|NUMBER 1292.—January 7, 1998||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
In the great 1966 lecture we are serializing, Animate and Inanimate Are in Music and Conscience, Eli Siegel illustrates with power, beautiful ease, and humor this principle on which Aesthetic Realism is based: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." He speaks about tremendous opposites often at war in both art and life: Structure and Feeling—which can take the form of brilliance, or cleverness, vs. depth.
The kind of artist he describes here, who uses his agility to wow the public but whose work is essentially cold, stands for a desire in everyone. He represents our desire to manage things and people adroitly—put on an impressive show—while not feeling much and not being interested in the depths of other people. This desire is an aspect of contempt—which Mr. Siegel identified as the source of all cruelty and human meanness. And the awful mistake every person makes is feeling that contempt—"the addition to self through the lessening of something else"—is clever, brilliant, that which takes care of us, when actually contempt makes us stupider and weaker.
There is nothing people need more to see than that justice is sparkling, that the desire to be fair to what is not ourselves is real glamour. People have associated ethics not with pizzazz but with severity, dullness, and sacrifice; and until that changes people will not welcome being just. Aesthetic Realism is that which shows convincingly at last that justice is the most intelligent, brilliant, selfish, exciting thing in the world. And Mr. Siegel himself embodied that fact with every sentence he wrote or spoke.
I comment now on one of the most ongoing, cruel, and truly ridiculous attempts to be clever while flouting truth and the depths and feelings of people. I refer to the way the American economy is being described to the American people, by press and economists. This artful, empty performance has two aspects: one concerns the economy's success, the other its ethics. The first is the presenting of the U. S. profit economy as "booming" when this economy is really a massive flop that is causing agony to people. And we find words being used about the economy itself that are in the "brilliant" field. An article in the New York Times Christmas day had in its headline the phrase "the Glitter of a Bountiful Economy." A front-page article the next day began with the words "A sparkling economy."
Is This "American"?
The second aspect is something to which men, women, and children have been subjected from their earliest years. It is the presenting as "democratic" and "American," an economy under which some few people own most of the wealth of this nation and millions of others miserably little. From the moment two babies are born, one has so much of the nation's wealth ready to serve her; while the other child, born the same day, may not even get the food she needs. (She is crying now, this January day, in a room that is shabby, unhealthy, cold.)
As early as 1923, Mr. Siegel wrote in the Modern Quarterly, with his clarity of logic and his passionate kindness, "Two children are born, and no effort is made to see that the conditions of life they go through are equal .... Equality of opportunity as we have it today is the biggest fraud the world contains" (The Modern Quarterly Beginnings of Aesthetic Realism, Definition Press, 1997, p. 38).
The virtuoso fabrication about the economy also consists of telling Americans month after month, year after year, that the profit system is "freedom." This "freedom" means: the money your work produces goes to a boss or stockholder who didn't work for it and who takes as much of that money and gives you as little—and makes you work as many hours for the little—as he can. Also, you are "free" to have things you need—including food, shelter, medicine—only if you can pay a price that will supply someone with a big enough profit. Mr. Siegel has described the nature of this clever performance, which is one of the ugliest things ever foisted on the American people: The tie-up between "Americanism" (in quotes) and the profit system has existed because the purpose of the persons in behalf of the profit system is to make it the same as Americanism. This is one of the best jobs in equivalence and identification that was ever done. There is nothing about the profit system in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. [Goodbye Profit System: Update, p. 66]
Contradiction — or Lie?
The Times articles of December 25 and 26 are like some other recent articles, which note wonderingly that while the U.S. economy is "robust" and "strong" there are some strange anomalies: people act as though they didn't believe in the economy's strength. People have the nerve to keep worrying about whether they will have a decent job, and they just don't spend the way they ought to! For example, in the Times of November 2, Louis Uchitelle wrote about something he called Americans' "two contradictory visions"—one of "the strong economy," the other of "their own circumstances."
I have said in the present journal on various occasions that the simple explanation for this "contradict[ion]" between the "strong" economy and the worry of Americans is that the economy is not strong at all. The depiction of its glowingness is a phony arrangement designed to fool the American people, who are not as stupid as the press and others wish to believe. This fact is described too by Timothy Lynch—an Aesthetic Realism associate and chief negotiator for a union—in an op-ed article printed in the Newark Star-Ledger, the Chicago Defender, and publications of unions in six states. He writes: The boasts about the economy's "robustness" are wishful thinking and determination on the part of persons who do not wish to see what Eli Siegel ... explained in the 1970s. He showed that the basis of our profit economy ... is contempt.... And, he explained, this economy has now failed, is finished, will never recover, because it is inefficient and cruel. "Cleverness," Mr. Siegel says in the lecture we are serializing, "is man when cold and brilliant, and also wily." The press's depictions of the economy as "sparkling" are not so brilliant; but they are wily and cold.
For example, the December 26 article has as its headline "Retailers Finding Sales Disappoint for the Holidays," but immediately notes, "Robust Economy Is No Help." Reporter Jennifer Steinhauer tells us that Americans weren't buying so much for the holidays—but the economy is doing well anyway: it's "robust." She says, "This lackluster performance was the third in a row for retailers, despite the strength of the American economy." The idea is that no matter how much Americans are suffering, no matter how much worry they have about money, the economy is "sparkling." This is ridiculous, but if you assert the idea again and again, maybe people will be impressed into believing it.
Then we have surmises as to why—despite the robust economy—people felt unable to spend money for Christmas: "Economists and analysts have attributed that tepid performance to rising levels of consumer debt" or "the simple exhaustion of working couples who cannot muster the energy to go to the mall." If people across this nation are so much in debt, the economy is not "sparkling." And if people are working such long hours that they are too exhausted to buy anything, they are doing so not for entertainment but because they're desperate to have the money to feed their families. We're also told, "Personal bankruptcies have hit an all-time high"—but still the economy is "robust." This adroit dealing with the facts is cruel because it makes the lives and anguish of people insignificant: things for some writer or figure-manipulator to toy with or annul as a means of presenting the picture that will please various egos.
"It Is Hard to Be Productive"
The Christmas day article by Peter Passell says the economy is "bountiful, ...glitter[s]," and is in a state of "boom," yet productivity—which is workers' "output per hour of work"—is not doing well. That is like saying a person is in booming health even though his heart is not pumping enough blood. And Passell admits, "Economists don't have a clue to why productivity is apparently in the doldrums .... Yet ... nothing is more important to economic well-being."
The reason productivity is "in the doldrums" was given by Eli Siegel in 1970. He said, "It is hard to be productive in America right now. The cause is that the state of mind in which people go to work is no good." What he explained has intensified with the years: people, he showed, hate the basis on which they are made to work; they hate being seen with contempt, as a means of profit for somebody; therefore at work they feel resentful, not dedicated. As I once put it, "they do not produce devotedly." It is a thrilling, ethical, and really patriotic fact that even as people are desperate to earn a living and are working long hours and two or three jobs, they are still so deeply against the contemptuous way they are seen that they are not being grandly "productive."
The resentment in workplaces has the same source as the Declaration of Independence: people's feeling that they deserve really to own this nation and to be respected, not exploited for someone's self-aggrandizement. The state of mind making productivity "in the doldrums" despite what Passell calls "all that gee-whiz technology and organizational change," is what Mr. Siegel described in 1970: "This warning is now going all through the world: Let good will be the cause of production! ... We don't want ill will to hurt and poison our lives any more" (Goodbye Profit System: Update, pp. 6-7).
Eli Siegel is the critic, historian, economist to show that economics has to be aesthetics. The economy America needs has to be like the music of Beethoven: truly glowing because it is so honest—so richly, sincerely just to the deepest feelings of people and to reality itself.
Mr. Siegel infuriated the press and others because he chose honesty and passionate, exact ethics rather than buttering them and putting on a snobbish show. But humanity will love him forever for that beautiful, courageous choice. He could have made himself ever so famous by using his unsurpassed intelligence, his "brilliance," to impress and dazzle. But his integrity, his enormous and loving knowledge, the authenticity of his vast imagination, his unending brave justice were truly the greatest glowingness, sparkle, dazzle in the world. They are permanent in Aesthetic Realism, able to meet humanity's hopes!
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Brilliance and Depth
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.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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