The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method Shows
The Thrilling Structure in Common Between
Art and Science!


. Presented at the 31st World Congress of the International Society for 
Education through Art, August 2002, New York City 
By Donita Ellison and Rosemary Plumstead

INTRODUCTION

We are Rosemary Plumstead, teacher of science, and Donita Ellison, teacher of art at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School in New York City.  We all know America now is in a tremendous crisis, and there is also the ongoing and escalating crisis in education.  We think it is safe to say that every student and teacher is asking somewhere: What kind of world is this?

In this presentation, we are proud to give evidence for the fact that through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, which both of us use in our classrooms, the subjects of the curriculum— notably science and art—have students see that the world from which all subjects come, has a logical, sensible, beautifully organized structure, one that is related to themselves, one that can be respected and honestly seen as friendly.  And seeing this, they learn!  They also become kinder human beings. 

This teaching method is based on the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism, which was founded by the great American poet, critic and educator, Eli Siegel in 1941.  We represent many teachers who are using this method—some for more than 25 years with enormous success in some of the toughest areas of New York City.

The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method is based on these principles by Mr. Siegel:

1) “The purpose of education is to like the world.” 
(Self and World)
2) “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”  This principle is the basis of all our lessons and in this presentation we show how two particular pairs of opposites — power and precision, strength and delicacy — are central in a science lesson on the anatomy of the human hand and an art lesson about prehistoric cave painting.
3) The greatest interference to a student’s ability to learn has been explained for the first time in the history of education.  It is the desire in us to have contempt, which Mr. Siegel defined as the desire to get “an addition to self through the lessening of something else.”

Contempt is as ordinary as a student saying with great relish and disgust, “This is boring.  Who needs it?”  Contempt impels a teacher to belittle a student, denigrate him or her.  Contempt is also the cause of prejudice.  And it was massive contempt that motivated the horrific attack on the World Trade Center.

The students we teach in New York City endure a very great deal.  Many of their families undergo tremendous economic injustice.  Many meet prejudice that understandably makes them furious.  It is very difficult to make sense of a world that has terrorism, war and the fear that these can cause.  Without knowing it, young people can mistakenly use what they are meeting to feel the world is a contemptible mess—and decide that they don’t want to take into their minds facts representing that inimical world.  Every person is in danger of making that mistake.

It is crucial that teachers and students learn that there is a difference between the way the world is made and how it is run. It may not be managed fairly, but art and science show it is made well.  As students see this, their contempt is opposed.  They love the logic of this method, and it is our pleasure to show why.

This is a report of a workshop as originally presented at the New York State Art Teachers Association on November 17, 2001.  The responses contained in this article reflect those given by the art educators in attendance at the workshop.

The Human Hand:  A Thrilling Relation of Strength
and Delicacy, Power and Precision

By Rosemary Plumstead
I begin this presentation by showing this X-Ray of two hands holding a bottle in two different manners. (See Figure 1)
The audience was asked what they saw about the human hand as it ispresented in this X-Ray. Persons were struck immediately by the way one hand has a firm grip on the bottle, while two fingers from the other hand are used with precision and delicacy as they try to remove the cap.

What we are seeing is the human hand putting opposites together by performing the power grip and the precision grip at the same time.
Figure 1.
I then read this from “The Incredible Machine,” to see how these two grips work in the human hand:
“The thumb alone would convince me of God’s existence,” said Isaac  Newton of the digit that makes us dexterous.  Of the 1000 or so different  functions we perform daily with the 19 bones in each hand, two are   demonstrated in [the] x-ray:  neither would be possible without the thumb.  In a precision grip, a flexed finger and opposing thumb grasp an object in   posture that assures accuracy and fine control; in a power grip the object is  held between flexed fingers and palm while the thumb exerts counterpressure.  Each hand can perform both grips at once.”
To demonstrate that one hand can perform both grips at the same time, I picked up a battery using the power grip and a paper clip with the precision grip.  What are we seeing?  The hand as both powerful and delicate at once!  The same hand that can hammer a nail can also delicately feel the petals of a flower.

I love using the Aesthetic Realism teaching method because through the opposites, young people see the subject is related to them.  High school students are very pained by the way they often go after power, and so are teachers.  For example, a student can explode with anger and want to punch someone because that person said something about him or her.  It is not uncommon for fights to break out in school hallways and cafeterias.  And students and teachers alike can feel that the way to take care of ourselves is to lash out, fly into a rage, without asking:  Am I being exact, precise about what actually happened?

Many years ago I was angry in a way that hurt my life very much—because the way I was against people and for my own opinions was generally inexact and sloppy.  In an Aesthetic Realism class, Eli Siegel explained: “We like anger because we feel it establishes our personality.”  And he asked me: “Have you been interested in seeing whether your anger has been sloppy?”  “No, I haven’t been,” I said, with a feeling of relief.  He suggested an assignment that continues to change my life: to write an essay—“How Can I Be Proud of My Next Anger?”  Students and teachers desperately need to see that being precise about the world and people is the SAME as being powerful.  And certainly this is what our nation needs to learn.

As my students see, through studying the power grip and the precision grip in the hand, how opposites that fight in them—power and precision, or accuracy—work together beautifully, they become excited about the subject—and also have more hope about their own lives.

I asked the audience:  “Can you name an activity that you perform every day with your hands, either as an artist or in your capacity as a teacher?”  Some of their responses were:  to collate papers, paint, staple papers together, and turn the pages of a book.  We saw that in each of these activities, there was some relation of the precision and power grip.

I told them:  A young woman in one of my science classes who majored in music—LaGuardia is a high school for the Arts—was thrilled to see that as she played the violin, she used the power grip to hold the violin close to her, and with the same hand she pressed the individual strings.  She also used the precision grip to hold the bow to the violin from which such beautiful sound emerged.

It is important to see that what we’re able to do with our hands has everything to do with their structure—how they are made! There are 19 bones in the human hand.  50% of the bones in the body are in the hands and feet—those structures that we most meet the world with.  I asked:  “As you look at the hand, do you think it is beautiful?”  They felt yes, and there was much discussion.  “Does it have to do with the way it puts opposites together—notably strength and delicacy?” I asked.  They thought it did.

Looking more closely at the hand (see Figure 2) I pointed to the part that forms the power grip—there are five bones in the palm called metacarpals and 10 bones that are part of the fingers called phalanges.
Figure 2
Persons looked at how these bones were in their own hands as they formed the power grip with palm and fingers.  I asked: “What relation do you see between the way these bones are made and their ability to form the power grip?”  We saw that the metacarpals, and the phalanges connected to them, are long and fairly thick—they are very strong and they enable the hand to close, forming the power grip.,  “Even as they are strong,” I asked, “is there anything graceful or delicate about them?”  “Yes,” they said.
As the audience looked at the hand from a side angle, I asked:  (See Figure 3) “Does this show that the bones of the hand are strong AND also delicate?  How can hard bone make such a graceful curve?”  This is possible because in the very structure of each bone—the way it successfully puts together narrowness and width, strength and delicacy--enables the hand to form the power grip.  And look at the tips of the fingers, the distal phalanges.  These affect my students very much—the fact that they are so delicate and useful for “accuracy and fine control.” 

In the same hand we have graceful digits and long, hearty bones that enable the hand to perform the nearly 1000 functions that Isaac Newton mentioned the hand can perform.  When students see this, they feel there is fittingness between how a thing is made and the work it is able to perform.  This counters the feeling a student can have that the world is a meaningless mess.
Figure 3
I asked:  “Do you think students want to feel they are strong AND delicate at the same time?”  They thought they did.  I told the audience, “The teenagers I teach every day are torn apart by these opposites of strength and delicacy.  They feel if they show tenderness, they will be weak, soft and taken advantage of—and that the way to take care of themselves is to be hard—because after all, “this is a tough world.”  I told about a young man in one of my classes named James.  We went on a class trip one day.  I noticed that as James sat on the train, his face had changed from a relaxed gentleness to an angry, hard look.  I asked him, “James, why do you look so angry?”  He said, pointing to his face, “Mrs. Plumstead, that’s my ‘train face.’  You can’t be smiling at everybody and sweet. You can get killed on these trains.”

As a young woman, I told the audience, these opposites were at war in me.  I went back and forth between feeling I was soft, a pushover, easily taken advantage of, to feeling I was hard as nails.  The way I went back and forth between these two things made me feel like I was two different people, including in the classroom.  It puzzled my students tremendously.  In an Aesthetic Realism class many years ago, Mr. Siegel asked me:  “Do you want to be amiable or fierce?”  And he said to me, “A girl who feels she can be gentle AND strong wants to be that.”  This was so true.  Like James, I hadn’t thought it was possible—now I was learning that it is!

I came to see that my desire to be kind to a person, even gentle, and forceful with a person could work for the same purpose, and I began to like myself more—and my teaching improved a thousand fold, at least!

“As you look at the hand and how it is designed,” I asked the audience, “do you think it shows that reality—which after all, the human hand is a part of, has an organization or composition that you can respect?”  They thought it did.  I asked, “Is this design in every person?”  They said, “Yes, it is.”  And I told them this question, which I have asked my students:  “Do you think the same hand that is used so beautifully to paint or to sculpt with can also be used to hurt another person?”  It is very important for students to see that the human hand can be used for RESPECT or CONTEMPT.

And I have asked my classes: “Do you think if we really saw that another person is made in the same way oneself is, that this person wants to put together the same opposites as we do, we could hurt that person?”  Students have invariably seen the answer is, “NO!”

I read this statement, from a representative young man in one of my classes about the effect of the Aesthetic Realism teaching method on his life.  Not only did he learn science successfully, he came to have a new and prouder relation in himself of power and precision, strength and kindness:

This class has really changed the way I look at certain things.  Just today I   bumped into someone in the hall and I just turned around and apologized and  he was very angry.  So me, not trying to have contempt for him, I apologized  again and he was stunned.  It was as if no one ever apologized to him before.  In the past, I would have said, “What’s your problem?” and we would have   gotten into a fight.”
Through the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method, which I have used for the past 29 years, my students learn science with great ease and pleasure.  They feel for the first time the subject makes sense and they like learning it.  They pass standardized tests with flying colors.

It is tremendously important for young people studying the visual or performing arts to see that the beauty present in art is NOT in a different and superior world to the beauty to be found in ALL reality.  It is a fact I am very proud of that through this great method, my students feel more integrated because as they care more for reality through seeing the opposites in science, it increases their love for art and life itself.

Prehistoric Cave Paintings—A Beautiful
Oneness of Strength and Delicacy

By Donita Ellison
The opposites which Rosemary Plumstead showed are beautifully one in the structure of the human hand—power and precision, strength and delicacy—are opposites in the technique and meaning of art at from its beginnings.  As a teacher of art history I am able to show my students, through the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method--which I’ve used in the classroom for 18 years--that the purpose of art, like the purpose of science, is to like the world through knowing it.  Art history is a required course for senior art majors at LaGuardia High School, and the lesson I describe here was based, as all my lessons are, on this landmark principle stated by Eli Siegel: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” 

In sixteen weeks, we study over 30,000 years of art, from prehistoric art to the high Renaissance.  What relates all these different styles and cultures?  It is the opposites!  And students see, too, through the principle I’ve just quoted how art says something about the questions of their own lives. 

We began with the earliest known record of man’s visual expression—prehistoric art, which roughly begins 35,000 years ago.  In recent years there has been increasing interest in these works created thousands of years ago deep inside the earth on cave walls.  They have meaning for us now in the 21st century.  These early artists held in their own hands—using the age-old precision and power grips-- large flat bones for palettes, red and yellow clay for pigment, animal bristles and reeds for brushes.  With these, they painted horses, deer, bison, bulls, and many other animals, with such precision that their species can be identified today, and many of them are truly beautiful.  In order for students to get a sense of how these images were placed on the cave wall, I showed the class this view of the main hall of the cave at Lascaux, France. (Figure 1)

Figure 1. Hall of Bulls, View of Main Hall, Lascaux, 15,000-10,000 B.C. 
Dordogne, France

And I showed them this detail of the left wall, (figure 2).

Figure 2. Hall of Bulls, Left Wall, (Detail of Figure 1) Lascaux, 15,000 – 10,000. Dordogne, France
My students were in awe of how carefully the early artists studied these animals, and observed them so accurately that they could be drawn with such feeling and exactitude.  In Gardner’s Art Through The Ages, which is our textbook, Helen Gardner writes that the early stone-age artist attempted:

“to represent as convincing a pose and action as possible…The artist saw and recorded only those aspects that were essential to interpret the appearance and character of the animal—its grace, or awkwardness, its cunning, dignity or ferocity.”
We looked more closely at this drawing, “Dear and Head of a Horse”, (figure 3) from the Niaux, in France which dates around 15,000 – 10,000 B.C.

Figure 3. Deer and Head of a Horse, Niaux, c. 15,000 – 10,000 B.C. Ariège, France
I asked the students if they thought it was beautiful.  They did.  And I asked them to describe what they saw.  For example, we found that the line seems strong, is thick and dark, as it delineates the contour of the animal’s back, yet becomes delicate as it comes down around the deer’s tail.  The line is powerful because it is precise, sensitive, as it moves around the contour of the animal.  It is never mechanical.  It goes over soft flesh and hard bones—goes in and out, moves up and down, gets thick and thin, breaks off and continues:  all to show what that prehistoric deer was.

We saw that opposites related to power and precision, strength and delicacy, are throughout the drawing.  The antlers have grace and power.  They are a oneness of gentle curve and sharp point.  The body is heavy--yet slender, delicate legs support the mass of the deer.  The line of the back is gracefully contoured while thick and strong:  it is a graceful, sweeping diagonal that joins deer and horse.  The line itself is everywhere, in every millimeter, soft yet firm. 

“Is this a beautiful oneness of strength and delicacy, power and precision?” I asked.  The class agreed, it is!  It’s not delicate for two inches and strong for the next two inches.  These opposites are going for one purpose.  I told my students that these prehistoric paintings were beautiful for the same reason art of any age is beautiful.  “All beauty,” Eli Siegel is the critic who explained, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”  And, art I learned is the greatest opponent to contempt because an artist wants to see meaning in the things of the world and to express them with form and respect. 

Seeing how strength and delicacy, power and precision were one in this cave painting affected my students very much, including several young men, who liked showing how tough they were.  They think to be sensitive is to be weak, vulnerable, and that people will take advantage of them.  Students long to be both strong and graceful, and they suffer because they feel they can’t be.  And this is a question teachers have too—we feel we have to be strong—and then feel awful because we don’t feel we are kind.  In an Aesthetic Realism consultation I was once asked:  “Have you a ‘gentle’ attitude and a ‘fist’ attitude?  Have you been unkind in BOTH ways?”  I had been.  And I began to learn that in every instance of successful art, opposites are working well together.  Seeing this has also made my students much more hopeful.

A question I have asked my students is, “Is being affected by beauty strength or weakness?”  And “Would it have been possible for these early stone-age artists to paint these animals with grace and strength, power and delicacy, if they didn’t observe these qualities in the animals, and also have these possibilities in their very selves?”  The answer was a resounding, “NO!”

Students who can feel painfully separate from the people they see every day, were moved to think about the feeling of a person who lived 35,000 years ago, imaging how, perhaps, he was deeply pleased seeing a horse or deer running with such power and grace; moved by the dignity of a heavy bison, and even frightened by the ferocity of a bull.  And they began to think about people they knew in a deeper, kinder way, including each other. 

As students saw that they were related through the opposites to people so far back in time, what was far away and strange, came to have immediate meaning for their lives.  They came to have a great care for these paintings and a great respect for the mind of early man who painted them.  The ancient artist--like the modern artist and like us--was trying to put opposites together, and did beautifully in these cave paintings in a way we can learn from. 

One of my students, Gricel*, wrote: “When you think about how long ago these paintings were done and how they were trying to make sense of what they saw in the world, this gives me a feeling of closeness to people.”  Tyshona was excited to see as she wrote: “People thousands and thousands of years before me were trying to fulfill the same things I am.”

As we studied the history of art through the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method we saw the hope of people throughout the centuries, from prehistory to the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and our very selves, was to see meaning in the world and to respect it.
 I conclude with one example of a work that moved my students very much as it has people for years—the masterpiece of Hellenistic Greek art from the 2nd century B.C. the “Nike of Samothrace, ” (figure 4).

This a marble sculpture—so different from the simple line drawings we just studied—yet the very same opposites of strength and grace, power and precision present the cave paintings, and the human hand, are here!
 


Figure 4. Nike of Samothrace c. 190 B.C. Marble,
approx. 8’ high.  Louvre, Paris

Kyla Harrison wrote:
“The ‘Nike of Samothrace’ is simply breathtaking--how so much strength can be  seen in the marble [and] still have light delicacies.  The folds of her flowing dress,  the way the wind seems to blow her away,…yet her feet are firmly on the ground  with so much grace and beauty.  In the ‘Nike’ are qualities I want in myself.”
And Paula Chin wrote that through her study of Art History:
“I have learned…how the art of every culture has differences and similarities and I see myself from a different point of view now.”
I love using the Aesthetic Realism teaching method because it enables my students and myself—through the meaning and technique of art—to have large emotions about beauty, to have a new respect for the world and people near and far.  These are the emotions every student is hoping to have!

This method is taught by Aesthetic Realism Consultants with All For Education in a bi-weekly workshop for teachers of every subject and grade level--The Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel as Teaching Method---at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City.  For more information you can visit the website of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation at www.AestheticRealism.org.
 

* The names of students have been changed for this paper. 

References

Baird, Martha. & Reiss, Ellen. (1970). The Williams-Siegel documentary
          New York: Definition Press.    (p. vi). 
Marieb, Elaine N. (1989). Human anatomy and physiology
          Redwood City: The Benjamin/Cummings Publishing  Company, Inc. 
          (p. 201). 

Poole, Robert M., ed. (1986). The incredible machine
          Washington, D.C.: The National Geographic Society. (p. 320). 

Reiss, Ellen. (2001). Poetry vs. the biggest mistake in logic
          The Right Of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known.  (p. 1) 

Siegel, Eli. (1961). Aesthetic Realism: three instances
          New York: Definition Press. 

Siegel, Eli. (1981). Self and world: an explanation of Aesthetic Realism
          New York: Definition Press.   (p. 5). 

Tansey, Richard G. &  Kleiner, Fred S., ed. (1996) Gardner's art through
          the ages, 10th ed. New York:   Harcourt Brace. (pp. 26-30). 

Thibodeau, Gary A. (1987). Anatomy and physiology
          St. Louis:  The C.V. Mosby Company. (p. 193). 


 

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