What Can Art Teach Us
by Nancy Huntting
at the Aesthetic
Realism Foundation, New York City, in 1985.
answers the questions
of our lives. What an idea! I first heard
it in 1973, and I have seen it is true. Art
can teach women, for instance, what they most need to know about love. I'll
describe what I've learned, using
architecture that has moved people for over two
centuries, the Parthenon.
"The world, art, and self
explain each other; each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites," stated
Eli Siegel, the great American educator and critic, founder of
Aesthetic Realism. The Parthenon is a oneness of matter and
space, heaviness and lightness, straight line and curve. These are
opposites a woman wants to put together
in love, in herself, in her life.
that brings love in ancient Greece alive, perhaps at the time of the
Parthenon, (4th century B.C.), is "The Dark that Was Is Here" by Eli
Siegel. It begins:
A girl, in ancient
sure, had no more peace
one in Idaho.
feel and yet to know
hard in Athens, too.
sure confusion grew
Nika's mind as she,
wanting to be free,
deeply to adore
and so no more
wretched and alone.
woman has the trouble in love described here: "To feel
and yet to know / Was hard in Athens, too." I've learned that
about a man arises from knowing,
and in order to know and like a particular man, we have to know and
hope to like the world. However,
there have been centuries of pain because love has been used to get
away from the world: to contemptuously manage and dismiss it.
Matter and Space: Mind and Body
When I visited Greece in my early twenties,
the light and air affected me, as
it does everyone. Helen
Gardner writes of it in Art Through
the Ages: "The unusually crystalline atmosphere is softened by a
haze. Both sky and sea are brilliant in color."
It is against this sky, both crystal clear and soft, that the marble
columns of the Parthenon are first seen. In A Concise History of Western Architecture,
R. Furneaux Jordan explains: "The Parthenon, an example of clear-cut
sculptural precision, was itself so placed that it could never be seen
except against the sky."
My colleague, Aesthetic Realism consultant
Karen Van Outryve, asked Mr. Siegel in a class why she was so affected
seeing the edge of a building against the sky. He said it was because
it solved the
mind-body problem!: "Do you think every building has matter and space
and also the human body does?"
"All art," he continued, "has to do with matter and space and
how they become each other."
We are matter and space, and women have felt divided, very much, about
the two. The body has desires: we can want to be embraced and kissed
passionately by a man. And the mind has seemingly some different
desires: we want to know and be known and respected. Mr. Siegel was
talking about these desires in a lesson of two college girls, in which
this lesson Mr. Siegel explained how meaning puts together body and
mind, the touchable and untouchable:
The place of meaning in sex is
what we are talking about. If, offhand, a person has sex desire, and it
is satisfied, desire is satisfied. The question is, does desire which
seems like sex, when satisfied, remind one that there is another
desire? So the question is whether this meaning is an ornament or
whether it is, as they say, of the essence.
Form is that
which gives substance meaning. When Cezanne looked at a fruit,...in
giving it form, he gave more
meaning. Meaning is the beautiful relation
of something to the world, and the beautiful way it contains the world.
The artist goes looking for that.
The architects of the Parthenon were Ictinus and Callicrates, and the
great sculptor Phidias, pictured to the right, oversaw the design and
did the sculptures and
friezes on and within it. The 20th century architect Le Corbusier,
writing about what these men achieved and expressing some of the large
emotion people have had over the centuries, described the
Parthenon's beautiful relation to the world, and the beautiful way it
contains the world:
There has been
nothing like it anywhere or at any period....We are riveted by our
senses; we are ravished in our minds; we touch the axis of harmony....
For two thousand years, those who have seen the Parthenon have felt
that here was a decisive moment in architecture....The forms used...are
so deeply thought out in regard to light and materials, that they seem, as it
were, linked to earth and sky, as if by nature.
When Le Corbusier
says "we are ravished in our minds," he is talking about the oneness of
mind and body a woman is hoping for. A question my colleagues and I
have asked in Aesthetic
Realism consultations is: "Do you think your desire to know a man is as
passionate as your desire to have his arms
around you?" Meaning is of the essence of the Parthenon, and that
meaning was expressed through the white marble of the mountain
Pentelicus, north of Athens. How much meaning do we want to see in a
man? How much meaning do we want a man to see in us? What we want to
see are the opposites: they are how we contain the world
and are related to it.
Mr. Siegel was
bringing that brighter light, like the Aegean light on
the Parthenon, where the meaning of a thing is seen clearly.
Mr. Rowland and I were trying to make a shrine for ourselves of
flattery and comfort in a
world we didn't like.
2. Heaviness and
In a class of 1977,
The big problem in
architecture is lightness and heaviness, or space and matter. Anything
you might meet has these, a matchbook has them. The idea is to have
heaviness and lightness
work well together.
Once, heaviness and lightness were in me in an agonizing
way, and I was
representative of many women. Mr. Siegel said to me in a class, about a
man I had been living with, whom I'll call Gene
Yes, the word
"shrine" described the
far-better-than-anything-else feeling I had about the two of us. I came
to see that this attempted "mutual worship" has with it inevitable
and anger. Love is being used to get away from accurate thought and a
person is profoundly unsure of themselves and what they've created. Mr.
You have a problem of being taken too
seriously and too lightly. Was there a shrine for both of you?
Did he make you too
Siegel: Do you think you can be
yourself with him?
Nancy Huntting: I haven't felt I was
Eli Siegel: I think the problem of
Mr. Rowland should be dealt with in a brighter light. A woman has felt
cleverly that when yielding to a man, it was not wholly her. Whatever a
person does should be done by all of him or her.
The Parthenon was a shrine, but its purpose was to honor something its
builders saw as much larger than themselves, the goddess Athena, who
stood for wisdom and beauty. Its form honored the possibilities of the
world and required knowledge, thought, skill.
Our shrine was an escape from thought, and to do this, I was dividing
myself, wanting to give and get pleasure by yielding my body, without
wanting to use my mind critically to know a man and have him know me.
This purpose, to make a world of easy glory without a sensible, solid
foundation, couldn't succeed, and I felt both physically heavy, tired,
and also too light or empty. Mr. Rowland's attentions made me feel
important, and I expected them all the time, often feeling disregarded.
Aesthetic Realism taught me that unless a man and woman see each other
as a means of knowing and liking the world, they will be both too heavy
and too light about each other, make too much of each other and then
dismiss each other.
3. Strength and
shows that being accurate about the world, honoring the facts, makes
for a oneness of heaviness and lightness, and arising from this, of
strength and grace. The Parthenon is evidence for this. The art
historian Solomon Reinach, in his book Apollo, writes:
The most admirable
feature of the Parthenon is, perhaps, its perfection of proportion. The
relation between the height of the pediments, and the dimensions of the
temple was determined with such unerring judgment that the whole is
neither too light nor too heavy, that the lines harmonize in such a
manner as to give the impression at once of strength and grace.
is what women are looking for in a man. Eli Siegel describes this
magnificently in an essay called, "Husbands and Poems." First he
explains the problem about strength and grace:
that women have too high an opinion of men, and a big reason for this
insufficiency of interior praise is this: when men are energetic,
assertive, forceful (or worse), they lack sensibility, fine
understanding, rich sympathy; when they are gentle, sentimental, soft,
they no longer seem to have strength, energy, momentum...
What women are
looking for in men, Mr. Siegel says, is what is in art: "what we can
hear in Mozart, see in Watteau, watch in Markova, find in some aspects
of Georgian architecture: grace and firmness." To be a friend to a man,
a critic with good will, we need to hope he be both strong and graceful
at once. Seeing a man this way is seeing him aesthetically, which is
also seeing him truly and kindly. Mr. Siegel described the way I saw
Mr. Rowland as "going from the ideal to the bestial....Does your anger
give him no qualities at all?," he asked. The answer was yes.
We can be glad that the architects of the Parthenon hoped to make it
both strong enough to last and graceful, and they strove until they
found a oneness of the two, and has it lasted, and is it graceful!
4. A Beautiful
It is the relation
of different elements in the Parthenon that gives it beauty—for
instance, the columns and their relation to the entablature above them.
The evolution of proportion in the Doric, which is the simplest of the
three orders of Greek columns, is shown in a diagram [shown to the
left] in Art
Through the Ages. The column and entablature at the far right is
of the Parthenon, which Helen Gardner writes,"appears to have attained
the subtlest relationship of parts."
calls this structure, composed entirely of marble, 228 feet long and
101 feet wide, "one of the most exquisite things in the world." One way
this sense of the "exquisite" is achieved is in the way vertical meets
horizontal. Helen Gardner
impression is...of a very sensitive balance between the supporting
members and the weight to be supported, between the vertical line and
and the horizontal line, both largely unbroken....The purpose of a
capital is to form the transition....A successful capital will not make
this transition too abruptly.
she tells how this graceful transition in the capital was achieved:
We get the first
suggestion of the horizontal in the necking; yet the vertical flutings,
instead of ending at this point, play up into the capital to the point
at which we feel more insistently the horizontal....The simple vigorous
curve of the echinus then carries the line up....The beautiful strength
of this curve, rising so vigorously and then turning inward so
gracefully was not worked out by the Greek in a short time but only
after a long series of experiments dealing with the angle and the
The surprising but
logical question this brings up about love is: what does a woman feel
as she goes from the vertical to the horizontal with a man? Women have not felt
the self standing up and walking went well with the self in bed with a
man—a woman can feel she has lessened
herself even as she's had a victory. I learned from Aesthetic Realism
that the reason I felt this way was that I had a purpose I was ashamed
of—to use a man to put
aside the world and have special glory for me
a woman's purpose is akin to the purpose that makes the Parthenon so
successful—knowledge of and respect for the
materials and possibilities of the world—she
will be critical, kind, and interested in the world both when she
is vertical and horizontal with a man. She will want to be sure that
this transition will have both the man and herself stronger, not weaker.
Straight Line and Curve
There is a hope in a woman
that through someone different from herself, a man, she can be
more complete, greater than she is alone. As I've been
showing, the Parthenon is
mighty evidence that different aspects of reality which are
seemingly opposed to each other, in fact complete each other, making
for something greater than each alone.
This classical rectangle, it was
has curves which are so subtle that
their purpose has not been entirely explained. There is entasis: the shaft of each
column, while appearing straight, actually bows out ever so gently,
that is, bulges slightly in the middle. And
perhaps even more
surprising is the fact that the slab which is the base of the
entire Parthenon, the stylobate, has a slight and carefully planned
curve. In fact, Helen Gardner writes, "there is not a straight line in
historian, Elie Faure, in his History of Art—Ancient
passionately about the Parthenon:
...[A]s soon as we
really know it...our whole humanity trembles in it.... The straight
line is there, as solid as reason, the spacious curved line also,
reposeful as the dream. The architect secures the stability of the
edifice by its rectangular forms, he gives it movement by its hidden
curves…. All these imperceptible divergences, with the fluting of the
columns—a shell which breaks the light, a stream of shadow and of
fire—animate the temple, give to it something like the beating of a
relation of straight line,
"solid as reason" and the "spacious curve," Elie Faure sees our whole
humanity trembling. He’s describing something many people have felt
about this building—but why? The explanation is in the principle: All
beauty is a making one of opposites, and the
making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
6. Aesthetic Realism Consultations
Left: Poseidon, from
the Eastern frieze of the Parthenon
Rider* is a photographer in her
early 30s who is studying Aesthetic Realism in consultations. Shortly
after returning from a trip to Greece, she
described in a consultation some of what affected her as she
photographed the Acropolis and the Parthenon:
Rider: There was the immensity of the Acropolis and the light
and dark that was reflected on the textures. I saw so much texture and
intertwining of the line between the rocks, creating its own forms,
while on a cloudy day you just saw the mass.
you interested in how things were put together?
I was looking in between as well as at the whole structure. The columns
were beautiful, because instead of just being directly round, they have
these curves within them—you saw so many dark places within each little
curve going around. The light and shadow were beautiful.
People have not felt that
knowing another person was as
thrilling and rewarding as knowing a work of art, like the Parthenon,
so we asked Ms. Rider about Mr. Martin, a man she was troubled about:
Consultants: Do you
think as you looked at the Parthenon, you had sense of the known and
unknown through light and dark?
Yes, I tried to
discover the unknown in looking at it.
Do you think
the unknown was more friendly than you can feel in social life? Have
you ever felt that what you didn't know about your friend, Richard
Martin—or couldn't get at—was annoying and troubling, and not so
Yes, I have
Consultants: But in the
Parthenon, you can feel the unknown will be pleasing? If we can see the
unknown as friendly in art, and that art shows the structure of the
world truly, the unknown can look friendlier everywhere, including in a
A person, Aesthetic Realism
explains, is aesthetics in
process. We had the great experience of learning this from Eli Siegel,
whose desire to know a person was the same as his desire to know art,
his method the same. I am grateful that I can learn as I teach other
women in consultations!
*The name of
the woman having
consultations has been changed for public presentation.
© Aesthetic Realism Consultant Nancy
Huntting. All rights reserved