The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Beauty, Contempt, & Ourselves

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is chapter 3 of a scholarly, vibrant philosophic work written by Eli Siegel in the late 1950s. The Opposites Theory is about this principle, not known before in the centuries of art criticism: All beauty—whether in dance or architecture, sculpture or poetry—"is the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality." In the chapter printed here, Mr. Siegel is showing some of the richness of the opposites. Such major pairs as Motion and Rest, Freedom and Order, Sameness and Difference are not monolithic, not static: each has many forms, and is surprising, flexible, alive. The opposites are eternal, yet frisky too, and warm.

I'll point to another important accomplishment in this third chapter. In the 1950s, there was a feeling that the modern, abstract art of the time was entirely different from the work of earlier centuries. But Mr. Siegel explains that there is a fundamental likeness: the opposites. Jackson Pollock in the mid-20th century and (for instance) Antoine Watteau in the early 18th are both trying to put together rest and motion, heaviness and lightness, freedom and control, sameness and difference. That is what every artist, each in his or her own way, has tried, is trying, and will try to do.

What Makes for Cruelty?

Aesthetic Realism's understanding of beauty is inseparable from something Mr. Siegel does not discuss in The Opposites Theory: his explanation of what, in the human self, makes for cruelty; of what in us hurts our mind and interferes with our life. That hurtful thing is contempt, the feeling we get an "addition to self through the lessening of something else." Contempt uses reality's opposites, and disrupts them, makes them fight.

We can consider a phenomenon of our very own time, written of in the New York Times last month (Feb. 20): "flaming." To "flame" is to send an email or instant message that is nasty, mean.

I've written in other TROs about why the Internet is beautiful. The reason is that it puts opposites together. It is many and one: how many people, places, thoughts, experiences, feelings, statements (good and bad) are united in that single network! The Internet is private and public, near and far: you can be in your own room and have vast information come to you, and the views of people on all continents. Meanwhile, like other beautiful things, the Internet can be misused. And it certainly has been.

The writer of the Times article, Daniel Goleman, uses "neuroscience" to ascertain the cause of "flaming." He notes:

In face-to-face interaction, the brain reads a continual cascade of emotional signs and social cues, instantaneously using them to guide our next move so that the encounter goes well...[and] socially artful responses emerge.

Since the email situation lacks "face-to-face cues," Goleman says, "the orbitofrontal cortex has little to go on"; therefore there is "online disinhibition effect," or "flaming."

Now, I do not think the cause of vicious email is in an "orbitofrontal cortex" deprived by a non-face-to-face Internet. (A telephone conversation has no "face-to-face cues" either, and there are certainly none in old fashioned letter writing.) Nevertheless, the "neural mechanics" Goleman describes happen to be about the fundamental opposites of separation and junction. Our nervous system and all our senses are designed to have us joined rightly with the outside world as a means of our being fully our individual selves.

The Oldest Fight

What is necessary to understand is that the new field of email is a field for the biggest and oldest fight in the self: the fight in every person between contempt and respect. Email, like other forms of communication, can be used in behalf of either respect and good will, or contempt and ill will. Persons have sent email messages in order to strengthen other people and care more for reality. And they've sent them in order to weaken people and feel superior. What matters about an email or instant message is not whether it is (as Goleman writes) "socially artful," but whether it is in behalf of justice or injustice, kindness or cruelty, beauty or ugliness.

Goleman presents aspects of the Internet as leading to "flaming": "the anonymity of a Web pseudonym; invisibility to others;...the exaggerated sense of self from being alone." Yet circumstances like these are not the cause of malevolent emails. For example, people have sometimes used being alone not to have an "exaggerated sense of self" but to see other things truly. Most of the kind, beautiful art of the world has been created when a person—perhaps Shakespeare, Beethoven, Rembrandt—was alone.
The fundamental cause of "flaming" is in this statement from Eli Siegel's book Self and World: "We are looking for contempt at any moment of our lives. Contempt is our soothing revenge for a world not sufficiently interested, as we see it, in what we are hoping for" (p. 10).

The self can use the circumstances of email to let go with contempt, just as it can use something very different: being part of a mob. Mr. Siegel has pointed out that a person will do things with a crowd—make vicious fun of someone, brutalize someone—that he might not do singly. But the circumstance of a crowd is not the cause of the brutality; nor is the email circumstance the cause of "flaming."

We need to understand those two fighting desires in us. There is the desire to know the world, see value in it, use ourselves to make it better: that desire is the most beautiful thing in the human self. And there is the desire to despise things and people, make something different from oneself look low and stupid, bring discomfort to someone representing the outside world, because in doing so one feels oneself is important. That is contempt, the ugly thing in everyone.

The Opposites, Used by Contempt

The online "invisibility" Goleman mentions can be used in behalf of contempt, because if you're invisible you can feel superior: you can affect without (apparently) being affected. The opposites of affecting and being affected are here. So are hidden and shown: there is a contempt victory in thrusting oneself via a nasty email, while being anonymous, hidden.

And there are slowness and speed. Part of the beauty of the Internet is its speed. Yet contempt can sever that speed from the slowness of respectful thought. There is a thrill of power in feeling one has one's way fast, without needing to think—therefore, lo! one sends a contemptuous email.

The opposites, then, are our very lives. As one, they make for beauty. Severed by contempt, they are in ugliness, in cruelty. Aesthetic Realism is the means to understand all three: beauty, contempt, and ourselves.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The Theory of Opposites in Art; and Diderot

By Eli Siegel

The opposites in art explain each other: they can be said, even to be disguises of each other. This means that while there are some large opposites like Many and One, Freedom and Order, Motion and Rest, there are opposites which are forms of these, or "disguises," like Structure and Detail, Surprise and Expectation, Narrative and Description.

So, immediately, one should ask: Is the problem of structure and detail in any one of the arts an instance in the philosophic and artistic career of Many and One? One should ask whether the novelist's or composer's goal of surprise and expectation is a manifestation of the universal situation called, magnificently, Freedom and Order. And when in an English class—of once, anyway—narrative and description were talked of, were Motion and Rest also talked of—that great situation of earth and reality, Motion and Rest? If we are ready to grant that mighty concepts like Many and One or Motion and Rest truly exist; that they are not in generalized haughty isolation; that they have instances, angles, aspects, exemplifications; then it will seem proper to say that Many and One has a living instance in structure and detail; that Freedom and Order is given more concreteness by surprise and expectation; that Motion and Rest is talked of, in living terms, by narrative and description. And there is much more.

The situations of reality and the problems of art are part of the orchestra of the actual world; they are an interchange of vividness, subtlety, and principle.

Order & Freedom; or, Accuracy & the Awry

It has been felt for a long time that art, while having its structure, its accuracy, and, at times, its classicality, should also have something unlooked for, something askew, beautifully awry. This feeling is much present today; but we should see that it has been present always. The need for the surprising, the out-of-line, the irregular is not a need, only, of an era or period. It is a need of the mind of man, in any century or hour. Long before the asymmetrical present there were Aristophanes, Rabelais, Callot. The primitive sculpture of Africa and Asia, and Etruscan sculpture, point anonymously to something teasingly awry in the mind of man—as do some ways of the poems of John Donne and some ways of the prose of Laurence Sterne. In ancient and classical times, the principle of the contemporary askew was loved.

When I mentioned Laurence Sterne, for a while I was in the eighteenth century, the century still associated with rationalism, classicism, restraint, definite form. (It is well known, though, that the idea of the eighteenth century as just rational has been battered.)

More or less contemporary with Sterne in the century of Boucher and the heroic couplet is Diderot. Diderot's whole life is about Freedom and Order: he was tossed richly on and between both.
Further, Diderot is one of the important art critics of the world—there in eighteenth-century Paris.
In Diderot's art criticism, there are opposites in mighty philosophic pairs. In his criticism, these philosophic opposites take on concreteness, and show a technical relation to artistic purposes and problems.

Were the Questions Different?

In a collection of Diderot's work there is a section called "Detached Thoughts on Painting, Sculpture, Architecture and Poetry."*

As we approach the artistic sentiments of the multifarious—even industrial—Diderot, we should ask whether the artistic questions of, say, 1765 were different in essence from those of now. Man does have a way of carrying on some questions.

Diderot Says: Variety Does Not Contradict Unity

Well, Diderot begins with: "About Composition and Choice of Subjects." As to the word composition: that is one word which has persisted all through art history. The one thing that early Greek sculpture has in common with later Greek sculpture, with a Byzantine mosaic, with a Renaissance painting, with a Polynesian shape in wood, with an abstraction of now—is that this early Greek sculpture is a composition. And, according to the Theory of Opposites, composition is the oneness of Oneness and Manyness, of Sameness and Difference.

—And then Diderot says:

Nothing is beautiful without unity; and there is no unity without subordination. That seems contradictory; but it isn't. [I, 187]

This has an old-time ring. But is it about today's work anyway? Would an abstract expressionist or an action painter deny he was going after some kind of unité? As I said, once he agreed that his work was a composition, he would be saying also he was going after unity or oneness.

All composition whatsoever—whether of a stone, a leaf, a process, a person, a period, a painting, a concerto, a comedy, a ballet—is oneness and manyness, whole and part, structure and detail. Our thoughts, our work cannot avoid being composition and detail, whole and part—that is, oneness and manyness. Beauty is a little determined; it is not entirely apart from the inevitable.

Getting back to Diderot. —He uses the word subordination in relation to unité; says that there can be nothing beautiful without unity, and no unity without "subordination." And he says subordination is not "contradictory" to unity. What this comes to is that there is detail subordinate to the general unified effect-—or purpose—of a composition; and that this specific presence in a picture may be at one with the picture as a whole, as unified, as design.

Does this hold good for a contemporary abstraction? Is there something "subordinate" in an abstraction, not in contradiction with its unity? Is the deep technical problem of composition the same in an abstraction as in Chardin—of whom Diderot writes?

The Theory of Opposites states that the many of Many and One is just as much worked at, just as much present, in a Los Angeles abstraction as it ever was anywhere else. What I mean is that the problem of Many and One is just as much there.

Specific and General

In discussing Diderot's sentiments, I have used the word specific. In doing so, I have approached another pair of opposites, mighty in the history of man, engaging in their possible value: Specific and General. I think that when Specific and General are looked at they will be seen as angles of, aspects of, instances of, "disguises" of, Manyness and Oneness.

And a question for today is whether there is something specific and something general in a strikingly contemporary work, as there was in the work of another century.

The Difference between Unity & Monotony

Diderot says:

There is between unity and uniformity the difference of a beautiful melody from a continuous sound. [I, 187]

In these words a distinction is made between unity and monotony. Diderot implies that artistic unity is not just "unity" in a dry way: it is the mingling of unity and subordination; that is, of unity and "variety" (a word he has used just before); further, of oneness and manyness. Diderot makes a distinction between a "continuous sound"—like that of dripping, banging a skillet, throwing a rubber ball against a wall—and melody.

Banging a skillet is oneness-without-manyness; a melody is oneness-with-manyness. The melody has arranged "subordination" or "variety."

Continuity and Discontinuity

At this moment we come to another pair of opposites, exemplifying, again, Oneness and Manyness. These are Continuity and Discontinuity.

The aesthetic quality of Mondrian is concerned with the instantaneous presence of continuity and discontinuity. Mondrian proceeds as he is different. He sees the soothingness—representing continuity—and tension—representing discontinuity—implicit in color and shape. Abstract painting is, in every instance, a study in the coherence and incoherence of color and shape, or of the continuous and discontinuous.

And we should see that Continuity and Discontinuity are forms of Oneness and Manyness.

Diderot Deals with Contrast & Balance

Diderot later deals with a problem which has existed as long as art has: the problem of contrast and balance.

The implication of what Diderot says about contrast is that in a painting it should come from the same source as that which makes for balance or unity. This takes place, as Diderot puts it, when the figures "do the same thing." And Diderot writes:

Contrast is no more a matter of chance than of rule. It is out of a necessity, of which it is impossible to rid oneself without being false, that two figures which differ, whether through age, or sex, or character, do the same thing differently. [I, 198]

Diderot here is taken with the philosophic problem of Sameness and Difference as it is found in painting. Parmenides and Heraclitus meet each other, struggle with each other, and according to the Theory of Opposites become one, in art. I think it is something like this which Diderot is saying, when he uses the phrase in the quotation above—"do the same thing differently."

Intensely of Now: Sameness & Difference

Sameness and difference are intensely of now. Abstract painting, as I have implied, shows that there can be an aesthetic achievement and satisfaction through sameness and difference. In abstract painting, the drama of sameness and difference is shown by the possibilities of surface, by colors and shapes in their beginnings.

Yet colors and shapes show sameness and difference working together as they have worked together elsewhere. Colors and shapes are like people: they are amiable, they join with facility, or they maintain their distance, or they repel jaggedly.

After all—as Diderot felt—within sameness and difference are terror and placidity; the ease of what does not disturb, the unrest of what transforms.

*Denis Diderot, Chefs-d'oeuvre (Paris : La Renaissance du livre, n.d.), I, 187-216. Though Mr. Siegel quotes all passages in the original French, for present purposes I have substituted an English translation.