Peter Gorlin Interviews Eli Siegel on The World of Art, April 11, 1963—Part 1
THE INTREPID AS CONTEMPORARY
A beginning idea of Aesthetic Realism can be had from the following interview with Eli Siegel over station WKCR on April 11, 1963. The interviewer was Peter Gorlin, director of The World of Art program. Station WKCR-FM is an aspect of Columbia University.
When Peter Gorlin asked Eli Siegel about ethics and religion, the relation of reality to beauty, and particularly about how the oneness of opposites matters in this world—he led the broadcasting world in a kind of courage, a mode of timeliness.
Only part of the interview is in the present issue of Definition. Even so, an authentic notion of Aesthetic Realism can be had.
Definition hopes that the interview, the courage of WKCR, the ethical intrepidity of Peter Gorlin will be used to encourage the adequate study of Aesthetic Realism.
In our next issue, the second half of the interview will be given.
Aesthetic Realism Broadcast
Peter Gorlin Interviews Eli Siegel on The World of Art, April 11, 1963—Part 1
MR. GORLIN. I have with me tonight the founder of Aesthetic Realism, Mr. Eli Siegel. Mr. Siegel, could you tell us something about yourself—where you've studied and taught?
MR. SIEGEL. I think that the study can be called persistent thought over the years. Technically, I am a graduate of Baltimore City College, 1919—which is not as imposing as it sounds; but I found that what I was reading, what I was interested in, was a good deal ahead of what I was technically studying; and something like this has been so from the beginning. Consequently I have to say that my essential place of study is the world itself; but if one is interested, I am a graduate of Baltimore City College, 1919.
MR. GORLIN. Well, about Aesthetic Realism now. What would you say are the fundamental ideas of Aesthetic Realism?
MR. SIEGEL. The fundamental idea of Aesthetic Realism is that in the world itself, in everything in it, in oneself, in you—there is a oneness of opposites.
The best way of seeing this is to look at an object. As we look at an ordinary object, a spoon, it will seem something we have known for years. We have used spoons for years, most likely. But there is something also strange about it. A painter or a sculptor could think of a spoon as something strange, and in so far as he did, he would be impelled to make art of it. But the world itself is ordinary and strange. Technically, it is limited and unlimited; that is, it is finite and infinite. Technically also, it is a mingling of that which obstructs us and that which gives us freedom—which is another way of saying that it has matter and it has space. (Time and space also can be seen as opposites.)
And the opposites are exceedingly subtle. I have a glass before me. The glass has weight, and it has shape. It is like the world itself, having weight and also having something lighter than weight—space; or as some people would say, spirit; or as some people would say, God. We find, in other words, that whether we are thinking of the universe or whether we are thinking of our thumb, there are opposites.
A person who holds his thumb up, somewhat as I am doing, somewhat as anyone can be doing, will find that there is something tight in holding up one's thumb; but there is also something relaxed, not tight. This corresponds to the world as being flexible, graceful, easy.
MR. GORLIN. To interrupt—?
MR. SIEGEL. Surely.
MR. GORLIN. While all objects may be related by being opposites, that's quite another thing from saying that they are one through their oppositeness. This is something I know you have discussed in lectures and in your writings. Could you clarify this point?
MR. SIEGEL Yes. We see a glass as a oneness of shape and weight. The glass that I am looking at has something which is not weight—its form or its shape; it also has weight, because the glass comes to eight ounces, or whatever its weight is. When we think of the glass as shape-and-weight, we are accenting the oneness of the glass. In the same way, a person will get a heightened sense of oneness if he feels that right now he is, and also he can change the next moment.
There is also a sloppy kind of oneness. If a toothpick is slightly broken, the toothpick is still one, but that oneness is hardly satisfactory. The two parts, in other words, are together, but there is not the oneness of the crisp and usable toothpick.
The idea of oneness is a logical idea. The notion of oneness has been taken over by the mystics in some degree, unfortunately, because oneness is a dramatic idea. When, for example, we look at a painting, the first thing we do is to see it as one painting: we can distinguish that painting from others. But as we see how the parts or the details are in a painting, the sense of its oneness, which we had as soon as we entered the gallery or museum, has become a heightened sense of oneness.
And the purpose of life can be said to be, to see life as one through seeing it as diverse and surprising. When we see the diversity in an object, its oneness takes on more meaning.
MR. GORLIN. All this seems to revolve around the fact that it is a person appreciating or looking at the work; so, then, can you say that its oneness is derived from the fact that it exists, and it has opposites from the fact that a person can appreciate it and see the contrasts?
MR. SIEGEL. Oneness is both subjective and objective. If we look at a river in a storm, we can see the river tumbling; we can see the river moving; we can see the river changing color. And as we see the river changing, our impression of the river changes. Aesthetic Realism says that the same thing which occurs in our minds, occurs also in the objective world; that there is no essential difference between the depths of the subjective, however idiosyncratic that subjective may be, and the objective world.
This, of course, takes a good deal of discussion. But the most hurtful tendency that people have had is to make too much of a distinction between what they regard as their personal responses and the objective world seemingly causing or having to do with those personal responses. As we look at a river in a storm, what happens to the river has a likeness that is good news to what happens to ourselves as we look at the river.
The oneness of the river and the manyness of the river can be seen, because the river tumbles, it flows, it rises, it falls, it changes; and as we look at the river, our mind does all these things, too. So there is manyness and oneness in the river at once, in a storm. There is manyness and oneness in our minds as we look at the river.
MR. GORLIN. You've said that reality is the same as aesthetics or beauty. Well, the question would be: Is reality, then, always beautiful?
MR. SIEGEL. The answer to that, however dangerous it may sound, is: Yes,
MR. GORLIN. It sounds very dangerous.
MR. SIEGEL. I agree. And sometimes, in order to be honest, you have to take the chance of being silly, or seeming silly. The reason this is so is this. If reality is not beautiful to us, is it because we have seen it, or because we have not seen it? According to Aesthetic Realism, the history of art can be described this way: the giving of form, or beauty, or tension, or whatever you want to call it, to something which previously was not seen as having form, or beauty, or tension.
Reality is waiting for individuals to see it. When an individual sees reality in a way that honors it, he can be said to have done something for art, and to be an artist.
The reality that we talk about is, quite clearly, a reality not wholly seen. And reality is reality wholly seen. If it is not wholly seen, we may personally call it reality, but we shouldn't.
We find that in looking at reality—let us say a string, there is a tightness about a bit of string, and there is also a freedom, an ease, a looseness. When tightness and freedom or ease or looseness are seen as one, the feeling which once you could call the feeling of beauty, ensues. That feeling of beauty can be found in any object. And in the same way as a five-cent stamp or a nickel is money as much as ten thousand dollars is—so, the simple feeling of beauty in a dirty string, the feeling of tightness and looseness at once, is like the beauty that we can see in an epic poem, or a drama of might, or a comedy of subtlety, or an orchestrated work of might, or a baroque work of simplicity and agreeable cunning.
MR. GORLIN. You know, so much of Aesthetic Realism has to do with the perceptions, I was wondering whom you would consider your philosophic mentors?
MR. SIEGEL. Every person who has written philosophy has said something of use. There is a value in Buddha, when you consider him as a philosopher; and in so far as repose is a part of reality, anybody like Buddha who can say something about repose is valuable. So, Aesthetic Realism nods to Buddha, and says, Welcome.
At the same time, however, Aesthetic Realism would find something good in Aristotle. In the Metaphysics and in the Ethics there is a dealing with opposites. In Plato there is; also in the Stoics; also in the mediaeval philosophers.
Thomas Aquinas is looked on quite favorably by Aesthetic Realism; but Epicureans, empiricists, or realists like Gassendi, Condillac, or Reid are useful, let alone an arrant materialist like Holbach. So is a pretty careful fellow like Francis Bacon; a very down-to-earth, bright fellow with a good prose style like Thomas Hobbes. Locke is mighty useful; so is Spinoza; so is Leibnitz; so is, let us say, Edmund Burke in the treatise On the Sublime and Beautiful; so is a little known philosopher like Tucker, the writer of The Light of Nature; so is John Stuart Mill. But so is Whitehead. And, though I have liked to make fun of Santayana, I have found things in Santayana that are commendable. Furthermore, a philosopher of the present day like Alexander, with Space, Time, and Deity, is to be liked.
But the person who has most influenced Aesthetic Realism is George Saintsbury, the supposedly academic critic. (He was written of favorably by Edmund Wilson lately.) George Saintsbury, as a person, put more diversity of inward experience with oneness of living, together, than nearly anyone else.
Meantime, Coleridge is liked a good deal; so is Boileau; so is Rimbaud (there are philosophic statements in A Season in Hell).
The purpose of Aesthetic Realism is to see what is keen and good anywhere, and use justice to other things as a means of being yourself.
MR. GORLIN. You have said that Aesthetic Realism has a definite relation to ethics.
MR. SIEGEL. Yes.
MR. GORLIN. This is something I find very difficult to understand. Could you clarify it, please?
MR. SIEGEL. I believe so. The first thing in ethics is that a person be guided or ruled or impelled by some force outside of himself. Ethics has two phases: the religious phase and the secular phase. In the religious phase we have, Thou shalt love thy God; in the secular phase, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
All religions—the Judaic, the Mohammedan, the Christian, the religion of the Hindus—have the personal becoming one with the impersonal in what a person does. The Ten Commandments corresponds to something impersonal which the Jewish religion hopes will find happy lodgment in the heart of a person.
So we have religion, ethics, art. In all instances, the big thing is the universe and a person rightly as one. Ethics is the successful relation of a person to what the universe wants. Art is the successful relation of an original, authentic, personal outlook to something valid universally. And religion is the happy oneness of ourselves with the cause of the world seen as personal.
I think that when these three statements are looked at, we shall find that aesthetics, ethics, and religion are about one thing.
MR. GORLIN. In Aesthetic Realism: Three Instances, you say: "Some people find a little bit of reality that is soothing—a green meadow, or a nice looking dress, or the color scheme of a room—and say: 'This is what I want to see as beautiful'; and don't go any deeper. These things are beautiful, but if we stop there, then what we are saying is that the reality which suits us is beautiful, but that the part we haven't seen yet, or haven't put into arrangement—this we'll send down the river." And then you go on to say, "Doing so is a way of giving up our humanity." Now the hurdle here is the word humanity.
MR. SIEGEL. In religion, it has been said that we should love God with our whole heart. Whole-heartedness is akin to science, because science is after the complete truth of something. As soon as we are narrow, or egoistic, or provincial, we leave out the truth that is uncomfortable.
Aesthetic Realism says that a human being has a great temptation to choose truth which makes him comfortable. But as soon as he becomes comfortable, as he sees it, through the lessening of truth or its discarding, his humanity is less. Snobbery, fear, and provincialism are three things akin. In every instance, we lessen the value of all reality to be comfortable or important ourselves. Consequently, we do not go after reality as strange and ordinary, or as modern and as of the past at once, or as close to us and as distant, or as diverse and as unified. We tend to choose one aspect that gives us comfort, seems to glorify our complacency.
But as soon as a human being comes to security through making reality less, he has the security, as he may see it (of course, Aesthetic Realism doubts it)—but his humanity is less. A human being is supposed to be interested in what he himself came out of. He did not come out of a portion of reality, he came out of all reality in all its diversity. That is why at this time, that work of Saintsbury, A History of Criticism and Literary Taste in Europe, comes in—because that book exemplifies the diversity of the human attitude. When we are interested in what man has thought and the reality that he has thought about, in as many forms as we can be, without wanting to show off, but simply because we feel the subject is us—we are affirming our humanity gracefully and energetically and gaily.
Copyright © 1963 by Definition Press