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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1698. — August 8, 2007
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

The Ease & Difficulty We're Looking For

Dear Unknown Friends: 

his issue contains chapter 12 of The Opposites Theory, a rich, vivid, scholarly work that Eli Siegel wrote in the late 1950s. He is the critic who showed what is in common among the artworks of all times, places, genres, and styles—who showed what art as such is. Art, always, "is the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual." In chapter 12 he is writing about the opposites of Difficulty and Ease.

     And there is that other aspect of Aesthetic Realism, which is not so much present in The Opposites Theory, but on which I've been commenting in this serialization: Mr. Siegel's great showing that the human self is an aesthetic situation. We have the opposites that are in every instance of art, but so often they are not one in us: they fight; we shuttle between them; we play one off against the other. This bad aesthetics in us makes for pain, foolishness, cruelty, loneliness, self-dislike—diverse misery and meanness. Our need to put opposites together is an inexpungible need, and we are truly ourselves in proportion to how much we are trying to honor it.

     So, what of ease and difficulty, ease and effort, in us? There is nothing, it seems, we want more than to take it easy, and have things simply go our way. Yet we also want life to be interesting—and it won't be interesting unless there's some difficulty. A baseball game in which your team wins effortlessly, with no struggle at all, is a dull game. A person who feels right now that all he wants is to lie on the beach and have someone bring him occasional refreshments, is also a person who will want to go to the movies and see an intense adventure film, complete with struggles, difficulties to surmount, hairbreadth escapes, painful (delightfully painful) uncertainties.

An Ordinary & Huge Contempt

hroughout this serialization, I have been describing ways that contempt interferes with the opposites in us. Contempt is the "disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world," and Aesthetic Realism shows it to be the weakener of our minds, and the cause of all injustice. In terms of Ease and Effort, the largest form of contempt in everyone is: we want other people to be easy to understand and to do as we please—we feel we shouldn't have to think about what goes on in the self of another, we shouldn't have to put forth that effort which is the desire to know and to keep on knowing. In all its ordinariness, this feeling is immensely ugly.

     Mostly, the revulsion toward the work of thinking is something which isn't conscious in us; yet it is there. When someone does something we don't like, the tendency is to get angry fast, not try to comprehend. After all, to be angry is easy; to comprehend is difficult. And if we're angry we can feel superior, while if we're trying to know, we have to feel a bit humble.

     This contemptuous sense that people—and reality itself—are not to be known by us but to give us our way, is an international matter too. It has made for war. Throughout history, a nation has mobilized its army, destroyed the homes, earth, and persons of another land, caused its own soldiers to be maimed and killed, all because the leaders of that nation and also its citizenry saw thinking about the feelings of persons elsewhere as 1) unnecessary, 2) unattractively arduous, 3) an interference with one's own glib supremacy.

Ease & Difficulty Are around Love

ontempt for that effort which is thought is very much present as people look for love. And it is why love so often fares ill. Let's take Tammy and Craig. They both feel the world is a difficult place, filled with situations they don't like thinking about and people who don't make them important enough and whom they don't understand. Without knowing it, Tammy is hoping to meet someone through whom she can wipe out a difficult world. She hopes that in his arms and through his praise she can feel supreme and can stop having to think about all those dull, mean people and those annoying happenings. Craig has a similar hope. They meet, through an Internet dating website. For a while they have that blissful ease they yearned for and called love: the ease of kicking out, and making each other superior to, a puzzling world.

     But soon, Tammy and Craig become angry with each other. Each feels the other doesn't want to understand him or her—and both are right. Because Tammy has used Craig to evade the need to think about reality and people, she also doesn't want to think about the reality which is in Craig. She'll caress him, cook for him, flatter him, cry over him, be jealous when he looks at someone else. But she doesn't want to know who Craig really is—the Craig who comes from the world she resents, whose thoughts and feelings are about it, who's related to it all the time.

     In his lecture Aesthetic Realism and Love, Mr. Siegel explains: "Love is most often seen as a kind of compact security. It is not seen, as it should be, as an agreement to know" (TRO 554). If we find knowing people a dull difficulty, we won't find it attractive to know a particular person. We'll see him as existing to make life adoringly easy for us. We'll collaborate with him in looking down on the world. Then we'll both come to feel, "He/she doesn't want to know who I really am, what goes on inside of me!" That is what has happened to Tammy and Craig. Sometimes the feeling is conscious. Mostly it simmers and pokes and makes them irritable, sarcastic, sometimes furious, increasingly cold toward each other.

     What Tammy and Craig are really hoping for is what we all hope for, and Aesthetic Realism enables it to be: We want to see that our deepest desire is not to forget about the world or conquer it, but to know it, as widely and deeply as possible—and that includes the knowing of people. Then we'll see that the beautiful work of trying to know is also a great ease, because it's in keeping with what we want most.

     In Eli Siegel himself I saw that oneness of ease and knowing. He never stopped trying to know, and his love of knowing made him graceful in it all the time.

ELLEN REISS, Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism

The Graceful Effort; or, The Oneness of Ease & Difficulty in Art

By Eli Siegel

he terms of art are all concerned in some fashion with ease and difficulty. The words used in judging art have been concerned with ease and difficulty.

     In the same way as there can be a glib abstraction, there was once a glib watercolor of flowers. When something is done too easily—and shows it—it is seen as not good. Facility is a word that has often been used in disparagement of a drawing, a poem, an essay, a play, a sonata. There must be enough obstruction, resistance, somehow in a work to make that work likable deeply.

     And then, there is the other collection of adverse words. Chief of these is labored. Rather surprisingly, a work should not be labored. Then there are words like contrived, artificial, unspontaneous, plodding.

     I think, then, that because art should not be glib, and art should not be labored, it is likely that while being neither, it should be both. This means that art should be easy and difficult at once. Moreover, it is.

     Art is like lots of things. It is like a flower which can be seen as having a hard time coming from the earth but is easy as to color and shape and texture. If one looks at the structure of a flower in detail, some difficulty will be felt. Botany, after all, is complicated; and every flower is an instance of subtle, manifold, not-so-easy organization. An insect will give this appearance too. The presence of molecules, atoms, electrons in any object doesn't seem so glib. Flowing water thought of in terms of its organization doesn't seem facile.

     Works of art are supposed to have inevitability; and inevitability is a conjunction of the easy and difficult. And existence, like inevitability, is also ease and difficulty.

Art & the Taken-for-Granted

here is not a thing that cannot be seen as difficult. The taken-for-granted is by art shown to be difficult. To feel the points in a line following each other, one by one, two by two, three by three; to feel them pushing each other; to feel them perhaps trying to get out of the line—all this is to make a taken-for-granted line look like a struggling abstract city. The relation of lines, planes, and volumes can be seen as a relation of struggle. The more fight is seen in a surface, the more interesting it is.

      Reality resists as it beckons. Consequently, there are love and struggle wherever there is anything.

      To see a painting in terms of all its amiability and bellicosity is to see a painting. Details in a painting don't just bow to each other and take their seats. They glower profoundly at each other even as they abide with each other.

      The war among shapes has been an eternal war. There is a war among parts of speech in a sentence. There is a war among lines in a poem. The notes of a musical composition are at war. And if the war is not also a friendliness—that is, if the difficulty is not ease—so much, the work is not successful.

A Classic Exemplification

classic exemplification of art as difficulty is Théophile Gautier's "L'Art" (1857). The first stanza tells the aesthetic story:

Yes, the work emerges more beautiful
From a form which, while being worked with,
Is rebellious:
Verse, marble, onyx, enamel.1

This implies that the material of art must be in some way resistant for art to happen rightly. Still, what is in the artist to make him want to tackle "une forme au travail rebelle" ("a form which, while being worked with, is rebellious")? What makes the artist tackle difficulty in his "inspiration," his impulsion, his aesthetic desire? And this aesthetic desire is an aspect of Ease, for desire, when one has it, is easy to have; it is so easy to have, it is hard to get rid of it; that is, it is hard not to have it. The artistic desire, then, really had, is hard not to have. Sincerity is hard not to have, once it is sincerity. What all this comes to is that, in art, a way of mind ever so easy to have, because it is ever so hard not to have, joins gladly with resistant material, difficult object. The simultaneous existence of clear, strong, confident aesthetic impulsion and material makes for a combination of ease and difficulty present in all art.

     Within the artist's mind may be a fight, too, between the insistence of sincerity and the invitingness of insincerity or sloppiness or smooth arrangement. When the artist's mind is entire, this fight is easy and difficult, subtly, deeply so.

      Art can be compared to the joy of a mountain climber meeting a mountain more difficult than some he has climbed.

       In art, the resistance of reality is the way mind wants it. In customary life, the resistance of reality is a sad, unwelcome blow to ego-structure.

       A word that stands out in the Gautier stanza I have quoted is rebelle. Color seems to be rebelling against line, and line seems to be encroaching on color, and also wanting to get away from it. The artist manages the war of boundary and mass. It is a phase of his private war.

     The second stanza of Gautier's poem is:

No false constraints!
But in order to walk upright
You have put on your feet,
Muse, a narrow cothurnus.2

Art has always been a matter of constraint and abandon, restriction and go-ahead. We can be wrong about either or any of these. Restriction and abandon—phases of difficulty and ease—must serve each other in a work, must be of one thing.

     Gautier uses the word étroit, narrow. Shapes, like thoughts, are narrow and wide. A Tanagra figurine is, among other things, a oneness of narrowness and wideness. Ceramics, as such, is an interchange of swelling and subsiding, both examples of ease and difficulty; for on the one hand, swelling looks easier than subsiding, but on the other, subsiding seems the easier.

     That word of Gautier, étroit, is about so much. The idea of narrowness does seem to carry difficulty with it; but then, what can seem easier than being étroit, narrow, than contracting? How easy it is to shrivel, withdraw, retreat! Does the leaf have an easier time in summer, expanding in greenness, than in autumn, withdrawing in less greenness? Unfortunately, withdrawing seems, in a fashion, easier than emerging. The relation of difficulty and ease in nature and in man's doings is delicate.

Gautier & a Vase

ore about narrowness and Gautier's poem. Helen Gardner in her Art through the Ages describes a Chinese celadon vase:

In the Celadon...there is quiet elegance and refined taste. It has a sturdy strength because of the careful proportioning of the parts, especially of the finely curved lip and the slightly spreading base. From this rise conventionalized lanceolate leaf forms, the severity of which emphasizes the easy grace of the peony scroll on the body; on the neck a tapering peony pattern meets a broad band of concentrated ridges.3

The fact that Helen Gardner can employ elegance and strength, severity and grace, in the description of the same vase shows that ease and difficulty are, at once, in the vase. Elegance and grace are in the Intellectual Kingdom of Ease; severity and strength are in the Intellectual Kingdom of Difficulty. In the Land of Aesthetics, the Kingdoms of Ease and Difficulty merge. (The Opposites in Art can be dealt with allegorically and fancifully if any good purpose is served thereby.)

      Some words have in them ease and difficulty at once in an obvious way: all words do somewhat. One of the words obviously showing ease and difficulty is in the passage I have quoted from Helen Gardner. Tapering, insofar as it goes for narrowness, contraction, represents difficulty; but insofar as it has in it smoothness and curve, shows ease.

     A word, also, that clearly shows ease and difficulty is in the last stanza of Gautier's poem: rêve or dream. A dream seems easy; for it is unsubstantial and effortless; yet, being mysterious, often troublesome, often apparently causeless, it is hard or difficult.

     The last stanza of "L'Art" is:

Carve, smooth, chisel:
Let your floating dream
Be sealed
In the resisting block!4

     In art, two things have difficulty in them: the formlessness of space, the resistance of matter. These use each other to make each other easier. In the Gautier lines, the "floating dream" becomes "sealed" within the resisting block. So we have "dream" and "block," each in its way representing the troublesomeness and sweetness of reality.

     All volumes are studies in ease and difficulty. The sphere combines ease and difficulty in its spherical way—with its enclosedness and curve; the cone in a conical way—with its sharpness and roundness; the oblong volume in its way—with its confinedness and certainty; the cube in its way; the cylinder in a way that is its own, with its continuity and restriction. All lines are easy and difficult; all planes.

     Hues, tints, gradations of color are studies in ease and difficulty. Notes and chords and bars are studies in the resistant and yielding.

Like Rivers

he fact that ease and difficulty should become one in art was expressed in a notable way by an ill-remembered poet of the 17th century, John Denham. The lines from Denham's "Cooper's Hill" for decades rang through English literature—even if in a somewhat isolated way. They are still fairly often met with.

O could I flow like thee! and make thy stream
My great example, as it is my theme;
Though deep yet clear, though gentle yet not dull;
Strong without rage, without o'erflowing full.

     When Denham says he wants, in his poetry, to be like the Thames River, he is correct. Rivers—including the Thames—are profitable examples of the presence of difficulty and ease in one topographical field. A sluggish river has a time of it; a monotonous river has a time; and so does a swift, interfered-with river.

     Art, like rivers—and so much else—shows that the graceful and arduous can say one thing; that ease and difficulty are both means—means in profound amity—of living the story of life, art, and self.    

1 Mr. Siegel quoted the poem in the original French. The translation of this stanza is by him, from a 1965 lecture.
2 A cothurnus is a boot worn by actors in Greek and Roman drama. Stanza translated by ER.
3 (NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1936), p. 632.
4 Trans. ER.

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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John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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