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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1691. — May 2, 2007
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Ugliness, Beauty, & Appreciation

Dear Unknown Friends: 

e have been serializing a work Eli Siegel wrote in the late 1950s: The Opposites Theory. Vivid, rich in scholarship, it illustrates a principle central to Aesthetic Realism, which he was the philosopher to state: "In reality opposites are one; art shows this." Chapter 6 is about the opposites of Beauty and Ugliness; and we publish the first half of that chapter here.

     Since Mr. Siegel wrote The Opposites Theory, art has included the ugly, the repellent, even the terrifying, more and more—as he said it would. And the question arises: If a writer or painter or filmmaker can deal with the ugly in such a way that art comes to be, does that fact say anything about ourselves? Can we look at what may be amiss, unjust, selfish, ethically wrong in ourselves? Can we look at it so truly that the procedure is artistic and the upshot is beautiful: a greater pride, a better self? Yes! The study of Aesthetic Realism enables that to happen in people's lives every day.

     Recently, a letter came to this periodical that is really an asking, How can one look beautifully and accurately at something not beautiful in the human self? So I'll comment on it a little here.

How Should We See Appreciation?

he letter writer, whom I do not know, is a physician, and he describes in some detail "two interactions," requesting that I discuss them from the point of view of Aesthetic Realism. He presents the situations theoretically. But they're about a subject which has made for confusion, discomfort, anger, and shame in people every day, and which I'm sure affects the letter writer, as it does everyone, in a way that's not just theoretical. Meanwhile, the subject itself, despite the trouble about it, is one of the loveliest in the world: appreciation.

     Here, in an abbreviated form, is the first instance the letter writer gives: You go out of your way to hold a door for a person you don't know. However, the person simply proceeds to walk through it—without any acknowledgment or thanks.

     Then, the second instance: An acquaintance speaks to you about a financial problem that distresses him, and you recommend a financial professional whom you value. Months later, you learn that this professional did indeed rescue him from his difficulty—yet the acquaintance has never told you so, never expressed gratitude to you.

     The letter writer asks: Should you expect to be thanked, or simply be gratified because you did what seemed right? And he asks how Aesthetic Realism principles explain these situations.

Always, Self & World

o I begin with this principle, stated by Eli Siegel—"All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves"—and say that the biggest opposites in everyone's life are Self and World. The constant mistake of everyone is to be disproportionate about these opposites: to make ourselves, and what we think should come to us, more important than what other things and people deserve. That is so as to this matter of appreciation: we're usually much more concerned with whether we're appreciated than in whether we ourselves appreciate rightly.

    Certainly it would have been good for the people the letter writer describes to have shown their appreciation. But one ordinary form the disproportion between self and world takes is: an individual may be so involved in something which concerns him, that he's not much aware of another person—including that other person's holding a door for him. Or an individual may be so troubled about something, including something financial, that he has made the existence of someone else—even someone who assisted him—dim.

    It's also true that we can feel keenly someone's lack of thanks to us, yet not be interested in giving full reality to the tumult within that person. We don't want to see as real the fact that he's affected by ever so much besides us, that he is a continuing drama of hopes and fears.

The Principle of Contempt

o we come to another Aesthetic Realism principle, stated this way by Eli Siegel: "The greatest danger or temptation of man is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not himself; which lessening is Contempt." Contempt is the beginning of all injustice. And it's very easy to have: by simply giving less reality to something or someone than we give ourselves. Our contempt causes that disproportion between what's coming to ourselves and what other things deserve. For someone not to express thanks is often contempt. But it's also contempt if we're more interested in being thanked than in understanding a person.

     The pain about this subject is terrific. All over America, wives are resentful because they feel their husbands don't appreciate them, and husbands are resentful because they feel their wives don't appreciate them. Both have a point. But both usually make what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the terrible mistake of being quite uninterested in where don't I appreciate sufficiently? Where have I not wanted to see, value, know?

     Bluntly: we should be much more worried about whether we ourselves value truly than whether we're appreciated. How much we like ourselves depends on how just we are—how authentically we value things. If we're not just, we can get all the "appreciation" in the world, and we still won't like ourselves.

     Here are some further ethical and aesthetic points arising from the communication I received:

What Was Going On in Him?

he man, told of, who had financial distress—what was going on in him? Was he so embarrassed and pained, that when his situation became better he wanted to "put it all behind him," forget everything about it, including someone who'd advised him? Therefore he did not speak further about it with that advising person? Such a state of mind may not be praiseworthy, but it is something to want to understand.

     If we're useful to someone, what should be our purpose: to have a good effect—or to be liked, admired, thanked? It should be the first. Meanwhile, if we do something good and another person is ungrateful—does his ingratitude hurt him? A phase of our insufficient depth about people is: we're generally not interested in whether someone's unjust valuing of us hurts the person himself. And it does. In his great 1950 lecture Aesthetic Realism and Appreciation, Mr. Siegel explains: "When a person doesn't like himself, one of the chief reasons is that he has failed to appreciate what he should appreciate" (TRO 672).

     As I said, I don't know the person who wrote the letter I'm discussing, and so I don't know how much and in what ways what I'll now describe applies to him. It happens that we can go after feeling unappreciated as a means of evading something we are asking of ourselves: that we be fairer to people and the world in all its largeness. We can do favors for others, and yet have thoughts about people which we're ashamed of. We've looked down on people; we've wanted them to trip up. We don't like ourselves for this. And unless we want, and know how, to ask courageously, "Am I proud of how I see people?"—we'll go after evidence that we're unappreciated.

The Economy Is There

ince the letter writer is a physician, I must mention something else too. The profit system at the basis of our present economy muddles profoundly the way every person sees others and feels he or she is seen by them. To look at one's fellow humans in terms of how much profit one can make from them is contempt. And all over America people know they're looked at that way, and also feel impelled to see others that way. In the medical field the trouble is huge.

     To want to be of tremendous use to a person—to use oneself to have a person be healthy, even to have the person live—and at the same time be in such a position that one inevitably thinks about how much money one will make from the person: this affects doctors very much, and more than they see. It can intensify a tumult around the question, How do I see other people and how do they see me?

     Eli Siegel once described Aesthetic Realism as "a course in honest world appreciation" (TRO 672). That is the course every person most wants to take, because it is also a course in how, honestly, to like ourselves.

ELLEN REISS, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Ugliness & Beauty in Oneness
By Eli Siegel

he world doesn't seem to be all of a piece, for while the handsome and sublime are in it—mountain peaks still go towards the skies, towards sunrises and sunsets—it is also quite observable that the misshapen, the broken, the ugly, the disgusting, the repulsive, the unendurable are there. The world seems to be an indefinite, endless compound of the ugly and pretty, the abominable and the beautiful. In philosophic terms, the world is not only Order but Disorder; not only Law but Unnerving Caprice; (or, getting back to the strictly philosophic,) not only A Priori but A Posteriori.

     At this moment, the abidingly abstract is of the universe as a rusty forgotten pin is. It is arresting, this.

     Art, being reality shown as it wholly is, has had to keep up. Consequently, while art has searched for the beautiful, it has included the ugly. The symmetrical alone has not been hunted for; hunted, too, has been the judiciously asymmetrical. And deep within man has been the feeling that the ugly and beautiful were closer than they seemed; that, perhaps, they were serving the same thing; that they—the ugly and beautiful—were of one reality stock.

     Thought of how ugliness shows beauty is with us now, intensely, in many places. Beckett, Genêt, Soutine are three contemporary examples of the courting by art of the ugly. There are many others.

     Summarily: the history of art and the history of art criticism contain a tendency to join the pleasant and unpleasant, the serene and painful, the soothing and unsettling: beauty and ugliness. The tendency to join beauty and ugliness is, according to the Theory of Opposites, based on the deep fact that they are one.

The Composed Assertion of Ugliness

eauty is the composed assertion of ugliness, as the number 1 is the composed assertion of 2/17, 1/3, 1/51, 1/2, 1/34; for 1 is, in its serenity, 102/102. Ugliness has to do with the fragmentation, fractionality, brokenness, vicissitude, subtraction, division, addition, multiplication, alteration within beauty as a whole, or one. However this may be, it is clear that art has had in it a tendency to bring the ideal and the grotesque together, the "perfect" and the imperfect, the orderly and the disorderly.

      Notable in the history of the making one of beauty and ugliness is the essay by Charles Lamb on Hogarth1— which appeared in The Reflector of 1811. Lamb doesn't go as far—hardly—as what we can see today, but there are beginnings in his essay: beginnings presented consciously.

     In the relation of beauty and ugliness, we should see the relation of the serious and the ludicrous. The serious, of course, is not exactly what beauty is, but there is something comely—not deformed—in the serious. Classic tragedy is serious, sad; but mighty orderly. As soon as, with Elizabethan tragedy, with Shakespeare conspicuously, the comic got into tragedy, there was a dent in what forbade seriousness and laughter to be together, in what rejected the keeping company of the orderly and disorderly. (Beauty is as much a dent in what is denied as it is a presentation of the permitted. As in mathematics, the negative is present in beauty.)

     The gravedigger in Hamlet is an important figure in the making of the Tragic and Laughable one, in the making of Symmetry and Asymmetry, Beauty and Ugliness one.

     Retrieving Lamb. In the essay "On the Genius and Character of Hogarth," there is this sentence:

In the scene in Bedlam, which terminates the Rake's Progress, we find the same assortment of the ludicrous with the terrible.2

At this point, it should be noted that one of the aspects of romanticism is the getting closer of the high and low, the mighty and "unimportant," the grand and silly, the magnificent and grotesque. We find this in Wordsworth's dealings with donkeys and idiot boys and porringers; in Scott's getting in of queer, dazed, disorderly figures in his novels, like Dugald Dalgetty, Dandie Dinmont, Meg Merrilies, and many more; in some of Coleridge's subjects and ways. And we find the romantic honoring of the low and unshapely in the criticism of Lamb, Coleridge, Hazlitt, and Hunt.

     Constantly in Lamb's criticism is the restoration of the forgotten unhandsome. In the sentence I have just quoted, which finds an artistic kinship between the ludicrous and the terrible, a way of romantic criticism is to be seen.

Like Imagination Anywhere

amb writes with intensity of that work of Hogarth having the somewhat indecorous title of Gin Lane. Of this print, Lamb says, after comparing Hogarth with Poussin:

There is more of imagination in it—that power which draws all things to one,—which makes things animate and inanimate, beings with their attributes, subjects and their accessories, take one colour, and serve to one effect. Every thing in the print, to use a vulgar expression, tells. [Pp. 95-96]

Gin Lane, or no, Lamb says imagination here is like imagination anywhere. Imagination couples the low and high. We don't have to agree with Lamb as estimator to see that there was in his critical purpose, critical impulse, that which lessened the distinction between the comely and the improper.

    According to Lamb, the comic can be used deeply or superficially; and when the comic is used deeply, why, the comic is in the field of the important, the beautiful. The comic, like other things, has its aesthetic gradations.

But merriment and infelicity, ponderous crime and feather-light vanity, like twiformed births, disagreeing complexions of one intertexture, perpetually unite to shew forth motley spectacles to the world. Then it is that the poet or painter shews his art, when in the selection of these comic adjuncts he chooses such circumstances as shall relieve, contrast with, or fall into, without forming a violent opposition to, his principal object. Who sees not that the Grave-digger in Hamlet, the Fool in Lear, have a kind of correspondency to, and fall in with, the subjects which they seem to interrupt? [Pp. 99-100]

Two Ways with the Comic

he comic, Lamb sees as mattering, as a mental force in the world. There is a noble way of seeing the comic, a profound way of seeing the ludicrous. And there is a way not honoring sufficiently the idea of the comic. Lamb compares Hogarth's prints to the "droll productions" of Bunbury:

But in all of them will be found something to distinguish them from the droll productions of Bunbury and others. They have this difference, that we do not merely laugh at, we are led into long trains of reflection by them. [P. 100]

And then Lamb, writing of Hogarth's faces, is passionately philosophic:

They are permanent abiding ideas. Not the sports of nature, but her necessary eternal classes. [P. 101]

     I have mentioned the tendency in romantic criticism to honor the low, disorderly, unseemly in art. It is interesting that in this essay, to sustain his approach to Hogarth, Lamb quotes a passage from Coleridge's The Friend. In Coleridge's dealing with Rabelais, Don Quixote, and Shakespeare, enough can be found to make it clear that the Coleridgean criticism wishes to honor the unshapely, unsymmetrical, unlooked for and low in the world and thought.

     The art of today has gone beyond Lamb and Coleridge and Hazlitt in their approach to form and disorder. Romantic critical principles are, however, still alive, still essentially serviceable. The questions that Lamb and Coleridge raised as to why the out-of-bounds and disorderly are part of the power of Shakespeare and all art, are—in an earlier form—the question of today. Today the question has taken the form, How can the personally repulsive, the disgustingly fearful, become art, be at one with structure, design, accuracy, aesthetic consequence? Many painters, sculptors, writers of verse, dramatists are busy with this problem. We have domineering ladies with erysipelas, syphilitic Southern idiot boys, cripples of all kinds acting as tragic chorus, the affirmation of visceral complaints, philosophic lodgments in ash cans, freezing homicides, multitudinous, desperate and unappealing—often—sex, dermatological mishaps, death and death, vacuity, conqueringly oppressive trivia; all the panoply and shock and weariness of ugliness let loose. But art can be about always.    

1 William Hogarth (1697-1764) is best known for his satirical paintings and engravings. -Ed.
2 The Works in Prose and Verse of Charles and Mary Lamb, ed. Thomas Hutchinson ( Oxford University Press, n.d.), I, 93.
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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