Aesthetic Realism
On this site you are learning the crucial place of aesthetics in anthropology and sociology

Anthro TECH Site of the Month Award
Eli Siegel's Theory of Opposites is illustrated by the descriptions of specific works by anthropologists, such as James Fernandez of Princeton who studied the Fang of Africa.Fang Sculpture Forge describes Opposites in the Men's Houses of the Iatmul of the Middle Sepik, Papua New GuineaMen's House Architecture: Warner Muensterberger tell of how the sacred ancestral skulls of New Guinea are a way of putting together love and hate, making them one.Decorated Ancestral Skulls
Dissertation Extracts:   1         5    6
Selection 5 
Oskapmin Society and World View 
by Arnold Perey, Ph.D. 
Columbia University, 1973
Note: for this website I am reprinting short selections of my doctoral dissertation and giving a descriptive heading to each excerpt. - A.P.

From Chapter 10 

      A number of anthropologists have observed that opposites are put together in "primitive" art and mythology in particular objects of art and particular myths, and sometimes it has been observed that inner turmoil is assuaged by particular works of art or particular rituals, but it has not been said that the central purpose of culture is to solve this aesthetic problem. George Devreux (1964:362) writes: 
Ideally the dynamic criterion of art is the straining of pure affect against pure (culturally structured) discipline.      Raymond Firth observes in "primitive" art as a whole, which he believes to be essentially like any other art, an expression of self-conflict and a resolution of it in the composition of the work of art itself:  For the resultant work of art to be effective there must not be merely conflict and tension, doubt and anxiety, but also a resolution of these in the personality. The chisel or the brush alone is not the solvent. Some fusion of the elements, some hierarchical order in the stimulus they give, must be arrived at for aesthetic creation to take place. (1951:181)      And Warner Meunsterberger, writing of what was then Dutch New Guinea, shows how the New Guinean person has "a socially acceptable chance to solve his inner conflicts of love and hate" (1950: 317) by means of the carved skull shrines where the people both assert their "faith in the power of the dead," and also the opposite, for "since they use his skull, the ancestor is, so to speak, in the hands of his descendants" (p. 315).           

     James Fernandez writing on the Fang of West Africa (1966, 1968:727, 737) says that in their mortuary sculpture they put together head and body, hoping to unite logical control with the passions. In their idea of what makes a man mature, they unite the impulsiveness of youth with the wisdom of age. 

When this balanced arrangement is upset, as it has been by acculturation, then one can only expect that some of the vitality will go out of life.      Although I had read such statements as Firth's, Devreux's, Fernandez's, and Meunsterberger's long before field research in Oksapmin, I'd passed over them and did not see them as relevant to my research. However, after learning from Aesthetic Realism how self-conflict is resolved in outline by every work of art, as explained by Eli Siegel, for example, in Self and World, I began to see that the resolution of conflict in self was perhaps the most important function of Oksapmin art.      

     I then began to re-examine and re-evaluate works on art I had seen as too subjective, such as the ones, above. Those cited above stress the affective aspect of mind, but there are many that stress the cognitive.

What Is Aesthetically and Ethically Good?

    I attempt to show that in Oksapmin art the way elements join is the people's picture of the best way a person and the world, or a person and another person, join. Within the joining there must be individuality, separation. The opposites of separation and junction are central to what the Oksapmin people have traditionally been pleased by and have considered good art. Evidence will be presented here that the same opposites are central to all cultures' ideas of what is morally and aesthetically good. The evidence will be presented in two parts: (1) anthropologists have felt that some ethical and artistic standards are constant, even as we go from culture to culture, and (2) a certain relation of separation and junction can be seen underlying the constant standards. 

     Anthropologists have felt some aesthetic standards were constant; that is, all societies have them in common. Raymond Firth says: 

I believe that there are universal standards of aesthetic quality, just as there are universal standards of technical efficiency (1950:161).      Edward Sapir describes the art of all cultures as having a something deeper than any particular culture. There is something aesthetic that makes literature good: 
    A truly deep symbolism, for instance, does not depend on the verbal associations of a particular language but rests securely on an intuitive basis that underlies all linguistic expression. The artist's "intuition" to use Croce's term, is immediately fashioned out of a generalized human experience (1929, 1949:224).
     More direct evidence has been presented by Irvin L. Child in his article "And the Bridge of Judgment that Crosses Every Cultural Gap" (1972). He presents statistics showing that trained experts in aesthetics tend, significantly, to agree on judgments of art from cultures not their own and in styles they never saw before. The agreement is independent of time, culture, and observer, says Child. The experts consulted were Japanese potters of long experience, Fiji Island artisans, Bantu wood carvers, and New Haven students of art and art history. Child concludes: "We have to look again at the well-accepted view that esthetic judgment is completely culture-bound" (page 21). Although Child did not say what the cross culturally valid standards might be, he showed that some exist. 

     However, we can see, in the art that particular peoples have traditionally liked for generations, a union of conflict and repose (Fernandez, 1966, 1968); a joining with tension of emotion and restraint (Devreux, 1964:362); a combination of aggression and nurturing, of male and female (Forge, 1965:8); a presentation of anxiety and its resolution (Firth, 1959:181); a resolution of the conflict between love and hate (Muensterberger, 1950:317); and a logical model to overcome such contradictions as that between life and death (Levi-Strauss, 1963:217, 226). 

     All these examples suggest that Oksapmin art, in making one of opposites in its own particular way, is doing what the art of all cultures does. Art presents a certain relation of things which are separate or opposed, and also united. It presents opposed tendencies of mind, such as anxiety and hope, and shows that while they are distinct they are still united. It is this that makes it beautiful.

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Dissertation Extracts:   1          5    6 

Aesthetic Realism, the philosophy founded by Eli Siegel in 1941, is taught in classes, public seminars & presentations, and consultations at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City. Nationwide outreach includes speakers from the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, consultations by telephone outside New York City and internationally, and the work of the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company. The Class Chairman, Ellen Reiss, teaches the classes for Aesthetic Realism associates and consultants in which I study. I am proud to say that as a consultant on the Foundation's faculty I teach anthropology, teachers' workshops, and am an instructor in consultations for individuals who want to learn the aesthetic way of seeing the world and themselves.  More links are provided below so you can find out more.