Aesthetic Realism Consultant Nancy Huntting

Lee Miller, photo by Man Ray
Lee Miller, by Man Ray
Aesthetic Realism Seminar
"A Woman's Conscience―Friend or Enemy?"

by Nancy Huntting

Part 2: Our Conscience Wants Us to Be an Integrity

[Note: In Part 1, I quoted this explanation of the central thing about conscience, from a lecture titled, "Life Is Involvement" by Eli Siegel: "Aesthetic Realism says what we are most troubled by is the way we make the beauty of the world less in order to give ourselves importance. That is what the conscience is most troubled by...Whenever we care more for ourselves than we do for finding the world authentically likable, our conscience is bothered."]

Every woman's conscience is a friend, because it is asking we be an integrity: that we not separate our mind and our body, how we get pleasure and our self-respect. Photographer Lee Miller said many years later about the time when she was a Vogue model in the 1930s: "I was terribly, terribly pretty. I looked like an angel, but I was a fiend inside." I respect her honesty about this. A drawing of her face appeared on the cover of Vogue in 1927, and she was regularly photographed by Edward Steichen and other top fashion photographers. Her outside got her great praise for its beauty, but she did not feel inside, her thought was beautiful. Just why she felt like a fiend she does not say, but her son and biographer Antony Penrose says she had an "uninhibited lifestyle" which included affairs with two men at the same time.  Eli Siegel said in an Aesthetic Realism class, "If one does something and doesn't think well of oneself for doing it, the price paid for the satisfaction is rather high." Lee Miller did not respect herself for how she was as a model, and she left Vogue after two years.

Eli Siegel understood, as no one else ever has, the pain women are in because they can have a big effect for how they look, but don't like how they use their minds. I am grateful to him more than I can say for how he encouraged me to be all I could be. By the time I met Aesthetic Realism in 1973 I was very worried I was not using my mind well―I could no longer read. I wanted to go back to school, but I also felt I was unable to be interested in anything too much, except the attention of the man I was living with, the one thing that seemed to really please me.

Eli Siegel asked in an Aesthetic Realism class in 1974:

What is the greatest desire in woman―to be complete, or seemingly happy? Should we depend on the self we are, or the self we can arrange? In dressing ourselves we arrange ourselves, but we weren't born with things from Bonwits. "Ask," he said to me, "if what is pleasing, or respect should come first." His kindness and humor were beautiful. Eli Siegel showed me that in respecting the world and people there was a far greater pleasure―a pleasure I could respect myself for. I believe Lee Miller was hoping to meet the comprehension that I met. I respect her courage very much―and, too, her life has me understand better my own desire for adoration and how much it hurts a woman. Aesthetic Realism can enable every woman and every person to be the complete person they want to be!

Conscience, and Our Purpose in Love

In 1929 Lee Miller went to Paris, where she and the surrealist photographer Man Ray lived and worked together for three years, and she began to learn the art that would give her both great pleasure and self-respect. Man Ray "gave her confidence in her own eye," biographer Antony Penrose writes. They worked together on the "solarization" technique that Man Ray is noted for discovering.

She and Man Ray also fought a great deal. One reason was competition between them, and eventually she left Paris to open Lee Miller Studios in New York, with her brother Erik as her assistant. Erik writes with respect of his sister's "insistence on getting the highest quality" and about a time when they were doing a difficult color print and worked for 24 hours straight, he said, "Lee could be intolerably lazy when she wanted, but when the chips were down, she just would not quit." 

This is a self-portrait she did at that time, 1932, for a fashion article on hairbands ( photo courtesy Lee Miller Archives: This picture I feel represents what Eli Siegel writes in "The Ordinary Doom": "When we can see our relation to all things, we like ourselves." Lee Miller saw herself as a composition, as having angles and curves in relation to the angles and curves in the chair, and the dress she is wearing. There is also a great care for light and dark in her own face and features in relation to light and dark around her. 

After working hard for a year and a half to establish herself as a commercial photographer, though, Lee Miller suddenly married a wealthy Egyptian businessman and left to live with him in Cairo. She left her brother jobless in the midst of the depression, with the work of having to pack up the studio. Her husband was very different from Man Ray―there were no "exacting standards" of photographic work, and he was not critical of her. She had chosen a life of comfort and wealth, and Penrose writes:

Boredom was starting to creep into Lee's life...Lee had underestimated her own need to be stimulated and to stretch her formidable mental powers in a creative and self-satisfying manner. A woman has to have the same purpose with a man, I learned from Aesthetic Realism, that she has with everything―she has to want to know and be fair to the world through him. A man has the structure of the world: he is hidden and shown, light and dark, the opposites that are in photography, too. Photography demanded respect, thought, exactitude from her and she had liked those demands, and through it she felt both pleasure and self-respect. Her conscience needed the assistance of the outside world as a critic of her desire to have contempt for the world. Every woman needs a man to demand of her what her own conscience does.

Instead of apologizing to her brother Erik, Lee wrote to him, "I don't know whether you are still interested in photography―or got the same loathing for it I had"―she tried to justify her choice by having contempt for the very best thing in her, the thing she loved most.

Eli Siegel explains in his lecture, "Life Is Involvement" how we try to get away from our conscience―he says, " of the things we learn [is] how to have things not affect us. We don't see we are cultivating emptiness and heartlessness." In the same letter Lee Miller shows starkly the heartlessness she was cultivating as she writes about a car trip she took to an Egyptian village:

...unfortunately I ran over a man or something--you see if you hit anyone here in the country, you are expected to beat it―in fact the Consulates always say HIT AND RUN―and report afterwards―so it spoiled the trip...but the pictures are swell. It was shortly after this that Lee spent two months in bed "just too damn tired to bother with anyone or anything" and began taking hormone injections because she didn't know what was making her this way. Lee increasingly took trips away from her husband, and finally wrote to him: I can't attack or appreciate anything directly because I'm so torn and shredded in my own self that my subconscious tic-tocs and irritates all my waking and sleeping moments... either from tenderheartedness or misplaced faith in my possible reform you are blinding yourself to my worthlessness as your wife―and even as a companion. She also wrote in this letter, "I want the utopian combination of security and freedom..." Her conscience was asking that she find the true relation of these opposites.

Back to Part 1                                    Continued, Part 3: Precision and Freedom

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