Aesthetic Realism makes eminently clear that there are two different kinds of determination: one that does a man’s life good because it comes from wanting to know the world, be just to people; and another determination based on contempt in which we are relentless in trying to have our own selfish way, and what others deserve from us be damned.
As a child, there were times I had good determination. In school, I was eager to learn, and if there was a subject I found difficult, like chemistry, I kept working at it.
But mostly my determination was of a different kind, and I was intense about it. I was set on being one of the favored children in school, and realized that I had a tremendous built in advantage–my older brother of three years, Fred. He was very lively and definitely a BMOC—big man on campus. “Are you Freddie Weiner’s little brother,” was frequently asked of me by teachers and older students. “Yes,” I eagerly replied, and was often made a lot of. I came to feel this special treatment was my due, and used it to dismiss all the other “ordinary” children.
However, even as I used Fred for self-importance, I also wanted to be superior to him. Having gotten better grades than he did, I rubbed this in as often as possible. But no matter what I did, Fred wasn’t going to be managed by me. That I found easier to do with my twin brother, Paul. In exchange for helping Paul with his homework, or doing his errands for our mother, I expected total submission and when I didn’t get it, I was irate. Once, when Paul refused to go to a party with me, I punched him. He said, “You always have to have your way, don’t you, Steven?”
And there was another big way I was determined. Even though my father worked very hard so that our family could live in an apartment in a nice neighborhood in Brooklyn, I felt humiliated because friends of mine were better off than me, and some of them were moving to large homes in the suburbs. In a class years later, Eli Siegel asked me, “Is there anything greater in you than your desire to be bitter?” I began to see that I had a drive, a determination, to feel the world had hurt me, and therefore I had the right to despise it.
I had no idea that the way I was bent on proving that I was above everyone and everything made for my very low opinion of myself, and feeling that my life really didn’t matter too much.
Through my study of Aesthetic Realism, I have a determination today to be a kinder, deeper person, useful to others, and I’m grateful my education continues. Once in a class, Mr. Siegel encouraged me to look at where I had been unjust to my brother, Fred. I wrote about specific ways I’d been mean, and showed what I wrote to Fred, and he felt I was trying to be honest. I’m very glad to say that with each year there is more friendliness and respect between us.
I. Right and Wrong Determination in a Noted 20th Century Artist
I now discuss some aspects of the life and work of Alberto Giacometti, one of the few artists eminent in three media — drawing:
and most famously for his sculptures of tall, thin, anonymous women and men:
In his art, he had as beautiful a determination as any: the critic Charles Juliet called it a “quest to understand art, man, and life.”
Born in Switzerland in 1901, Alberto was the son of Giovanni and Annetta Giacometti. His brother Diego to whom he was close for his entire life arrived a year later.
In Self and World, Eli Siegel has sentences that while deeply philosophic have so much to do with how Giacometti and many men have been rightly and wrongly determined. He writes:
“A person is separate from all other things and together with all other things…All art puts separateness and togetherness together. All selves want to do this.”
“So the problem that faces a self is how to make its separateness at one with its togetherness. This is the problem which is underneath all others. It can make for agony and it can make for triumph.”
In his fine biography of the artist, James Lord tells of the drama in the young Alberto of wanting to be “together” with other things but also “separate.” Early, it seems he preferred objects like stones and trees to people, and a nearby cave to his own home. Lord writes: “From the first, Alberto was made aware of a distance between himself and the rest of the world.”
And in his reveries, Alberto often traveled to Siberia. Of this land, he said: “There I saw myself on a vast plain covered with gray snow: there was never any sun and it was always cold.” I, too, as a child had dreams of being enveloped by snow. When I spoke of them in a class, Mr. Siegel asked me: “Do you have a tendency to vanish? “I think I do,” I answered, remembering how from a young age I was intent to be off by myself. Mr. Siegel continued: “Do you think it shows an attitude to the world?” It did in me, and I think in Giacometti too. Throughout his life, even as he had to do with many people, including the renowned artists and thinkers of his day, his determination to “vanish” made for a pervasive loneliness.
Meanwhile, his biographer also describes how Alberto wanted to be “together” with things, which showed in his care for art. He showed an aptitude for sculpture early on that was encouraged by his father, himself a well-known artist. By his teens, he was sculpting his family. This is a work he did when he was just thirteen of his younger brother, Bruno.
Giacometti said, “I began doing sculpture because that was precisely the realm I understood least. I couldn’t endure having it elude me completely. I had no choice.” This is a beautiful resolve that every man can learn from. Too often, men have associated determination with arrogantly imposing our will on others; not by being deeply affected by something big in the world, and feeling we have to be fair to it. Here is a self-portrait at age 20, showing something of his large desire to see.
II. A Determination for More Seeing
As a young man, Alberto moved to Paris. At first, he took up cubism, and then surrealism. Here are some of his works from that time, and I think many of them have a deep charm:
For the next ten years, Giacometti worked in relative obscurity. Then something profound happened to him one day. As he walked down a Paris boulevard, he experienced a “complete transformation of reality.” He said:
“I began to see (the forms of people in the space that surrounds them (and) I trembled…as never before.”
I think what he saw is about the philosophic concept that a person exists in all of space. This idea engrossed Giacometti, and in trying to show it visually, he came to magnitude as sculptor. As we look at these works, we can see his insistence on showing humanity at its most elemental, not decorated or covered up.
Aesthetic Realism explains that the biggest hope of a woman is to be in a beautiful relation with all of reality. But hurtfully, many men have been determined to lessen women and see them in terms of narrow comfort. This woman, in all her delicacy, is resolute that she be seen in her largeness and depth, even abstraction. I believe this work is a visual representation of what Mr. Siegel describes so deeply about the nature of femininity, as reality has determined it to be, in his essay “A Woman is the Oneness of Aesthetic Opposites.” He writes about “Form: Body”:
“Meaning, form, ethics, mind, spirit, value are all in woman as much as they are anywhere in the universe…But body is begun with, is claspingly, pressingly honored because in the possibilities of body, meaning lodges, ready often to go the limits of the world.”
“The Chariot” is a beautiful composition of a feminine “mind” and “body”, and the “limits of the world.”
III. Determination, the Family, and Love
The art of Giacometti came, I’ve learned, from what all art does: an impulsion to see the world and people deeply and justly. But too often, with the people we know, we’re determined very differently: to own. This was so of Giacometti, and it made for much agony in him and the persons to whom he was close.
For instance, there was a lot of feeling between Alberto and his brother Diego, and some kindness. At a low point in Diego’s life, Alberto asked him to assist in his studio. There, Diego became indispensable, including applying the patinated touches to the works that made for such a vital part of their beauty. But Alberto got very angry when Diego did not do just as he was ordered. What hurt Diego most of all was Alberto’s refusal to ever publicly acknowledge his contributions. Meanwhile, as artist, Alberto said: “Diego has posed for me ten thousand times; but each time he poses, I no longer recognize him.” These are two of his works of Diego:
There is a good separation here, an objectivity, for the purpose of being more deeply of, inside a person.
And then there was his mother, Annetta, who favored Alberto over her other children. James Lord said that from them, she expected “unconditional devotion” and Alberto was very willing to comply. Though he had to do with many women, from the time he was a young man, he found it difficult to have a sustained feeling for one particular woman. Instead, he had casual relationships with many women—he called them his “shadows”—with whom he would “vanish” into the night.
In his mid-forties, he met Annette Arm and was taken by her liveliness and youth–she was twenty years old–and her veneration of him. They wed a few years later. But as a husband, Alberto was, as James Lord writes, enormously “at fault.” For example, while he gave money away very freely to others, with his wife he was parsimonious; and he often belittled her in public. Meanest of all, he obstinately continued his life with other women. As his wife became increasingly distraught and enraged, he referred to her sarcastically as “The Sound and the Fury.” In a class years ago when I was angry with a woman who was not submissive enough to me as I saw it, Ellen Reiss asked me: “Would you rather have love that is not tremendous but where you are the master? Would you rather have tyranny than love?” I had and it made me mean and unhappy.
Though his biographer said that Alberto shed real tears about his marriage, and repeated often that he had destroyed his wife, he never changed. But the art in him demanded that he be fair, and so he was impelled to draw, paint, and sculpt his mother and his wife over and over again. In “The Artist’s Mother, 1950,” Mrs. Giacometti is seen as part of the large abstraction of the world, made up of horizontal, vertical, diagonal, and circular lines. Seated in an upright chair, she is framed by a doorway and beyond that a void.
And this is the deeply moving sculpture of his wife, “Annette VIII”:
As Giacometti shows her looking out, we get the sense of a particular person, even as she has such wonder and mystery.
Through Aesthetic Realism, men can learn how to have a beautiful determination as to a woman. Miss Reiss explained what this would mean when she asked me in a class:
“Do you see trying to [know a woman] forever as thrilling? ‘So the chase takes up one’s life, that’s all’ is a line from a poem by Robert Browning. Do you think there’s something you’re after that can take up your whole life?”
Yes, and this intention to try to understand what a woman feels, I’m seeing more clearly each day, makes me prouder and kinder.
IV. Art: The Oneness of Separateness and Togetherness
Many critics of Giacometti’s day said his work represented man’s separation, his alienation and anxiety in an insecure, cold universe, brought on by the desolation and destruction that ravaged Europe during World War II. But Giacometti protested, saying: “I have no intention of being an artist of solitude. Moreover, I believe that all life consists of a fabric of relations with others.”
We can see this “fabric of relation” in his “City Square”:
Giacometti was very taken by pedestrians on Parisian streets, and here, on a platform, four men coming from different directions pass by a stationary woman. While we can insist on our distinction as we walk by other people, Giacometti shows these persons’ “togetherness”: they are part of a larger composition, even a choreography. Still, these figures, just about eight inches tall, are subtly different from each other but all have a lovely grace. Should we be determined to see people this way, with dignity and depth, and like us?
Here is one of Giacometti’s works that moves me most: “Walking Man, 1960.”
See the strong diagonal line that is formed by his back leg and torso. It sharply separates him from the space about him but also impels him up, out, and energetically forward.
Look at the lift in his foot even as it merges with, becomes the pedestal beneath it.
Then there is the relation of matter and space, and they are “indefinitely close, indefinitely inescapable.” This is the lovely triangle formed by his legs and the base:
And here is the vibrant, pulsating space between his arm and midsection:
With a gleam in his eye, and a light shining on his forehead:
this being is alert, keenly affected by what is around him. Like him, does the “totality,” the completeness of our lives depend on how determined we are to be “together” with reality, see it truly and deeply, and have it become us? Art shows that the answer is yes!
It is a very large tribute to Alberto Giacometti that what he was determined to understand was so vast, he never felt he succeeded. Towards the end of his life, he said:
“I see my sculptures before me: each one…a fragment, each one a failure. But there is in each a little of what I would like to create some day…That gives me a longing, an irresistible longing to pursue my efforts—and perhaps in the end I will attain my goal.”
Our greatest “goal”, our greatest determination is to like the whole world on an honest basis. And it is the large good fortune of our time that Aesthetic Realism can teach us how to do so!