The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

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.  

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Keenness: A Desire in Art

By Eli Siegel

The universe is keen, because the universe has sharpness, point. It also has surface, dullness, nothingness, wideness, curve, and so on. 

We should see the desire for neatness, the desire for sharp impressions, as a desire in art. There is in the history of poetry a rising awareness of keenness, as there is in art. One thing that distinguishes present-day art from the art, let us say, of the 18th and 17th and 16th centuries is the greater presence of angles, of staccato in music, of sharpness. 

One of the things called forth by the Imagist movement in poetry was neatness; and when we say keenness, we mean neatness. A knife that is keen is also a knife that cuts neatly; it isn't brutal. Sharpness is different from brutality. Brutality is clumsy: it is wide—it has a lot of fist and thumb and no delicate finger. 

When, in the beginning of the 20th century or so, there was the desire for the sharp effect, the desire to do away with curves, the desire also to get to a new neatness—that could have been expected with a perspective on world history. 

Some poems that have been associated with Imagism are keen. They are good poems. "The Garden," by Hilda Doolittle, is quite evidently different from poems of the past; it has these lines: 

You are clear,

O rose, cut in rock;

Hard as the descent of hail.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

If I could break you

I could break a tree.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

O wind, rend open the heat,

Cut apart the heat,

Rend it to tatters....

That has a new endeavor in poetry. People didn't say before to the wind, "Cut apart the heat." This is part of the history of the angle appreciated, the history of cuttingness. That is important, because, if we want to see a human being as a composition of angles and curves, of softness and hardness, of enveloping and keenness, then we have to give due honor to keenness and see what it comes from. There is a desire for the point, the line, the neat division in the universe. 

To see clearly is to see keenly; to see a thing keenly is to cut away the blur and the murk. You cut through the unconscious dead wood. At the same time, you retain everything that is truly valuable. So keenness is a matter of beautiful economy. It is a loving cuttingness. Something of that is here. 

"You are clear, / O rose, cut in rock." It is interesting that today there is a fashion in metallic jewelry, often of flowers, and that women are fond of something looking as if it were growing, made of metal. In this way, the soft thing becomes metallic, and the growing thing takes on a permanent inanimation. This feeling is gone after by Hilda Doolittle: the rose is not seen as soft; it is seen as cut in rock. That is a new way of seeing the rose. But can it be seen that way? Or is there such a disruption between the mineral kingdom and the vegetable kingdom that one should not bring them together? Aesthetic Realism says fie upon that—there is no such disruption! We are all the kingdoms. We are the vegetable kingdom and the mineral kingdom and the animal kingdom; and if there are any other kingdoms, we might as well get interested. Here, with Imagism, the endeavor is to make the curve of the vegetable kingdom like the hardness, the sharpness of the mineral kingdom, the rock. 

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