People Long Ago—& What Art Always Is
Dear Unknown Friends:
Poetry and History, the 1949 lecture by Eli Siegel which we are serializing, has what men and women everywhere need desperately. It has that beautiful, large, exact, respectful way of seeing people and reality which is central to Aesthetic Realism.
Mr. Siegel shows in this lecture that history is like art. He is the critic who has explained that all art is “the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual.” So too, he is showing here, is history—though history’s material is not words, or musical notes, or colors and shapes, but events and human beings. History, he shows, is the alive oneness of such opposites as order and disorder, happening and feeling, ordinary and extraordinary, personal and impersonal, known and unknown.
Every once in a while there is a happening that makes people more aware of two tremendous questions: What is art? and What is the relation between art and morality? Such a happening is the to-do in New York about the Brooklyn Museum’s “Sensation” exhibition—with the mayor condemning the exhibition, wanting it shut down, and wanting public funding withheld from the museum. I am not commenting here on the desire to suppress that which offends one and which may even be offensive as such. What I do comment on are those two great, centuries-old questions. Eli Siegel is the critic who has answered them.
The “Sensation” exhibition includes, for example, sculpture made of the artist’s own frozen blood; a real pig, split in half so that its insides are on view; an actual cow’s head, decaying, complete with live maggots; and the work that the mayor called “Catholic-bashing,” a picture of an African Virgin Mary accompanied by pieces of real elephant dung and cutouts from porn magazines. The response to the exhibition has mainly taken three forms: 1) outrage at its “sickness,” “sacrilege,” and “obscenity”; 2) praise of its boldness; 3) the response (according to polls) of most New Yorkers—that whatever its contents, the exhibit should not be censored (a view with which I am in agreement). But this underlying question has not been answered in the public controversy: What is it that makes one work containing repulsive material be art, or even approach art, be in the territory of art; and what makes another not be art, and be, in fact, against art?
Aesthetic Realism shows that not only is this a crucial aesthetic question; it is a crucial question for the life of every person. And the reason is, it involves the huge, pressing battle going on within each of us: between contempt for the world and respect for it.
Contempt, Respect, and Art
Mr. Siegel defined contempt as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” And he made clear this fact: the contempt that is in everyone is the source of all human cruelty, and of mental weakness. Our desire to make less of the outside world includes the desire to see reality as repulsive, disgusting, even nauseating, so we can feel superior to it. That is why a person can look at others on a bus or subway and see faces as uglier than they really are. It is why a person can see garbage under a clear blue sky and make the garbage more important than the sky, and feel disgustedly that reality is pretty much garbage. “To see the world itself as an impossible mess,” Mr. Siegel writes, “...gives a certain triumph to the individual” (Self and World, Definition Press, p. 11). Then, there is the desire we have to respect and like the world honestly. This is our deepest desire; it is the purpose we were born for, though we may betray it by having contempt day after day. All true art, Aesthetic Realism shows definitely, arises from respect for the world. And that is so whether the art is Fragonard’s depiction of a young lady free and decorous on a swing—or Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, with its giant birds and fish, its many naked people engaging in strange and inelegant activities, its use of the disgusting.
The criterion for the work at the Brooklyn Museum, and for any work involving the shocking or the repellent, is: does it arise from respect for the world; or does it arise from the desire to have and evoke contempt for the world? A person’s contempt can make for a merely “decorative” and dull painting of a pretty child with a pretty kitten—because to soothe oneself by making the world less strange and critical than it is, is to have contempt for it. And to arrange some of the repellent possibilities of the world so as to have people feel they are in a disgusting universe, is contempt too, and is hurtful. Anything, whether falsely soothing or shocking, that encourages our contempt for reality, weakens us, because contempt for the world is the most weakening emotion we can have.
The Most Hopeful Fact
I love Aesthetic Realism for showing this: the fact that the unpleasant, the ugly, the repellent, seen truly, can make for art, is the most hopeful fact in the world. I am grateful to say something of why. From the beginning, art has included the unpleasant. It is in Homer’s descriptions of Greek and Trojan warriors injuring each other’s bodies. But as the centuries have proceeded, increasingly artists have said in various ways, “This—which my predecessors thought too ugly to be of art—should be included too, and I will show how.” The this could be, perhaps, lice-infested bedding, which a novelist describes in fine prose. It could be a certain dissonance which makes your skin creep, but which a composer shows is part of music too.
In his poem “History of Art,” Eli Siegel asks this question, which I think is great, crucial, and lovable: “What is deserved by the disgusting?” A means of seeing the answer is a line from a poem he quotes in the section of Poetry and History published here. It is an anonymous Chinese poem of the 2nd century BC, about soldiers who died in battle; and in Arthur Waley’s translation the line is
Their flesh was the food of crows.
That is a fairly disgusting idea; but the line is beautiful. It is beautiful because of its form: the way words are placed; the way the vowels and consonants and rhythm make for music. And that form happens to be a oneness of stir and great quietude.
The form also is a oneness of tangibility and wonder, of touchable matter and what is beyond one’s grasp. The content is horribly tangible. We hear the tactual too, through the gentle friction of consonants in the word “flesh” and the harsh cr of “crows.” And yet we also have a feeling of wonder, even reverence, through the oo sound in “food” and that long o at the end of the line. I imagine this translation conveys something of the oneness of opposites felt and heard in the original.
What has happened is that the anonymous Chinese writer has given the disgusting what it deserved: he so much wanted to see reality justly, and to use this unlikable subject to see it justly, that reality’s opposites became one in his line. We feel the world itself there: the world which is both stir and quiet, the horrible and gentle, flesh and wonder. That is “what is deserved by the disgusting”: that it be used to be just to reality.
And here is the reason why the authentic presence of the repellent in art is the most hopeful thing in the world: art shows that when we see an ugly thing truly, the world looks more beautiful to us, not less; more meaningful, not less, more to be respected, not less!
Hieronymus Bosch Had Respect
For example, there is the work I mentioned, The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516)—who was so interested in the repellent. The 4th edition of Helen Gardner’s Art through the Ages has this statement, descriptive of it: A landscape..., receding into space, provided the setting which Bosch peopled with a multitude of real and imaginary figures all treated with meticulously rendered detail.
Even in this short statement, we can see that the rich painting of Bosch has what we met in the single line from the Chinese poem: it has respect for the world. Respect is in the fact that details—however bizarre they may be—are “meticulously rendered.” And the placement of various disrespectful happenings and unpleasant creatures in a whole landscape that goes "into space," has one feel the largeness of the world, has one feel reality is to be looked up to, wondered at, not sneered at. The creatures in this work—human and otherwise—with all their undignified activities and sometimes repellent appearance, through the way they are “meticulously rendered” seem dignified too, and gentle. The largeness and pettiness of the world, the crude and the meticulous, reality’s awfulness and its gentleness, we feel as one. And because we do, the world looks beautiful, and we respect it. Eli Siegel showed that art, whatever its subject, is always moral, because it is fair to the world. If it is not fair to the world, it is not art. And then, the contempt in it, the lessening of what’s not oneself for one’s own importance, would be like contempt anywhere. It would be like the contempt of a government leader who deprives people of what they need and deserve and calls it patriotism. (The government leader’s contempt is, of course, more hurtful.)
Eli Siegel was, in my opinion, the greatest of artists. That is so not only in his poetry, but in the justice, which he had all the time, to people and to reality itself.