The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Best in Us—and the Worst

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are honored to print an introduction that Eli Siegel wrote nearly 25 years ago for a public seminar conducted by the Aesthetic Realism consultation trio The Kindest Art. The seminar was titled “Is the Drive to Art Different from the Personal Drive?” This short introduction. with its beautiful sentences, is about two things not understood before Aesthetic Realism, in all the centuries of art criticism and thought about life: 1) what impels a true artist?; 2) how is the artist’s great, sane, sensible, kind purpose different from the purpose people have in everyday life—a purpose that makes them agitated, bored, confused, lonely, and mean?

We also publish “Justice or Conceit?” part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism consultant Ken Kimmelman presented at a seminar last fall. Mr. Kimmelman is an animator and filmmaker. And his work has affected people across America in the past months through his Emmy Award-winning anti-prejudice public service film The Heart Knows Better, his 60-second film, shown on television, in movie theatres, and sports stadiums, quotes and is based on the following statement by Eli Siegel: “It will be found that black and white man have the same goodnesses, the same temptations, and can be criticized in the same way. The skin may be different, but the aorta is quite the same.”

Aesthetic Realism, greatly, shows that, with all the various purposes human beings have—to succeed in a career, find love, dress well, be entertained—there are two central, warring purposes that all the other purposes are about. One of these two purposes is the best thing in humanity; the other is the worst: and everybody has both. Until we understand these purposes and can love that best thing and criticize that worst thing in us, we will be mixed up about all our other purposes and never know or get clearly what we want. The best and deepest purpose of everyone, Mr. Siegel showed, is “to like the world on an honest basis.” This purpose, become intensely impelling, wide, rich, deep, is the drive to art. “Art,” Mr. Siegel writes, “goes for justice to all that is and all that lives. It welcomes subtly. It welcomes universally.”

But it is Eli Siegel who has identified, too, the other purpose in people, including artists—the purpose that makes a person mean, dishonest, cruel, that makes us untrue to ourselves, ruins love, weakens our minds. That purpose is contempt: the purpose to “get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not [one]self.”

Two Purposes in Emily Brontë

I write a little now about a person who is important in art. She stands for that mix-up—between width and narrowness, justice and contempt—which artists have had, and which also is making people who are not artists suffer in New Jersey and Kentucky, Kyoto and Madrid.

Emily Brontë, in her short life (1818-48), did not know the difference between the thing in her that had her write Wuthering Heights, with its intensity of feeling and carefulness of structure, that had her write some of the authentically musical poems of the English language—and that other thing, which wanted to despise the world and people and show she was better than they. She lived her life of nearly 30 years in Yorkshire, England, amid the rough, wild moorland she loved passionately and wrote about immortally. And the double ness with which she saw people is described by her sister Charlotte in a letter quoted in Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë. Charlotte writes of Emily:

My sister...rarely crossed the threshold of home. Though the feeling for the people around her was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought...; and yet she knew them...; she could hear of them with interest, and talk of them with detail minute, graphic, and accurate; but with them she rarely exchanged a word.

Though Charlotte Brontë is not clearly critical, she is describing a deep contempt for people in Emily that existed simultaneously with a desire—tremendous—to respect people. The characters in Wuthering Heights are alive now, 150 years later, because Emily Brontë wanted to be just to people—to the intricate feelings within them, to how they move and speak and affect each other. But she didn’t know that her not wanting to have to do with people outside the family, her becoming ill when away from home for any length of time, came from something entirely different from the thing in her that listened with deep interest to the sound of Yorkshire speech and to information about persons’ lives.

Though writers on Emily Brontë have tried to link her determined isolation to the quality of her art, that isolation was essentially contempt. It was not artistic a bit. It made her feel immensely displeased with herself and lonely. It also, for all her importance, stopped her from being as great an artist as she might have been. The power of Wuthering Heights is principally in its stirring, big relation of Yorkshire earth as beautifully fierce and kind, to people as fierce and gentle, kind and cruel. But Emily Brontë could not create a character with the complex interior fullness her contemporary George Eliot gave to people, or even that her sister Charlotte gave to Jane Eyre.

Courage, False and True

There was a beautiful courage in Emily Brontë. She wanted to see and feel things for herself, including the world where it was difficult, not smooth—like the bleak, rugged Yorkshire landscape. And this courageous welcoming of the difficult, at one with the desire to yield beautifully, sweetly to the meaning of things, made for the music of her poetry. But there was another kind of “courage” that was contempt, and completely unpoetic—and Emily Brontë did not know the difference between them. She wanted to show she needed no one’s help—and. this was a way of saying no one was good enough, really, to add to her. Even days before her death, when she was so ill she could hardly move, she refused to let anyone assist her. Wrote Charlotte: “To stand by and witness this, and not dare to remonstrate, was a pain no words can render.” In all its affectingness, such “courage” was really scornful superiority. It was fundamentally different from the lines—proud yet so welcomingly wide in their music—that begin Emily Brontë’s greatest poem:

No coward soul is mine,

No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere!

I see Heaven's glories shine,

And Faith shines equal, arming me from Fear.

Aesthetic Realism is based on the following historic principle, stated by Eli Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The thing Emily Brontë loved most in the world, the earth of Yorkshire, with its jagged rocks and delicate heather, she loved because it put together opposites. And I think the moor stood too, in its beloved harshness, for criticism she thirsted to hear and never heard: accurate, kind criticism of her contempt. Because she wanted critical severity that was also love, she wrote these lines (“It” is a river in her “dear moorlands”):

It is swelled with the first snowy weather;

The rocks they are icy and hoar

And sullenly waves the long heather,

And the fern-leaves are sunny no more.

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

But lovelier than cornfields all waving

In emerald and scarlet and gold

Are the heights where the north-wind is raving,

And the crags where I wandered of old.

Emily Brontë had the heroine or her noted novel utter one of the famous statements in literature, “I am Heathcliff!” And Emily Brontë, I believe, is saying now, “Aesthetic Realism is so true about me, it is me; it is everyone. It stands for the world itself!”

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Is the Drive to Art Different from the Personal Drive?

By Eli Siegel

The artist—in all his grandeur, all his disappointment, all his being gloriously true to himself or untrue to himself—is, like everyone, two people. It is possible that Michelangelo had his petty moments. It is possible that Henry Fielding, with all his expansive way of seeing the world, could be narrow. It is possible that Raphael walked the streets of Rome and saw other strollers with contempt. It is possible that Picasso was not able to see beauty in other arts, or sometimes some kind of beauty in his own. It is possible that Delacroix had a cheap attitude to a woman. It is possible that Van Gogh saw badly persons walking in Amsterdam. It is possible that Gauguin patronized people in Tahiti.

All of these things are illustrations of the fact that an artist is not an artist every moment, that he is not continuously in touch with the great depths of the world and the greatest structure of the world. Like an eagle who has to rest on a fairly dirty chimney, he gets down from the high places he may reach, and he gets, sometimes, away from the deep places he may get to. He falters, in other words. This is what we mean by our title. There is much more to say, and we hope to say more of what there is more to say.


Justice—or Conceit?

By Ken Kimmelman

Aesthetic Realism shows with tremendous kindness and logic that being fair to reality is the height of pleasure, pride, and intelligence! To be able to learn this is the most important thing that can happen to a person.

Growing up in Washington Heights, l was in a fight between wanting to respect the world and feeling I had a right, as Mr. Siegel put it, “to play tricks” with it. On the one hand, I cared for drawing, painting, and cartooning. I sometimes spent hours carefully drawing a comic strip and figuring out how a room or street looked from different angles, so that as the cartoon panels progress, the environment that the cartoon character is in is coherent. But I used my family to be conceited and cynical. While I saw my father and mother working hard to support our family, also saw them as hypocrites, and as not interested in knowing what their three sons felt. Even though I was not interested in their lives, used them to feel the world was filled with fakery and that I was a superior, artistic being. I got a thrill making fun of other people.

As my life went on, so did my contemptuous, self-centered way of seeing the world. It made me dislike myself and feel very unsure. I often asked myself, “Why can't things matter more to me?,” and by the time I was 26 I felt like an old man.

I was in a painful relation with a woman and spent a lot of time bored and angry, lying on my couch napping and feeling depressed, cursing God and the world for not giving me the breaks. Then I met Aesthetic Realism and in Aesthetic Realism lessons I was honored to have, I met in Eli Siegel justice, kindness, and the greatest respect for truth!

Mr. Siegel understood why I felt tormented and showed me the reason was conceit. He understood how steep my cynicism was. “Most people say thumbs down to the world,” he said, “but Mr. Kimmelman's thumbs are perpendicular.” And he asked me, “Are you looking to feel that you can rest with nothing more to hope for, no more striving? Do you believe you would like to get yourself in the position of not striving? Struggle is vulgar.” “Yes, I would,” I said. He continued, “And Aesthetic Realism bothers you, because it says there’s still something worth struggling for?” I answered, “Yes."

This was so important. Two of my favorite expressions had been “Who cares!” and “We all end up in the same place anyway.” In his landmark 1949 lecture Mind and Questions, Mr. Siegel explained: “When one has a tendency to conceit, one can be depressed....Hoping to find things bad, people get themselves miserable, be cause what they’re saying is, ‘The more I can find things bad in the world, the more important I am’” (TRO 734, 735).

That describes what I had done, and when saw it my life began to change! In the lesson I am quoting from, Mr. Siegel said, “It happens that you don’t respect yourself enough, Mr. Kimmelman. Are you interested in respecting yourself more, or do you get a hidden [false] ‘respect' because you don’t respect yourself? When we loathe ourselves with one pan of our­ selves, something in us is having a good time.” We can loathe ourselves, he explained, “because a self that is in the world, a self that gives its time to other people, we have no use for. If we can say, ‘This one is a failure,’ the hidden self can say, ‘The self that is functioning in the world is a flop—look at me, hidden!’ This is what Mr. Kimmelman is doing. He would like to have things run down.”

“Yes, that’s true,”' I said. Mr. Siegel continued, “Do you feel you are trying to prove the world is unfit for you?” “Yes, I am,” I answered. And he explained, “The purpose of Aesthetic Realism...is to show a person what that person permits in himself that is against his respecting himself. Anytime something doesn't get a spark from us and deserves to get a spark, we don't respect ourselves....Respect is the being able to say of a thing that it matters, that it belongs, it concerns one, it concerns other things, it's reality with many phases to it. To respect something in the deepest sense is to give it value.”

Mr. Siegel’s honesty and knowledge completely opposed my conceit, enabling me to respect myself. I became truly interested in people and objects—they started to matter to me. And it is because of Aesthetic Realism that have real, happy love in my life, in my marriage to Marcia Rackow. I thank Mr. Siegel for his beautiful, kind criticism, and his encouragement to have me be true to myself!