What Is Aesthetic Realism?
A Google Knol by Dr. Arnold Perey
Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy which describes the nature of reality itself, and the relation among reality, the human self, and art. It was founded in 1941 by the American poet, critic, and educator Eli Siegel (1902-1978) [also see biography of Eli Siegel by Edward Green]. The principle at the basis of Aesthetic Realism, and fundamental to its study, is: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” The world, or reality, consists of everything which can affect one–from Niagara Falls, to the dew on a blade of grass, to a friend, to a Beethoven symphony, to all the chemical elements in the periodic table. We are always in relation to this world and we need to see it as exactly, as fairly as possible.
Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy which describes the nature of reality itself, and the relation among reality, the human self, and art. It was founded in 1941 by the American poet, critic, and educator Eli Siegel (1902-1978) [see biography of Eli Siegel by Edward Green]. The principle at the basis of Aesthetic Realism, and fundamental to its study, is: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” The world, or reality, consists of everything which can affect one–from Niagara Falls, to the dew on a blade of grass, to a friend, to a Beethoven symphony, to all the chemical elements in the periodic table. We are always in relation to this world and we need to see it as exactly, as fairly as possible.
The large way that Aesthetic Realism differs from other approaches to the self is that it shows every person has an attitude to the world as a whole which affects every aspect of his or her life.
Three Principles of Aesthetic Realism
Aesthetic Realism is a study in three parts. Each part is represented by a principle and is described below. These principles are,
1. The deepest desire of everyone is to like the world.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and the things in it.
3. The way to like the world and what is in it is to see both as the aesthetic oneness of opposites.
1. Liking the World
The first principle is presented by Eli Siegel in Self and World (Definition Press, 1981) this way: Every person’s “deepest desire, [his or her] largest desire, is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.” For example, he writes in the chapter “The Child,” in prose that is literature as well as science, about a representative child, Joe Johnson:
A baby has been born. That baby may be called Joseph. Joseph will not know just where he is; but he will want to find out. He has needs. Those needs, if met at all, will be met by an arrangement of the larger world and himself. When Joseph’s needs are met, a feeling, however unexpressed, will occur amounting to: “We make a team.” Joe will want to eat; there is food in the world. Joe will want to see; there are things to be seen, and there is light in the world. Joe will want to crawl, and walk, and run; and there is space in the world to be crawled in, to be walked in, to be run in. Joe will want to touch; there are things to be touched. Joe will want to love, and there are things to be loved, whether he successfully does so or not. [P. 216]
This early desire to like the world, to feel reality and ourselves “make a team,” continues and is insistent in every person.
2. About Contempt
In everyone, however, there is another huge desire, Aesthetic Realism explains, opposing the desire to like the world: it is the desire to have contempt. Contempt is defined as “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” Contempt is very ordinary. We can lessen another person by not listening when he or she is talking; or by getting pleasure thinking with a sneer, “I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a thing like that!”; or by simply not seeing the feelings of another person as having the same fullness and depth as ours. Everyday contempt occurs as men make themselves feel superior by disparaging women, and as women feel superior speaking of men as selfish brutes.
Meanwhile–and this explanation by Aesthetic Realism is crucial and historic–our unjust contempt for what’s not ourselves is the reason we dislike ourselves, feel nervous, empty, deeply unsure. That is because our deepest desire is to value the world, not lessen it.
Aesthetic Realism shows that the biggest injustices begin with contempt that is ordinary. There is a line of continuity between the ordinary, everyday contempt which robs things and people of the meaning they have, and the contempt which has impelled the injustices and cruelties that have ravaged humanity through the centuries. For example, racism and prejudice are “the lessening of what is different from oneself,” as a person or a whole society looks down on people of different skin color, background, accent, or nationality. The discovery by Eli Siegel that contempt is the central cause of every human cruelty, including war and economic injustice, is perhaps the most crucial advance in the human sciences of our time. To understand the cause of any hurtful situation brings one closer to ending it.
3. The Opposites
Aesthetic Realism is the study of how the world can be liked, respected honestly, on a critical, scientific basis. This study opposes the contempt for reality and for people that has caused so much harm throughout the centuries. In the following principle, cited earlier, is the reason the world can be honestly liked: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites” (Self and World, p. 83). The structure of reality and of the things in it (including people) is like that of art itself: to see this is to see that the world is not something for which one should have contempt.
For example, take the opposites of hardness and softness, two universal qualities in reality. Hardness and softness are one in a leaf, which is firm, yet bends and twirls in the wind. They are in gold, which is hard yet malleable. They are together in a boulder of tough granite with soft green moss growing on it. And when a child loves a kitten because it has soft fur and yet commands respect with its sharp little claws, that child has been affected by the oneness of softness and hardness: reality’s opposites put together well by the kitten.
These very opposites are made one in works of art, say Rembrandt’s “Man in the Golden Helmet.” The toughness and tenderness of his face, the hardness of his metallic helmet which is given radiance by that golden light and softness by the feathers topping it, have profoundly affected viewers all over the world, in many different cultures, for many generations.
The opposites of hard and soft, which this painting puts together beautifully, are opposites everyone has in him- or herself. People have felt, “I’m too hard; I’m not considerate enough; why don’t I feel enough for things?” and also, “I’m too soft; I give in too easily.” Seeing that one’s own questions are nothing less than aesthetic questions and concern the structure of art and reality, has a person feel prouder, more dignified, and more hopeful. The study of how the problems of everyone’s tumultuous self are answered in the technique of art is fundamental to the study of Aesthetic Realism.
Further, when a person sees that he or she has the opposites in common with every other person and thing, the painful feeling of separation–that one is deeply apart from people–changes.
It is important to state this clearly: The seeing of reality as an aesthetic situation of opposites is not in any way a denial or watering down of the terrific injustice that can take place in the world. In fact, when a person sees that reality has a structure which can be liked, that person wants to be fair to it. There is a difference between the way the world is run and the way it is made. The more we are able to like reality accurately, honestly, the more exactly and effectively we can criticize the injustice in it.
The Universal Definition of Beauty
Eli Siegel stated, “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Some of the meaning of that principle has just been commented on, in relation to the Rembrandt painting. Yet the full might of Eli Siegel’s definition is in the fact that it is not restricted to a particular genre, or period, or culture, but is true about all art, of any time, place, variety.
For example: this Paleolithic bison, carved in reindeer horn about 11,000 years ago, is at once powerful and delicate. Sculpted in strong diagonal masses, the large bison licks his side delicately.
There are power and delicacy in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony too, and they are not apart. Beethoven is great because his clamor, his surging, his thrust is inseparable from his subtlety, yearning, sweetness.
Then there is Shakespeare. Hamlet’s soliloquy beginning “Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!” has the power of profundity, at one with grace.
A Japanese haiku of only 17 syllables seems very delicate. But if it is good, it is because there is power in that delicacy–and suggestion in its tautness.
The Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City is where Aesthetic Realism is now principally taught. The education at this not-for-profit foundation, founded in 1973, is based on the principles described above.
There are Aesthetic Realism classes and workshops on such subjects as poetry, music, the visual arts, educational method, acting, anthropology. There are Dramatic Presentations and Special Events. These have been described as a new relation of education and entertainment, culture and life. There are public seminars presented by Aesthetic Realism consultants and associates, on subjects people everywhere are hoping to understand, including: “True and False Love—What Is the Difference?,” “Our Own Good Opinion—How Can We Have It?,” and “The Drama in Everyone about Giving and Getting Attention.” Classes, workshops, musical and dramatic presentations are also given elsewhere, via outreach.
Individual consultations take place at the Foundation and by telephone anywhere in the world. And there is the international journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, edited by the Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, Ellen Reiss.
It has been shown that Aesthetic Realism explains and can change crucial matters which persons have wanted very much to change in their lives. The study of Aesthetic Realism, as many people have reported, has strengthened their ability to be self-expressive, original, fair human beings. People are able to learn how to like themselves [see “Everyone’s Question: How Can I Like Myself,” including an article by Ernest DeFilippis]. Boredom and anger in marriage have changed to kindness and real romance [see “A Husband: To Own or Know” by Pauline Meglino]. Racism and prejudice can end [see Aesthetic Realism and the Answer to Racism and The People of Clarendon County—A Play by Ossie Davis with Photographs and Historical Documents, and Essays on the Education That Can End Racism, edited by Alice Bernstein]. And children who had given up on school, children “at risk,” come to care for knowledge and they learn!
The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method
For more than 35 years teachers have used the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method in New York classrooms from elementary through high school, teaching the essential curriculum with great success by all standardized measures: reading and writing, arithmetic, history, language arts, science. Children learn, and grow kinder, in classrooms where this method is used. It is based on this concept: The purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it. And in the principle which has been quoted earlier (see descriptions above) is the means to achieve that purpose: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” Describing why this principle enables young people to learn, Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss writes in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known:
Students see,…for instance, that the drama of less and more in mathematics is like the drama within them: does What’s-Not-Me add to me or lessen me? They see in a history lesson that people long ago are like them, not just different…They see through the way one sentence is made more valuable by others it joins with in a paragraph, that they can be more their individual selves through meeting justly other things and people. [The Right Of #1289]
Teachers who use this method have documented its success in educational journals and other print media [see The English Record for example]. They have described how through this method a new ability to learn, and a love of learning, develop [see The Tennessee Tribune]. This includes the passing of examinations in reading, writing, science, and history at a rate far above the average. And they have described how their students no longer want to fight with and hurt persons who represent a world they have come to see as authentically friendly.
A Historical Perspective
In the history of thought there has rarely been an innovator of profound importance who did not meet opposition as well as the respect that was deserved. Outraged egos have tried to protect themselves from having to look up to important new thought by disparaging and even attempting to destroy it. That is why Darwin met such opposition, as did Galileo and Louis Pasteur. Lockhart’s disparagement of Keats in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1819 was a notorious literary instance of this fury. There is, today, a small number of individuals who are attacking Aesthetic Realism for the same reason. One cannot describe this philosophy, the grandeur of its scope, the newness of its principles, the wideness and scrupulosity of the scholarship on which it is based, without making clear that this very grandeur is the reason one may see instances of injustice to it at the present time.
Additional Information Online
1. Siegel, E. Self and World: An Explanation of Aesthetic Realism. Definition Press, New York: 1981, pp. 1, 169. Online: http://www.aestheticrealism.org/es-expl.htm
2. Siegel, E. Aesthetic Realism; or, Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation? A Short Explanation Given by Eli Siegel in an Interview with Lewis Nichols of the New York Times Book Review, January 14, 1969 Online:http://www.aestheticrealism.net/essays/Is-a-person-aesthetic-situation.html
3. Reiss, E. The Weighty and Light—in Ourselves and Art. The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, 13 June 2007, #1694. Online:http://www.aestheticrealism.net/tro/tro1694.html See Eli Siegel’s “The Opposites Theory” in issues #1686 – 1700, edited by Ellen Reiss. Online:http://www.aestheticrealism.net/tro/Aesthetic-Realism-art.html
4. Koppelman, D. and Wilson, C. Aesthetic Realism Shows How Art Answers the Questions of Your Life. International Conversations through Art: Proceedings of the 31st InSEA World Congress 2002, Prabha Sahasrabudhe, Editor. Center for International Art Education, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York: 2003. Online: http://www.terraingallery.org/koppelman-wilson-art.pdf
5. Green, E. Biography as Ethics: The Combat between Contempt and Respect in the Mind of Felix Mendelssohn. International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music. Vol. 37/2 (December 2006) Online reference: http://www.edgreenmusic.org/Articles/Mendelssohn_Esssay.pdf
6. Green, E. and Perey, A. “Aesthetic Realism: A New Foundation for Interdisciplinary Musicology.” In Proceedings of the Conference on Interdisciplinary Musicology (Department of Musicology, University of Graz, 2004). Online: http://www.perey-anthropology.net/world_music/escom_1.htm
7. Perey, A. A New Perspective for American Anthropology: the Philosophy of Aesthetic Realism. The Anthropologist,Vol. XIX No. 1 & 2 (1975) Online:http://www.perey-anthropology.net/New_Per.html