The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Music, Conscience, and the Economy

Dear Unknown Friends:

In the great 1966 lecture we are serializing, Animate and Inanimate Are in Music and Conscience, Eli Siegel does something unprecedented: he shows that music at its most technical and music criticism are a means of seeing what that thing of ethics, Conscience, is.

The basis of Aesthetic Realism is this principle, stated by Mr. Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Aesthetic Realism shows that ethics is aesthetics. It is a oneness of the most fundamental opposites in a person’s life: justice to self and justice to the outside world. “To be ethical,” Mr. Siegel writes, “is to give oneself what is coming to one by giving what is coming to other things” (Self and World, p. 243). Furthermore, Aesthetic Realism shows that ethics is in everything we do, and all ethics is continuous. There is a relation among how just we want to be to an object as we pick it up, the justice of our state of mind as we read a book, what we are going after in love, and how we think about a person we know or a person on another continent. The ethics of the two matters this issue of TRO is about—1) why we like or dislike something, 2) what is happening to the world’s economy—is the same ethics. 

I love the subject Mr. Siegel speaks of here, and the magnificently beautiful way Aesthetic Realism explains it: what makes for inaccurate judgments of works of art? What has made critics err over the centuries, condemn works that future generations would treasure, or praise things that didn’t deserve praise? And what do these judgments have to do with the way we judge the things we meet on any ordinary day? In this lecture, Mr. Siegel says with quiet passion, “How we respond to things is our lives. If we respond ill, our lives that much are not what they should be.” He is the person of thought who showed that the need of a human being to value things justly is, along with our need for food and shelter, the greatest need we have.

In an Aesthetic Realism lesson it was my happiness to have, he explained what interferes in the criticism of both art and life: “There is a me that says the best thing to do is be inaccurate about the rest of the world....A person can use a work of art to love oneself in a spurious manner. That which enables one to be a critic of this kind is present [in life], and it comes to this: that is good in this world which pleases me or likes me.”

The me Mr. Siegel was speaking about corresponds to that thing which he showed to be the cause of all cruelty and mental weakness: contempt, the “disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.”

The ethics of how we respond consists of this: do we really want to see the value of this thing or person not ourselves; or do we judge somewhere in terms of whether it / he / she makes us comfortable, enables us to feel important and superior? People are doing the latter constantly. It is contempt. It is why the critics of 1818 thought Keats was a bad poet. It is also why men and women choose wrongly in love. And it is the way of seeing behind all racism.

The Same Ethics, the Same Contempt

Here, I begin to comment on what is being called the economic crisis in Asia. Eli Siegel explained in 1970 that ethics as a force in history had caused the failure, as our century ends, of economics based on using human beings for profit. And the same contempt that is in bad criticism is at the basis of the profit system. Just as a bad critic sees a novel or symphony not in terms of what it truly is and deserves, but in terms of his own comfort or possible impressiveness, so the profit system is based not on wanting to know who another person truly is and on feeling you are expressed through wanting him to get what he deserves—but on using his work and the needs of his life to make profit for yourself. 

In 1970, Mr. Siegel described some of the ways ethics-as-force was causing the profit system to weaken irreversibly—was making it harder and harder to use human beings for profit. The first way was the greater justice that had come through unions. Every achievement of unions enabling people to live more decently—the higher wages, the 8-hour day, the safer working conditions, health benefits, workers’ compensation—made the profits of boss and stockholders less. (It’s much more profitable to pay workers starvation wages and have them work under the conditions that cause industrial diseases and lost limbs.)

Is This Good for the Profit System?

The second aspect of how ethics-as-force is making profit economics unsustainable, Mr. Siegel described this way in 1970: “Industry is going on elsewhere....America is not the only country now with industrial know-how....There is more competition with the American product” (Goodbye Profit System: Update, pp. 100, 46-47). The fact that knowledge is had by more and more people, including technological knowledge, is a victory of ethics: knowledge of how to produce automobiles, computers, steel, toys, lovely dresses, faucets, refrigerators, is not owned by persons in one or two nations, with people in other nations compelled to buy from them. 

In 1970, production by other nations of things America had been selling to the world, was cutting in on the profits of American firms. Now such production is much more widespread. There is competition not only with the American product but with the Japanese product, Korean product. While the fact that industry is taking place in Korea is making it harder for American and Japanese firms (also German and English) to profit, Korea itself has competition from Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, let alone that competitor-supreme, China.

The two big questions about those two big forms of ethics-as-force are these: 1) Can the profit system go on if people are paid decently? 2) If more and more countries have industrial and technological know-how, can the profit system go on?—is the having of knowledge by more of the world’s people good for the profit system? The answer to both questions is No.

It is because the answer to the first is No that the wages of Americans today are less than once, and firms are trying to dispense with American workers altogether—getting, instead, their goods produced by miserably paid foreign workers. And I believe the No answer to the second question is the fundamental reason for the plummeting of stock markets and currencies in Asia, including the massive business failures in Korea.

The Asian nations that used to be seen as the “economic miracle,” as representing the splendor of profit economics, are in the midst of financial calamity now; and the intricate reasons offered by press and economists are not the main ones. There is something underlying the complications of loan defaults and wild currency speculating. That something is the fact that the ability of Indonesia to produce goods hurts the profit system in Korea; the ability of Malaysia to produce, cuts in on profits of Japanese firms; the fact that Singapore can sell goods globally makes it harder for Taiwanese businesses to be profitable.

Even countries where the profit system is most undiluted by notions of justice—where there is no finickiness about such matters as child labor and hideous working conditions and where governments are unceremonious in their efforts to massacre unions—even such countries as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore are choking the profitmaking abilities of each other. It happens that, though profit economics is supposed to thrive on competition, it really hates competition. Every firm would like to be a monopoly: that’s how you make the most money. And that force of ethics which is increased knowledge and ability is making for so much international competition that the profit system cannot survive. Eight lemonade stands on one block will make it impossible for any one of them to operate profitably; and the block that is our dear Earth is replete with lemonade stands.

As the force of ethics is finishing off the world profit system, the U.S. government is providing billions of dollars to save it, including by keeping banks afloat. In the New York Times of January 1, Louis Uchitelle writes:

Financial crises that threaten to meltdown countries by the fistful are becoming a standard feature of the global economy. And as they occur, the governments of the big industrial countries find themselves dragged into the role of rescuing a market system that in theory at least is supposed to cure itself.

He notes that “the American Government...[is] using public money to bail out investors” in other countries. The money we pay in taxes is being used to ensure that persons the Times calls “private parties” stay profitable in Korea—even as Americans worry about feeding and clothing their families and millions of American children are poor.

A Beautiful Thing

For there to be more knowledge in the world is a beautiful thing. For more people and nations to be able to produce goods is a beautiful thing. It should make it possible for all people to have the things they need, and to provide what others need: it should enable the world’s people to strengthen each other. That will happen when production is based not on the contempt of using human beings for profit, but on ethics and aesthetics: the seeing that strengthening you is the same as taking care of me.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Listening Right

By Eli Siegel

There are a few ever so gigantically clever people in the 19th century. Two who were contemporary are Verdi and Wagner; and they both are like Victor Hugo, Balzac, and Dickens: they are terrific energies.

Wagner caused a commotion, and he had a bad time of it in England. What Wagner was doing is still not seen. The thing that it’s hard to say of Monteverde is said of both Verdi and Wagner: they are theatrical in a good sense. Wagner saw music as part of a show, a theatrical show; and Verdi did too; and Mozart somewhat less.

In the matter of conscience we have the question of listening right. A person who has an insufficient conscience is one who doesn’t listen. The word Listen! is used to arouse conscience. There was a good deal of not hearing of Wagner, and others, including Beethoven. Somebody has the nerve to say, “If Herr Beethoven would leave out the first third of this symphony, we might like it”: that’s the way they talked. Criticisms that are patronizing of Beethoven are in the book I am using [Norman Demuth’s Anthology of Musical Criticism]. And occasionally there’s just repulsion. 

There are two persons who have come together in this book in relation to Wagner. One is John Ruskin; the other is Samuel Butler. This is Ruskin in a letter to Mrs. Burne-Jones, June 30, 1882, concerning Wagner’s Die Meistersinger

Of all the bête, clumsy, blundering, boggling, baboon-blooded stuff I ever saw on a human stage, that thing last night beat—as far as the story and acting went: and of all the affected, sapless, soulless, beginningless, endless, topless, bottomless, topsiturviest, tongs and boniest doggerel of sounds I ever endured the deadliness of, that eternity of nothing was the deadliest—as far as the sound went.

When someone responds to a work this way, he ought to be concerned. Wagner can still be questioned; there are some persons who still don’t like him. There’s W.J. Turner, who just said he was a fraud. He says, “The ‘Ring’ is as hollow as ‘Tannhauser’ which is emptiness itself. I suspect even the Venusberg to be a fraud.” That’s 1933.

How we respond to things is our lives. If we respond ill, our lives that much are not what they should be. And a question of conscience is, In what way do we know that we respond ill; and how do we feel about it; what do we do about it? That Ruskin was tormented by himself is quite clear, with all the seeming assurance. But this is not about Ruskin. 

The two criticisms of Die Meistersinger are in the field of art criticism generally, and they’re mentioned in my Preface to Martha Baird’s Nice Deity. That is, a poem can be too hard-working, bombastic, turgid, vituperative, obstreperous, insensate, crude. Also, a poem can be too tame, tepid, restrained, cautious, academic, well-managed, feelingless. It’s a matter of too much coolness or too much heat. 

At the beginning, Ruskin says Die Meistersinger is just too much in the field of heat, or energy, crudity: “Of all the bête, clumsy, blundering...” There was a great deal of bawling in the Wagnerian operas, there is no doubt. When Siegfried saw something, he announced it to everybody; and when Hans Sachs says something, he says it so everybody can hear it. And to hear German loud is something! This was not for Ruskin.

Then, here is the emptiness, the tepidity, the fog quality: “and of all the affected, sapless, soulless, beginningless, endless,...that eternity of nothing was the deadliest.” Yet Ruskin, in his prose, is like Wagner. If Ruskin was really feeling good and he started a sentence at 8, he’d go on until at least 8:15. He wrote the longest sentences.

Ruskin’s criticism continues, “I never was so relieved...by the stopping of any sound—not excepting railway whistles....” Since then, music has looked very respectfully at railway whistles. There’s not a sound in the kitchen, not a sound in a factory, that hasn’t been thought of by some composer. Also, all the birds have been covered, including the strange ones—not just the song birds. 

“As for the great Lied, I never made out where it began, or where it ended.” It is felt now that Ruskin was unfair. And if he was unfair, then he had a right to have his conscience perturbed.

Click here to continue reading this lecture.