The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Music Is about Your Life

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue serializing Music & “Questions for Everyone,” a 1975 Aesthetic Realism class discussion conducted by Eli Siegel. In it, he relates what music is to what is asked about in his great “Questions for Everyone” (TRO 750)—questions that give form to the personal confusions, sinking, unsureness of people. The discussion, lively and deep, and often funny, is a commentary on the central principle of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Eli Siegel is the philosopher who showed that what we need, in every aspect of our lives, is to do what art does: put opposites together. Our self is an aesthetic situation, and only through seeing it that way can we make sense of our lives.

Included here too is part of a paper by photographer Len Bernstein, from a recent public seminar titled “A Man’s Urgent Question: How Can I Be Both Critical & Kind?” This matter of criticism and kindness has tormented people—because they have seen criticism as unkind, and have seen kindness, really, as an evasion of their own intellect and personal need. That is, people have felt that to be kind to someone they had to put aside what they might question about him or her, and also put aside their own desire to take care of themselves. Aesthetic Realism grandly and mercifully shows that this view of things is incorrect.

It happens that this human matter of kindness and criticism is related to the technical art matter Mr. Siegel speaks of here: concord and discord. Both pairs of opposites are forms of the big primal opposites For and Against.

What We Want

I love the subject of criticism and kindness. And I say, with great feeling: People are longing for criticism, the real thing. Every person, of course, has a seemingly insatiable desire for praise: to be told we’re wonderful, in excelsis, just as we are. Yet we know, even as we’re not clear about it, that there are things we dislike in ourselves, that are bad, that hold us back. We’re aching to hear from another where we need to be better, so that we can be better and meet our own hopes.

People are sloppy critics of themselves: they go from condemning themselves inexactly to justifying themselves, also inexactly. A true description of criticism is by Matthew Arnold, who said that the purpose of a critic is “to see the object as in itself it really is.” Part of criticism is to see and strengthen what is good. And Mr. Siegel explained that an authentic critic “makes a good thing look good, a bad thing look bad, and a middling thing look middling.” He himself was the greatest critic, of both art and life. He was a magnificent, kind critic of people—including, I say with infinite gratitude, of me. He enabled people’s lives to flourish, minds to become wider, deeper, kinder, more alive, keen, imaginative, expressed. The criticism people hunger for is criticism that has simultaneously good will and knowledge. That was Eli Siegel’s criticism always and mightily. And it exists in the education of Aesthetic Realism.

Every Day

Every day, as people angle for flattery and get it, they also hate the persons who flatter them. The reason is: a person who doesn’t try to see what in us weakens us, what stops us from being as good as we could be, is an enemy. He or she doesn’t care if we’re untrue to ourselves.

I will say, and have said, more about this greatest of subjects. For now, I quote the following poem, definitive and musical, by Eli Siegel:

Behold, Love Is Criticism

To love a person

Is to fight for what is good in that person

And to fight against what is not good in that person

And, both, for a joyous reason.

Therefore it is clear,

Love is criticism.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Concord & Discord Are Ours

By Eli Siegel

Eli Siegel. Question 3 is “Have I sometimes felt that I hated everything?” I’ll ask you, Ms. Danario, do you think this has anything to do with music?

Wendy Danario. I’m not sure.

ES. Well, what are the two aspects of music? They are like the two aspects in life. For instance, once somebody was thinking of opening a resort in the Catskills, and there was already a big place nearby called The Concord. What do you think I suggested to this person?

WD. Make it The Discord?

ES. Oh, yes: The Discord Inn. —Yes, Ms. Marsh?

Bonita Marsh. There’s a lot of music that’s very, very angry, and has the emotion of hating everything. The first thing I thought of is in Gluck’s Orfeo—though you’d think that’s so restrained.

ES. Yes. There are two kinds of sound, as in poetry too. There are sounds that are consonant and sounds that are dissonant. But if sounds weren’t a little dissonant they wouldn’t be interesting. And that’s been the history of art: that colors should clash a bit; that sounds should clash a bit; that there should be discord.

If one heard Joan Sutherland do her whole insane scene from Lucia di Lammermoor, one could feel the melody of it, but at the same time feel she was complaining against the whole world. That’s what one does when one is insane. And Joan Sutherland does it in a way that affected people. It is now one of the classical things in music.

Present-day music accents the dissonance or discord. But it has always been there. If sounds didn’t have some discord they would be just mellifluous. So music honors both mellifluousness and cacophony. And many things can be cacophonous.

Things are either for something or against something. That goes for everything. It sometimes happens with a bridge—the water in a storm seems to leap toward it. I remember seeing waves leaping—they couldn’t have done much good or harm, but they were leaping foolishly toward the Brooklyn Bridge. They couldn’t do much harm to the Brooklyn Bridge; but with some others, the waves can be so high they really can damage the bridges.

Everything can be in a state of enmity. That goes for everything in chemistry and in physics. And sounds are like that.

We have the question “Have I sometimes felt that I hated everything?” Hate arises from the fact that things are different—that you’re different from things and know them. That’s why usually there’s been the greatest hate between countries that border on each other. —Yes, Ms. Eames?

Rylan Eames. Is there some hate implicit in all difference?

ES. I’d say so, yes. For instance, when leaves rustle it is very pretty, but the reason they rustle is that they are trying to occupy the same space. Occasionally it’s very beautiful, but there is a clash. Why do you think notes change in music?

RE. Because it wasn’t enough to be the same.

ES. That’s right. Contrast is looked for—as when anytime in a painting there is a color or a shape that goes along yet also questions the previous shape.

In the meantime, when people want to get away from things, that is also a sign that they want to hate everything.

So Mr. Durán, since you have to do with Spain—what has been a cause of fighting in Spain?

Bernardo Durán. Does it have to do with fascism, Mr. Siegel?

ES. I mean something earlier. Right now, for instance, the Basques see themselves as different from the rest of Spain, and they’ve seen themselves that way for a long time. Before that there was discord between Spaniards and Arabs. The relation of the two is in Washington Irving’s The Alhambra. That’s the American classic on the subject.

But this is what I’m trying to say: there are the provinces of Spain, the divisions of Spain—like New York and West Virginia, or New York City and rural places, or, for that matter, New York and New Jersey. In keeping with the idea that where there are difference and proximity there can be discord, so there were Catalonia and Castile; also Castile and Aragon. The purpose of Isabella’s marrying Ferdinand was to unite the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. But there was always trouble from Catalonia. Orwell has a book titled Homage to Catalonia.

So provinces have made for trouble. Then, in France in the Middle Ages there were two modes of speaking, in the North and the South, and it is just by chance that the Parisian way won out.

Since you, Mr. Durán, will be learning more about Spain—I’d say that it has been a country of interesting differences. Two things one can see in it are that Spain is one of the great places of mysticism, but also one of its heroes is Sancho Panza—which shows it is an interesting country.


Can We Be Both Critical & Kind?

By Len Bernstein

I very much wanted people to think I was kind, and outwardly I was solicitous, holding a door open for someone or giving up my seat to a person on the train. I felt the best way to show people you were kind was to give them a gift, especially if it wasn’t their birthday.

But I would have felt mortified if anyone knew what my thoughts were really like, how in my mind I tore people down, relished finding their flaws, or daydreamed of myself as a superior being with people clamoring to be my friend.

An Attitude to Criticism & Kindness Begins

As a boy in Brooklyn in the 1950s, I enjoyed reading yet got poor grades in school. Meanwhile, my mother would praise me, saying, “Your friends are not your intellectual peers,” and she’d urge me to get new ones. I felt uncomfortable when she did this, but lapped it up and saw myself as a little prince among commoners. And we would have “critical” conversations, just the two of us, and point out how selfish this person was or how that one wasn’t very bright. Then, when my mother did say something usefully critical of me, I felt betrayed and resentful. I didn’t know that my increasingly inflated opinion of myself was why I had such difficulty taking in what another person said. In conversations, I could only remember the important parts: what I had said.

My dad was more critical. He tried to teach me things, like how to play ball and swim, but I resisted. Once, when he tried to show me how to find a subject in our encyclopedia, I punished him by deliberately choosing the wrong volume again and again until he gave up.

Years later, in my first Aesthetic Realism consultation, I spoke about my trouble listening to people. My consultants explained that the cause was my contempt, the desire to diminish the meaning of people and things and feel superior to them: “You feel it’s an insult to listen to others or learn from them, because that would show you are incomplete and need the outside world.” This criticism was in behalf of encouraging what was best in me, my deepest desire: to like the world. Aesthetic Realism consultations are the oneness of criticism and kindness that people are looking for, and at my first consultation I drank in what I heard like a thirsty man who’d been in the desert for a long time.

When I was a child, my parents, my sister, Richel, and I enjoyed such things as singing folk songs together and going on trips to the beach and Coney Island. When I was five my parents bought a luncheonette, and for about seven years they worked long, hard hours to make a comfortable life for us. Yet when they came home exhausted, all I could think of was how they ran a lowly business that didn’t make me look like a big shot to my friends.

The business did well for a few years, until the bus stop that was right in front and brought in a lot of customers was moved to another street. This was a difficult time, and I used the financial worry and growing discord in our home, including arguments between my parents, to be disgusted. I withdrew more into my daydreams and sometimes showed my anger in ways I regret very much. Once I took my BB gun and from the window of my room shot toward a person across the street. He wasn’t hurt, but I had no idea what was running me. I was to learn that when you dislike the world you can want to punish what seems to represent it. And contempt makes others’ feelings unreal.

In an Aesthetic Realism consultation I was asked, “Do you think you used the fights between your mother and father to respect the world more or to have contempt for it?” My consultants encouraged kindness in me toward my parents—real kindness, which was the same as being an exact critic of them, relating what was good and bad in them, as I was learning to do with myself. I was given assignments: for example, to write a character sketch of my mother at age 26. Another assignment was to read Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons, to begin studying how the literature of the world describes the relation between parent and child. I began to see that my father and mother didn’t exist to make me important or unhappy: they had lives of their own they were hoping to like; and they were in relation not just to me but the whole world. As I was learning to be fair to the thoughts and feelings of Helen and Milton Bernstein, I became kinder.

Kindness vs. Meanness in Love

Like most men, I was a bad critic of women. I judged a woman according to whether she showed I was the most important thing in her life. I was often tormented by jealousy and thought this was a sign of how much I loved the woman—when in fact, I was to learn, my jealousy showed just the opposite: my desire to own her.

I would learn that the way I saw love could be no better than the way I saw people and the world. About the way I was with people, Mr. Siegel once asked me in a class, “Can you tell the difference between candor and brutality?” I couldn’t. I prided myself on “telling it like it is”—by which I meant making a person or thing look bad—and I couldn’t understand why people didn’t welcome my insights. But somewhere I knew I was mean, and was ashamed. I think that’s why I could sometimes look at myself in the mirror when I was alone and grimace and curse myself.

When I met Harriet Glazer I was stirred by her beauty and the grace with which she moved, and I admired the way she talked with people and listened to them. I felt more complete being close to her. But I was plagued by jealousy. I resented it when she talked about her past, and bullied her into throwing away her pictures of a man who had been important in her life. I said if she really loved me she wouldn’t need to keep them. Meanwhile, I kept all my own photos.

Eli Siegel defined love as “proud need.” In knowing Harriet I was learning new things and having new, deeper emotions. But I also felt that if I cared so much for someone I should be able to own and feel superior to her. Thus began my series of pompous little lectures designed to improve Harriet’s knowledge. They were both foolish and unkind.

But Harriet and I were fortunate to begin studying Aesthetic Realism shortly after we were married. In an early consultation I was asked, “Do you see learning as a humiliation that you have to make up for by asserting yourself? And do you do that with your wife?” “I have,” I answered.

Harriet and I began to learn how to have good will for each other. Aesthetic Realism describes good will as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.” And Mr. Siegel writes: “Good will is a true mingling of kindness and exactness or severity; in other words,...good will is aesthetics.” My desire to have a good effect on Harriet was growing. And for the first time, I was able to welcome criticism from a woman instead of fearing and resenting it. As I look at Harriet today I see a friend who encourages me to be a kinder, stronger man—who wants me to be fair to people and the world. And each day studying Aesthetic Realism brings more strength and kindness to our lives.

For example, in an Aesthetic Realism class for consultants and associates, I said I wanted to understand better what might keep my photography from being as good as it could be. Ellen Reiss asked, “In any person, what’s the big thing that’s in a fight with seeing?”

LB. One’s ego, one’s contempt.

ER. All right. As a photographer you want to have that seeing which is with the eye, and also that seeing which is knowledge. We want to see—but we also want to be seen as wonderful....

Everyone can ask, does oneself put limits on how much meaning one wants to see in things? If we want to see the meaning of other things, something in the self feels it has rooked itself: “What about MY meaning?!” And Aesthetic Realism says, The way you’re going to see your meaning is through seeing the meaning of other things.

I am in the midst of the greatest education, learning to see the world and myself in a way that makes for honest pride.