyed making fun of in my mind. For instance, my father’s friend Benny: I inwardly mocked how he looked, dressed, and spoke. I was having contempt, the false elevating of oneself through lessening others. Contempt, I would learn from Aesthetic Realism, is the source of every injustice in the world, and having it made me mean and terrifically dissatisfied with myself.

One way my self-dissatisfaction showed was in a constant timidity and nervousness around people, which I tried to cover up. If my parents wanted to visit family or friends, I usually objected and made it hard for them. When my great-aunt Bessie invited us to her home, she often had her two grandchildren there—boys my age—hoping I would like being with them and we’d become friends. But I made no secret of my dissatisfaction: because they didn’t seem interested in sports they were automatically dull in my eyes. What they were interested in, I did not care to find out.

Why I saw this way is explained by Eli Siegel in his great lecture Aesthetic Realism and Dissatisfaction:

There is a tendency to say, “I’d rather have myself and be miserable than change what I am and find more accurate pleasure in the world.” This is the biggest jam a person can get into and it happens again and again....A bad time makes one feel important.

I indeed was in a jam, having a bad time yet feeling important. Meanwhile, I disliked myself for being so displeased with things. But I felt this was me, and I didn’t know how I could be different.

As I grew older, my feelings of dissatisfaction took other harmful forms. As men and women courageously took to the streets to protest the Vietnam war—our government’s horrible killing of people and destruction of their land because they wanted their nation to be owned differently from ours—I thought only of the inconvenience the protesters were causing, how traffic was being messed up. I’d say to myself, “I won’t be able to get where I’m going.” This dissatisfaction was sheer selfishness, and I should have been on the front lines with the protesters.

Several years later, in an Aesthetic Realism class, Eli Siegel asked me with kind humor, “So, like most people, you love yourself more than anybody else?” I answered yes. And he continued, “Do you think that romance brings you happiness? Loving oneself is dangerous. The lack of competition makes things dull.” He explained, “I would say there’s an esteem of yourself that you’re not sure of, and this attitude to yourself interferes with how you see other people.”

I thank Mr. Siegel for describing the contempt that was causing my wrong dissatisfaction, and also describing how that contempt could change. For example, he said to me, “Your mistake is not seeing the full possibilities of a person. Try to see what another person is hoping for.” I immediately felt new energy: I could now, I thought, have a conscious purpose—to know and strengthen other people. I had never before thought of having such a purpose.

The Study Continues

I’m so glad my education is continuing today, and taking on new dimension in great classes taught by Ellen Reiss. In one, when my wife, Lynette, mentioned that I’ve often been reluctant to voice my dissatisfactions, Ms. Reiss asked me, “Do you think you see your dissatisfactions as private treasures, and so you don’t want to present them outwardly for people to see? Do you have a hidden factory of dissatisfactions?” “Yes,” I said, “I do.”

Ms. Reiss encouraged me to see more about the largeness of this subject. She said Mr. Siegel spoke about dissatisfaction in terms of the whole history of art: every time there has been a new movement, or a work of art comes to be, a person has been dissatisfied with how something had been seen before, and felt new justice was necessary. She asked, “Do you think Cézanne was dissatisfied with how apples had been seen?” I care greatly for Cézanne, especially his magnificent apples; “Yes,” I said. And Ms. Reiss asked, “Do you think that when a person wants to annul a certain true dissatisfaction, he’s asking to be less alive?” Yes!

In an Aesthetic Realism lesson Eli Siegel said, “All progress is based on dissatisfaction.” The distinction Aesthetic Realism makes between false dissatisfaction and true can enable people to have a real care for the world, and see others and themselves with dignity and pride.