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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1842.—February 13, 2013

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Do We Want to Know Our Feelings?

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing the great 1972 lecture The Known & Unknown Are Kind in Poetry, by Eli Siegel. It is about something which Aesthetic Realism, of all the world’s philosophies, has shown to be a matter of the most vital importance in every person’s life. Along with the fact that one’s own personal happiness and one’s kindness or cruelty depend on this matter, it is central to the conduct of nations, to world economics, to how justly or brutally human beings treat each other. One way of describing it is: How much do we want to know truly what we feel, be critics of our own feelings, see them accurately?

People mainly go by the unstated notion that one’s feelings are one’s own, and therefore one can do with them as one pleases. That includes not looking at them. It includes lying to oneself and others about them. This ordinary way of seeing is the complete contrary to what happens in art—because all art comes from a person’s wanting to see his or her feeling and deal with it accurately, widely, deeply. Sometimes the accuracy is a wild accuracy, has strangeness to it, but it is accuracy nonetheless.

This Aesthetic Realism principle is true about the feelings we have at any time—whether sinking feelings, triumphant feelings, yearning, angry, abashed, confused feelings: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The opposite of feeling is knowing, and any instance of art is a oneness of these. In art an individual deals with his or her emotion so truly that the emotion takes on world meaning—is simultaneously personal and impersonal. That is what happens in a Manet painting; a Mozart concerto; a poem by Herrick. And, this lecture shows, unless that is what we are trying to be, we’ll betray ourselves and hurt others.

The disinclination to be exact about our feelings is part of what Aesthetic Realism identifies as “the greatest danger or temptation of man”: contempt.

In the lecture we’re serializing, Mr. Siegel discusses a passage by philosopher R.G. Collingwood (1889- 1943). He does not agree with everything Collingwood says, and the passage has its difficulty. But it is, Mr. Siegel shows, unusual and mightily valuable because it is about the need to see our feelings accurately—and also about the desire not to do so. Collingwood calls the latter “corruption of consciousness.”

For Example, in Love

As a prelude, I’ll give some instances of people’s not wanting to see, but to meddle with, their feelings.

There are many such instances in that tremendous field which is love. A frequent one is something Mr. Siegel describes in “Love and Reality,” chapter 7 of Self and World:

The night that Selma met Ted she was critical of him. She did not like his ways so much, he seemed somewhat awkward,...there was a clumsy eagerness on his part. She wished that his eyes were a little different. But as the days went on and as Ted kept displaying his devotion to her and insisting on her indispensability, the defects noted at the beginning dissolved in a mist of transmutation, forgiveness, praise. For here was a person sent by the world to corroborate Selma’s hopes that all was well with her....Ted came to stand for...a world that recognized the distinction of Selma. [P. 180]

A woman can tell herself she feels a man is just magnificent—if not quite perfect then pretty close—when she deeply does not. The reason she meddles with her feeling is: if someone acts as though we’re superior to everything else, and we want to use his praise “to corroborate [our] hopes that all [is] well with [us],” we can’t do it unless we see the adoration as coming from a fit judge—from someone who himself is rather unquestionable. So we decide we feel he is that.

The same woman, some years later, can meddle with her feelings in another way. Now married to the man and angry, she tells herself she was deceived and hurt by him. That is more self-glorifying than to look at the sense (present in her) that there was something wrong with her purposes as to him; and at the fact that even now she has feelings both for and against him. She’d rather tell herself she’s just against him than try to know who he is and how she herself sees.

Economics, History, & How People See People

All through history people have meddled with their own feelings in relation to matters of economics—which means in relation to how they see and use other people. There has been a horrible decorating of cheap, cruel, and contemptuous feeling to make it seem noble, including to oneself.

Take child labor. As the objections to it increased, many prosperous citizens, persons who attended church on Sundays, put forth arguments as to why employing children in factories and mines was kind. Through work, they said, the little ones learn responsibility; also, the exercise strengthens their young bodies. If you have an ugly purpose, which is always accompanied by ugly feeling, you can’t go on having it unless you lie about it to yourself, let alone to others. So employers and politicians endowed themselves with beneficent emotions in their desire for little children to crawl through small tunnels in coal mines or wear out their young lives laboring in mills. These persons did not describe their real feeling. It was put this way by Scott Nearing in his 1911 book The Solution of the Child Labor Problem: “The manufacturer [feels he] must needs have profits even though he grind up a few children’s futures in the getting of them” (p. 93).

And there is slavery. In the 1850s and ’60s, Southerners, including clergymen, gave arguments in praise of it. And every one of those arguments lied about what the pro-slavery advocates really felt. The advocates did not say: “I, and people like me, are entitled to use living human beings different from us to make ourselves comfortable and wealthy, no matter how much we hurt them.” They didn’t say, “I feel like a big shot if I can think someone is vastly inferior to me, and if I can treat him any way I please—including beating him or selling him.” Instead, from the South came statements about masters’ kindly treatment of “dependents.” There was much expression of the compassionate feeling that black persons could not function decently on their own and, in order to get on in life, needed the housing, food, and structured work which their masters, with such generosity, provided.

The disguising of filthily vicious feeling to make it look noble, even to oneself, goes on today. Take, for instance, a term that sounds so fair: “right-to-work”—as in “Texas is a right-to-work state.” It is a lying phrase, created by persons trying to kill unions, and put forth by those persons to characterize, fakely, laws passed in certain states. What’s been sweetly dubbed “right-to-work” is actually—in the words of union leader Timothy Lynch—“right-to-exploit”: such states disable unions from having the financial means to represent workers effectively, and thus an employer can pay workers as little as he wants and treat them any way he pleases. The use of the phrase is like the presenting of slavery and child labor as considerate. It is the same fakery about feeling, the same cover-up of horrible contempt.

Lying to oneself and others about one’s feeling goes on in people quietly, in a taken-for-granted fashion, every day. Meanwhile, in every person, there is a thirst to know ourselves. With all the talk about self-esteem, we can like ourselves only if we give ourselves the respect of wanting to look at our own feelings exactly.

Aesthetic Realism is the education that enables us to have that beautiful, needed oneness of pride and self-criticism from which all art comes. It enables us to see our feelings as real, as part of the whole world—the world we were born to know.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

How Do We Deal with Our Feelings?
By Eli Siegel

Note. At this point, after having read the Collingwood passage, Mr. Siegel begins to look more closely at it.

Now I’ll read this passage sentence by sentence and say something of each sentence—not all that could be said. Sometimes I take up a poem line for line, and occasionally it is well to take up a thing of prose sentence for sentence. The first is:

The corruption of consciousness in virtue of which a man fails to express a given emotion makes him at the same time unable to know whether he has expressed it or not.

The first question a person should welcome arising from that statement is this: Is there such a thing as “corruption of consciousness”? And, as Collingwood himself implies later, is it related to what can be called disorderly emotion, unstable emotion, diseased emotion?

He is, therefore, for one and the same reason, a bad artist and a bad judge of his own art.

Here we have, about a person, expression (“a bad artist”) and also criticism (“a bad judge”). People do not want to be good critics of themselves—and not just in writing or painting or music. They don’t want to be good critics because they feel, why should they be unkind to themselves? They associate being a good critic of themselves with not giving themselves the break that they deserve because they’re so near home.

We either think reality is to be meddled with, or think it isn’t. And one phase of reality is our feelings. If we decide it is well to meddle with reality, insofar as we look at our feelings we don’t see why we shouldn’t meddle with them. A person, for instance, says, “I had a wonderful evening,” when she was bored to hell. That is a flagrant form of it. “I never passed a more pleasant evening, Mrs. Hotchkiss”—it’s taken as part of politeness.

So we can do something: we are in charge of our feelings and we can decide how we should fulfill our trust. There are times when it seems our feelings are not under control, but at least, once we can look at them, we can try to be honest. We can have a nightmare in which we ride around uncomfortable territory and wrong things happen. But later the nightmare becomes the object of our thought, and we can try to be exact about it.

What Is Successful Feeling?

The next sentence is:

A person who is capable of producing bad art cannot, so far as he is capable of producing it, recognize it for what it is.

“Bad art” here can be related to feeling that is not as good as what we might have. If we have feeling and we think it’s the best we can have, and we’re really sure of it, then that much the feeling is successful. But if we’re not sure the feeling is the best we could have, then that much the feeling is like any instance of art that is not wholly successful: we want to have better feeling and this is what we’re saddled with. So why are we saddled with it?

Most people most of the time have feelings that they think are not the best they could have. That is why persons look for various chemical ameliorators of their feelings, also why they get angry, also why they want to die.

He cannot, on the other hand, really think it good art; he cannot think that he has expressed himself when he has not.

In terms of life, the sentence stands for this: does a person ask, What would it mean for me to be honest about my feelings? That question is usually not very welcome to a person; it’s not asked.

He cannot...really think it good art....To mistake bad art for good art would imply having in one’s mind an idea of what good art is....

So it is likely that a person who doesn’t do so well in art has never got a good, steady, deep look at what good art is.

I am not saying that these sentences of Collingwood are final. I say they are valuable, because they lead one to that dealing with our feelings that everyone goes through.

What Collingwood says in the passage I’m looking at is the contrary of the Freudian approach to art, and others. He says that consciousness matters a great deal. That is not the final statement, because in art, conscious and unconscious, known and unknown—as I imply in the title of this talk—are one. But it is well to have someone speaking in behalf of consciousness. Despite all the terms added to realism—super-realism, magical realism, surrealism—the word itself still remains: realism.

Are We Conscious for Only Ourselves?

To mistake bad art for good art would imply having in one’s mind an idea of what good art is, and one has such an idea only so far as one knows what it is to have an uncorrupt consciousness; but no one can know this except a person who possesses one.

This sentence, again, is not as clear as it might be. Collingwood could say more about what he means by uncorrupt consciousness. But the important thing is, there is the question, What are we thinking for? In whose behalf? What are we doing this for? No artist would say that in doing something, he did it all for himself. He might say he expressed himself, but if he were asked, “Did you do it all for yourself?” he’d hesitate. He’d say, “Well, I think I did this for people in general” or “for a few chosen spirits.” But he wouldn’t say he did it all for himself.

A corrupt consciousness would be a consciousness that uses itself for not a lovely purpose. To use consciousness just for oneself is, as Collingwood sees it, to have a corrupt consciousness. And that goes on a great deal. One uses the fact that one has feelings to work for oneself, to be a servitor of one’s comfort or one’s supremacy. Corrupt consciousness, then, is frequent.


An insincere mind, so far as it is insincere, has no conception of sincerity.

The sincerity of Homer has never been questioned. It is very seldom that the sincerity of Milton has been questioned. And the farther back in time one goes in the field of poetry or art, the less is there a tendency to question sincerity. The caveman’s sincerity is not questioned. Whatever he did to that strange reindeer, or whatever strangeness he put on the bone he found of some animal, his sincerity is not questioned.

As emergent a word as any is the word sincere. The great books are seldom questioned for sincerity. Occasionally a great writer is questioned. Shakespeare, for example: Matthew Arnold questioned some of those early metaphors in Macbeth about Macbeth’s valor, or the strange writing about Macbeth. But sincerity has been given to a work in proportion to how great it has been seen to be—and also somewhat in proportion to how old it is. There isn’t a feeling that three thousand years ago, if a person wanted to write poetry, he’d be fooling around and doing things with his consciousness in order to impress friends in the temple.

Meddling with One’s Own Feelings

But nobody’s consciousness can be wholly corrupt.

This means that good and evil are there. We do see, and we also want to meddle with our seeing. The seeing is not corrupt; but a wanting to use it for certain purposes—that is corrupt; and a wanting also to meddle with it.

If it were, he would be in a condition as much worse than the most complete insanity we can discover or imagine, as that is worse than the most complete sanity we can conceive.

This is a pretty strange sentence. Collingwood says that if a person’s consciousness were wholly corrupt, it would be worse than complete insanity as much as complete insanity is worse than complete sanity.

We have to ask, if a person does go into a mental institution, has he meddled or has she meddled with her feelings? Even though that person is not an artist, has there been corrupt consciousness? The answer would seem to be yes.

Every person says, Why can’t I fool around with my own mind—after all, it’s my own? And there’s a feeling that one’s mind belongs to oneself. That is what Hamlet felt somewhat, and that is why he got into trouble: if he had felt that his mind belonged to all eternity and had been clear about it, he wouldn’t have suffered so much. One’s mind belongs to all reality.

He would suffer simultaneously every possible kind of mental derangement, and every bodily disease that such derangements can bring in their train.

It is likely that Collingwood saw some of his Oxford friends go through things, and it’s likely he went through some things himself, because a philosopher doesn’t usually write this way.

The Purpose of Consciousness

The purpose of consciousness is to see things, to hold on to what you see, and to express what you see. One could give other purposes. But if you use consciousness to get into a hide-and-seek game with the world and show that reality is not good enough for you, and that because it displeases you, you have a right to change it on terms chosen by yourself—then consciousness, as Collingwood sees it, would be corrupt. black diamond

Aesthetic Realism is based on these
principles, stated by Eli Siegel:

1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.


2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.


3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

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The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known (TRO) is a biweekly periodical of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner

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TRO: Home |  Current |  Art |  Literature |  Racism |  Education |  Nat'l Ethics |  Love |  Economics |  Memorial |  Site Map
"Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?" by Eli Siegel: a short explanation of Aesthetic Realism
The Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company in New York City. Authors in the repertory include Ibsen, Sheridan, Shakespeare, O'Neill.
Ellen Reiss, Commentaries in TRO:
The Mideast  |  Poetry of Eli Siegel |  Unions
Lord Byron |  Harry Potter |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution

Aesthetic Realism Resources:
Aesthetic Realism Consultations
Two Biographies of Eli Siegel:
[1]Aesthetic Realism Foundation
[2]Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company Site
Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies

Art and Literature:
The Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature

Two Teachers Speak on a Class Taught by Ellen Reiss
The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method:
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
The Aesthetic Realism Method
Further Resources:
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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