Michael Palmer


Aesthetic Realism seminar:
Ego or Justice?—the Fight in Every Man 
With Commentary on John Sloan
by Michael Palmer 

Aesthetic Realism is the knowledge that shows definitively the fight in every man, between ego and justice, and how the best thing in him can win out.  In the periodical The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Eli Siegel explains: 

the thing most needed by man to have a like of himself or respect for himself that is valid, is the feeling that the world is seen by him in a fair way, an accurate way, and one that goes towards as much as possible, liking the world.
     I have tested this principle and seen that there is a solid basis on which we can honestly look good to ourselves, and it doesn't depend, as I had thought, on whether the "right" person smiled at me or the horse I bet on came in.  And Aesthetic Realism also explains what interferes with our desire to be just to the world, see it "in a fair way."  It is contempt--the false elevation of ourselves--which stops a person from having the self-respect he's hoping for. 

     I'll speak about what I've learned and about aspects of the life of the American painter and etcher, John Sloan, who lived from 1871 to 1951. Representing a new style of American painting at the turn of the century--known as "Social Realism," or "the Ashcan School," Sloan had a desire to see the world justly, accurately as he walked the New York City streets, several miles every day, looking for meaning--even drama--in things we can easily take for granted.  What he found he made memorable in such work as: 

"Backyards, Greenwich Village, 1914":
Backyards, Greenwich Village, 1914
For larger image click here

"Chinese Restaurant, 1909":
Chinese Restaurant, 1909:
For larger image click here

 "Turning Out the Light, 1905":
Turning Out the Light, 1905:
For larger image click here

"Wake of the Ferry, 1907":
Wake of the Ferry, 1907:
For larger image click here
  ....and, perhaps his best known work, "The City from Greenwich Village, 1922": 

The City from Greenwich Village
The City from Greenwich Village

Years later, I, too, would be walking on the streets of New York, especially in my native borough, the Bronx, but instead of seeing people and objects as an artist would--to know and be just to--I would usually be "in myself," hardly noticing what was around me.  In The Right of, #1291, titled "More Life," Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss asks, 

Who is more alive:...a person who can look at an object, maybe the bare branch of a winter tree, and be interested in it, feel that in its humble bareness yet proud diagonal lift it is beautiful?; or...a person who looks at the branch yet doesn't really notice it, and moves on?
Most of the time, I moved on. I felt the only thing interesting and exciting were sports, and I often imagined myself the star with people applauding me, first as a player and later as a sports reporter on radio.  I felt people who got all worked up about beauty--flowers, trees, art of any kind--were just foolish and wasting their time. I would scornfully think, "I don't need that, it doesn't put any money in my  pocket." 

     As a boy I was constantly after my father and older brother to take me to Yankee Stadium, The Polo Grounds and Madison Square Garden.  l didn't know it, but the reason I loved sports is explained by the great Aesthetic Realism principle, "All beauty is a making one of opposites and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves."  Sports puts together opposites such as mind and body, surface and depth, individuality and relation.  These opposites were in the greatest hitter I ever saw, the Red Sox' Ted Williams, who, along with unique physical ability, carefully studied the art of hitting, and then generously wanted to help other players, including giving hitting advice to members of opposing teams.  I needed to put these opposites together in my life--to be deeply interested in other things and people as the means of being my individual self. 

     Not knowing this, I went for the pleasure of making less of things, building myself up at the expense of other people, who, I assumed, I didn't need to be interested in or affected by. When I was about 9 or 10 years old and guests came to our house, I felt very uncomfortable and often would go to another room preferring to listen to the radio.  When my parents wanted to visit relatives or friends, I would make their lives miserable by either refusing to go or by finally going reluctantly.  I would think, "Who needs this? I don't want to be with those boring people." While I gave the appearance that I was quiet and shy, inside I was a snob, feeling nobody else had a life really worth thinking about, or that they, in any way, could add to me. This ugly desire to ward off and lessen others literally made me less.  I felt hollow and lonely and I thought this was how I would always be. 

In one of the first classes I had the honor to attend in 1972, taught by Eli Siegel, he asked me: 

In the field of ethics is there anything compulsory? In the field of art is there anything compulsory?....Is there a need to do the best with yourself as you can? Do you think there is something that impels one to hope one has had a good effect?
I had no idea such a hope was in me. Mr. Siegel then asked: 
Do you think you would feel bad if you felt you had a bad effect on anyone? 

MP. Yes. I think I had a bad effect on my parents. 

ES. Where do you think you hurt them? 

MP. I could have been kinder. 

ES. Do you like to encourage people? Do you think if you failed to encourage people you would feel bad? The chief thing we are concerned with is what we might have done that we didn't do....There is an imperative to think as well of ourselves as we can.

     Studying what Mr. Siegel called "the ethical imperative" gave me a new purpose.  It changed the dulling, life-sapping course of my life. Shortly after this class, I met with my father, who was visiting from Florida, and we had the first real conversation we ever had.  I actually asked him questions about his life, feeling I needed to know and be fair to him. I told him what I was learning newly about myself, the regrets I had about my meanness to him and my mother.  As we talked, I saw that I had missed so many things about him.  He told me about his childhood on the lower east side and how he saw his father, who had sold second-hand clothes in a cart to support his family.  We were both very moved, and he was impelled to write to Mr. Siegel that day, thanking him for the effect Aesthetic Realism had on my life.  He wrote, "I feel this one day added twenty years to my life." I feel greatly fortunate for my rich, happy life, which includes my marriage to Lynette Abel, whose keen, lively seeing of the world, her passion that justice come to other people encourages me every day. 
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