Aesthetic Realism; or, Is a Person
an Aesthetic Situation?

by Eli Siegel

A Short Explanation Given by Eli Siegel in an Interview with Lewis Nichols
of the New York Times Book Review, January 14, 1969

Aesthetic Realism sees the world and a person or self as an aesthetic situation. It also sees the various sciences and arts as aesthetic situations: painting, the drama, chemistry, geology have something in common.

The question then is, what is an aesthetic situation? An aesthetic situation is one in which the forces of the world, like rest and motion, tranquillity and agitation, depth and surface, oneness and manyness, spontaneity and control, familiarity and strangeness, humor and sadness, are present. We have just given some instances of what Aesthetic Realism and the English dictionary call opposites.

The world is infinite and finite at once. There is a God who is personal and impersonal—that is, there are both purpose and mechanism in him. These opposites in reality correspond to our desire for freedom (infinite) and our desire for security (finite). We also think ourselves fools, but important people: we have to. We look in the mirror and see a surface, but there is also depth. We have to take care of ourselves and see ourselves as first, but we also have to be regardful of other people. We want to love ourselves, and oh, how much we want to be close to another. We want to be alienated, as the comic novelist John Updike shows, and we also want to be the life of the party and say the brightest, most probing thing of a Saturday night.

Are we then a situation of opposites, dually and in orchestrated form? Do we have to be ourselves and relate ourselves to our wives and the stars? Do we have to be aware of our backyard and unexpected happenings in Asia? Are we near and far at once?

The essential difference between Aesthetic Realism and Freud is that Freud saw nervousness as arising from what, earlier, was incomplete expression in sex, and, later, a damming up or conflict in the libido—a prettier word than sex. Freud would disagree with Aesthetic Realism because he did not see, as many people don't, that an attitude to the world, to reality, to the universe, to things, and even to God, governs one in one's everyday life. If you feel that the world is ill-managed, is contemptible, is unkind, you have to show that in how you see Mildred or how you see Morton. The world is in us because self is never unaccompanied by anything less.

Aesthetic Realism then says that the purpose of life is to see the world in the best way. Here art is deeply helpful; so is science. In order to see the world in the best way, we have to ask whether it is against us or doesn't care or is for us. When we see in art the oneness of beauty and fear, as Aristotle hinted, the world honestly is more acceptable. We have to put together cancer and the latest Hollywood sweetness.

Since we are contraries also, we have to like ourselves as a possible relation of contraries. When Beethoven had to put the contraries of energy and grace together, he was in an aesthetic situation. When Mozart had to put together truth and fancy or inventiveness, he was in an aesthetic situation. We all of us have this aesthetic situation, and we all should try to understand it.

(c) 2014 Aesthetic Realism Foundation

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