Aesthetic Realism
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"In this article I say how Aesthetic Realism, founded by Eli Siegel in 1941, opposes prejudice and makes for respect and kindness, even where there has been a history of contempt."   — Arnold Perey, PhD.

Vol. 25 / No. 10
March 10, 2001
Published weekly from Chicago, New York and Atlanta
 

Teaching Indian Culture in the US 
by Arnold Perey

New York: How is it possible for people of different backgrounds to see one another with respect and not with contempt? Aesthetic Realism, the philosophy founded in 1941 by Eli Siegel, the great American critic, poet, and social scientist, is the means for this. The honest respect for people that Aesthetic Realism describes is needed sorely in the world now. 

In this article, I explain how such respect is encouraged in students as I teach cultural anthropology - just as it is encouraged in me, in my study of Aesthetic Realism. Since 1970, I have used the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method to teach about the world's cultures, including the culture of India, which I have studied for years. And the question always is: How can the traditional culture of any nation be taught in the classroom so that the students and the teacher see how people far away, or of a different background are related to oneself?  

The Aesthetic Realism teaching method is used by teachers in New York City public schools to teach every subject with great success - from kindergarten mathematics to high school English. The fundamental idea on which it is based is the following, by Eli Siegel: "The purpose of all education is to like the world through knowing it." This statement says the deep reason for teaching the facts of every subject is in order for students to see more meaning in the world, not less; and become truly kinder. It is what every parent, teacher and student is hoping for. And the principle which enables one to see that meaning is this: "The world, art. and self explain each other," Mr. Siegel stated, "each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites."  

The opposites that are often not seen fairly as one teaches about another culture are sameness and difference. In the examples I give now, however, we will see some instances of how the sameness, and the difference, of India and the US can be looked at in a fair way. And the result is more respect, greater knowledge and kindness.  

Liking the World: India and New York

A staple, constantly recurring thing in anthropology is that people find a sacred meaning in objects. The religions most Americans grow up in, Christianity and Judaism, are monotheistic. I grew up thinking that God seen as one is the only sensible way of seeing divinity. Immediately this makes less of the religions of millions of people. I remember scarcely being able to conceal my disbelief and even disdain when I was told in New Guinea about a spirit whose dwelling place was a large tree. 

Though seeing divinity in objects can be misused to serve oneself, the deepest purpose for it is explained by Eli Siegel in his "Outline of Aesthetic Realism" under the heading "Religion Likes the Cause of the World": "The tendency of all religion is to see something of a personal cause for the world." In village India, there are small trees where little food offerings are made, to show love for the immortal personal spirit within the tree, representing the cause of the world. A stone outside a village may be anointed with oil, an offering to the spirit within.   

I learned from Eli Siegel to present a custom of a people far away and ask the class if they have anything like it in their own lives. "What do you feel that is like loving a spirit within a stone in India?" A person may wear a good luck charm or a religious ornament. There are many: the rabbit's foot, or mojo, has an African origin. A silver Hand of Fatima pendant is of Moslem origin. A cross, or the Hebrew letters CHAI in gold, around one's neck, also symbolize loving the cause of the world. And people have talked to plants. People have even made offerings, in desperation, to a car that wouldn't start. In each instance, a force or personality deep in reality is seen as somehow in the object. Its meaning goes beyond the metal, stone, plastic, or fur that it is made of. This is evidence that people everywhere want to find meaning in the world, to like it.   

Totem and taboo are pervasive anthropological opposites. The totem is the loved thing; the taboo, the feared thing. We call it "forbidden" or "in bad taste" or say "What will the neighbors think?" while the Polynesians call it "taboo."   

The cow is a loved thing in India, is sacred. To respect people's minds, we have to seek out the cause.   

The cow is a oneness of economic utility and a gentle and generous animal that can be cared for. In his article "Mother Cow" (Anthropology 81/82, Annual Editions), anthropologist Marvin Harris shows that cows, wandering everywhere in India, eat waste like rice straw and husks; they provide bull calves that grow up and plow the soil; their dung, in a land stripped of trees, is a hot smokeless fuel; and though half the cows of India give no milk, every farmer prays that rains will come so rich that the cow will grow fat, have a calf, and give milk - and sometimes that prayer is answered. Cows save energy and food and do not waste it. "Cow love," Marvin Harris says, "is an active element in a complex, finely articulated material and cultural order." Seeing this makes for more respect for the people of India. It is important to increase respect for how a foreign people feels about and uses the world we are all born into.   

Caste, and Our Contempt

Eli Siegel has given this definition of contempt: "There is a disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world."   

Throughout anthropology people lessen one another to feel important. American Indians showed contempt for the enemy. Insults are given in New Guinea between villages. According to Ashley Montagu in Man: His First Two Million Years, "Many tribes call themselves ... 'we-are-men,' implying that all others are not."   

I want my students to see that ordinary contempt, including theirs, is what has hurt humanity for centuries and is hurting America now.   

Every person knows something about the caste system. Students in a class I taught pointed out that it is a system of superiority and inferiority in which contempt for people is organized. It also has to do with color. Edward B. Tylor, in his classic Anthropology, says, "In the history of the world, colour has often been the sign by which nations accounting themselves the nobler have marked off their inferiors. The Sanskrit word for caste is varna, that is, 'colour.'"   

A person is born into a caste which, for most people of India, determines his general occupation and income level. He can never rise out of it, but can fall from it. The highest castes are Brahmins, priests; the lowest are servants; and beneath all are the Untouchables.   

This situation affects students here just as much as in India. I encourage students to use this to understand how they themselves see people who look different, and to ask about their own daily state of mind. In Self and World, Eli Siegel writes, "We are looking for contempt at any moment of our lives. Contempt is our soothing revenge for a world not sufficiently interested, as we see it, in what we are hoping for. Contempt is not an incident; it is an unintermitting counteroffensive to an uncaring world." Some questions that arise are: Do you feel the world is caring or uncaring? Does that affect how you see people?   

A person cannot eat with anyone from a lower caste. I told my students about a lady who was, many years ago, degraded from her caste "indelibly" when "a low-caste Rodiya" transferred something from his mouth to hers. Ernest Crawley tells this in The Mystic Rose. Each person knows in his or her heart that contempt, regarding people who are different as inferior, dirty, or repulsive - has been present in how he perceives and is perceived. I ask, "How many people have felt they didn't want to be touched by any person in a crowded subway? What does this stem from?"   

Aspects of the caste system, one student pointed out, are technically illegal in India. But they continue to exist. In our class discussions we agreed that the reason is, caste can afford a contempt for the world which people find attractive. It is the same reason why we have kept the profit system and its injustice. Through Aesthetic Realism, we can criticize our own contempt, and see what we have in common with people thousands of miles away. The result is the good will that the world so urgently needs.   
   
 

  • Portions reprinted from The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, No. 602;
  • The address of India Tribune is <www.indiatribune.com>
  • Image for Aesthetic Realism vs. Prejudice / Arnold Perey

    •  Home Page: Aesthetic Realism: A New Perspective for Anthropology & Sociology

    •  Information about contemporary and traditional Indian culture: painting, music, folklore, more

    •  India News and Current Information

    •   Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism by Lynette Abel

    •  John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

    •  Aesthetic Realism Foundation

    •  The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture,"Friends of Aesthetic Realism — Countering the Lies"

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      Dr. Arnold Perey asks:
     


    How is it possible for people of different backgrounds to see one another with respect and not with contempt? Aesthetic Realism, the philosophy founded in 1941 by Eli Siegel, the great American critic, poet, and social scientist, is the means for this.

     

    Aesthetic Realism Anti-Prejudice Resources

     


    bullet for Aesthetic Realism: A New Perspective for Anthropology & SociologyCollected articles by writers I esteem, printed in newspapers across the country, are online. See the page titled "How Aesthetic Realism Opposes Racism."

    bullet for Aesthetic Realism: A New Perspective for Anthropology & SociologySeeThe Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, including "Difference and Sameness: The Human Question" and "Racism Can End," by Ellen Reiss.

    bullet for Aesthetic Realism: A New Perspective for Anthropology & Sociology"Queen's Visit to Amritsar." An Aesthetic Realism discussion of attitudes to India by social studies teacher Christopher Balchin

    bullet for Aesthetic Realism: A New Perspective for Anthropology & Sociology"On Racism & How to End It"  by Nancy Huntting, Aesthetic Realism Consultant (CityBeat, Cincinnati)

    bullet for Aesthetic Realism: A New Perspective for Anthropology & Sociology "Poems by Eli Siegel , founder of Aesthetic Realism, about Martin Luther King and America" by Alice Bernstein

    bullet for Aesthetic Realism: A New Perspective for Anthropology & SociologyAesthetic Realism and the Answer to Racism. An anthology by diverse individuals.

    bullet for Aesthetic Realism: A New Perspective for Anthropology & Sociology"The Genome & Equality" by Alice Bernstein. How Aesthetic Realism sees the aesthetic oneness of sameness and difference.

    bullet for Aesthetic Realism: A New Perspective for Anthropology & Sociology"Aesthetic Realism: The Solution to Racism" by Arnold Perey, PhD, anthropologist.

    bullet for Aesthetic Realism: A New Perspective for Anthropology & Sociology"Contempt, the Cause of Racism" by Edward Green, professor of music and teacher on the Aesthetic Realism Foundation faculty.

    bullet for Aesthetic Realism: A New Perspective for Anthropology & Sociology "In Contempt the Root of Racism Lies" by Allan Michael writing as an African American man on Aesthetic Realism.

    bullet for Aesthetic Realism: A New Perspective for Anthropology & Sociology"Prejudice Changes to Respect" by Barbara McClung, science teacher: on using science lessons to oppose prejudice through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method..

    bullet for Aesthetic Realism: A New Perspective for Anthropology & Sociology"Students Learn, Prejudice Is Defeated!" by Patricia Martone, ESL teacher. Showing how the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method enables the standard curriculum to stop prejudice.

    bullet for Aesthetic Realism: A New Perspective for Anthropology & Sociology"Mathematics vs. Prejudice" by Lori Colavito. How mathematics has an outline answer to prejudice.

    bullet for Aesthetic Realism: A New Perspective for Anthropology & Sociology"Aesthetic Realism and the Anthropology of Africa" by Edward Green. On the Aesthetic Realism and Anthropology class taught by Arnold Perey.


    Aesthetic Realism Foundation
    Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies

     
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