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The Aesthetics of Reality

Mediæval Theology

All bodies have a likeness to good things which are invisible.

Richard of St. Victor: Benjamin Major, II, 12 (PL 196, col. 90).
[Quoted by Umberto Eco: The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas. London: Radius, 1988, p.138.]

In my judgment, there is nothing among visible and corporeal things which does not signify something incorporeal and intelligible.

John Scottus Eriugena: De Divisione Naturae, V, 3 (PL 122, cols. 865-866).
[Quoted by Umberto Eco: The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas. London: Radius, 1988, p.138. ]

Alles, was wir erfahren ist eine Mitteilung. So ist die Welt in der Tat eine Mitteilung – Offenbarung des Geistes. Die Zeit ist nicht mehr, wo der Geist Gottes verständlich wahr. Der Sinn der Welt ist verloren gegangen. Wir sind beim Buchstaben stehn geblieben. Wir haben das Erscheinende über der Erscheinung verloren. Formularwesen..

Novalis: Fragmente und Studien 1797-1798.
[In: Gerhard Schulz (ed.): Novalis Werke. München: C.H. Beck, 2001. (# 71, p. 401)]

La nature n'est 'belle' qu'aux yeux de qui la regarde comme le grand livre à travers lequel nous parle le Créateur: la 'beauté' renvoie à une entreprise de communication.

Hubert Damisch: Fenêtre jaune cadmium (Paris: Seuil, 1984), p. 63.

Tel est sans doute le secret de l'étonnante fécondité de l'art d'Occident, [...] la conviction [...] théologique, que le Dieu qui a créé toutes choses étant bon les a créé bonnes et équivallement belles. Constable a a parfaitement exprimée cette conviction quand il a déclaré qu'il n'avait jamais rien vu de laid. Ce n'est pas seulement le Tout qui est beau, vérité connue des Grecs, mais chaque chose, même la plus humble est belle d'une double beauté, comme création – ce qui justifie le réalisme en art – et comme reflet de la suprême beauté de Dieu – ce qui justifie le symbolisme.

Alain Besançon: "The Roots of Modern Iconoclasm." In: Jan Assmann & Albert I. Baumgarten (eds.):
Representation in Religion. Studies in Honor of Moshe Barasch.
Leiden: Brill, 2001, pp. 313-320 [p. 314].


Thirty years ago, before I began the study of Zen, I said, "Mountains are mountains, waters are waters." After I got an insight into the truth of Zen through the instruction of a good master, I said, "Mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters." But now, having attained the abode of final rest [i.e., Awakening], I say, "Mountains are really mountains, waters are really waters."

Ch'ing-yuan Wei-hsin. Quoted by Masao Abe: "God, Emptiness, and Ethics"
Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 3. (1983), pp. 53-60. [p.56]



      We [...] assert that art cannot stand comparison with living reality and completely lacks the vitality that reality possesses; we regard this as beyond doubt. [...]

      Everything science and art express is to be found in life, and found in its fullest and most perfect form, with all its living details - the details which usually contain the true meaning of the matter, and which are often not understood by science and art, and still more often cannot be embraced by them. In the events of real life everything is true, nothing is overlooked, there is not that one-sided, narrow view from which all the works of man suffer. As instruction, as learning, life is fuller, truer, and even more artistic than all the works of scholars and poets. [...]

      Science and art (poetry) are manuals for those beginning the study of life; their purpose is to prepare the student to read the original sources, and later to serve as reference books from time to time. It never occurs to science to conceal this; nor does it occur to poets to conceal it in their offhand remarks about the point of their works. Aesthetics alone persists in asserting that art is superior to life and reality. [...]

      The defense of reality against fantasy, the attempt to prove that works of art cannot possibly stand comparison with living reality - that is the essence of this essay. [...]
      Science does not claim to stand higher than reality, but that gives it nothing to be ashamed of. Art, too, must not claim to stand higher than reality [...]. Science is not ashamed to say that its aim is to understand and explain reality, and then to use its explanation for man's benefit. Let not art be ashamed to admit that its aim is to compensate man, in case he lacks the opportunity to enjoy the full aesthetic pleasure afforded by reality, by reproducing this precious reality as far as possible, and by explaining it for his benefit.

      Let art be content with its fine and lofty mission of being a substitute for reality in the event of its absence, and of being a manual of life for man.

Nikolai Chernyshevsky: Esteticheskie otnosheniya iskusstva k deistvitelnostie. [The Aesthetic Relation of Art to Reality.] MA Thesis, St. Petersburg University, 1855. [In: Russian Philosophy Volume II: The Nihilists, The Populists, Critics of Religion and Culture. Quadrangle Books 1965.]

Science today recognizes that reality is far superior to dreams, for it has learned how pale and unsatisfactory is life that is engrossed in the dreams of the imagination. (It used to be accepted without strict investigation that the dreams of the imagination are superior to and more attrac

tive than the phenomena of real life. In the sphere of literature, this preference for the dreamy life gave rise to romanticism.)

N.P. (= Nikolai Chernyshevsky!): Review of Nikolai Chernyshevsky: The Aesthetic Relation of Art to Reality. In: Sovremennik 51, 6 (1855).

"There was hardly anyone Vladimir Ilyich loved so much as Chernyshevsky. He felt an intimate affinity with him and had an extraordinarily deep respect for him. I think there was a great deal in common between Chernyshevsky and Vladimir Ilyich."

Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya, as reported by Anatoly Lunacharsky in "Chernyshevsky's Ethics and Aesthetics: A Contemporary Evaluation" (1928) [In: Anatoly Lunacharsky: On Literature and Art. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965.]


Realistic Symbolism

Symbolism is art based on symbols. Symbolism fully asserts its guiding principle when it discloses to consciousness things as symbols and symbols as myths. By revealing symbols (i.e., signs of another reality) in the concrete things around us, art shows this reality to be meaningful. In other words, art allows one to become conscious  of the connections and meanings of all things that exist not only in the earthly realm of empirical consciousness but also in other realms. Thus, true symbolic art touches upon the domain of religion, insofar as religion is first and foremost the awareness of the connectedness of everything that exists and of the meaning of all of life. [pp. 13/14]

For Realistic Symbolism, the symbol is the goal of artistic revelation: any object, insofar as it is an intrinsic reality, is already a symbol; and the more directly and immediately the object partakes in absolute reality, the more profound it will be, and the harder it will be to fathom its ultimate meaning. [p. 27]

Viacheslav Ivanov: Two Elements in Contemporary Symbolism (1912).
In: Selected Essays. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2001, pp. 13-35.

Socialist Realism

"Aleksei Maksimovich [...] has the ability to feel life. He told me that in our country labor is beginning to turn into art. He proved it with facts, examples."

Aleksandr Avdeenko about Maksim Gorkii, 1934. In: Pervyi vsesoiuznyi s'ezd sovetskikh pisatelei. Moscow: Sov. pisatel', 1990, p. 243. [Quoted by Petre M. Petrov: Laying Bare: The Fate of Authorship in Early Soviet Culture. Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 2006, p. 216.]

The history of art knows no constancy in the relation between art and reality. There are periods when the border between art and life is erased. There are periods when reality enters into competition with art, opposing itself to the latter as an aesthetic phenomenon. This can lead to weakness in art; this can lead to strength in reality." [p. 12]

Both the fact itself and its perception acquire a character of unusual depth and beauty. [...] And all of this, by raising our thoughts and emotions to the heights of art, transforms life itself into an artistic production. This grandiose artistic production is built up out of individual productions: new construction projects, collective farms, scientific laboratories, stratosphere balloons, new people and new feelings. [p. 13]

Our literature cannot and should not be taken in tow by reality. [...] If 'the engineers of souls' do not want to risk being turned into simple copyists, they must begin to compete with reality. They must divine in it what does not yet exist but what will be there – and by doing this they must become equal to it. [...] What can be more exalted for a writer of a Soviet country than creative work, prompting socialist reality with its ideal forms in lively images; what can be more exalted than the role of explorer and guide into our great era!

Veniamin Goffensheffer: "Sorevnovanie s deistvitel'nost'iu" ("Competition with reality"). In: O sovetskoi literature. Kriticheskie stat'i. Moscow, 1936.

Among the most important postulates of our aesthetics must be a postulate on the poetry and romanticism of our actual socialist reality. [...] Chernyshevsky's famous thesis, "beauty is life", can now be reformulated for us as a postulate stating that beauty is our socialist reality, our victorious movement toward communism.

Vladimir Ermilov: "Za boevuiu teoriiu literatury!" ("For a Militant Theory of Literature!") Literaturnaia Gazeta 74 (15 September 1948).

In our Soviet life, poetry and romanticism have become reality itself. We have no conflict between the wondrous and the real, and this is why our artists seek beauty and romance not outside of public life and affairs, but within them. [...] Our actual reality itself, in its sober, matter-of-fact, day-to-day existence, is romantic; it is profoundly poetic in its internal essence. This is one of the fundamental principles in defining the essence of socialist realism.

Vladimir Ermilov: "Za boevuiu teoriiu literatury!" ("For a Militant Theory of Literature!") Literaturnaia Gazeta 91 (13 November 1948).

The assertion that the beautiful is our life, does not involve any idyllic fantasies. The beautiful, from the viewpoint of the aesthetic of Socialist Realism, is a struggle for a bright future, and for this reason our aesthetic excludes the idyllic. [...] The concept of the beautiful in our aesthetic encompasses the struggle for the beautiful, without which it would turn into Manilovism, into empty daydreaming, into false romanticism.

Vladimir Ermilov: "Nekotorye voprosy teorii sotsialisticheskogo realizma" ("Some questions about the theory of Socialist Realism"). Znamia No. 7 (1951), p. 148.


Evgeny Dobrenko: Political Economy of Socialist Realism. Yale University Press, 2007.




Le réel n'est jamais beau.

Jean-Paul Sartre: L'Imaginaire (Paris, 1940), p. 245.

Pop Art

"Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look. (This is an American discovery.) "

John Cage: "On Robert Rauschenberg, artist, and his work." In: Metro. Milano, 1961. Reprinted in: Silence. Lectures and Writings by John Cage. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1973, pp. 98-107. [p. 98.]

"All is pretty."

Andy Warhol, early 1960's.

Ich habe lange gebraucht zu verstehen, daß Literatur nicht Inhalte gibt, sondern ein Beispiel. Der Satz All Is Pretty meint nicht daß alles hübsch sei – das wäre Schwachsinn –, er meint: Möglicherweise kann es in bestimmten historischen Momenten sinnvoll sein, die Bejahung, die jeder Mensch zum Leben braucht, auch aus Dingen zu holen, deren Bejahung nicht selbstverständlich ist, und aus dieser schwierigen Bejahung Kraft zu ziehen für eine Arbeit, die Bejahung weniger gebrochen ermöglicht.

Ronald M. Schernikau: "Was macht ein revolutionärer Künstler ohne Revolution?" In: Literatur-Konkret, 1990. [Reprinted in: Königin im Dreck. (Thomas Keck, ed.) Berlin: Verbrecher Verlag, 2009.]



Undergraduate students were assigned the task of spending from fifteen minutes to an hour in their homes viewing its activities while assuming that they were boarders in the household. They were instructed not to act out the assumption. Thirty-three students reported their experiences. [. . .]

"A short, stout man entered the house, kissed me on the cheek and asked, "How was school?" I answered politely. He walked into the kitchen, kissed the younger of two women, and said hello to the other. The younger woman asked me "What do you want for dinner, honey?" I answered, "Nothing." She shrugged her shoulders and said no more. The older woman shuffled around the kitchen muttering. The man washed his hands, sat down at the table, and picked up the paper. He read until the two women had finished putting the food on the table. The three sat down. They exchanged idle chatter about the day's events. The older woman said something in a foreign language which made the others laugh."

Harold Garfinkel: "Studies of the Routine Grounds of Everyday Activities." Social Problems 11, 3 (1964).

Nelson Goodman

Most works of art are bad.

Of Mind and Other Matters (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), p. 138.

Works of art often do not function as such, and non-works often do.

Of Mind and Other Matters (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), p. 145.

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