On a brisk November afternoon many years ago, I had my first Aesthetic Realism consultation. In it, I started to understand one of the most important things I needed to know: where a painful iciness I’d felt most of my life began. My consultants asked me: ”Do you think you’ve made a considerable practice of not having too much feeling about anybody or anything?” My answer was a bitter “Yes.”
That consultation commenced a huge and beautiful change in my life. Aesthetic Realism taught me a way of seeing the world and people that has enabled me to have deep, large emotions and a heart that is kinder and warmer.
1. Frost and Heat in a Brooklyn Family
Among my earliest warm memories are those of reading about children who lived in other times—such as Johnny Tremain, a boy who grew up during the Revolutionary War. However, the atmosphere in our home could not be described as tender. Individually, my father and mother showed their three sons affection, but it seemed as soon as both of them were in the same room, the feeling in the air changed to a tense chill, punctuated by heated arguments.
“Do you think you felt hurt by people quite early?” my consultants asked. “Yes,” was my response. I was aware that even as I got a lot of approval, especially from my mother, I didn’t think anyone wanted to know what I felt. And my consultants continued: “Could that have something to do with deciding not to get too close to people?” I think so I said.
”In this world,” Eli Siegel writes,
“men and women often find refuge in coldness. Coldness, quite clearly, is allied to contempt; and contempt has been seen often as a protector of the distressed or uncertain self.”
I took “refuge” early. As my friends eagerly ran to the playground after school, I went home, changed into pajamas, and slid under the covers to get away from all those people who I thought had “hurt” me. It never occurred to me that others could feel wounded by my coldness.
There were times I had genuine feeling. I remember seeing news reports of Southern police turning fire hoses and vicious dogs on men, women and children who were courageously fighting for their civil rights, and a fury swept over me.
Mostly though, I cultivated coldness and disdain; scornfully telling myself that other people, especially women, were too emotional, let things get to them. But no matter how hard I tried to convince myself of my supremacy, I was deeply “uncertain” and had the “distressed” sense that there was something really wrong with me. Cursing myself often, I asked “Why are you such a goddamned cold fish?”
In The Right Of, Ellen Reiss described my agonizing mixup, and that of many people:
“We feel we have ourselves in a kingly or queenly fashion if nothing can move us: we are above the turmoil; we are unbothered; we are too good to be tossed about by the crude world. Coldness, Aesthetic Realism shows, is a triumph. But with that triumph is a sinking, a fearfulness, a shame.”
Aesthetic Realism enabled me to see that to be accurately warm to the world and people is equivalent to liking myself. I’m thankful for my happy life which now includes deep feeling about people, music and art, and the woman I care for, Frances Finch.
2. These Opposites Affect Love
Once, in an Aesthetic Realism class, I had the opportunity to learn about coldness and warmth in myself. In relation to a woman I was then seeing, I spoke of the way I’d go from warm affection to aloof coolness which pained both of us very much. Ms. Reiss asked: “What would it mean for there to be a oneness of coldness and warmth in you, or any person?” “I’m not sure,” I answered. And as the discussion continued, I began to see
that I’d been very warm to something ugly in myself—my ego, my false sense of lordliness; in fact, I had been a “hotbed of self-love.” I’d been making a big mistake many people make: we caress the very thing in ourselves, our contempt, which makes us cold and has us dislike ourselves. And what I needed to have was a: “beautiful coldness that is exactitude in knowing [my]self.”
3. What Art Can Teach Us
In The Right Of, Ellen Reiss explains:
“[On] the oneness of coolness and warmth depends the quality of any instance of art: because for something to be art, there must be, working as one in it, that severity or coolness which is structure and that warmth which is feeling.”
George Bellows (1882-1925) is one of the major artists of early 20th century America. He is most famous for chronicling NYC in the decades before World War I.
He once said:
“I am a patriot for beauty…I would enlist in any army to make the world more beautiful…First of all I am a painter and a painter gets hold of life—gets hold of something real, of many real things…I am deeply interested in real life. I want to see it, and I want to paint it.”
The “real things” of NYC that Bellows depicted and which he said had “wonderful meaning” are very rich. They include:
Two subjects that Bellows is most known for each accent one of the opposites of my subject: snow (coldness)
and boxing (heat):
But in each instance, both opposites are present. For instance, the critic Sanford Schwartz notes: “With smoke, trees, snow, shadows, stonework, sunlight, and water all rendered with a sparkling velocity, the subject of [these snow] pictures might be energy in itself”:
Here’s a close-up of some of his brushstrokes, and we can see that thrilling speed and energy!
And as my colleague, Michael Palmer, showed in his fine talk on Bellows’ painting Dempsey and Firpo, the strong diagonal lines and angles add to the beauty and intensity of this work:
A critic of the day said:
[Bellows’] pictures palpitate and throb, seethe and roar and reverberate with the stress and drive at the day-turmoil
and the night-tonings of a monstrous life set in the midst of the colossal city…
Even as a number of these paintings seem impetuous, chaotic, do his works also have that “coolness which is structure”? Sanford Schwartz says Yes: “Bellows insisted on a keenly formal underpinning [in his works].”
I think we can see this “formal underpinning” in New York 1911.
Here, the canvas is divided in two by that wavering horizontal line. Look at how a vertical line is formed by the left edge of the tall skyscraper next to the cloud that leads us to the right edge of the golden haystack, and to the outline of the person in black below.
Along with geometry, there’s also humor here: the focal point of this work are those neat bundles of hay, about as un-NYC as you can get!
And those horses seem completely unperturbed by all the surrounding clamor!
4. He Was “Born to Draw”
George Wesley Bellows was born in 1882 in Columbus, Ohio to George Bellows Sr., a prosperous building contractor, and Anna Smith Bellows. There were two things the young George excelled at: sports and drawing. A childhood friend recounted him as a “solemn little boy who sat drawing [trains and circus parades] on yards of ribbon paper…It mattered not at all to George [what he drew] for he could draw anything…”
At an early age, George declared to his friends and family: “I am an artist” and that would be his career. His conservative parents assumed he’d come to see the wisdom of pursuing a “respectable” profession. But with the assistance of a teacher who recognized his talent, George would not be dissuaded.
In 1904, at the age of twenty-two, Bellows came to NYC, and enrolled in art classes taught by Robert Henri. In a lecture, Mr. Siegel called Henri “the most remembered art teacher in America,“ and said, “There are places Henri was factual but so moved, what he was seeing was so lovely” that Mr. Siegel found true poetry in his writings. I think this depth of perception affected Bellows very much; he wrote that when he met Henri, “my life [began] at [that] point.” And Henri was to say of Bellows many years later “I always gave him my most severe criticism because I thought he was my best pupil.”
Henri wanted his students to paint Manhattan everyday life “not idealized but truthfully and powerfully and without flattery.” An aspect of the city’s “not idealized” were its many thousands of working-class and poor people whom Bellows courageously portrayed in different settings:
Cliff Dwellers is a depiction of a teeming street on the Lower East Side on a steamy summer day. On the left is a dark tenement whose windows resemble jail cells with inhabitants standing behind iron-barred fire escapes. Between this building and the lighter one on the right, we’d expect to see space. But instead there’s another tenement, and even more buildings behind it, all adding to a congested, claustrophobic feeling.
5. “Scrutiny and Affection”
These are qualities, very much related to coolness and warmth, that the critic John Wilmerding points out are present in the best portraits of Bellows. We can see scrutiny and affection in his fine depictions of Frankie the Organ Boy:
and most moving to me, Little Girl in White, a painting of Queenie Burnett who delivered the artist’s laundry:
It’s likely that not much attention was paid to this young girl by most of the persons who employed her. But here Bellows sees her with seriousness and delicacy, placing her singularly on the canvas in front of a sober green and brown background. Her torso is turned slightly, her head tilted,
and we cannot fail to be moved as she peers at us. Belying Queenie’s youth is a weariness around her large, dark eyes and mask-like face.
Her lovely white dress is too big for her little body, and her hands are not those of a young girl, but rather blemished, perhaps by the harsh soaps she used to clean clothes.
I think we can see here what the critic Jane Myers describes as Bellows’ ability to convey “unexpected nuances of meaning and the tenderness of the human plight.”
But never does this work become maudlin, cloyingly sweet. Queenie is seen factually by the artist.
When “scrutiny and affection” don’t work well together in a man, he is unkind. Men have wanted to “look over” other people, not in order to have more feeling but to find flaws. A man can also be falsely affectionate, flattering, without a hope to see a woman truly: and that is really coldness.
John Wilmerding speaks of the “private glances of thought” in Bellows’ portraits.
Look at how Queenie’s more recessive, shaded eye on the left is also the more attentive eye. Did the artist have “loving regard” for this girl as one critic said? Did he make outward what was inward or “private” in her—her hope to be comprehended, to be seen deeply with warmth and respect?
Men need to ask: how do we see the “private…thoughts” of a woman: Do we want to know what a woman deeply feels, and encourage her to express herself, or are we cold? That’s what I was learning about in a class when I complained that a woman I was seeing was not forthcoming with me.
ER Do you think a woman has the right to have [private thoughts]?
SW: I think I do.
ER: How much [a person wants to show themselves] is a question for everyone. But do you think that is a subject to be approached [with Miss B] lovingly?
That word “lovingly” affected me very much because that was hardly my manner. In fact, Miss B once objected to my accusatory tone in asking her questions. This discussion made me truly warmer, and my desire to understand increased.
6. A Choice for Less Feeling?
I respect how much emotion Bellows had in his portrait of Queenie and other similar works. Politically, he voted for the socialist Eugene Debs for president, and was an ardent supporter of labor unions. He also produced work for The Masses, a radical magazine, including this powerful illustration:
the caption reads: “Why don’t we go to the country for vacation?”
Still, Bellows had that mix-up between coolness and warmth that affects all men. In 1910, the artist made choices that I believe weakened his life and his art. In that year, large changes took place: after a long courtship, he married Emma Story, an art student. They bought a home in Gramercy Park, and were soon to become parents. I’m sure Bellows was concerned about how to support his new family, and so he decided to begin painting the well-to-do of Manhattan for commissions. He could have continued his portraits of the “not idealized” but did not.
These new works, however, for the most part, were not well-regarded. Many critics called them “superficial”
and I pretty much agree.
The artist felt frustrated but didn’t understand what impeded him. Only a year after his decision to pursue commissioned work, Bellows experienced severe mood swings. His lowest moment came as he stood on a mountain in Maine. Franklin Kelly writes: “From the edge of a dangerous precipice, [Bellows] was so overcome that for a moment he contemplated the unthinkable.” Thankfully, he did not follow through.
Some writers have attributed the artist’s despondency to the pressures of a new life. Sanford Schwartz is more critical when he states: “Bellows became complaisant in his self-assurance…his goals became conventional.” I think it needs to be asked: did the artist think he had too much feeling in his earlier portraits and without wholly knowing it, wanted his emotion to be less? And did this make for misgivings in himself?
For the next ten years, Bellows busily continued working, and many of his paintings from that time are very good. As for his portraits, though, I don’t think he ever did another that is as moving and deep as Queenie. His life was tragically cut short at the age of forty-two after he developed peritonitis which poisoned his system.
Before I close, there is one last work by Bellows that I’d like to show that I care for it very much. Noon presents the world as having a depth and richness that make for more feeling and warmth in us.
As you look at it, compare it to words written by a critic at the time of the artist’s passing:
“The genius of George Bellows resides in this: his power to invoke on canvas a world stirring with a mysterious energy.
The life that palpitates in the pigment stings us into a startling awareness of itself.
It is as though we were observing life with an entirely new set of faculties.”
The world is in great turmoil today because people don’t understand the mixup between coldness and warmth in themselves. Aesthetic Realism makes this beautifully possible, and that is why it so needed by humanity.