The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Human Drama

Dear Unknown Friends:

Eli Siegel wrote The Opposites Theory in the late 1950s. And in the 9th chapter, published here, he describes Aesthetic Realism’s new, great understanding of how the human self is related to reality as a whole and to every aspect of it. That means: what you have to do with every person, fact, object; with history; with what you’ll meet tomorrow. The relation is in this principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

Every one of us, in all our rich individuality, came from the world, and the makeup of the world is in us. That makeup is the opposites. “The structure of what thing,” Mr. Siegel asks, “cannot illuminate our own structure? Does not a sheet of paper in its wideness and narrowness bring some essential likeness to us, to ourselves?”

The Biggest Ethical Matter

In The Opposites Theory, chapter 9, he speaks of what our likeness to outside reality has to do with art—with why people create art and are affected by art. But the ineradicable, grand continuity of every person with the world we’re in, is also the biggest ethical matter in our lives. What we do about it is equivalent to how kind or cruel we are, and determines how much we’ll like or dislike ourselves.

The fact that we’re related to everything, the fact that (as Mr. Siegel writes) we have “reality in common with all things”—this is the reason why our desire to have contempt for things and people cripples our lives. Mr. Siegel showed that contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else,” is the source of every injustice. It’s also the mental weakener—because in scorning what’s outside of us, we’re scorning too the very makeup of ourselves.

The Art Principle & Our Lives

To show something of how the great aesthetic principle Mr. Siegel discusses in chapter 9 is also the means through which a person can be proud and fully herself, I’m going to quote from the first Aesthetic Realism lesson of my mother, Irene Reiss. It took place 60 years ago this summer, on August 29, 1947. Irene Reiss was 32 years old, married, and in distress. She was afraid to ride the subway, afraid to leave her home unaccompanied. There was what has been called agoraphobia, and anxiety. The practitioners of today are like those of 1947. They do not know that trouble of mind, both everyday and steeper, exists because a person has gone against the basis of art, which is also our own inner imperative: The world is the other half of ourselves, and to be ourselves we have to want to know and welcome it!

The only record of this lesson is notes taken by a friend of my mother’s. They include questions and statements of Mr. Siegel, though not Mrs. Reiss’s responses. Early, the notes have Mr. Siegel saying this:

Everything that isn’t Irene is the world. Do you believe you are for that or against that?...No person can really be happy unless she sees what isn’t herself as on her side. There is a tendency to say that everything which isn’t ourselves exists to make us less, and we are in a battle with these things.

He explained that we punish ourselves for being unjustly against the world and people. One punishment is, we become afraid:

Suppose something in you which you don’t know about says, Other people exist in competition with me and the only time I feel important is when I can forget that they exist. Then when you go into the subway you feel, There are the people I was trying to forget about when I went to bed last night!

Mr. Siegel described to Irene Reiss how contempt works: “[It] says, ‘the more I can despise and be against, the more important I am.'” He gave this ordinary example: “When we listen to people, if we can not listen, we feel we can have ourselves to ourselves.” With logic and beautiful sweetness, he explained why, along with being fearful outside her house, Irene Reiss could be so angry at home:

Do you think you have made your home an isolated castle?...The reason you get displeased in your house is that you feel you are using your home against the rest of the world. The best thing is to see your home as in a flowing relation with the rest of the world—to like both, and be a good citizen and not play off one against the other.

He described the art principle in Irene Reiss and us: we are, at once, just ourselves and related to everything:

Aesthetic Realism says that that which is done by people who want to get falsely independent and protective is against themselves, because every person is two persons in a sense—personal and impersonal. The two aspects can go together the way the bass and treble of a piano go together. You should say, “I am now with a thousand people and the self which was alone in bed is also present.”

Everything that we look at should be seen wholly. If you would like to be seen wholly, don’t you think other people would like to be seen wholly and not as shadows?

The notes conclude with Mr. Siegel giving Irene Reiss an Aesthetic Realism assignment, to write three sentences each day about an object:

Write about something each day. See that the things you write about differ from you, but will tell you something about yourself....I am trying to renew your love for things that are not yourself. The more you will like the world, the more you will like yourself. Don’t miss a day in writing about something which is not yourself—street, sky, shoe, Queen Victoria.

Through this lesson, and those that followed, what had troubled Irene Reiss did so no longer. She wrote recently: “In 1947, as Mr. Siegel spoke to me about my relation to the world, I felt that my deepest fears and hopes were being understood for the first time. What I learned from him, then and later, made for an educated life, one of dignity and pride. My gratitude is boundless.”

Yes, the self of everyone is an aesthetic matter—and humanity urgently needs to know this.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Animate & Inanimate in Reality & Art

By Eli Siegel

Man has reality in common with all things, and he is impelled to find reality in all things. In art, the fact that man is alive in his way and that other things are alive in a different way or not at all—this is of less importance than that there is reality in common among all things, including man as individual.

Today, for example, in being affected by an abstract painting, a person finds it more important that a color is intensified or muted, blended or separated, dense or less dense, than that the color is not himself. For man likewise goes through intensification and muting, blending and separation, being opaque or transparent. The events of color are man’s events, where those events begin, where reality begins.

Shapes widen and narrow; come to a point and curve; rise, fall—and these things man does too. The drama of colors and shapes and lines is man’s drama. The intensification and muting of color in art go for one thing; and man wishes that intensity and lessening go for one thing in him. How this can be, he mightily wants to find out, and art can tell him.

In the Earliest Days

In the very earliest days of history, the human being showed an interest in symmetry, parallels, angles, broken lines, curves, colors, and so on. According to the Theory of Opposites, that is because the possibilities of space say something about reality, which is about him; and these possibilities of space say something about him directly. Deeply, possibilities of space are he. So are possibilities of time. The everlasting forms of reality have, in their arrangement, become an individual; but the individual is still they. The world or reality becoming an individual is not a one-way procedure, for the individual remains the world, reality, and their forms—and shows it somehow.

We are interested in symmetry because symmetry is about us, the everything which became us. We are interested in asymmetry because everything, or reality, is that too. The possibilities of existence are our possibilities.

And so, when we read the following from the first chapter of Reinach’s Apollo—that sturdy handbook of the history of art—we should not see just the “awakening of the decorative impulse” or some such thing, but the arousing, through art, of man’s feeling that reality and himself are about the same thing; are the same thing.

Art manifests itself first in the desire for symmetry, which is analogous to the rhythm of poetry and music, and the taste for colour....It goes on to trace ornaments composed of straight or curved, parallel or broken lines....A child delights successively in symmetry, colour, the juxtaposition and interlacement of lines.¹

From where does man get this “desire for symmetry”? He “gets it” because he already has it. All big desire is with us from the beginning. The history of desire is a history of its objectification, of its affirmation, of its increase and organization. Symmetry comes forth in us as does a growing thing in March. Reality has symmetry, and in taking the form of ourselves, it brings the symmetry too. And we have it. And then it is our job to honor it. Anyway, we have to do something about it.

What an Individual Is

Reality has asymmetry too in it, and endows us with this likewise. We must, as individuals, honor asymmetry too. The history of an individual is the history of what he particularly does with the general forces he comes to have through being born. An individual is the forces of reality or nature become romantically particular, utterly singular.

Man’s sense of art, then, is how the general aspects of existence are in him as individual.

These general aspects of existence are in an individual as forces; and forces are desires.

Man as artist is saying, I can be like reality as a whole and be myself more than ever. In liking art, man says this too.

Reality is like the sphere and the cube; that is, it continues and stops. When these two volumes in a painting are put together well by an individual, the problem of reality and man’s problem are both pleasingly dealt with. Singularly, the world as self-contained and the world as relation have been worked on satisfactorily by the mind of man.

The happenings in art are simultaneously the permanent conditions of reality and the permanent possibilities—or forces and desires—of man.

When we like music, a problem in reality and ourselves has been met with some success.

There is nothing that anything has which in some way is not in a person. A rock, in its shape, weight, roughness, restingness, has what we can see are of us. A leaf also has those things we can see within ourselves. We also have a combination of rock, leaf, and tree trunk. Having this, we want to show it. In showing it, we welcome art. The general rule of an individual’s life is that what he has, he should show accurately. This accurate showing of what one has—the manyness of what one is—is expression. The showing of what other things have and are, is expression too.

Two Times in History

It is notable that man should have identified himself with the external world at two times in his history: one, when, as savage, he saw rivers, animals, hills, stones as like himself—when, as it is said, he was animistic; the other, when, as a polished and rational creature of the 18th century, he showed a tendency to personify nearly everything.

Primitive man made the winds and clouds personal. Cultivated man later made Hope, Progress, Disease, Evil, Science personal.

An 18th-century line in France, for example, was “Brave les serpents de l'Envie” (Defy the serpents of Envy), where Envy is not only personified—with a capital letter—but is given serpents in the bargain. Does not Écouchard Lebrun, the author, show a resemblance to that ancient man who saw malignity in natural forces, a malignity with personal quality?²

Lemierre, a French 18th-century poet of quality, says in La Peinture (Painting): “You created the design, Love; it is also you / Who will teach us the law of coloring,” and “Allegory inhabits a diaphanous palace” (pp. 305, 310).

Generalities are made by Lemierre to act personally in some detail. What does this 18th-century tendency come from—at the beginning? Why this compound of rationality and animism?

There is a mingling of personification, abstraction, animism in this famous quatrain from Gray’s Elegy:

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page

Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll;

Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,

And froze the genial current of the soul.

Just what, as realities, are Knowledge with “her ample page” and Penury?

It is William Collins who in English 18th-century literature is the most unrestrained with personification, animism, in his poetry. Collins' “The Passions” makes qualities and people akin in a most daringly rich manner. These two lines can serve: “O Music! sphere-descended maid, / Friend of Pleasure, Wisdom’s aid!”

Abstract Art & Romanticism

What Écouchard Lebrun and Lemierre, Gray and Collins did in their poetry has to do with the deep purpose of abstraction now. In the 18th century, forces were made persons; in contemporary abstractions, arrangements of spatial possibilities-existence-forms—are presented as having human relevance, a source in aesthetic commonness with human emotion.

Romanticism is all about the oneness of animate and inanimate, human and other reality.

The making one of qualities and persons, possibilities and the human, reaches its height, perhaps, in this stanza of Shelley’s Adonais:

And others came—Desires and Adorations,

Wingèd Persuasions and veiled Destinies,

Splendors, and Glooms, and glimmering Incarnations

Of hopes and fears, and twilight Fantasies;

And Sorrow, with her family of Sighs,

And Pleasure, blind with tears, led by the gleam

Of her own dying smile instead of eyes,

Came in slow pomp;—the moving pomp might seem

Like pageantry of mist on an autumnal stream.

The figures in this stanza seem to make for a psychological fresco. They seem to be two-dimensional, yet living. —Perhaps it is well to mention at this point that the word figure is a oneness of animate and inanimate.

The Novelists Likewise

The novelists likewise have made the inanimate world into persons. Landscape in a novel, or background, merges with the characters. But often a novelist has consciously worked at making an object into a person. Dickens has done this frequently. An early example is from “The Bagman’s Story” in Pickwick Papers (chapter 14):

Tom gazed at the chair; and, suddenly as he looked at it, a most extraordinary change seemed to come over it. The carving of the back gradually assumed the lineaments and expression of an old shriveled human face; the damask cushion became an antique, flapped waistcoat; the round knobs grew into a couple of feet, encased in red cloth slippers; and the old chair looked like a very ugly old man, of the previous century, with his arms a-kimbo.

From what arises this possibility of making the inanimate into a human being, as we see it in animism, the 18th-century poets, in writers like Dickens, in Bunyan, in Mother Goose, in dreams? It all comes from the grand, salubrious fact that reality persists in individuals—the reality we see in physics, chemistry, logic, meteorology, geography, botany, zoology. All reality becomes exceedingly specific, compact, astonishing in a person.

The desire of man to be other things, because he already is, and must see it, is in the difficult and good verse of Hart Crane. In a powerful and graceful manner, man’s kinship with the botanical—midway between the inorganic and the zoological—is in “Garden Abstract”:

And so she comes to dream herself the tree,

The wind possessing her, weaving her young veins,

Holding her to the sky and its quick blue,

Drowning the fever of her hands in sunlight.

She has no memory, nor fear, nor hope

Beyond the grass and shadows at her feet.

Earlier in the poem: “The apple on its bough is her desire,—/... / She is prisoner of the tree and its green fingers.” Much art history is in Hart Crane’s “Garden Abstract.” 

¹ Solomon Reinach, Apollo (NY: Scribner’s, 1922), p. 2.

² Petits poètes français, ed. Prosper Poitevin (Paris: Desrez, 1838 ), p. 450. (Literal translations have been provided for the present publication.)