Anthropology is art and science at once. It needs to be fully scientific so it can describe cultures and emotions in a way that makes them clear to a person living anywhere in the world. And it needs to be beautiful, needs to be kind, needs to give pleasure. If it is 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.
The Place of Aesthetics in Social and Cultural Anthropology
[soc & cult anthro]
As this website shows, the method that best enables anthropology to be steadily both accurate and kind is Aesthetic Realism. It is the philosophy—the critical method—that Mr. Siegel, the great American poet and critic, taught since 1941. He also was a social scientist of the greatest 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.
In the articles on this website I discuss how this principle by Mr. Siegel provides an outline for doing just that: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." [See Self and World: An Explanation of Aesthetic Realism.]
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 principle describes the previously unseen aesthetic relation between art, the human self, and the world outside oneself.
Take, 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 definite 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.
Firmness and flexibility are opposites that are successfully one everywhere in the arts and 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.
But we can learn from other things and people 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 and we learn how to be better and more complete human beings ourselves. This makes us more exact and kinder; it does away with prejudice.
This, 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 needs.
—Arnold Perey, PhD
Aesthetic Realism Consultant