The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Our Self, Our Danger, & Our Imagination

Dear Unknown Friends:

We publish the conclusion of Aesthetic Realism Is Nothing Else, by Eli Siegel—one of the lectures he gave in 1946-7 at New York’s Steinway Hall. In this talk he is showing, during the Freudian heyday, that the self is something very different from what psychiatry was presenting. The self we all have, in its turmoil and triumph and confusion and sinking and hope, is an aesthetic situation, described in this principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

Even through our incomplete record of it—notes taken at the time—the greatness of this lecture is clear. For example, Mr. Siegel speaks about abstract art, which had become the reigning mode of modern painting and sculpture, and we see his graceful, definitive explanation of what it is. He does what no other critic did: relates abstract art to our so un-abstract lives. And he shows why it’s not apart from representational art—why all art is abstract.

Further, Mr. Siegel comments on dreams, in a way that can make for deep relief and pride in what the self is. He shows that dreams are philosophic.

And he speaks about something that Aesthetic Realism is alone in explaining: the difference between good imagination and bad. This is a distinction that people everywhere need mightily, urgently, and achingly to understand. It is what I’ll comment on a little here.

In the Minds of Children

On the Psychology Today website there is an article on imagination in children. It’s representative of how the various counselors of our time see the subject. In “Worldplay: One Cure for Imagination Deficit Disorder,” Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein write:

Your nine-year-old daughter has invented her own secret country....She designs clothes for its inhabitants and creates an imaginary language that she speaks only to them....Should you worry?

Worry only if children can’t distinguish between reality and fantasy....Children who invent make-believe worlds exhibit a strong and healthy imagination—and exercise creative behavior of value to adult professional endeavor....[Also,] imaginary friends...are a sign of healthy imaginative development.

No distinction is seen by these writers, and the psychologists generally, between childhood imagination that is fine, “healthy,” ever so good, and imagination that is hurtful, bad. As long as the child knows she’s imagining, they say, everything’s all right. Meanwhile, children go through a great deal: they can be fearful, angry, immensely agitated. Can the way a child imagines encourage such feelings?

Aesthetic Realism is beautifully clear. The difference between good and bad imagination in a child or anyone is this: Are you changing the world in your mind in order to have respect for reality or contempt for reality? The fight between the desire to respect the world and the desire to have contempt for it is, Aesthetic Realism shows, the biggest, most important fight in the life of everyone. How it fares is how our lives fare.

Two Poems on the Subject

Robert Louis Stevenson, in his Child’s Garden of Verses, has written poetry about children that is authentic, musical. I quote from two of his poems to show the difference between good and bad imagination.

There is “Windy Nights,” in which a child imagines that sounds the wind makes come from a man galloping down the roads. This is the first of the poem’s two stanzas:

Whenever the moon and stars are set,

Whenever the wind is high,

All night long in the dark and wet,

A man goes riding by.

Late in the night when the fires are out,

Why does he gallop and gallop about?

The child’s imagination described here is quite beautiful. It is the imagination, deep in humanity, that wants to personify things, make the world outside us close to us by giving it a life that is like our own. The desire to give personality to inanimate things is what impelled various aspects of mythology. It had the ancient Greeks see dryads in woods, naiads in streams. So, the imagination Stevenson has the child in this poem express is respectful of the world: it sees the world with both more wonder and closeness.

Then there is the poem called “My Kingdom.” What it describes is like what’s told of in the Psychology Today article: here a child makes a private world out of a small section of land. Some lines are:

And all about was mine, I said,

The little sparrows overhead,

The little minnows too.

This was the world and I was king;

For me the bees came by to sing,

For me the swallows flew.


I played there were no deeper seas,

Nor any wider plains than these,

Nor other kings than me.

This is put charmingly, and the poetry is very good— but the imagination it tells of is not. The big question about imaginary worlds and also imaginary friends is: do you use them to get away from other people, look down on other people, feel superior to other people—or do you use them to respect other people? When a child creates an imaginary world—is it because she wants to see the wonder and possibilities the world itself has, or because she feels the world she’s in every day isn’t good enough for her, and she should have one tailored just for her, which she can rule? That’s the question for the girl in the Psychology Today article. And not to distinguish is cruel to a child, because it praises a way of mind that hurts her life: contempt. It says there’s no difference between the best thing in her and the worst.

Like All of Us

The little boy in “My Kingdom” is not a villain; he’s like everyone. But the contempt which can take quiet forms in all of us is also the source of every injustice and cruelty. This boy wants a world that he can run, in which everything serves him: he’s superior to everything and doesn’t have to look up to or respect anything. In fact, no one else exists: there are no “other kings than me.” He is likely the same little boy who, in the “Windy Nights” poem, wanted to see wonder in the world. But we all have two desires—for respect and for contempt—and we need to know the difference.

Ever so many little girls have imagined they were princesses, in a higher realm than the mere mortals who surround them. Children have imagined that they were really adopted and came from royal parents, far superior to the family they’re forced to live with. Children have imagined using weapons to mow down everyone. All this is contempt. It’s different from the imagination with which a child pictures himself somebody else in order to feel what another person may feel—in order to make himself and what’s not himself join.

And as to imaginary playmates, the criterion is: do you use this person to value more the children in the neighborhood, or to say, “Pooh on them! I’ve got someone who exists just for me and is better than everyone I know”?

A child’s contemptuous imagining makes him lonely—because in it he has made himself apart from other people. It makes him fearful, because he feels deeply persons should be against him for how he sees. It intensifies his anger and agitation, because it has intensified his being against the world. All this is so about an adult too. We may come to scornful and conquistador-ish fantasies because we’re not happy, but such imaginings, whatever our age, result in our being less happy, more unsure, ill-at-ease, empty. That is because our deepest desire is to like the world, including through the inventiveness which is imagination.

There is a famous two-line poem in the Stevenson book. Its title is “Happy Thought,” and it expresses, really, what should be the upshot of all imagination:

The world is so full of a number of things,

I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

That means: as we use our imaginative minds to see what the world has, we’ll see that it’s something we can like very much. With great logic, the study of Aesthetic Realism makes the hope that is in this poem a reality.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Aesthetic Realism Is Nothing Else, II

By Eli Siegel

I see the psychiatrists as whirling around somewhat sadly—using narcosynthesis, then shock treatment, then the unconscious in the Freudian sense. In his column in P.M. today, Albert Deutsch says that psychiatry does not have an organized basis and that no psychiatrist is sure of what he’s doing. I’m not speaking as I am in order to attack psychiatrists; but they are not deeply sure of a single point because the self, the subject of their work, is a philosophic problem. If it is a philosophic problem, how can you deal with it by shunning philosophy?

When one goes as deep as possible, one comes up against What is a thing itself?; What is reality? Aesthetic Realism hasn’t minded asking those questions. A person who says these questions are too ethereal to be answered is saying the schizophrenic problem is too ethereal. The schizophrenic has made a wrong philosophic decision about the self.

A Class: Variety & a Principle

Aesthetic Realism is both abstract and concrete. Aesthetics is the putting together of the abstract and the earthy. To show how abstract and earthy Aesthetic Realism is, I’m going to read from a report of a class, written by Sheldon Kranz. It represents the variety of Aesthetic Realism.

First, it’s well to take a moment to talk about variety. Many people think if you change from one thing to another you have to be disordered; at the same time, they’re bored by monotony. In classes we discuss many things, including matters in the news: the vicissitudes of trade unions and their relation to the unconscious; children who want to burn houses; the paintings of Courbet; why people feel depressed in the mornings—ever so many things. Aesthetic Realism welcomes variety. Anyone who is afraid of variety is afraid of unity too. Well, haven’t variety and unity been the subject of art discussion for a long time? Didn’t Leigh Hunt describe poetry as having “variety in uniformity”?

Dealing with newspaper articles in a class is important, because one should see that Aesthetic Realism is going to be true tomorrow. I try to show that despite the variety of happenings, there is something which gives them commonness. It’s in the motto of Aesthetic Realism: “The resolution of conflict in self is like the making one of opposites in art.” —Sheldon Kranz writes:

The class began with a discussion of two newspaper articles, which were related in theme although they were on quite different subjects. The first was about disillusioned veterans who were tired of being made to join “causes” and who formed a Do-Nothing Club. They asserted they were going to do nothing about everything.

That demonstrates in one form a tendency in everybody: a desire to get to tranquility by eliminating things. As Aesthetic Realism points out, this is a hurtful way to arrive at peace, for while people want to be tranquil, there is also something in them that wants excitement, wants to be interested in things. These two desires have to be put together aesthetically; otherwise there will be a bad shuttling between them. It is necessary to see and get to the greatest tranquility through the greatest excitement.

Art puts those opposites together. Listening to music tranquilizes while it excites. Has anyone here not been both soothed and excited by listening to music? Of course, in any instance of music the accent is more on one than on the other, but both are always present. We all want stillness, composure. At the same time, we want to have self-expression. How can we be passive and active at once? The manic-depressive changes from being very sulky to wanting to fly around Africa in fifteen minutes.

The veterans told of in the article were bored because there are so many “causes.” I can understand that. Too much excitement of that kind is bad. Yet many people are unconsciously trying to be bored like nobody’s business.

How else can excitement and tranquility be put together except aesthetically? Are we going to make ourselves two people? Where Al Jolson is good, it’s because he has excitement and control at once. Where Martha Graham is good, she has excitement and control at once. Where any artist is good, it is because he has excitement and control, is kinetic without being sloppy. If this can be in art, why can’t it be at a party?

Two Kinds of Imagination

Mr. Kranz’s report continues:

This brought us to the second newspaper article. At a luncheon, Dr. Lydia G. Giberson, an industrial psychiatrist, stated that daydreaming is the cause of many accidents today, but that daydreaming in itself is not bad.

It is important to see what is behind daydreaming. Most often it is a way of getting away from reality. As such it is unfair to objects; it is an insult to people; it indicates that the daydreamer can’t take reality as it is. That also is behind disillusion as seen in the veterans.

Another kind of daydreaming, however, is imagination, which is quite different. True imagination does not limit or substitute. It makes things more, goes more deeply into reality. This imagination does not create a rival to what is, whereas the first kind of daydreaming can be hostile, against the world.

Wherever introspection is unfair to the reality outside what is being introspected, it is bad. It is cowardice—it isn’t Barrie’s Peter Pan. Anyone who thinks he can despise the world and get away with it, is wrong. The calamities are many.

Good imagination is fantasy with control, creation with symmetry. It is hard to distinguish between the imagination which, though complete, is still an honoring of reality, and the imagination that is a contemptuous evasion of reality. A run-of-the-mill psychiatrist, reading The Tempest and not knowing who the author was, would say here was “autistic thinking,” escape.

The Self & Abstract Art

More from the report:

Dorothy Koppelman read a paper on Piet Mondrian, an abstract painter of great repute, who attempted to get to the meaning of reality in terms of space and time directly, without using representational figures. Mr. Siegel then discussed abstraction in art and how it deals with the philosophic problem of seeing Nothing as Something.

Art makes the abstract earthy and the earthy abstract. The abstractionist says there is drama within space, in numbers, in the inanimate, as well as in everyday events. The relationship of color and white, rectangle and line, curve and straight line is as dramatic as that of two actors on a stage. Abstraction, Mr. Siegel said, is good when it completes reality and does not get away from it.

The problem of abstraction in art is related to the problem deep in the unconscious which makes for the use of curves and straight lines in dreams. For example, a person can solve something in a dream by putting himself on a corner. The corner, formed by the meeting of two lines, stands for a oneness of two things which, from another point of view, can seem very far apart. When a person dreams of herself as a chicken, or a bus, it’s because the unconscious, seeing the self as an indefinite relation, can use anything to stand for the self.

I shall talk of dreams more another time, but for the moment it should be said that dreams come from the self trying to be at home and abroad at once. Freud vulgarized dreams by making them smaller than they are.

All art is abstract because all form can be seen as abstract. We can use a “pure world” that seems orderly against the humdrumness of everyday life. This is what bad abstract art does. Mondrian, however, as Dorothy Koppelman pointed out, was after something more.

A problem of life is how to see perfection and imperfection together, how to feel we’re wholly ourselves and also in process. Art can deal perfectly with imperfection.

Our Self & Reality

To understand the self, we have to feel reality itself is to be understood. And reality is made up of opposites. Aesthetic Realism says, If you learn how to deal with opposites in a true way, you’ll be aesthetic, and (if you don’t mind it) you’ll be happy too.