The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Opposites—in Everyday Confusion & in Art

Dear Unknown Friends:

The Opposites Theory, by Eli Siegel, is a work of the late 1950s, and we are honored to be publishing it in serial form. With this issue we have come to chapter 4.

At the basis of Aesthetic Realism is something looked for through the centuries of philosophy and criticism: the explanation of what beauty is; the showing of what is central to, and in common among, art of all times, places, and genres. Whether in a Byzantine mosaic or American jazz, art is “the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual.” That fact is what The Opposites Theory presents and illustrates.

As we serialize it, I have been commenting on that other tremendous aspect of Aesthetic Realism: its understanding of the human self—of us, in our hopes, turmoil, victories, and confusions. Eli Siegel is the philosopher who showed that the self of everyone is an aesthetic situation: we, without knowing it, “are trying to put opposites together,” the same opposites that are in reality and art. Further, the thing in us which most interferes with our doing so is contempt, our desire to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Our contempt is the great harmer of our lives and weakener of our minds. It's the source of every meanness and cruelty.

Our Lives Every Day

What about the opposites Mr. Siegel discusses here, so technical to art: tightness and diffusion? What do they have to do with our lives every day? Well, people are mixed up, terrifically, by forms of these opposites. There is a big desire in everyone to be “tight” in a bad way: to hug ourselves, contract, make a small, confined world, separate from the wide unlimited world into which all of us were born.

This desire is part of contempt: A person—we’ll call her Keira—feels the world outside her is not good enough for her. It’s something that pains her and dirties her, and when she can go home to her carefully arranged apartment, she can shut the door on everything and everyone, and be queen of a contracted world.

Coziness is a form of tightness, and, certainly, there can be a good coziness: you can respect mountains, and humanity, and encyclopedias even while you’re in a warm kitchen with tea simmering, or while you pull the blanket to your chin and go to sleep. But so often a person, like Keira, uses the cozy to despise the wide world that confuses her and to feel that at last she has rid herself of it. As she watches television or eats a bowl of ice cream (both wonderful things), she makes so much of life, with its puzzlingness, no longer matter. She is running her confined universe. Day after day, Keira goes through the tightness, the triumphant contraction, of contempt. She does not know that this is why she so often feels stifled, agitated, and deeply unsure. The human self is ethical, and says, If you make less of the world, you will pay for it; one way is: you will feel profoundly ill-at-ease.

Meaning Is Missing

A certain unfortunate diffusion is also in people’s lives. That is, a person can go forth, from one activity to another, yet not be fully present in any of them. Take another representative person, Jason. He goes to work, to his children’s soccer games, to visit friends, watches television, takes vacations with his family. Yet, though busy, he has a quite steady feeling of emptiness. He tells himself he's “spread thin.” But the real problem isn’t the activities; it’s that Jason doesn’t see a meaning in them: he has not used them to try to respect the world and people. For all his seeming expansiveness, he too has had contempt: he has taken part in many things but has had an unconscious victory in not letting any of them affect him fully. Through them all he has kept something of himself untouched, aloof—superior to whatever he has met. And his triumph has also been his painful emptiness.

Those artistic opposites of tightness and diffusion are ours in many other ways. But they are also opposites present in the history of nations. There has been very often the contemptuous tightness which is chauvinism: the feeling, We, just we, of this nation, are the chosen, the best; rightness is ours alone; real goodness is ours alone. And with that ugly contraction, that exclusivity, there is often the horrible spreading and diffusion which is conquest: we have a right to go forth and do whatever we please to other nations, including attack and subjugate them. That too comes from contempt.

What We're Looking For

What is the tightness and diffusion every person is looking for? In The Opposites Theory, an artist Mr. Siegel speaks of as joining those opposites in his poetic technique is Walt Whitman. But in the content of Whitman’s poems too, in his actual statements, there is the oneness of opposites people and nations urgently need. And I learned about its importance from Mr. Siegel. An example is at the very beginning of “Song of Myself.”

Whitman says: “I celebrate myself and sing myself.” Here is the self, tight, concentrated on itself, affirming itself. But what happens right after? Whitman says: “And what I assume, you shall assume. / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” That is diffusion: the saying, I am not only myself, I am not only here: I extend infinitely—I am there; I am you!

We need to feel we are ourselves, through being interested, widely and deeply, in what’s not ourselves. We need to feel that as we care for ourselves we care for everything. That is aesthetics; that is intelligence; that is authentic patriotism; that is really taking care of ourselves. And what it means, and how it can take place for people now, is the study of Aesthetic Realism.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Tightness & Diffusion, or, Maybe,
Finite & Infinite, in Art

By Eli Siegel

I suppose one of the unusual questions of the world is: Does the relation of the Finite and the Infinite, considered philosophically, have something of consequence to do with the problem of Tightness and Diffusion in art? Since one of the bases of the Theory of Opposites is that all technical artistic problems find their first presence in the persisting philosophic problems, and since Finite and Infinite are one of these, or constitute one of these, the Theory of Opposites does state with metaphysical temerity that Condensation and Rarefaction, Density and Roominess, Concision and Suggestion, Tightness and Diffusion—as situations or as artistic problems—are inseparable from the Finite and Infinite as they exist in man's mind or anywhere.

It is regrettable that capital letters have had to be so much used in the preceding paragraph. I did not use capital letters to bring pomp, ontological magnificence, to certain pairs of words: they, these words, already have all the pomp they need. I used the capital letters for the purpose of plainness, distinction, unmistakability. We should, certainly, avoid wooziness or laciness whenever possible in discussing art.

It is plain that tightness-and-diffusion are, or is, in art. Both nouns mentioned can be qualities. Tightness is economy, concision, concentration, firmness, simplicity, structure—and certainly all these can be commendable. Diffusion doesn’t sound so good, but when we see that diffusion is close to suggestion, expansion, spaciousness, the ideal, complexity, meaning—diffusion doesn’t look so bad. However, it should be stated that a word usually standing for a good quality may have a synonymous word take its place in such a way that a quality is changed to a defect. In the same way as firmness (good) can be changed to rigidity (bad), or tightness (good) can be changed to bareness (bad), so in reverse can diffusion (somewhat bad) be changed to expansion (not so bad), or looseness (definitely bad) changed to “colloquial ease” (rather good).

The opposites are subtle, protean. But they have a plan. Both the protean quality of the opposites and the plan in the opposites deserve mind’s dearest and strictest concern.

In the same way as existence has to be infinite and finite at once, so a work of art must be suggestive and tight at once.

This is what criticism of the arts has said for a long time. —What reality insists on, is what critics may talk about.

Whitman: Nonchalant & Determined

When Whitman came to the American public with his free verse, one of the criticisms made of his work was that it was loose, not tight enough, careless, sprawling, and the like; and such criticism may still be heard. In fact, at this moment, where Whitman is most vulnerable in his work, is in the frail texture of many of the lines in “By Blue Ontario’s Shore” and “Song of the Exposition,” and poems like these—a sizable share of the work as a whole. In 1874, it was felt that Thomas Bailey Aldrich and James Russell Lowell and Richard Henry Stoddard with their well-disposed stanzas and solicitously metrical lines represented tightness to Walt’s nonchalant diffuseness.

Yet it is clear that if the nonchalant Walt were not also the tight and determined and oh-so-careful and right and hard Walt Whitman, he would not as artist be with us. Walt Whitman, at his best, is like Rembrandt and Brahms and Stravinsky and Van Eyck—tight and diffuse at once.

Earlier, I more than hinted that the problem of economy and spaciousness in art is not apart from finite and infinite as philosophical matters of thought. However this is regarded, it is likely more acceptable to look upon the relation of matter and space—a relation somewhat more immediate than that of finite and infinite—as saying something about density and looseness, tightness and diffusion.

Too much matter and too much space or “roominess” can both hurt a work of art. Concreteness by itself or the intangible by itself can both interfere with the effect of a work.

The mind of man desires the touchable as it desires the spaciously significant.

When Somethings Amiss

Faults in the arts fall under the heads of congestion and flimsiness.

Let us take some lines of a poet once thought of highly in America and England: a poet with some important poetic qualities: Cale Young Rice, 1872-1943. One of the poems appearing in Mr. Rice’s Collected Plays and Poems, 1915, is “Star of Achievement.” The poem begins:

Star of Achievement!

Star that arose when man first rose on the earth

And felt within him the Upward Urge of Being;

Star of the ultimate heaven, that of the soul;

Wondrous is thy ascension,

Wondrous thy lifting up of him, thy chosen—

Of man, above all creatures!1

There is something likable in these lines: Mr. Rices popularity in 1910 with the American poetic public was not wholly unfounded. Still, it can be said that there is too much of the infinite in these lines. Too many doves are swarming in too much space. There is a divine flimsiness. This is so because there is too much room between the words and the lines. And, as happens in the territory of the opposites, there is not enough distinction between the words; the words rush on each other too much like water on water, air on air, muslin on muslin. Togetherness and separation are at odds.

Whitman also writes of a star, which in Section 8 of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomd” he calls “orb”:

O western orb sailing the heaven,

Now I know what you must have meant as a month since I walkd,

As I walkd in silence the transparent shadowy night,

As I saw you had something to tell as you bent to me night after night,

As you dropp'd from the sky low down as if to my side, (while the other stars all lookd on).2

So even if Whitman uses the word “orb,” there is earthiness here along with spaciousness; tangibility with the ideal. There are space and distinction among the words. There are heaviness and lightness. The bronze of music is its lightsomeness. The problem of tightness and diffuseness as a poetic matter has been solved by Whitman in “When Lilacs Last” as hardly anywhere else.

The problem of tightness and diffuseness is in all works of art essentially in a similar fashion. Tightness and diffusion are in Debussys La Mer; in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra; in Dostoevskys Crime and Punishment; in Miltons Paradise Lost; in Virgils Aeneid; in the paintings of Giorgione; in the Catullan lyric (here with Latin tightness making for universal suggestion—“good” diffusion).

There Are Rubens & Rembrandt

The problem exists for the artist as a whole being. Fromentin describes Rubens as “a consummate master who restrains himself as much as he is abandoned.”3

It is a commonplace in art history that Rubens and Rembrandt are different, but Fromentin in his noted work on the art of the Low Countries implies that Rubens and Rembrandt had the same problems, though it may seem they solved them in different ways. Rubenss being contained and gorgeous, economic and splendid, is safe in the mind of looking man. Rembrandt went after, with eyes and thought, the splendor of neatness, the factuality of the unlimited, of the infinite in dark and light.

Fromentin says of Rembrandt:

First there is the painter whom I shall call the outward man: clear intellect, rigorous hand, infallible logic, opposed in everything by [the other aspect of Rembrandt,] the romantic genius to whom the worlds praises have been given almost entirely, and sometimes, as I have just told you, a little too quickly.4

And so Rembrandt, like Rubens, had to be exact while his mind moved about freely. Precision here, flight there, precision-and-flight at once, are characteristic of Rubens and Rembrandt as of art itself. We are back to finite and infinite, alias tightness and diffusion.

Fromentin says a good deal of how Rembrandt as artist with a self-given job—also given by others—how Rembrandt technically presented the neatness and the never-ending suggestion of the visible world:

Nature is the thing that directs him. The transformation which he makes things go through is imperceptible, and it would be necessary to come close to an actual object on the canvas to be aware of the craft in this painting that is so delicate and so virile, so skilful and so natural.5

What Rembrandt technically sought for—and otherwise—is still with us. How to see being was Rembrandts problem, Rubenss, Correggios, Yeatss, Michelangelos.

Henri Rousseau: Grandly Gawky

I have just used the names of various artists who saw reality with and without edges, as a dwelling place of dimness and sharpness.

It may be well to look more closely at an artist in much favor now: the grandly gawky Henri Rousseau.

First, there is something clearly “tight” about Rousseau. He is no chiaroscuro man, as Fromentin says Rembrandt was. Rousseau doesn’t go for dim shores, northern mists, the mighty deceptions of twilight. Rousseau is charmingly packed most often, though of course, as artist, he goes after suggestion: the suggestion of large growing things, of contemplative animals, of participating moons.

Through it all, Rousseau represents tightness and suggestion (or diffuseness) as one.

James Johnson Sweeney (Plastic Redirections in 20th Century Painting) writes:

It was this intensity of conception that fused Rousseau's canvases into the tight architectonic units they are—casual and unconsidered as they may seem at first glance....Here [Père Juniet's Cart] Rousseau allowed his intuitions free play to handle the elements as the pictorial organization demanded. The result is an architectonic unification impossible to a camera's non-selective seeing.6

In what Sweeney says, besides the problem of tightness and suggestion, we have words concerning the meaning of Oneness and Manyness, Order and Freedom (expressed by “architectonic” and “free play”).  

All this is as it should be. The infinite and finite are always guests at artistic doings—whether invited or no. They take the form of—among other ways—tightness and diffuseness. Out of the everlasting, we have got the technical. The story of how is a good story; veracious albeit astonishing. 

1 Cale Young Rice, Collected Plays and Poems (NY: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1915), I, 13.
2 Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (NY: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1926), p. 276.
3 Eugène Fromentin, Les Maîtres d’autrefois: Belgique-Hollande (Paris: Librairie Plon, 1902), p. 41. As previously, we substitute a translation for the original French quoted by Mr. Siegel.
4 Ibid., p. 366.
5 Ibid., p. 369.
6 James Johnson Sweeney, Plastic Redirections in 20th Century Painting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934), p. 16