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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1699.— August 22, 2007
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

What Art Has—& the Fight in Every Person

Dear Unknown Friends: 

e publish here the first half of the final chapter of The Opposites Theory—a work Eli Siegel wrote in the late 1950s. In it he shows what no other critic saw: all art—of no matter what genre, style, time, or place— all art is “the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual.” The final chapter is about the opposites of Rest and Motion.

     And as we approach the conclusion of this definitive work, I'm going to comment on the two biggest opposites in everyone's life, Self and World, and the fight we have about them. Aesthetic Realism explains that the constant, crucial fight within every person is: To take care of the self which is mine, to make myself important, should I respect the outside world, hope to care for it, see meaning in it? Or should I dislike that world-not-me, have contempt for it?

     We come from the world. We live in it, and through it. Our deepest desire is to like that world, to feel it adds to us. Yet we also think we'll heighten ourselves, establish ourselves, through disliking and looking down. The latter way is contempt, and it is the damager of our mind and the source of all unkindness.

A Person, Comprehended

s a means of understanding the fight in self, I am going to quote from a 1949 Aesthetic Realism lesson in which Mr. Siegel spoke to my father, Daniel Reiss. My father died last month, at the age of 95. He wanted the comprehension of himself which took place so richly in his study of Aesthetic Realism to be of use to all people. He wrote: “I feel I am a success because my life was honored in having met and learned from Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism.”

     The record of the lesson from which I'll quote, of July 9, 1949, is the notes taken by my mother, Irene Reiss. She wrote down what Mr. Siegel asked and explained, though not Dan Reiss's responses. The lesson took place early in my parents' study of Aesthetic Realism. My father had then what millions of men and women have: a large dislike of people, those human representatives of the world not oneself. Years later he described it this way:

When I met Aesthetic Realism, I was angry with and suspicious of people. I would look to find things wrong with them, and as soon as I found one flaw—which didn't take long—I would write that person off.

The first sentences I'll quote from the lesson are these questions, which Mr. Siegel asked him:

Do you think it's possible to like people and not feel you are a sucker? Do you believe that liking people can be based on facts?—and if you give way to the facts you are not a sucker?

     The feeling that we'll be suckers if we like people is exceedingly prevalent. It exists in persons who can seem very affable. So much of social life—also business life—is the showing of friendliness while hoping to find weakness, foolishness, meanness in the persons at whom one smiles. There is a sense in people, “If I can't feel I'm better than he is, I'm a flop.”

     It happens that the economic system current in our land is based on the feeling one would be a sucker if one liked people—really liked people. The profit system is based on seeing one's fellow humans as beings to compete with, and to make profit from—which means getting as much as one can from them while giving them as little as possible. Once a boss sees an employee as someone to like in the true sense—that is, sees this person as having large meaning, as adding to the world, as being like himself—he will no longer feel entitled to aggrandize himself through that person's labor. He won't feel he can take for himself the wealth the person's work produced and “compensate” him rather minisculely.

What's Your Purpose?

r. Siegel said to Daniel Reiss that summer day fifty-eight years ago:

When you are against other people, is it to make them better, or just for you to glory?—what's your purpose? You can't convince yourself when you are against things; you're ashamed.

Here Mr. Siegel has described the reason disliking people hurts us: our dislike is usually based, not on wanting to see what's true, and not on a hope that people be good, but on a desire to dislike so that we can have “glory.” And the glory we're after is contempt: the feeling, I'm Somebody because I'm better than him!

     There's nothing more important than to understand this hope to dislike. It's the cause, for instance, of all racism—in which there's a glory for oneself in disliking a particular “kind” of people. But the hope to dislike has less dramatic forms, ever so many of them. Millions of men and women go through the day making much of things they can be displeased with, leaping to them, stewing over them—from the lateness of a bus, to a smudge on the wall, to someone's abrupt comment. And all the while they pass over and really annul so much that they could like—from a person's authentic smile, to the English language, to colors, the existence of streets, light, art, somebody's kindness. This is because they feel more important disliking.

     It's a great ethical fact that, as Mr. Siegel said, we cannot convince ourselves of our falsely based dislike. Our shame about it takes many forms, including a feeling of agitation, unsureness, emptiness.

For & Against Can Be One

Mr. Siegel said to Dan Reiss:

You can dislike anyone you want, but be proud about it. To be against a person for a good reason works in a self in the same way as being for a person for a good reason. The important thing is to like yourself for the reason.

We should be against something in a person because that thing is unfair to the world. We should be for something in a person because that thing makes the world better. In both instances our basis is: to respect the world and the person. This is the one basis we can be proud of!

     In the next sentence, Mr. Siegel described the fight going on in Daniel Reiss. As both a daughter and a critic of literature, I am very moved by the structure of this sentence: in the relation of phrase to phrase, in the prose rhythm, there are at once exactitude and deep tenderness:

The part of you that wants to feel that people can do you some good, and that understanding them is a valuable thing for you, and that through knowing them you can take care of yourself—that part of you has been gaining lately, and the other part is afraid.

     Then, with logic that I find thrilling, Mr. Siegel explained why being against a person accurately is the same as being for that person:

I didn't ask you to like people, but to like knowing them. If you know them, you will find you also like them. There are some things in people that you can like and others that you need not, but the thing that you have against people is what they should have against themselves, and therefore you can feel that you deeply agree.

     There are these sentences about a person who tries to be suspicious—as most people do:

You can be deceived in two ways: you can fail to find something bad, and also something good. Your criticism of people is not exact enough.

Persons pride themselves on not being “taken in”: I know this situation isn't as nice as it looks—can't fool me! But they don't worry that they won't see good which is present. They should worry. Not seeing what's good is as stupid and dangerous as not seeing some hidden badness.

There's What We Hope Will Come Forth

oward the end of my mother's notes are these sentences of Mr. Siegel to Dan Reiss:

One part of you wants people to be good. You can spend your time being so angry with people that you feel the thing in you which you want to come forth might as well not.

He was explaining to my father something which is affecting ever so many people now. They feel held up, stymied—that there are possibilities of expression and feeling in them that don't come forth. They don't see that their desire to dislike and look down has stifled the self they want to be. Decades later, speaking of what he had learned, Dan Reiss wrote of Mr. Siegel: “He showed me how I could have a life I could respect myself for.”

     That summer of 1949 he composed for my father a short, playful poem that I love. I'll conclude this commentary with it, because it has, musically, the kindness of Eli Siegel, which was the same as his critical comprehension:

If Dan were a little boy
I would give to him a pretty toy,
And say to him, “Now quickly go
And cheerfulness to people show.”

ELLEN REISS, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Being as Exaggeration; or, Repose & Energy in Art

By Eli Siegel

istory consists of man seeking energy and repose at once, and here he is no different from anything else. There is a battle between motion and quietness in all things. Nothing seems to be satisfied with either inertia or mobility by itself. Space has a tendency to become matter; and matter has a tendency to move, and then to find a new calm through its motion. All this is, of course, imagined, and outrageously endows objects with tendencies, even purposes and desires—but the fact remains that the world doesn't seem to be pleased with either energy by itself or quietness by itself.

     There is an old description of the river Androscoggin as it flows in New England:

The Androscoggin rises in Umbagog lake, among the highlands which form the northwest boundary of Maine, and descending through a succession of lakes enters New Hampshire at Errol; it re-enters Maine at Gilead, and flows east and south till it joins the Kennebec at Merrymeeting bay. Its length is one hundred and forty miles; the whole course is broken by rapids and falls, which prevent the transportation of any thing except timber and logs.1

     In a scientific age, we are quite sure that the Androscoggin does not suffer a bit, yet if the line of this river were presented in a painting, it would be called a “tormented” line; and if the opposition the Androscoggin got, from somewhere, in its course, were presented musically, there would be “aspects of modernistic torment,” or some such thing.

     If one looks at a map, one can see that the Susquehanna, and other rivers, also have trouble. We don't have to give rivers attitudes they don't have. What is clear is that the Androscoggin and the Susquehanna present lines to someone in the sky that don't have the repose of a simple curved line or the repose of a straight line. Put in different words, a simple curved line, a straight line, and a twisted line solve the problem of energy and repose in different manners. Yet energy-and-repose can be felt in the three kinds of line.

They Tell of Something

he contemplation of rivers has its use in art. Rivers have found a large and safe place in aesthetics because they tell something to aesthetics. One instance of a river making for an aesthetic problem is in Johnson's “Life of Pope.” There the 18th-century critic says:

I have been told that the couplet by which he declared his own ear to be most gratified was this: “Lo, where Maeotis sleeps, and hardly flows / The freezing Tanais through a waste of snows.” But the reason of this preference I cannot discover.2

     Well, some reason can be found. The Tanais—an old name for the River Don in Russia—unlike the Androscoggin and Susquehanna, does not twist so much but has opposition through itself and a “waste of snows.” The heaviness of this opposition is presented gracefully. The energy of inertia is interfered with by the lightness and accuracy of syllables. Death and sleep are forces, and there is a neat, though hardly perceptible, battling of these forces with energy. The flow of water with freezingness about is an important co-presence and interchange of stillness and motion, repose and energy, immobility and life. A principal sound in the couplet is that of the z, which is a sound of somnolence and motion. Then there is the energetic Lo and the keen, alive sharpness of freezing. Everything considered, Pope was not incorrect.

     Energy and repose change into each other. Repose is in behalf of energy; energy goes for repose. The goal of athleticism is tranquility; the harbor of distortion is self-respecting peace. Exertion has its eye on a green dell.

Like the Baroque

he rivers Androscoggin and Susquehanna are like the baroque and that intense assertion of the baroque, the Churrigueresque. The baroque questioned the calm of classicism; yet it cannot be said that the purpose of the baroque, the aesthetic objective, was not calm. Through visual multiplicity, ornate energy, insistence of detail, the baroque goes for that satisfaction which is perceptive tranquility. The final purpose of Raphael and Bernini was the same.

     And so, if there were not some repose found in Italy, Spain, and Mexico within the energetic and surprising baroque, it would not have been accepted at all.

     There is “A Defense of Baroque Art in America,” by Manuel Toussaint of the National University of Mexico. According to Toussaint:

The hidden heart of America seeks shelter in those works apparently made by immaterial fingers—the mosaics of feathers; or made in secret by the Neolithic hatchet—Christian gods carved as primitive idols....The essence of the baroque art is the classic art itself which has been transformed through the influence of an internal ferment of fantasy and luxury. The baroque writers themselves, when they speak of their works, refer to them as if they were classical structures—bases, capitals, cornices, friezes—like a Parthenon which had been showered with gilted carvings, overlaying it from top to bottom.

Toussaint describes baroque technique as:

Individualized by its twisting forms, by the exaggeration of its outlines, by its disregard of proportions, and a complete disrespect for moderation and prudence.3

     All these years the problem of energy and repose has existed in Mexico, Central America, South America. When Indian and Spaniard met and mingled, the history of energy and repose as they are in man received something new. Visual violence and exaggeration took on new developments.

     But elsewhere, too, there was the fight between exaggeration and proportion—a phase of the relation between energy and repose. To be intense and calm, exaggerated and reposeful, devilish and tranquil has always been an inclination, a hope of man.

For Instance, Hamlet

amlet can calmly say, “To be, or not to be: that is the question”—but within his mind are many complicated shapes of thought. After asking something with profound philosophic decorum, Hamlet starts energetically to ramify, tormentedly to be complex. And it has been thus for years. Repose is sought for, but it isn't everything. Energy, complexity must be found in it. Stillness has been popular, but motion has been too. Quiet has been looked for, but the turbulent has been yearned for likewise.

     The presence of the “Churrigueresque altar in the church of N.S. de Aransasu”4 in Guadalajara, Mexico, instances and typifies, then, a possibility which is universal. The calm of unity has to be put into motion by the manyness of energy—and in turn repose must be found in energetic manyness. That God, through a saint, should be given the multitudinous, insistent detail he is given in the Guadalajara altar, shows that oneness needs insistent detail to assert itself by. Out of the peacefulness of nothing came the unlimited hubbub of happenings—and something like this is in art. In the same way as happening honors the unseen glory of nothing, the energy of detail honors the tranquil unity of being.    

1 Grenville Mellen, A Book of the United States, Exhibiting Its Geography, Divisions, Constitution, and Government, etc. (Hartford: H. Frederick Sumner, 1942), p. 53.
2 Samuel Johnson, The Lives of the English Poets (London: John Sharpe, 1831), p. 331.
3Inter American Intellectual Interchange (Institute of Latin American Studies of the University of Texas, 1943), pp. 162, 165.
4 Ibid., Appendix.
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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Racism & Its Solution

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Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies

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The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature

Two Teachers Speak on a Class Taught by Ellen Reiss
The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
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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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