What's the Place of Aesthetics in Social and Cultural Anthropology?
Anthropology is art and science at once. As a science, It needs to be fully objective so it can describe cultures and emotions in a way that makes them clear to a person living anywhere in the world. It also is art, because anthropology at its best is beautiful, is kind, gives aesthetic pleasure. The anthropology of the future will be conscious of both its sides, the cognitive and affective, and try to have them unified. If it succeeds in being both accurate and beautiful, it will (1) be a vivid means for people to know and care about human beings of other cultures whose skin may be another color; and (2) it will oppose the contempt with which people see the difference of other people. "Contempt," explained Eli Siegel, founder of Aesthetic Realism, "is the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it." 1 That is, anthropology will oppose racism at its basis: contempt for difference.
It is my hope, in making this website, to show that there is a method that enables the anthropologist to steadily improve as to accuracy and kindness both: the objective and subjective dimensions of this exciting field. That method is the philosophy that Eli Siegel, the great American poet and critic, taught since 1941: the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism. Those who have studied, for example, his work Self and World: An Explanation of Aesthetic Realism, realize that he was a social scientist of the highest importance.
So far, there has been no agreement among anthropologists as to whether it is possible at all to describe a culture in a way that is verifiable, free of prejudice, objectively true. It seems that the self must always get in the way; one's own enculturation, one's own prejudices, one's own presumptions.
In the articles on this website I discuss how this principle by Mr. Siegel provides an outline for a truly universal anthropology:"The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." [See AestheticRealism.org.]
The place of the Siegel Theory of Opposites in the social sciences precisely parallels the place of the Einstein equation e=mc2 in physics. This equation describes the previously unseen relation of two physical qualities, matter and energy—which are opposites in the universe as such. The Siegel theory of Opposites provides a means to understand the previously unseen relations among the forces in the self of a person, showing them to be opposites in an aesthetic relation. It takes study to comprehend this, and study should be given.
The Siegel principle, further, describes that previously unseen aesthetic relation also between art, the human self, and the world outside oneself.
Think for a moment about that mysterious thing, organization. Are there opposites underlying the organization of every human group, from the smallest to the largest? If so, are they in art? Are they in ourselves?Take one pair of opposites, for example, the opposites of firmess and flexibility. Every organized group, whether a New York family, a Lakota band, or the United States government; whether an apartment-painting party or a Green Corn Dance, is both firm and flexible. It must have a cohesiveness of organization, a continuity of structure—but it has to adapt to surprises, be cognizant of the unknown, be able to change in keeping with new facts. This makes every social organization something like good narrative in a play or novel—cohesive and surprising. And so must be the composition of a good painting, a good sonata or symphony. And we are only beginning.
Firmness and flexibility are opposites that are successfully one everywhere in the sciences. Take a famous instance of botany: A tree is made with a firm and solid trunk that becomes flexible twigs and leaves that sway and dance in the wind. Light is at once little photons of matter and also undulating or vibrating waves. It is definite and indefinite, matter and energy.
We want these opposites to be successfully one in ourselves. Any person can feel he or she is too flexible, agreeable, too malleable, too easy-going, and also too firm, too rigid, too intolerant. People have alienated friends and made big mistakes by being either too flexible or too firm.
We come now to the place of aesthetics in anthropology, because we can learn from anthropology how to do a better job putting these opposites together. Seeing the successful oneness of opposites, seeing beauty, in a culture not our own—in a Pueblo ceremonial, an African myth, an Apache basket—we respect the human mind more, wherever it may be, even in people we have written off and don't like, close at hand or far away. And we learn how to be better and more complete human beings ourselves. This makes us more exact and kinder; as much as it does this--and it can do so in a big, decisive way, it is doing away with prejudice. Prejudice is inaccurate pre-judgement. Respect is always accuracy because if it's the real thing, it's always based on knowledge of what's different from ourselves. There is much more: I have only spoken here of a few of the aesthetic opposites which make for a true and rich understanding of humanity, one that can always be added to.
I hope that any person reading this will want to be fair to it, and that means study the source that I respect so much, with every scientifically-trained cell in my body. And that source is Aesthetic Realism, founded by Eli Siegel.
Here, in brief, is why my carefully considered opinion is that Eli Siegel gave to anthropology the scientific method it needs, and he gave to anthropology the kindness it wants to have.