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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1516.—April 24, 2002

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

The Question throughout the World

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue to serialize the lecture Selves Are in Economics, which Mr. Siegel gave on December 18, 1970. And we print too part of a paper that photographer Len Bernstein presented last month at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled "Do Men and Women Have the Same Question about Strength and Tenderness?"

In his lecture Mr. Siegel illustrates, with a oneness of lightness and depth, the tremendous thing he explained in that year: economics based on contempt, on seeing people in terms of how much profit can be gotten out of them, has become inefficient — definitely and irreparably — and people are increasingly clear that they don’t like it. "The profit system of America," he said, "is trying to go on while individual psychology in America is now against the profit system" (TRO 522). That is so in 2002 with even more intensity.

The big question that people throughout the world are in the midst of, whether they know it or not, is: Does this world with its people and objects exist to be known or to be conquered, to be comprehended or to be owned and milked? Aesthetic Realism says clearly: it is to be known. And the deepest purpose of everyone, what we were born for, is to like the world through knowing it. Meanwhile, there is a terrific, opposed desire in each of us, and it has damaged every aspect of human life, from love to economics to international relations. This desire is contempt, "the addition to self through the lessening of something else."

I am going to comment briefly on sentences by Mr. Siegel from an Aesthetic Realism lesson I had at the age of six. Some I have quoted here before; but I speak of them now because the fight within every person, including a child, stands for the fight that is raging on all the continents, and Aesthetic Realism explains it. My mother’s notes of the lesson have Mr. Siegel’s questions often without my answers, but those usually can be surmised.

Here is what he said to me about my grandmother, whom I disliked and saw as not nice to me. These sentences contain the most burning necessity for human beings now:

How do you see your grandmother? Ask how another person feels. The first thing that is necessary to get along with people is to ask what they feel. Do you think your grandmother feels lonely? Maybe when she is not nice to you she doesn’t feel so good herself. If she sometimes does the wrong thing, ask if she feels good.

This desire to know what another person feels is the sine qua non, the irrevocable requisite, if there is to be a world that is safe. And it is monumentally absent. There is anger all over this world; and certainly there are injustices that have to be fought. But the world has reached such a point that unless we want to see, really see, what other people feel, their anger will affect us, come at us in frightening ways.

For example, we need to fight terrorism; but unless we want to comprehend the feelings of people poor and resentful in Riyadh or Amman or Nablus, no amount of weaponry will make us safe. In fact, armed force minus that desire to see what another endures and feels, will only make for more fury.

The Desire to Lessen a Person

Mr. Siegel spoke to me at age six about a purpose I had which made me dislike myself. He said:

We try to have other people happy, but sometimes we want to make them unhappy, too. Did you ever try to make a person angry — move around, take a long time doing something, make out that you don’t listen? Were you ever mean? People try to annoy each other because they feel if they get somebody mad they’re big stuff.

Mr. Siegel was describing an aspect of contempt. Contempt has many forms; but it is always the desire to make someone less as a means of making ourselves more. I wrote last week that the most urgent lesson arising from the horror in Israel/Palestine is that all people need to learn from Aesthetic Realism about contempt, the ordinary contempt that is in all of us. Contempt, the seeing of another as less than oneself, is the cause, on both sides, of the present terrible bloodshed.

As a child, I wanted to see meaning in people and also look down on them. That is the fight within everyone, unseen until Eli Siegel explained it. Unless we learn about and criticize contempt, our desire to lessen another can do incalculable damage, as it is now doing in the Middle East. I love Mr. Siegel for fighting my contempt, teaching me about it, and fighting for that in me equivalent to my intelligence and my very self: my desire to know and like the world. He said at that lesson when I was six: "You are here to learn how to feel about the people you know and the people you might know." That is what all people, including heads of state, need to learn.

What Every Child Deserves

Mr. Siegel said to my parents:

A child wants to feel that the people around her are happy because she is there. A child should feel that the world likes her.

Those words have such deep kindness and comprehension. In their simplicity, they are beautiful as English prose. While about how a child should be thought of, they also have to do with something very tangible. That is, it is the right of every child to have the world show it is for her, likes her, in the most fundamental ways: every child should have enough to eat, have a good home to live in, have sufficient clothing, be able to be fully educated. In fact, every child should come into this world as a true owner of it along with everyone else.

The feeling that each person should have this right is now in people, here and abroad, often unclearly, but insistently. There is much to be distressed about in the world today, but that feeling is something to love and respect and encourage.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Acquisition, Objected To
By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel has been commenting on statements in The International Thesaurus of Quotations, comp. R.T. Tripp (1970).

Of late the Presbyterian Church has surprised Protestantism. The Protestant Church is undergoing the throes of difference even more than the Catholics, and even Judaism is undergoing the throes of difference, dissent. Recently there was a statement issued by the Presbyterian Church in America, and it is quoted in this book. It’s a prayer, and it is here under the head of "Churchgoing":

Forgive us for turning our churches into private clubs; for loving familiar hymns and religious feelings more than we love You; for pasting stained glass on our eyes and our ears to shut out the cry of the hungry and the hurt of the world. [United Presbyterian Church, Litany for Holy Communion (1968)]

What the church has been doing is one of the reasons for the leaving of the profit system. The church / Cannot forever / Leave humanity / In the lurch.

Then, Euripides is quoted again. It seems he looked on money doubtfully from an ethical point of view. This is from Euripides’ Hecuba, circa 425 bc, translated by William Arrowsmith, who is a current translator:

No man on earth is truly free, / All are slaves of money or necessity.

That that should be in the fifth century is something to know.

A person who began the present ecology movement, the present tremendous indignation with pollution of any kind, is a recent Secretary of the Interior [1961-9], Stewart L. Udall. What he calls "the quiet crisis" in his book of 1963 is still going on, and, whatever else, since pollution questions industrial privileges and even property rights, it is part of our continuing theme. Udall is quoting Aldo Leopold:

We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. [Aldo Leopold, quoted in Stewart L. Udall’s The Quiet Crisis (1963)]

That way of seeing is going on, and companies are surprised they can’t use the Hudson the old way. The book identifies Leopold (1886-1948) as "American forester and conservationist."

Another quotation is from a person who shook up people some years ago, Philip Wylie. In his writing he complained pungently, boisterously, recklessly, entertainingly many people thought. And so his book Generation of Vipers (1942) was read by many. It is quoted from, under the head of "Corruption":

The first gold star a child gets in school for the mere performance of a needful task is its first lesson in graft.

A gold star would be given to children wrongly and make them think that the purpose of memorizing a line of poetry was to get a gold star. You there, infant with the gold star, / How far off from literature you are. It’s the way the Army has come to feel it did better in Vietnam than it did — because there was an interdistribution of medals. A general would give a colonel a medal, the colonel would give one, and in this way everyone felt they had won the war. As life teaches us, there is more than one way of being comfortable.

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Can Men Be Strong & Tender?
By Len Bernstein

Throughout the centuries men have had the question "How can I be strong without becoming an unfeeling brute?" and the question "How can I be tender yet not feel I’m being taken advantage of?" I am grateful beyond reckoning to Aesthetic Realism for explaining this pain in my life and changing it.

As a child, despite my allergies to cats and dogs, I was impelled to bring home strays. I wanted to be a veterinarian when I grew up and tenderly care for animals. But this desire was very separate in my mind from what I saw as being strong: having a powerful physique and appearing cool and unruffled.

Often, when a person said something that affected me, I consciously tried to stop the muscles in my face from moving, and thought a stony expression gave me an air of mystery and distinction. Meanwhile, I felt cold, felt people and things didn’t mean enough to me. I didn’t know that my idea of manhood had contempt in it, and so in pursuing it I was really weakening myself. In his lecture Poetry and Strength, Mr. Siegel explains:

People think that if you are insensitive you are strong: that if somebody, for instance, were talking and saying things and falling on his knees, and you looked there just as if you were two hundred pounds of Carrara marble, you’d be strong. All I’d say is, you’d be dead. [TRO 1022]

"Shyness" Can Be Hardness

When I was in third grade, there was a girl I liked very much. I wanted to buy her a present and was excited as I picked out an inexpensive little camera. But after I put it in her hand and said, "This is for you," I just walked away, thinking she might not appreciate my gift. I never spoke to her again.

I considered myself "shy"; and I love the revolutionary way Aesthetic Realism sees this subject. A shy person is strategic with the opposites of strength and tenderness. He may seem gentle, quiet. But inside he has a fierce contempt for what he sees as an unappreciative world: "I’m better than all those people who aren’t bright enough to recognize my fine qualities, and they don’t deserve to know what I feel."

As a teenager, I built myself up by studying karate, a style known as Go-Ju, which in Japanese means Hard-Soft. I enjoyed practicing many of the techniques because, though I didn’t know it then, they put together hardness and softness, strength and grace, and met my hope to see the world as having a likable form. But I also thought these techniques should be enough to dazzle any woman and have her fall at my feet, and this conceit made me deeply unsure of myself. Once, following a karate exhibition at a local college, I sat silently next to a woman I was interested in, feeling she should talk to me first. And I said to myself with a mingling of anger, self-disgust, and hopelessness, "I’m a black belt, for God’s sake — why isn’t that enough?!"

Meanwhile, I didn’t want anyone to know I was unsure of myself. Instead (even as I told myself I was shy), I would often pontificate on subjects I knew little about, and act supremely confident. Years later, I was to meet the understanding I yearned for as I had the honor to study in classes taught by Eli Siegel. Once in a class, commenting about something that concerned me, I tried to sum up what I felt with an air of finality, saying, "And the last thing I want to say is..." Mr. Siegel said firmly and kindly, "Not [the] ‘last thing,’ Mr. Bernstein. You’re in the midst of finding things out. When do you think you will be finished knowing yourself? Tomorrow morning, afternoon, evening?" I love Mr. Siegel for wanting me to see the honest grandeur in trying to find out who we really are. What he taught me changed my life.

A Need That Makes Us Strong

Men have seen it as strong to feel, "I won’t be had by anyone — no commitments or ties for me!" When I met a woman I liked, I thought I wanted to know everything about her, but I didn’t realize I also felt that giving my thought to her took time away from something more important — me. Soon I would begin looking for pretexts to stop seeing her.

I learned that a need that has us in a better relation to the world, that has us honestly like the world, is a need we can be proud of, because it makes us stronger. And as I studied how this was true, in the lives of people, in history, in literature, what I thought would never happen did: I came to have large, proud emotions, including for the woman I’m so grateful became my wife, Harriet Bernstein. And I’m very fortunate that my Aesthetic Realism education continues.

I love Harriet dearly for her desire to have me be a stronger, kinder man. This includes her criticism, which is deep and sometimes very funny. Once, when I wasn’t listening to what she was saying, she pointed to one of my ears and said sweetly, "You know, this isn’t a decoration; it’s an instrument."

In an Aesthetic Realism class I was fortunate to be asked by Mr. Siegel a question every man needs to hear: "Do you believe gratitude is a strong masculine virtue, or is it an intermittent semi-weakness?" Mr. Siegel’s understanding of humanity, of me, was powerful and subtle, a magnificent oneness of exactitude and compassion, the very qualities every man needs. And I thank him with all my heart.  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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First Thursday of each month, 6:30 PM: Seminars with speakers from Aesthetic Realism faculty

Third Saturday of each month, 8 PM: Aesthetic Realism Dramatic Presentations
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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

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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