Boldness, Modesty—& the Keenness of Art
Dear Unknown Friends:
As we continue to serialize Eli Siegel's magnificent 1949 lecture Poetry and Keenness .... [t]his issue of TRO ... is about art and tumultuous personal life. And Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy which says that these are inextricable. Eli Siegel has outlined what is most crucial about art and the human self—which no one before him saw—in this historic principle: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves."
I love the Aesthetic Realism way of seeing the self of every person, which that principle represents: not only is it TRUE—it is unendingly beautiful and kind. The one way we will ever have the self we want is on an aesthetic basis. The one way we will ever understand what goes on within us is, as Mr. Siegel writes in Self and World, "to look upon it as a continual question of aesthetics." That is why other approaches to mind these decades, from the Freudian to the pill-prescribing, have been flops, and often cruel flops.
Take, for example, the subject [of] showing off and timidity. It torments people —and not just women and girls. People everywhere knock themselves out day after day showing off, trying to make a big impression—perhaps through clothing; or the abundant display of one's winning smile; or one's intellectual brilliance; or even through making it conspicuous to a person that one is the most sympathetic listener he could ever meet. And underneath, all those people (including the ones who impressed you) also felt timid, fearful, wished they could avoid having the next conversation. People flaunt their personalities; and also feel their thoughts are in a separate, enclosed world, unseen by anyone. They think this rift of opposites—this desire to thrust and display oneself accompanied by unsureness and inward shrinking—is what life is. Yet it makes them feel that life is deeply ugly, and that they are frauds.
The Answer Is Art
Aesthetic Realism says: the answer to this situation is in the beautiful oneness of boldness and modesty, of self-assertion and self-effacing, which all art has! There is no instance of true art that isn't bold—that doesn't say, "I can show the world in a way it hasn't been shown before and needs to be shown!" There is no instance of true art that isn't modest—that doesn't come from the artist's feeling, "There's something I need to be fair to: I want to do what it asks of me, serve it, use myself to show what it is."
The difference between the boldness and modesty of art and the self-thrusting and timorous shrinking that people go through constantly, is the following. Art, Aesthetic Realism explains, arises always from respect for the world. It arises from the passionate desire to know—which includes the keenness Mr. Siegel describes in the lecture we are serializing. Keenness, he says, "always means a destruction of the world as meaningless, as having nothing but surface and flatness, dullness or sameness." The desire to know, to get to the meaning of something and show it, is both the boldest thing in the world, the most self-asserting, and the most modest. Yet those opposites—boldness and modesty—in our lives have a painful awryness because of the desire in us which is the opponent to our desire to respect the world: our desire to have contempt.
What Contempt Does
Mr. Siegel defined contempt as "the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it." And he identified it as the source of every cruelty in human history. Contempt is the desire, not to know what things and people are, but to manipulate them, fool them, look down on them. Contempt, in all its ugliness, is usually ever so quiet and humdrum. It has us want primarily to impress people, not be fair to them. And so we feel, in our desire to impress and show off, deeply evasive, unsure of ourselves, ashamed.
Cézanne: Modest and Bold
Because the purpose of an artist is always to respect, with keenness and width—we find a statement like this about Cézanne in the 4th edition of Helen Gardner's Art through the Ages: "His search for essential reality led him to consider closely the fundamental forms of natural objects" (p. 669). On the one hand, Cézanne is humble, self-effacing—trying, not to put himself forward, but to see what objects fundamentally are. On the other hand, he has terrific boldness, self-assertion, nerve, even pushiness: he is going to get to "essential reality"!—and in a way, presumably, other painters were not able to before him!
The Gardner book notes, about a Cézanne still life: "The individual forms have lost something of their private character as bottles and fruit and approach the condition of cylinders and spheres." Here again, we have Cézanne, more demure than an old-fashioned schoolgirl, unobtrusive, unpretentious: having as his one desire to see what those bottles and fruit really are and to give himself up to them. At the same time, arising from that utter modesty, we have one of the boldest, most striking things in the history of art: You thought you knew what a bottle is, a fruit, an object, space itself; you do not! I, Paul Cézanne, will show what they are. I will change how things appear to be; I will show how those ordinary objects on the table tell of cylinders and spheres (also cones). I will flaunt the fact that in their warm everydayness they are equivalent to forms that are primal, to something like the beginnings of the world!
This oneness of modesty and authentic, kind struttingness is what we want. Aesthetic Realism is the study of how to have it.