The Opposites as They Happen:
A Work on Aesthetic Realism
By Eli Siegel
It is the viewpoint of Aesthetic Realism that everything is the oneness of opposites; and that when a thing is seen as having opposites making one, it is seen as beautiful. However, I have found that there is a great disposition to look on a statement like the one I have just made as cosmologically remote; philosophically non-immediate; grandly unverifiable. Consequently, it is necessary that the statement be judged by what it means in what is happening now. There are happenings now. Are opposites in these happenings? How?
I believe that physics, chemistry, mathematics, sociology, history are centrally about opposites and how they are different and one. Shape and mass, curve and straight line, rest and motion are one in things we see.
Yet, it is better to begin with art; and go down. Are the questions of art the questions of things? Do all art problems begin with what an object is in its everydayness?
And I could begin with the universe as such. This is the philosophic way. It is certainly correct at times. The universe, though, is both casual and orderly; lounging and determined. And I have thought that in order to get to the universe as determined, immense, infinite, encompassing, or just plain universal, it might be well to begin with the casual, the contemporary.
There is a journal which was published this month: January, 1961. It is Arts, a sumptuous, thoughtful New York periodical concerned with the visual arts. If what I have said is true, what is in Arts as a critical journal will have a relation to the world where it begins, where it is right now in any form. This would be so if the problems of art were about things and what they have. So let us see.
In Arts of January, 1961, there are quite a few clear mentionings or showings of what Aesthetic Realism calls the opposites. We can look at these mentionings or showings and see what they lead to, what they are about. I shall take the journal as it is and from the beginning. Philosophy has to be tested in a rich manner.
2. Light and Shadow
On page 8 of Arts, January, 1961, there is an advertisement of the Panorama Colorslide Art Program: contemporary indeed. Among the artists to be shown on a screen in one's home is Vermeer; and in the advertisement there is the following phrase: "the lights and shadows of Vermeer."
Lights and shadows are in art, but they certainly come from the universe. They are present at this time in a valley in Venezuela or a town in Arizona. They have been in the Bank of England for some time. They are where you are. They are omnipresent. They are deep. You cannot not find them.
And lights and shadows are studied in physics; everyone has known, who has been interested at all, that lights and shadows don't so much belong to chemistry or biology; they belong to physics.
Physics is interested in the exceedingly small. When Hamlet thinks of himself as within the shell of a nut, we can ask, properly enough, what light is in the shell, what shadow? We can see the electron in terms of light and shadow. We can see a point as neither light nor shadow, but both.
Art has used light and shadow to serve one thing—just as they do in a point. Vermeer makes light and shadow of one thing: a girl's face or hair. This is what Rembrandt does in a different way.
In one glimpse, then, there can be both light and shadow. The more delicate we get about this, the more we see them as one. We see the white and black of the letter A as one thing, as we make out what letter it is. If we are looking at a tree, and the tree is both in light and shadow, say at 6 P.M. in Connecticut, through the tree light and shadow are one. We have the impact of light and shadow as one, by looking at the hair of a Vermeer woman, which is in both. A pebble next to black coal on the right and light, rather transparent grass on the left, would make shadow and light one as it made dark and light one. Relation is a means of making contraries or opposites one: and the relation of opposites in things makes them one, too.
Before we can feel that light and shadow are one sufficiently, we have to see light and shadow in terms of the opposites to which they are related. Light, clearly, is more energetic than shadow; it is more assertive than shadow. A restrained thump on a table is a oneness of energy and repose; and so incomplete light is a oneness of light and that which is equivalent to shadow. Light is nearer, shadow is further, and so a chimney far enough to be distant but not far enough to be remote is a co-presence of opposites akin to the simultaneous presence of light and shadow in a room at twilight or a Dutch painting.
Is an electron or atom soft or hard? The question is relevant because light and shadow instance those possibilities of the universe which also show themselves as hardness and softness. Most objects are an instantaneous· presence of softness and hardness. The possibilities of the universe in the fields of softness and hardness, shadow and light—and other fields—are the universe.
Vermeer shows that light and shadow are one in a way different from that by which a room in twilight shows it, or a park at dawn, or water under a tree. Vermeer places objects among themselves and colors and shapes among themselves to affirm what a brook at 7 o'clock in the evening, in the brook's way, already tells us.
Further, we should note that Vermeer's way of relating light and shadow—which, as I said, is equivalent to making them one—is essential in his work as art or beauty. And the question at this point is, Is the way the opposites, like light and shadow, are in all objects, when rightly, wholly seen, like beauty itself? Or even, is it beauty itself?
3. Balance, Imbalance in the Universe
If light and shadow are one in Vermeer, what might it mean? Is this a fortuitous situation, dependent on the temperament of the seventeenth-century Dutch delineator of light accompanied by persons? What about other contraries in the universe? Arts, January, 1961, has something about this, too. It has been felt a long while that there is some kind of balance among the warring, clashing things or aspects of the universe.
Paul Goodman has an article, "A Study of Modern Design," in which he quotes Johannes Itten, a Swiss teacher of art at the Bauhaus. Johannes Itten, reports Mr. Goodman, said:
The old dualistic world-concept which envisaged the ego in opposition to the universe is losing ground. In its place is rising the idea of a universal unity in which all opposing forces exist in a state of balance. [Page 211]
(Mr. Goodman then demurs a bit, in a parenthesis. )
Surely, the world has been described as a unity for a long while. The forces in the world have been philosophically, mystically, religiously reconciled—reconciled even in terms of physics. And the ego of man has been seen as one with the universe in religion generally, in Emerson, in Kant, in Pascal; in Jalal Ad-din Rumi, Eckhart, and other mystics. There has never been a time when man's likeness to the universe, and when some harmony among the things and motions of the universe, was not felt.
Still, art does something else. Art, while looking at a thing, or anything exactly, asks how it is made; how it is comprised; and asks, too, how it has to do with everything else.
It is the position of Aesthetic Realism that the way a thing is made, wholly seen, is like beauty itself; that the way a thing is related to other things, is beauty itself; and that the seeing of a thing in itself and how it is related is the one way to see a thing wholly. Consequently, art is the seeing of a thing wholly: simultaneously as-it-is and as-possibly-related: Here is where the individual mind comes in, for an individual mind goes after new possibilities of the thing-as-is and the thing-as-related, seen together. And for an individual mind to see possibilities in a thing, from a thing, to a thing, is for that mind to have imagination.
It is necessary, then, for an idea of the universe as unity, and as a reconciliation of forces, to use the specific, the everyday, to work with. Further, the universe is the great disharmony, the great asymmetry, too. Discord is just as indicative of universal trends as harmony is. This is what Mr. Goodman implies in the demurring parenthetic words I mentioned: "Not balance, but a marginal imbalance, the increment of growing."
The individual provides an "imbalance" to an object which the object can well use; provides also a "balance" the object can use. The individual mind tears the symmetrical pages of the universe; also mends the torn pages. Man is a needed disturber.
But when man disturbs, he is at his best when he honors balance and imbalance, which is also the honoring of sameness and difference, order and freedom.
And this doesn't hold good just as a "concept," as a blowy, "universal" matter. It holds good for the specific situation, the specific object.
Imagination and art add to and subtract from a leaf or face, continue and change a leaf or face, in keeping with the object as fixed and possible, static and mutable. The possibilities of the universe itself, just because it is, are what imagination and art use in a working moment.
There will be comment on this, as other matters are considered.
© Copyright 1961 by Eli Siegel
NOTE: "The Opposites as They Happen" was published in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, number 906 August 15, 1990.