The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

America Is Ashamed of the Profit System

Dear Unknown Friends:

Published here is the first section of the lecture Shame Is in How You Do Things, by Eli Siegel. In May 1970 he began his Goodbye Profit System series of talks, of which this—given a year later—is one. In them he explained, with wide-ranging scholarship and evidence, something that has taken various forms in the years since and is affecting people monumentally now. He showed that by the 1970s a certain point in history had been reached: a way of economics based on seeing one’s fellow humans in terms of how much profit one could make from their labor and needs, had failed irreparably.

The heyday of the profit system was over; the thing would never thrive again. It could be kept going a while longer only through inflicting much pain on people, but it was terminally ailing. And so today we have millions of Americans jobless, industries long gone from this land, increasing poverty. Wrote Mr. Siegel four decades ago:

There will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries.

The lecture we are serializing is about pride and shame. That subject is personal for everyone. We all want to be, thirst to be, proud; but one can’t be proud just by wishing. Aesthetic Realism explains that the reason people don’t feel proud, don’t like themselves, feel ashamed, is that they go after contempt, the “false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.” We have to feel ashamed of elevating ourselves through lessening other people and things, because the purpose of our lives is to like the world different from ourselves and be just to it. The cause and effect is as inevitable as gravity: contempt makes us ashamed. Is this cause and effect true of a nation too? Of an economy?

Always There

There has always been shame connected with the profit motive, and this shame speaks well for humanity. The shame, of course, has been masked enormously. People can act like strutting economic moguls; they can flaunt and swagger and brag about making money. Nevertheless, to think about others in terms of how much money one can get out of them; to think about the world in terms of how much of it one can grab; to have as one’s purpose the beating out of somebody else—makes one loathe oneself, no matter how much it seems the way of the times and no matter how much one is praised for it.

Further, Americans today—however they vote or talk—are ashamed that millions of children are hungry in this nation. Americans are ashamed that millions of people who could be useful are jobless because profits for some stockholder can’t be gotten from their labor; and that families are without the healthcare they need.

The Oneness of Pride & Shame

Aesthetic Realism is based on the principle that “all beauty is a making one of opposites.” Pride and shame are opposites. Mr. Siegel points out in the present lecture that people don’t like to see themselves as ashamed and therefore can pretend to be proud. It happens, though, that in order to be proud, we need to welcome seeing what we don’t like about ourselves.

Let’s take an instance from American history. The abolitionists of the 1830s, ’40s, ’50s were scathingly ashamed that their country had slavery—that human beings were owned! There is William Lloyd Garrison: not only was he ashamed of American slavery, but in the first issue of his periodical The Liberator (1 Jan. 1831), he expresses intense shame that he once said slavery could be ended gradually rather than immediately:

In Park-Street Church, on the Fourth of July, 1829,…I unreflectingly assented to the popular but pernicious doctrine of gradual abolition. I seize this moment to make a full and unequivocal recantation, and thus publicly to ask pardon of my God, of my country, and of my brethren the poor slaves, for having uttered a sentiment so full of timidity, injustice, and absurdity.

Who was truly prouder—Garrison, or a person in New England (and there were ever so many) who said, “Don’t get so riled up about this slavery thing, and stop annoying me about it. This is a wonderful country, and I don’t have to think about what goes on in some plantation”? History tells us the proud person was Garrison—because honesty about shame is a requisite for pride. There are many things about America to be proud of, but one is that Garrison and others were beautifully ashamed of how our nation was untrue to itself.

Pride can be seen as having another opposite too: practicality. People have felt about various choices—whether business decisions, or the “need” to lie, or the choice not to help someone who deserved help—“Well, I’m not proud of my choice, but I need to be practical.” With the 1970s, Mr. Siegel showed, these opposites had become one in economics in an inescapable way: the profit motive, which had always made people ashamed, was now also inefficient, impractical. The inseparability of injustice and ineptitude had become more seeable. Once one could say that bosses were ruthless but that the profit system worked like a well-oiled machine. (It didn’t really, but it could seem to.) These days we have phrases like “fiscal crisis” and “financial meltdown.” Ethics, the desire to see what’s not ourselves justly, is both the one thing that will make us proud and the one basis for a successful economy.

A Painting, an Article, & the Main Question

Mr. Siegel begins his lecture very surprisingly: he looks at a virtually unknown painting as a means to show what pride is. Then he goes to an article in Fortune magazine, which he began to discuss in another class. The writer, Max Ways, speaks about a “crisis of confidence” in America, the feeling in people that there’s something very wrong with our “public policies.” Meanwhile, he gives the impression that there are no real solutions. Here are some earlier sentences:

We are repeatedly disappointed in our efforts to deal with the interlocked problems of inflation and unemployment. Whole libraries of research are spewed forth annually about the social questions of race, poverty, crime, and urban decay.…Yet policy results are, to say the least, unsatisfactory.…When we turn to straightening out the mess, we never seem to know enough.

Looking at the article, Mr. Siegel gets to the question that was fundamental then and is fundamental and urgent now: What is the purpose of a government. And he answers that question greatly and simply. Today there’s a lot of fierce—and often illogical, mean, and insincere—inveighing against “too much government.” What’s needed isn’t chiefly for government to be less or more. What’s needed is that Americans look at that question What is the purpose of government?, and at the answer Mr. Siegel gave, and discuss these honestly throughout the land.

The Declaration of Independence expresses an opinion on the subject:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men.

What does that last phrase mean? I think its meaning is in what Eli Siegel explains.

We should be proud of our Declaration of Independence. We should be proud of our shame at the profit system. Truly, shame at the profit system and pride in America are the same.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Shame Is in How You Do Things

By Eli Siegel

I’ve called today’s talk “Shame Is in How You Do Things.” There is a feeling very frequently that one isn’t doing as well as one might. There’s also a feeling, in every field, that one is doing well, or that how one is doing is different from what it used to be and for the better. This can go on with a child, and with a nation. What is in the papers gives one a feeling that there are some people who think the land isn’t doing as well as it might. Today, among other news, there was the news that the United States has a deficit of over 20 billion dollars—which, we’re told, will be decreased of course. One could try to say, “I’m proud of my deficit,” but the tendency is not to be proud.

The question of shame and pride has to do with how we feel, how we know, what we do, what we are. And in every instance, we think we are not as close to what is good or beautiful when we are ashamed.

“Ellinton, the Winner of the Derby, 1856” painting by Harry Hall

Click for larger image.

I felt it wise to discuss the matter of shame in terms of how we do, by looking at a very little known painting, exceedingly little known. It has in it a horse, and the horse can be seen as being somewhat proud. But everything about the painting has to do with pride and shame. The work it’s in is in the field of commerce: British Watercolors, Paintings, and Sculpture. The Property of Sir John Dilke, Bt., and Other Owners, a catalogue for an auction, September 25, 1968, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York. Work 27 is “Ellinton, the winner of the Derby, 1856, with the jockey.” The painter is hardly known now: Harry Hall.

I was quite sure that the winner of the Derby in 1856 wouldn’t mean very much to anyone. Who is thinking of the Derby of 1856? But it is good to do so. There must have been tumult, and there must have been running about, and refreshments, and the betting—and there must have been a general tumult in England, because the Derby is a very important thing. Also, this horse must have known in a fashion that he had been chosen; and the jockey did.

The painting itself is taking. The thing amiss, perhaps, is that it goes too much to the still, the static. The composition is not flowing or mobile enough. Nonetheless, there is a feeling of pride. The horse, and the jockey in white, are in space, and the space is in motion; it is not just level. The jockey is very neat. One could say that he’s presented too slimly, but he looks thoughtful, and he is in impeccable and luminous white.

Then, the horse showed ability. After all, one of the prime functions of the horse, the being able to go fast, was fulfilled by this horse. We have the idea of pride: a thing’s acting in keeping with what it is, its entelechy; the being true to what it is. This horse was truer than other horses.

There’s a feeling of thoughtfulness in the horse. There’s a wideness and a slimness and, as you look at this, you get the feeling of pride and meditativeness. The ground is luminous but also has something misty about it. Various things combine to make for a feeling that one is doing well.

The painter, from one point of view, didn’t do so well. Very few English painters of the 1850s are known now. But there are some, much more famous than Hall: like Fildes (a little later), and Leighton, who was the president of the Royal Academy. There’s Alma-Tadema. In America there is the Hudson River School, with Kensett, and so on. The painters who were of the Pre-Raphaelites—Rossetti and Millais—are better known than Hall; Watts is better known, and Holman Hunt. However, Hall is successful insofar as Dilke, the owner of the painting by him, held on to it and, in 1968, Parke-Bernet put this painting up for sale and I daresay it was sold.

An Artwork & America

So we have pride, shame, and unknownness. As I look at this horse in its quiet pride, there is something very tearful about it, and the shiningness of the jockey, and the thoughtfulness and obvious feeling of both horse and jockey—the jockey perhaps more so. There is a feeling of somber pride in the painting. The comparison to the America of now should be made.

I have said for a year that America is ashamed, that it is not proud. There are two kinds of pride: one that you really believe in; the other that you display. You can display pride: a person can say, “I’m so proud of my latest pimple.” One can talk that way—there is a tendency to be “proud” of everything. However, something is more convincing than something else, and at the moment the absence of pride is more and more noticeable. Everybody wants to be proud, but when you give the appearance of pride and don’t have it, it is sometimes called arrogance. It is arrogance. It is called ostentation, showy insincerity, pretense. When we are not proud it is hard for us to believe we are not; so, without knowing it, we cover up a great deal. I think the history of 1970 and 1971 will include something like this: America was not proud but scurried about to hide its absence of pride.

An Article in Fortune

I go now to the Fortune article, “Don’t We Know Enough to Make Better Public Policies?” by Max Ways (April 1971).

A large matter in pride is present when by your very nature you have a job, or you take a job, and are able to do it. It was said again and again in the history of economics that America was able to produce, but that in terms of distribution it didn’t do so well. It was able to distribute, but distribution has two meanings: one, to have something that’s been grown or made get somewhere; and the other, to have man see and use it in the best way. The feeling that distribution wasn’t doing so well has been around from the beginning. What use has been made of what has been produced?

At times, production itself was criticized. Things were produced, but the production caused too much pain to the people doing it. There was too much chicanery attending, and there still is. That too was looked upon not with pride, somewhat with shame. But distribution was definitely shameful. Corresponding to the deficit of over 20 billion dollars was the fact that in the 1930s farmers put their cans of milk on a truck, drove a little, and then ostentatiously spilled the milk on the ground. There is something wrong about that and, hide it as you wish, there is something to be ashamed of. In fact, there are hundreds of thousands of things in economic history that one can be ashamed of. The Fortune article is useful because, while it does not brandish the shame, it more than hints at it. One can see a shape moving under a tablecloth three feet from the floor. The cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a little in motion.

We have reached the section titled “Three Levels of Distrust.” It begins: “Popular reaction to these frustrations falls into three groups.” When you are frustrated, this is what is going to occur: you are going to be ashamed and angry; you are also going to be puzzled.

Most extreme and conspicuous is the one that says, “A nation that knows so much must be very evil to do no better than we are doing.”

The writer, as I have said, does not answer the question of what would it mean to do better. What would it be? One can say that a nation that would give every child food, the possibility of a diploma, and happy surroundings would be doing pretty well. Then, there would be other things: a nation that would give children something beautiful to see, a chance for health, and a chance to like reality—that would be doing well. But it happens that writers like Ways, while pointing out things that are not liked, have no clear notion of what it would be for a nation not to be doing ill. What does it mean for a nation to be doing inefficiently, or not beautifully, or not well? And what is the contrary of that?

Some in this group try to escape.…Hippie communes, drug taking, the admiration for Oriental passivity and occult lore are obvious examples of this tendency.…The natural sciences are denounced for pandering to gross materialism.

The writer is too complicated. He doesn’t say: There’s a simple thing a nation could do which this nation isn’t doing so well, and the simple thing would be to give the people living in it a sufficient chance for happiness or self-respect or both—and therefore the nation is inefficient.

How Can We Judge?

We judge a train, for example, by its ability to go on the tracks to carry freight and passengers. How can we judge a nation? By its ability to bring to people in it what people are looking for: happiness and self-respect. Nations haven’t done that because they have had other purposes.

This brings us to the problem of what is the purpose of government? The purpose in government is to encourage the people governed to be at their best, which means at their happiest and most self-respecting, and, if one wishes, at their most expressive. I would say that countries, so far, haven’t even seen the subject, because most governments have not been interested in all the people. Administrations have had favorites. This has been so recurrent that it hasn’t been looked at. The phrase of Lincoln has been more successful as resonant, sincere eloquence than as true: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” The nearest one can say is that we have a government of the people. It hasn’t been fully by the people and for the people. As Hamlet said in one of his more sober passages, “’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished,” but it hasn’t been yet.

The one way to judge a government is to ask: What is a government supposed to do? What, by its very nature, is a government obligated to do? And how well does it do it? A government ought to be fully interested, respectfully interested, in every living being in it. So far, governments have not been. This means local government too. At the present time there’s a great to-do about how much the government of the City of New York is interested in the people in it—and the government of the State of New York. Well, the answer is: partially; partly. All government has specialized.