How Can We See People in a Way that’s Truly Good for Us?

I learned this crucial fact from Aesthetic Realism which changed my life deeply and happily: the most strengthening thing for us, that which does our lives the most good, is our desire to like the world, and people are a very important part of that world. In his lecture “Aesthetic Realism and People,” Mr. Siegel explained:

“People are reality when most complete; reality when aware of itself. The importance of people is that they are reality in the richest form. We cannot afford to despise reality. If we do, we are giving ourselves poison.”

Not to want to value people truly, to rob them of their complexity and richness, I’ve learned, is contempt. And while we have an ego victory in looking down on people; it’s the most damaging thing to our lives.

I. Early Decisions about People

As a child, I couldn’t wait to go outside with my brother, Paul, to play with our friends. I think I had some of the wonderful feeling Mr. Siegel describes in one of his poems from “21 Distichs about Children”: “When children run and children romp/ The world of motion shows its pomp.”

But the world felt anything but lively upon returning home to a tense silence between my parents. When they did speak to each other, it was almost always in curt, bitter tones.

I should have tried to encourage something kinder between Sam and Lillian Weiner, but I’m sorry to say I got some satisfaction seeing them not get along. I agreed with my mother’s resentment of my father, often, grimacing behind his back, as if to say, “There he goes again! He’s impossible!” I also felt that we’d been cheated out of the finer things in life because Dad didn’t make a lot of money. Never did I think about the effect I had on either of my parents, whether I had anything to do with my mother’s moodiness, or my father’s irritability— both of which I complained about a lot. I was having unjust contempt for two adults, and used them to see human beings in general not so smart. This came to include the children I once liked playing with, most of whom I started to avoid.

Years later, in an Aesthetic Realism class Mr. Siegel asked me “Did you want your parents to get along?” When I said I didn’t, he said so truly “Then you had a splinter in your soul.” He also asked if I was a “secretly sour” person who had “acidy thoughts” about people. I was.

Mr. Siegel was showing me what it was crucial for me to see–and I‘m ever so thankful he did: the ill will I had for my parents had so much to do with my dislike of myself from a young age.

As my life went on, even as I sometimes acted outwardly agreeable, inwardly I became increasingly bitter. Feeling I hadn’t gotten the breaks, I wanted to even the score. I sneered at most people, thinking they were selfish and hypocritical, looking for whatever reason to feel superior; and resented people who I felt had it better than I had, hoping that they’d be knocked down a peg or two.

In another class, Mr. Siegel asked:

“Would your problems be solved if you were less selfish? Is it insufficiency of seeing [on your part] or that people are so mean to you?”

I saw that my woefully deficient way of looking at people, my great lack of desire to respect them, was truly not good for me. People were much more subtle and complex than I’d had any idea of! This was such a happy turning point in my life! For the first time, instead of being so competitive, I had pleasure thinking of what I could learn from people, and how I could strengthen them—and this included both my mother and father. And I saw that the more I wanted to have a good effect on others, I thought better of myself.

One way I became less selfish is that I really cared about justice coming to people. This includes the work I did as a union shop steward, representing fellow employees in disputes with management, in my job at the NYC Department of Education. And today I have friends, real friends whom I can talk to deeply, and who have a tremendously good effect on my life.

II. An American Artist Looks at People

Tonight, I’ll discuss some aspects of the life and work of the important artist, Thomas Eakins (1844-1916). In Mainstreams of Modern Art, John Canaday wrote:

“Eakins…is certainly one of the finest painters of [the 19th] century…His genius…lay in his ability to create—or, rather, to perceive and then to reveal—the psychological entity of an individual…Human consciousness…in the long run…is what Eakins is most concerned with…”

The artist wanted to paint, he explained, “living, thinking, acting men…

…whose faces tell their life long story.” This is a portrait of the great poet, Walt Whitman, who was friends with Eakins for many years. Of the many portraits done of him, Whitman said this is the one he cared for most.

And Eakins said, “I love sunlight & children & beautiful women & men, their heads & hands & most everything I see.”

In his best works, there is beauty, because Eakins tried to see and present his subjects with depth and richness. “All beauty,” Eli Siegel explained, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Opposites I see as central in Eakins’ work are personal and impersonal, the specific and the wide.

I think a very fine work of Eakins is “The Champion Single Sculls”. Here, we get a sense of the specificity and immediacy of one man, Max Schmitt, amidst a wide expanse that takes in fading fall foliage, a placid river, and blue sky. There are the opposites of one particular self in relation to a wide world.

While his back is turned, the oarsman looks over his shoulder at us in a serious, thoughtful manner. The late-afternoon light shines most directly on Schmitt helping to make him the painting’s focal point. At the same time, we’re drawn deeper into the work by the rowboat behind Schmitt and to his right whose occupant happens to be Eakins himself (his name is inscribed on the boat), by the long low red craft on the left, and finally to a steamship passing under a bridge composed of stone arches and diagonal steel beams. This bridge, along with a red crossing behind it, and the elongated clouds above, parallels Schmitt’s scull. I think this painting’s composition is beautiful—a true oneness of personal feeling and panoramic nature.

Thomas Eakins was born in 1844 into the comfortable Quaker household of Benjamin, a distinguished instructor of penmanship, and Caroline Eakins in Philadelphia, a city he loved and lived in most of his life. In many ways, Thomas had a fortunate childhood. It seems he and his father cared for each other a great deal; he was an exceptional student, and an outstanding athlete. Yet, his mother suffered from severe mental ailments, including deep depressions. Studying his life, I think the young Thomas unknowingly used her distress to be scornful of people in general. Sidney D. Kirkpatrick, the author of The Revenge of Thomas Eakins, tells of the youth’s “imperious,” “condescending” attitude to girls he knew.

As he grew up, Thomas at first wanted to be a surgeon but with the encouragement of his father he took courses at the PA Academy of the Fine Arts; a classmate was the artist Mary Cassatt.

Soon, Eakins felt it necessary to study in Paris, as did many aspiring artists of his day. There, he found that the French bureaucracy made it difficult for foreign students to enroll in the best art schools, to which he rightly objected. Meanwhile, it seems he used his criticism to have what his biographer called “unmitigated contempt,” which was a foreshadowing of the “arrogance” he is described as having many years later. He called these bureaucrats “a hateful set of vermin…who have…perverted little minds.” How much did this way of seeing people hurt his life?

III. The Richness of Reality in a Person

Thomas Eakins loved the study of anatomy, and saw it as having great wonder. Explains, Kirkpatrick:

“Eakins [had a] passionate belief that the…human body was the most beautiful thing on earth. He studied it artistically as he did scientifically…as a miracle of muscle, bone, and blood.”

Some of Eakins’ most popular works are of men engaged in sports: baseball players, boxers, and rowers:

Surprisingly, what stands out in these works is not the action of these athletes but their meditative quality. Listen to these words of Mr. Siegel from The Right Of about the rich relation of mind and body as we look at “John Biglin in a Single Scull”;

“When we see the complexity of the things in an ordinary human body working at one time, we can have a most overpowering sense of the intimacy of each one of us. But then, when we see that there are also all kinds of memories and feelings, and they too are part of the organism, we can see what an immeasurable intricacy and subtlety we are.”

In this closely-cropped work, we do get a “sense of the intimacy” of one man. The expression on John Biglin’s deeply-shadowed face is concentrated and thoughtful. Look at how at his head, tightly bound in a red bandana, becomes part of an expansive, irregular landscape while his taut-muscled arms form a tight angle with the oars he firmly grips. The zigzag of this angle is continued in the ripples in the water below which contain broken reflections of his white shirt and head scarf. He is surrounded by lovely blue water, and an energetic azure sky. There is a relation here of above and below, constriction and width, meditativeness and exertion, that has us feel the “immeasurable intricacy and subtlety” of this 19th century rower.

The richness with which Eakins saw John Biglin is so different from how I once thought about my older brother who was also a very good athlete. While I admired his basketball skills, I just assumed there wasn’t anything “intricate” or “subtle” about my brother, and certainly his feelings weren’t as deep as mine. Meanwhile, I acted as if I was the most hurt, maltreated person in my family. When I complained about my brother in a class, Mr. Siegel asked me “Are you interested in his resentments of you?” At first, I was taken aback. But I began to be interested, and was able to express to my brother regret for ways I had been unfair to him. We had conversations and I saw there was so much more to him that I had missed. My brother increasingly trusted me, and once said, “I know Steve has changed about me.” This was a proud achievement in my life!

IV.What Weakened His Art and His Life

As an artist, Eakins has been praised for not prettifying his subjects, or performing, as Kirkpatrick writes, “exercises in social flattery,” a common custom of painters of his day.

But could he have made a different mistake? In the book Portrait: The Life of Thomas Eakins, Willian S. McFeely writes about the depression of his mother: “Familiar with [this] condition, Eakins…sense[d] it in many of the people whose portraits he painted.” The question arises: Was he right? Or did Eakins wrongly use his mother to see excessive weakness and suffering in people, especially women? In many portraits of women, there is no sense of their rich, complex, vibrant “inner life,” but rather a vacancy, a blankness.

In 1884, Eakins married Susan MacDowell, an art student of his described by many as having a “lively sense of humor” and a “cheerful disposition.” But in this painting titled “The Artist’s Wife and His Setter Dog,” begun in the first year of their marriage, Susan, despite being dressed in a lovely blue gown and a striking red sock, hardly looks joyful. One critic wrote that “For a man picturing his fairly recent bride it is an unusual portrait…. Her face appears thin and gaunt, her eyes deeply shadowed…her expression pensive.” And the dog doesn’t look too happy either!

Yet, from various accounts, Susan MacDowell’s vivacity had a good effect on her husband; he became less moody. So why did Eakins paint her as so forlorn? I’ve learned there is that in a man that feels if he can get a woman to act sad and distressed, this proves she really cares for him. But to hope a woman is weaker through us is not “love” at all; it’s as mean as anything in a man.

In his own time, Eakins’ work wasn’t sufficiently valued by most critics and the public, which he used to be very bitter. He said: ”My honors [have been] misunderstanding, persecution and neglect.” Still, it needs to be asked: Did he use the injustice he met to be unjust himself? I think so. The artist had ongoing battles with many people, and a close relative said that he was “openly contemptuous of the opinions and sentiments of others.” Eakins could not “afford,” as Mr. Siegel wrote, to “despise reality” and people, as no one can, and his scorn took its toll. One biographer tells of the many depressions he endured.

V. A Deep, Kind Way of Seeing a Father

In Eakins work at its best, there is a seeing of a person with depth and honest feeling, for instance, in this painting of his father titled “The Writing Master.” I believe every son can learn from how warmth and respect, personal and impersonal are related in it.

Like many sons, my way of seeing my father was quite selfish, and how I judged him was personal and small: if he let me have my way, he was okay; but if not, I’d punish him. Otherwise, what mattered to my father, such as his job of many years as a mailer for a newspaper, was of little interest to me. Some years before he died, I had the opportunity to work with my father, and was very surprised to see how much his co-workers looked up to him. I got a new picture of Sam Weiner, and it did me good!

And I’m glad to say that my respect for both of my parents soared as each of them saw the tremendous value of Aesthetic Realism, and studied it in consultations. My mother, Lillian Weiner, is grateful for what she is continuing to learn about the world and her own life from this great education.

Looking at “The Writing Master” we see the “intimacy” of one person and the depths of reality as Benjamin Eakins is placed very close to the picture plane while merging with the dark background. We’re drawn to the warm, pinkish light falling on his forehead as he concentrates on the document before him. And there is a reverence in the artist for his father’s hands, how one gently holds a pen as the other firmly keeps the curled paper in place. The art of calligraphy meant a great deal to Benjamin, and his son tenderly honored that care by showing a deep kinship between the curving gray and white of his head and that of the lovely parchment.

“How can we see people in a way that’s truly good for us?” As we’re showing tonight, the beautiful answer to this question is in Aesthetic Realism!