The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Possibilities & America

Dear Unknown Friends:

Eli Siegel gave the lecture Possibilities of Aesthetic Realism in his historic Steinway Hall series of 1946 and ’47. It is published here, edited from notes taken at the time—notes that are quite fragmentary. Yet the main ideas and Mr. Siegel’s voice, his style, his large and kind way of seeing come through to us.

By “possibilities of Aesthetic Realism” he means the good that can come to be as Aesthetic Realism is studied. And it moves me very much to say, six decades later, that where and to the extent that Aesthetic Realism has been truly studied, those possibilities have become living beautiful realities.

One of the subjects Mr. Siegel comments on here is economics. Aesthetic Realism explains that every aspect of life is an aesthetic matter: composed of opposites that need to be made one as they are made one in art. And the chief opposites for us all the time are self and world. So let us look awhile at that tumultuous, worrisome thing, the economy, which appears so different now from how it seemed in 1946.

In the 1970s Mr. Siegel showed that history has reached the point at which the only economy that will work is one that is aesthetic and ethical. Our economy, to fare well today, has to be based on the idea that the way to take care of oneself is to want other people to get what they deserve. For centuries, world economics has been based instead on a horrible rift between these opposites. It has been based on the profit motive—that the way for me to get mine is to see others in terms of profit: I’ll extract as much labor from you as I can while paying you as little as possible; I’ll get the highest price from you I can for my product, no matter how desperately you need it and how little you can afford it.

The thing that has made economics ugly through the centuries and a global failure now, is contempt. Mr. Siegel showed this with wide-ranging examples and meticulous detail.

The Economy Today

An article on the website gives as valuable a picture as any I’ve seen of the US economy today. It’s titled “You’ll Know the Recession Is ‘Really’ Over When…,” and I found it through a link on the home page. Author Ann Brenoff describes, through ten points, how people are now living and working in America. There is this in point 1:

Corporations [found] they could just dump more work on remaining staff when they axed people. With employees terrified that they might be let go next, everyone just sucks it up. Paying overtime? An antiquated tradition.

In point 2, Ms. Brenoff says many people

are getting by with odd jobs and holding garage sales every weekend for grocery money. There is a whole underground workforce who manage with a string of no-benefit part time freelance jobs. Nurses, lawyers, writers— they cobble together a series of gigs to pay the bills each month....If illness or misfortune should somehow befall the poor serf, there is no health coverage, paid time off, or disability insurance to kick in. And the business will just move on to the next serf.

Ms. Brenoff attributes this behavior to businesses’ “greed,” but the cause is more than greed in the customary sense. This forcing of uncertainty and misery and poverty on Americans is the only way to keep the profit system going. If people who work are paid well and treated respectfully, there will not be big personal profits for owners. It’s a matter of arithmetic. And Americans need to be clear about it. People have to see that either 1) they will have lives that are financially fair to them, and profit-based economics will no longer exist, or 2) they will be sacrificial lambs to maintain the profit system a while longer.

The Campaign against Unions

Those who want to keep the profit system going through the sacrifices of Americans are engaged in a massive lying propaganda campaign against unions. That is because unions have brought increased justice to people, in the form, for instance, of fairer wages, of vacation time, pensions, protection against arbitrary firing. And all these instances of dignity for people have cut into owners’ private profits.

A propaganda technique is to tell people: “Look at those wages, pensions, protections unions have gotten. You don’t have them, so no one should. They’re excessive. They are what’s interfering with the economy!” It’s like encouraging people who have been kept from knowing the alphabet to hate those who can read, when instead they should say “We have a right to read too!” Americans should feel: what unions have brought to people, everyone should have—and more.

But people in this nation have been led to feel that through their living as Ms. Brenoff describes, and worse, somehow profit economics will recover and the sacrifices won’t have to go on. It hasn’t recovered, and it won’t. The true alternative to the current failure is aesthetics and ethics: an economy different from any that has ever been, based on this question asked by Eli Siegel, “What does a person deserve by being a person?”

A Way of Mind

As we look at America now, it’s important to understand the state of mind of persons who are vociferously presenting themselves as against “government.” They’ve been encouraged by various politicians and media personalities and backed financially by wealthy individuals, all of whom want America to exist for the aggrandizement of certain people, not the well-being of all. I’m not talking about political parties but about ethics, and a way of mind that has existed through the centuries.

A means to understand this way of mind is through a man in American literature: Pap Finn, father of the title character of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. In chapter 6, Huck tells about Pap’s anger at the “govment.” The description begins: “Whenever his liquor begun to work, he most always went for the govment. This time he says: ‘Call this a govment!...A man can’t get his rights in a govment like this.’”

Certainly there can be things, sometimes tremendous ones, to oppose in governments. In his great 1951 lecture on Huckleberry Finn, Eli Siegel explained:

There are various ways of being against the government....There are many persons who run the government who are against it—because they are for the government as long as it goes their way.

The one big revolt against the government in America was the Civil War, when the Southern slaveholders didn’t like not having their way, so they decided they wouldn’t let the government go on, and they’d get out of it, and take United States property with them....

Well, Pap Finn—he was against the government in a certain manner. He didn’t have his way, and he didn’t like that.

What Will Make Us Sure?

Pap Finn—along with being a mean person, who beats his son and wants to take his money—is a person who is very unsure of himself. Today in America, the failure of the profit system has made various people intensely unsure. Even if they weren’t rich, they liked associating themselves with the wealth and snobbery that big profit-making has with it. They liked being able to look down on persons worse off than themselves. The uncertainty of the economy makes all that less easy.

When we’re unsure, we’ll try to get sure either through wanting to know, through thought that’s deep and wide, or through contempt. Pap Finn does not like to think—and there’s something of him in everyone.

People have been angry with “govment” because through its actions they cannot feel superior to others as fully as they would like. Pap Finn, in pre-Civil War Missouri, includes in his fury at the government the fact that he saw a black man—unenslaved, from Ohio—who was educated and had confidence:

“And what do you think? They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could vote, when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to?... And to see the cool way of that... —why, he wouldn’t a give me the road if I hadn’t shoved him out o’ the way.”

Mark Twain is chilling and humorous and courageous. But there is a feeling in people that government should exist to give me my way and have me feel superior; and if in some fashion, even a feeble fashion, it enables people I look down on to get a little justice, I should hate it.

The alternative is the aesthetic way of seeing oneself, people, and the world—which Eli Siegel describes in the following lecture of 1946.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Possibilities of Aesthetic Realism

By Eli Siegel

Today, in dealing with the possibilities of Aesthetic Realism, I shall present a self and world that can be—and, as I see it, will have to be for either to be truly itself.

What the Individual Can Be

First, possibilities as to oneself. Every person in world history has been too much apart from other things and people, and has been in a fight. A possibility of Aesthetic Realism is that the individuality of a person be gloriously retained and the grudging, lonely aspect be annulled by being completed. It’s hard to conceive that a self be entirely individual and that it yet be in a state of exciting and constant concern with everything that is.

What faces us is: How can I be what I am and give this tremendous presence of world which isn’t me, all it deserves? This is the question of life. If you don’t give the Not Me all that’s coming to it, you’ll feel your life is lopped off, hemmed in, incomplete. A possibility of Aesthetic Realism is that there not be loneliness, conceit, and incompleteness of self.

That incompleteness is an incompleteness of relation. Wherever a self is conceited, it’s conceited in relation to something. The something has to be seen rightly. For a self to be complete, it must in the long run be at one with that world the size of which, the humor of which, and the beauty of which we don’t know. Individuality has to become the same as absence of fear.

Care for Family & All People

There is the possibility as to the family. It is true that the family was the first trade union, and has protected us. If the possibility of the family were realized, the ties of blood of course would not be denied. But the deeper meaning of the family is the one we most often try to evade. The idea of the brotherhood of man, for all its sentimentality, is a very good thing. Mother, father, sister, brother are beautiful words. The possibility of the family is that it not be used as an impediment to caring for other people.

It seems the self is desirous of experience. It’s desirous of justice. It’s desirous of being in a comprehensive and unafraid relation to everything. Since the great peril a self faces is its limitation by conceit—approval of self for reasons not true enough or good enough—if the family encourages that, it is also against the self and against what it (the family) deeply is.

Where the family is a means of seeing everything truly and dealing with it beautifully, the family is beautiful. The worst misuse of the family is when, in loving it, we have been stopped from loving that which would make it big. The possibility of the family is that the biological motherhood, fatherhood, brotherhood, sisterhood be used exactly, in behalf of the world at large.

A big mistake is to care for the family both too little and, in a false way, too much. That is: we can make less of members of the family because they belong to us, and esteem them for a false reason—because they do things we want them to. The possibility of the family is that it be seen exactly.

The family is a nice thing, and should not be used to feel there are people already who can’t live without us so what do we need bigger experience for—we’re already kings and queens. That kind of conspiracy isn’t inherent in the family: it can be done away with and the family remain. The family has a possibility of being a means to a large life, which is also concentrated and sensible.

Body, Pleasure, & One’s Whole Life

Then there is the big and puzzling problem of sex. The most important possibility as to it is that sex be sensible without losing any of its joy or its power. Once we feel our desire for sex is at one with our desire, for instance, to vote for the right candidate, that would be such a relief that one could hardly describe it. One possibility of the study of Aesthetic Realism is that there be a coordination between sex and everything else a person is concerned with.

If sex can be sensible and not lose any of its glamour, the question is, how? Since the purpose of sex is the enlarging and intensifying of self, the desire of the self in general for intensification and enlargement need not collide with the desire for sex. There’s no reason why a carnal desire has to be around the neck of a desire seemingly not carnal. The possibility of sex, then, is that, instead of being an interference with a human being, it go along, symphonically and sincerely, with everything in a person’s life—in fact, that it be a representative.

A person troubled about sex is not troubled by sex as such. The guilt feeling arises from the fact that in sex we are depriving what we are of something we can’t be without. That doesn’t have to be. Sex may be with every other desire of a person. The possibility of sex is that it be sensibly and intensely coherent with the desires of a whole human being.

People Will Like Learning

There is the possibility for education.* Education is a tremendous word. In the largest sense, it means an organized bringing out of the possibilities of a person. It can go on any time. The biggest thing wrong with education is that there isn’t a happy desire to learn. It’s too acquisitive, too much in an effort to show how much we know, attended by snobbishness and fear. How can it be otherwise if we aren’t at ease about what is not ourselves, since learning involves making what is not ourselves part of us? We can’t like learning unless we like the world we’re learning about. To learn is to learn about things. And before we can do it, we have to think things are friendly.

The perturbations of learning have to be understood by teachers and educators. I’ve known persons—including erudite persons—who felt that in learning they were submitting, that in getting knowledge exactly they were being put in chains. Education has had that tremendous hindrance. The possibility of Aesthetic Realism is that the deepest hindrance to education will go.

Often people think that in learning chemistry, they’re snubbing Beethoven. This fight between learning exactly and learning romantically will go. It is a big division in mentality that has hurt many people. It’s the division in all of us which makes us feel that What’s Nice and What’s True are in two different worlds. Accepting this division is really accepting peril.

The possibility of education is that new facts will also be new calm excitement.

About Art

There is a possibility for literature, because when a writer isn’t afraid of what goes on in him, and feels that it’s related to the structure of a novel, literature can be even deeper. Humor can be deeper.

The self will be seen as an individual thing that worries, but that has to do with everything. Literature has always had this seeing, but the awareness of it can, I think, add another dimension to literature and art in general.

Economics—Exciting & Kind

There is the possibility as to economics. The ailment there has been that what one wants to get doesn’t seem at one with what other people want to get. There’s a hateful, grudging competition. We can’t put together our own deepest desire with what we want of other people.

What is needed is to have the excitement of Times Square with the security of people assisting each other. It’s hard to picture; however, it seems that’s what the human being wants. He wants to be a swashbuckler, but he doesn’t want to hurt anybody else. It’s a possibility of Aesthetic Realism.

Safety & Wonder

There is the possibility as to a world view: that one feel the immensity and wonder of things while having a sense of self. We’ll feel the world is friendly and aesthetically difficult, but the difficulty will have joy— as a difficult work has for an artist. There will never be satiety, a feeling that it’s all had. Then we shall have self and world as friendly—which means safety and wonder.

Aesthetic Realism says that the only way that makes sense is aesthetics.

*See the September 15 issue of this journal, “Needed by America’s Schoolchildren!” (TRO 1779). Through the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method, the possibilities for learning that Mr. Siegel describes have become realities.