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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1693. — May 30, 2007
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Spontaneity & Plan—in Art, Ourselves, a Nation

Dear Unknown Friends: 

his issue is about the opposites of spontaneity and plan—opposites everyone is confused by. We make lists, want our lives to be orderly—yet we also want to feel untrammeled, say and do whatever comes to our mind. People berate themselves: "Why didn't I think things through instead of being so impulsive? Look what I got myself into!" but also, "Oh, why can't I let go, feel free, be spontaneous, the way those other people are?"

     We are serializing The Opposites Theory, a work Eli Siegel wrote in the late 1950s. It illustrates, with scholarship and vividness, the understanding of art on which Aesthetic Realism is based. He is the critic who defined successfully what art is—what every instance of real art has in common with every other: art is always "the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual." We have come to chapter 7, "Spontaneity & Contrivance as One."

     Let us look a little at how that thing which Aesthetic Realism shows to be the weakener of mind—contempt— interferes with those opposites as they exist in our lives.

Two Kinds of Spontaneity, Two Kinds of Plan

here are two sources of spontaneity in everyone. This is something not understood before Aesthetic Realism, and the various psychologists and counselors don't understand it. A child, seeing a kitten, can spontaneously say "Ooooh !, " widen his eyes, smile with a sudden sense of wonder and beauty. The child can also spontaneously want to grab the kitten, scare it, have power over it. The first instance of spontaneity comes from the desire to like the world—the deepest desire of a person. The second comes from the desire, huge in everyone, for contempt, "the addition to self through the lessening of something else."

     Those are the two sources, also, for our deliberation, planning, arranging. We can want to "think something through," try to see, look carefully, for the most beautiful and necessary of reasons: because we want to be fair to a situation or person or fact. But we can also plan in order to deceive; arrange facts to suit ourselves; plot so as to put something over on others.

     In art, both the impulsion and the careful work are in behalf of justice to reality. In life, too much, spontaneity can be conceit—the feeling, "I don't have to think about what things deserve. Any response that comes from me must be correct!" And in life, too much, plan can be trickery, deviousness. It is contempt which has made these opposites often messy and ugly in people's lives. It is the desire to be just to reality which makes them one in art—and can make them one in us.

In a Nation

pontaneity and plan affect us nationally. Right now, millions of Americans are against a war they once cheered for. There is now a feeling in Americans, rightly or wrongly, "Somebody put something over on us—the reason for this war!" Yet it happens that, in order for the Iraq war to take place—with all its deaths, maimings, torture, private contractors, re-deployed troops, and profits for certain companies—there had to be a particular convergence of contrivance and spontaneity.

     My purpose is not to discuss the nature of the work done by government officials to justify a US invasion of Iraq. But what everyone agrees on is that there was a certain consciousness, arrangement, worked-out presentation, an elaborateness in bringing together "facts" and "evidence." The quality of that arrangement is now being looked at more and more critically.

     Meanwhile, what is not talked about much, and needs to be, is the spontaneous welcoming by Americans of what press and politicians presented to them. Such spontaneity has been frequent in history, and politicians have known how to appeal to it. People can prefer not to think, not to ask deeply what is just, but to embrace swiftly something they see as making them important and superior. The contemptuous spontaneity in welcoming war has this logic behind it: "If I (or my country) can resoundingly defeat something, I'm wonderful—and therefore need be unsure of myself no longer." That is the unspoken logic which warmongering has always appealed to. And the appeal is so attractive that a person doesn't want to start nitpicking about who one's enemy is or isn't, or what the facts are.

     So while Americans rightly or wrongly feel they were deceived, we need to see that there was a desire to be deceived as a means of feeling rapidly justified and superior, and of not having to question oneself. A certain plan found a spontaneous welcome—with so much agony and death ensuing.

We Can Learn

t is a beautiful fact that spontaneity can be educated. The more we learn how to criticize contempt, including our own, and how to think about the world, people, and ourselves justly, the more our spontaneous responses will also be to our deep liking. I have seen that through the study of Aesthetic Realism, both a person's logic and her freshness, both her thoughtfulness and her freedom—increase, thrive, work together!

ELLEN REISS, Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism

Spontaneity & Contrivance as One
By Eli Siegel

rt has always been spontaneity and contrivance. It was so in Pompeii and it is so in action painting. We fling as we study. We have impulses as we ponder. We have an unconscious as we know. There is material in us unlooked at. It might be good to look at it.

     It would be fairly correct to say that art is contrived spontaneity or spontaneous contriving. At least, art can't do without spontaneity and it can't do without contrivance. According to the Theory of Opposites, we spontaneously get glimpses of what is "contrived" or just or orderly in us; and we work in an orderly way with the material in us as unformed, as insistent, as spontaneous. There is not only a relation between the spontaneous and contrived in us; there is a constant motion between them, an unceasing reciprocity in manyness.

     The spontaneous artist hardly began with Jackson Pollock. Spontaneity has been an ageless possession of life itself—of man, of what is around. Existence without impulse, the shooting forth spontaneously into space or anywhere, would be miserably deprived. You can say, resoundingly: Existence is spontaneity. But within the spontaneity is a plan, order. When Whitman in his preface to Leaves of Grass talks of the "leaning sunflower," he implies there is some sense to the leaning of the sunflower. The leaping of a wave is not unreasonable. The swaying of a twig, spontaneous as it is, has in it a touch of law.

The Renaissance Had Spontaneity

he Renaissance had some spontaneous people. Notable among these is the Venetian Tintoretto. Vasari, writing while Tintoretto was still working, shows his astonishment at the impulsiveness of the remembered Venetian:

He surpassed himself with new and extraordinary inventions, the creations of his intellect, and worked at hazard, without design, as if to show that this art is a trifle. He sometimes left his finished sketches so gross that the pencil-strokes possess more vigour than design and judgment, and seem to have been made by chance. He has painted practically every kind of picture in fresco and portraits in oils at every price, and in this way he has done and is still doing most of his painting in Venice.1

Vasari sounds a bit alarmed; and it has often happened that the artist who is opulently, speedily, surprisingly spontaneous has alarmed the man of sobriety and measure. In this way, Balzac—somewhat like Tintoretto— alarmed Sainte-Beuve; as did Dumas and Eugène Sue, writers different from Balzac, but similar in their being fearfully busy and abundant in showing it.

       Tintoretto clearly was spontaneous and various. Still, it should be seen that if that was all he was, he would not be as alive as he is. We don't go with Ruskin, who described Tintoretto's Paradise as "by far the most precious work of art of any kind whatsoever, now existing in the world."2 Ruskin is not a hero of criticism in these severe days, but without Ruskin we can see that there is much composing work, much thought in the Paradise and other paintings of the industrious Venetian.

      Spontaneity and composition, impulse and arduous thought are at one in Tintoretto. In Tintoretto, impulse and arduous thought are at one in keeping with him; in other artists, impulse and thought are at one in keeping with them.

The Art of India

The art of India has often been described as a whole in terms a good deal like those Vasari used about Tintoretto. We may use some phrases or sentences from the fairly authoritative L'Art indien, l'art chinois, published in Paris under the direction of Henry Martin. The specific writer, whose name is not given, says in the section "General Qualities":

Originality, variety, mysticism are the three general qualities of Indian art. One must demand of it neither order nor clearness. One observes in the architecture a sort of theatrical phantasmagoria, which is not devoid of seduction. Indian architecture is of an originality which sometimes affirms itself with such extremity that it resembles a defiance to logic and good sense....As to the ornamental sculpture, it seems animated by a sort of frenzy.3

      Well, if there is a " frenzy" in Indian art and "a defiance to logic," where's the art? Apparently it's there, or the handbook mentioned would not have been written. Consequently, there must be something besides "frenzy" and "a defiance to logic" in the Hindu work. That something is composition—nevertheless; some order—nevertheless; thought—nevertheless. Composition, order, thought can happen differently, but they happen.

      The thought in Indian art is complex, multitudinous, beyond a line; but thought about a jungle is as much thought as thought about one nymph and one pillar in the Peloponnesus.

      Reason itself has its excesses. Intellect can be melodramatic and bewilderingly heterogeneous. If it is that, intellect resembles Indian art.

The Unconscious & Reason

he unconscious is related to spontaneity. I don't think that Sigmund Freud was adequate on the unconscious; yet while Freud did not give the unconscious all it has, while he saw it narrowly, he did see it as having direction. When the unconscious represses something, it quite clearly has a purpose; and where there is a purpose, and an omission to attain that purpose—the purpose being "repression"—there is thought. This is what Freud himself says in the following sentence:

I know that an unregulated stream of thoughts, devoid of directing ideas, can occur as little in the realm of hysteria and paranoia as in the formation or solution of dreams.4

Certainly, if there are "directing ideas" in the thought taking place in "the realm of hysteria and paranoia," there must be a closeness between the unconscious and reason, a closeness between spontaneity and order. Freud is saying, in fact, that in their terms hysteria and paranoia have order, go for it. The implication of this is large.

     Freud says, too:

The most complex mental operations are possible without the coöperation of consciousness—a truth which we have had to learn anyhow from every psychoanalysis of a patient suffering from hysteria or obsessions. [P. 529]

Freud is writing of the pathological, but if "complex mental operations" can take place without consciousness in the mind of a sadly awry person, certainly reason and the unconscious can be at one elsewhere; that is, be present at the same time, and work for one objective, rise from a common source.

Shakespeare, on Nature & Art

nce, the unconscious was included under "nature"—the unconscious in its central sense. People had a way some hundreds of years ago of seeing "nature" as busily working in the minds of men and elsewhere to produce good situations, handsome results— and also, as with Lady Macbeth and Richard III, some bad ones.

     Among the people who long ago saw nature as reasonable, as having a plan, as being at one with art, was Shakespeare. Perhaps the most noted reconciliation of nature and art, spontaneity and consciousness, impulse and plan is in these lines from The Winter's Tale—Polixenes is talking to Perdita, who has been giving her mind to flowers. [The word mean in the passage means method.]

                             Say there be;
Yet Nature is made better by no mean
But Nature makes that mean; so, over that art
Which you say adds to Nature, is an art
That Nature makes. [4.4]

We are in the grand world of Shakespearean verse and Perdita and flowers, but these Elizabethan or Jacobean lines say something cohering with what Freud said later. Plan and spontaneity, for good or evil, for a personal or impersonal cause, exist at once and explain each other. And the words of Polixenes comment valuably on Tintoretto and on the abandonment of Indian art hundreds of years ago.

Goethe Sustains Shakespeare

Goethe, in a sonnet of 1802, "Natur und Kunst," sustains Shakespeare as to the oneness of nature and art, spontaneity and order. Goethe in German uses the same words Shakespeare uses in English—nature and art. The relations of Natur und Kunst centrally mattered with the German romantics; and they mattered with English, French, Italian, Russian romantics. (Pushkin and Lermontov's lives commented on Natur und Kunst.)

     I quote some lines from Goethe's sonnet:

And both seem equally to draw me to them...
And when we first, in considered hours,
Have bound ourselves, with spirit and eagerness, to art,
Nature, free, can once more glow in our hearts...

Who wishes to be great, must gather himself precisely;
The master first shows himself in restriction,
And only law can give us freedom.5

     It will be seen from Goethe's lines that the problem of spontaneity and contrivance, impulse and thought, is related to the permeating problem of Freedom and Discipline. It is likely that if—as Goethe says—law becomes one with "nature, free" when art is honored, spontaneity and contrivance will also be in a state of oneness.

Walt Whitman Too

Whitman found art in the spontaneous ways of animals and plants and all else. If there was anybody who saw spontaneity and plan as one, it was the author of "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." Here is what he says in the preface to Leaves of Grass:

To carry on the heave of impulse and pierce intellectual depths and give all subjects their articulations are powers neither common nor very uncommon. But to speak in literature with the perfect rectitude and insouciance of the movements of animals and the unimpeachableness of the sentiment of trees in the woods and grass by the roadside is the flawless triumph of art.6

These words are Shakespearean, Goethean, Coleridgean, but they have in them the 1855 Whitman quality, the Whitman historical specificity.

     The poet blithely goes on unifying the way of the poet with graygulls, blood horses, sunflowers, moon and sun. And these are reality's successes as spontaneity and form as one.

You shall not contemplate the flight of the graygull over the bay or the mettlesome action of the blood horse or the tall leaning of sunflowers on their stalk or the appearance of the sun journeying through heaven or the appearance of the moon afterward with any more satisfaction than you shall contemplate him.

     Yet Whitman was interested in prosody. Words well arranged were along with the "leaning sunflower" in bright, thoughtful reality.

     The musical poetic line, the well-made poetic line, in Whitman's mind went with "the appearance of the sun."

     It could not be otherwise, for in accordance with the Theory of Opposites, what art sees by means of an individual, is Reality already being, having, and showing Spontaneity and Contrivance. And if reality shows Spontaneity and Contrivance, every instance of reality does.    

1 Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, & Architects (NY: Everyman's Library, 1927), IV, 23.
2 John Ruskin, The Relation between Michael Angelo and Tintoret ( London , 1872), as quoted in Esther Singleton, Great Pictures (NY: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1902), p. 112.
3L'Art indien, l'art chinois (Paris: Flammarion, 1928), p. 5. The passage was quoted by Mr. Siegel in the original French. In the present publication, a translation has been substituted.
4The Interpretation of Dreams, Chap. VII, in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud (NY: Modern Library, 1938), p. 483.
5This literal translation is by Mr. Siegel.

6Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.

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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Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
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Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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