Peter Gorlin Interviews Eli Siegel on The World of Art, April 18, 1963—Part 2
WHAT IS AESTHETIC REALISM?
The question, What Is Aesthetic Realism? is being asked more and more. This is good. Some people have felt that asking about Aesthetic Realism is a good way of not feeling choked.—In this issue, a beginning of an answer is found. This beginning is in the second part of a broadcast over WKCR-FM, April 18, 1963, in which Peter Gorlin interviewed Eli Siegel, founder of Aesthetic Realism.
Aesthetic Realism on Art and Self
Peter Gorlin Interviews Eli Siegel on The World of Art, April 18, 1963—Part 2
MR. GORLIN. Those of you who listened last week will remember that we closed with a discussion of the principles of Aesthetic Realism in relation to the idea of beauty. I'd like to ask you, Mr. Siegel, have all the previous great artists worked unconsciously by the principles of Aesthetic Realism?
MR. SIEGEL. Yes, I think so. I should not hedge, however it may sound.
MR. GORLIN. Good. That means we can get on right away to the next question, which is an analysis of a work. What I'd like is an analysis of a work which I think most of our listeners would be familiar with—the Winged Victory of Samothrace, a Greek statue.
So: The Samothrace Winged Victory
MR. SIEGEL. As we look at a semblance of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, we find two things that a human being is after: Order and Disorder. The lady's robes are a little uncertain; in fact, we expect that those robes will change the next moment. In the meantime, the fact that she has wings and also has drapery is a little incongruous. If I weren't disposed to be reverent, I'd say it was a little funny.
But here we come to an important thing: that humor belongs to art, too. I have always felt that the Winged Victory was a little funny. There are wings, and there is drapery. So we have something which seems conforming and also something unconforming. The wings are surprising, but just as surprising is the uncertainty of the dress.
As we look at the figure, we find two opposites which are in every person. This may not be sensational, but if we are tall and wide at once, we are having opposites together. And if we are about a foot and a half wide and nearly six feet tall, we are carrying with us two opposites: a direction across and a direction up and down. So does the Winged Victory of Samothrace.
In the meanwhile, there are two other opposites in the figure which are quite engaging. The head, of course, is not there. But there is an indication of a looking which likely was forward, while the body has an interesting twist. And we have to think of the head in relation to the wings, which are more symmetrical than the drapery. Then there is a motion of the left arm upward, and the feet seem to be in motion but also static. We have, then, in the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the opposites Rest and Motion, or Surprise and Expectancy: as we have in all art. For the thing that we do have in art is a feeling of something satisfactory—that is, rest—with something surprising—that is, motion.
We look at the figure and we find, I must say again, a body. Now, every woman's body, it has been felt pretty often and quite truly, is like a vase or the letter S. This means that while the body persists, the lines change curvingly. A body—every body—is a study in change and something like curve and persistence. The curve serves the change and the persistence at once. The curves of the Winged Victory of Samothrace are different from the curves in, say, the work of a French painter of the late nineteenth century—those curves would be more alluring—but they are there.
The wings, however, seem to be predominant. And the head has to be thought of as present because the head has to be thought of in relation to the wings, to the drapery, to the hands, to the body. Since this figure has wings, there is a kind of intentness, a sense of looking and recession in a head which is dramatically contrasted with the expansion of the wings.
And Now, Monet
MR. GORLIN. Now, Mr. Siegel, I'd like to ask you to demonstrate how the opposites are shown in a work that doesn't have the contrasts that, say, this piece of sculpture has. I am thinking in particular of one of Monet's cathedral scenes, which at first glance appears to be just a blaze of color.
MR. SIEGEL. Well, Monet, like the Impressionists in general—he perhaps is the most noted of the Impressionists—brought together a thing and our way of seeing the thing; and that is a mode of putting the old philosophic antithesis: Objective and Subjective.
In the subjective, the vague is supposed to be more present than in the objective; and in one sense, Monet made the vague, the uncertain, the trembling triumphant. We have a tendency to give edges and tidiness to reality when, it could be felt, reality says: "I am not that tidy, and I don't have those glaring edges." So, Monet wanted to see what happened at noon, and what happened at twilight; he wanted to see even stone as trembling, and a cathedral dancing delicately, and light persisting even as it changed.
There is a relation between the Greek Victory of Samothrace and Monet. As we look at the sculpture, we find trembling and fixity at once. The Victory is victory and is assertive; but as was said, there is something also uncertain about the Victory—the drapery is in a high state of disorder.
Now, disorder and fixity are present in Monet, present in all his painting. And he would tend to have the fixity of a cathedral change into tremblingness, shimmeringness, and also to have the largeness change into delicacy. We have, then, opposites of the sort that we had in the sculpture. In the Victory of Samothrace, there is a study in assertiveness, the straight line, and the uncertain line: there is a study in the pole and the twist. In Monet, there is the cathedral with all its massiveness, but there is likewise the uncertainty, the tremblingness.
Every object can, subjectively, be made to dance. Nothing is fixed. And here art is along with science. We now see the fixed world—the old, "just there" piano—as having in it a dance of the ultimates: the electron, the atom, the proton, even the neutron can dance. The Impressionists saw reality as possibly dancing. Light and color are reality on a philosophic and tremulous binge. Monet was not classical, for the classicists saw the permanent, the establishment of reality as the main thing. Yes, reality is established—Aesthetic Realism says reality is better established than the oldest firm; but it's also in a state of wilful or unwilful uncertainty. If it weren't uncertain, evolution wouldn't be so busy.
What does this have to do with Monet? The Impressionists took up the old problem of how we can see change and fixity, or change and sameness, or motion and rest in an object; how we can see the surprising and what we knew all along in an object. Monet and the Impressionists saw the subjective as adding to reality, not just receiving reality.
And what does a mind add to reality? According to Aesthetic Realism, reality is not wholly reality until it is seen in every way possible. What we have right now is reality on the move, and Monet and the Impressionists added to it. Monet is different from Seurat, because Seurat is somewhat more classical.
A cathedral of Monet is a study in rest and motion, largeness and delicacy at once, fixity and trembling, and all the other opposites.
MR. GORLIN. I think I see that, rather than say you find the opposites in a work as contrasted with another element in the work itself, the opposites here are to be found as the painting is contrasted with the cathedral as a physical fact.
MR. SIEGEL. Well, the fact is, there were opposites in Monet's mind, opposites are in the cathedral, opposites are in the painting. And if we like Monet, we will find, as a museum-goer might say, something satisfying and something which "sends" one. When we say something satisfies us, that is rest; when we say we are stirred or "sent," we are put in motion.
Monet, where he succeeds as a painter, gives the person who sees a painting of his repose and stir at once. That is the subjective state of the opposites. The opposites are just as much subjective as they are in the object, but the opposites are in the object. In other words, wherever reality is, whether it's in our minds or out of our minds, the opposites keep it company: are there.
Let us take the cathedral as, say, somebody in the seventeenth century might have seen it. He would see a structure, like the Victory of Samothrace, that was but changed as it was. The cathedral could be seen unimpressionistically. But the Gothic cathedral—or any other—would still be a study in manyness and oneness, in rest and motion. Monet added the motion and rest in his own mind, the surprisingness and the order in his own mind, to the cathedral having already something like what was in Monet's mind.
So the cathedral before Monet saw it (and cathedrals in France are usually older than Monet, older than ourselves), was already a study of isness and change. It was, and it changed as it was. If we look at our own body, we see the lines are in motion, they change even as we are. That is a way of seeing the opposites as one.
Now, Monet was looking to have gravity shimmer. He was was looking to have the stately tremble in luminousness. He was looking to have edges less tidy. This is a noble desire: to have reality not just tidy, not just fixed, not just massive, but to have it tremble even as it persists. The Impressionists were awfully ethical.
What Is Education For?
MR. GORLIN. In many of your works, you have mentioned the relationship between Aesthetic Realism and education. Well—just what do you mean?
MR. SIEGEL. The purpose of education is to have a person have an adequate sense of the world that he is of. Aesthetic Realism says that if the arts and the sciences are studies in opposites, then it would be well if education included Aesthetic Realism.
We have in Aesthetic Realism, as I see it, a method for that synthesis of the arts and sciences that all the educators in convention talk about: how can we bring together the value studies with the fact studies? how can we bring together the study of chemistry with the study of the values of the Renaissance? how can we bring together the study of the value of the Victory of Samothrace with the study of the nature of stone or marble or granite? how can we bring together church history with a full appreciation of a Monet painting of a saintly edifice?
Education has two purposes: One, to be fair to the world as it is, might be, was; and the other, to bring out all that we can be. Aesthetic Realism says that bringing out all that we can be is the same as being fair to the world that is, was, and might be.
So Aesthetic Realism is an educational method. And the first thing that it asks is: What is there in common in biology, and in history, and in the study of music, and in psychology, and in religion, and in cookery, and in the study of the history of sport, and in the study of fabrics, and in the study of chemistry, and the study of geology, and in the study of the dance? Is there something in common?
The one thing that is in common is, obviously, the opposites, because in every art and every science, there is something that is and something that changes. In every art and in every science, there is Something One and Something Many. In every art and every science, there is the presence of the subjective and objective. In every art and in every science, there is the presence of fact and value.
What I have mentioned are opposites. They each have an individual meaning. In biology, for example, there is life, but the life of an insect is quite clearly different from the life of a cow or the life of a philosopher. We have, then, sameness and difference. Biology is the study of all life, and there is something akin in life, whether it is present in a butterfly, present in a fish, or present in a king, as Hamlet might say. The study of sameness and difference is the study of things where they begin.
MR. GORLIN. Last week, you spoke about ethics for a while, but this is a point that I know I have difficulty in understanding: when you relate art to ethics, does this mean you can say that art will give man clues as to good and evil?
MR. SIEGEL. Art and ethics, according to Aesthetic Realism, are the same thing. Aesthetic Realism is aware of the two disproportions: the disproportion that says as long as you're an artist, you don't have to think about ethics; and the disproportion that says this work is not ethical as I understand ethics and therefore it should not be seen.
What is called a Puritan disproportion is akin to the Gautier disproportion. I use Gautier because he is associated with art for art's sake, and though I like him very much, still, a person using art for art's sake can be just as disproportionate as the person who doesn't want to see any beauty in a naturalistic novel because certain things are said there of a seemingly cynical nature. There is the disproportion that can go for morality as an enemy to art, and there is a disproportion that can go for art as an enemy to morality.
It can be shown in ever so many instances that whenever art is seen as art, there is a joy and a discipline: there is a satisfaction of self, but there is also a chastening of self. In other words, when we look at art, we become more economic than ever, but we are also luxuriating; and a human being has a tendency to be ascetic, to be spare, but he also does go for voluptuousness.
Art satisfies the Puritan in a person, the economic in a person, while giving him a sense of the luxury and delicacy of reality. Art can be seen as voluptuous Puritanism. It can be seen as a combination of Cleopatra and Savonarola. It can be seen as a combination of bleakness and great fleshiness. Therefore, art is the same as ethics.
I am quite aware of the controversies on the subject, and I can see the value in Ruskin and in Pater and in Wilde, and also in those persons of today who see art more and more like mathematics and the abstraction that will keep the profane away.
Copyright © 1963 by Definition Press