Aesthetic Realism Consultant Nancy Huntting

Self Portrait by Lee Mill
Lee Miller, Self Portrait

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Aesthetic Realism Seminar 
"A Woman's Conscience―Friend or Enemy?"
by Nancy Huntting

Part 3: Precision and Freedom

[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."]

Lee Miller wrote in a letter, "I want the utopian combination of security and freedom." She didn't know that the thing she cared most for in her life, photography, answered this conflict in her life. Art shows we can have both security and freedom at once, and that, in fact, precision, including about someone we hope to love, makes for the true freedom we want. Eli Siegel says in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known #46, "The Opposites Are There":

At this moment, photographers go after precision and suggestion in their work, and this includes commercial photographers. Precision here is order and suggestion is freedom.

In Lee Miller's best photographs there is precision and suggestion in a way that is important and moving. Here is a photograph she took in Siwa, Portrait of Space, photo by Lee MillerEgypt, which she titled "Portrait of Space." We get a sense of the unlimited mystery of things that is more intense because this vast desert landscape is defined by a wild, graceful tear in the neatness of a rectangular screen. There is peacefulness seen through disorder. 

In her life, Lee Miller did not want enough or know enough how to be exact. I think she did what Eli Siegel describes in "Life Is Involvement," which as I read it I felt so described myself, and I felt so grateful for how Mr. Siegel understood people and gave a true answer to our worst self-inflicted suffering:

We should all like to think that we manage our conscience: we know all about it and we are our own best accusers. We are our own very often intense accusers...but we are not our best accusers...persons would rather say "I'm no good" than "On this particular thing I didn't do as well as I might." The tendency to reproach ourselves utterly is very popular. The tendency to get down to exactitude is very unpopular... Everybody has had the feeling, "I'm no good, I shouldn't have been born; I shouldn't live tomorrow; I should have died yesterday; I should have enlisted in the Foreign Legion and been massacred"―that kind of thought is very popular.

Marching Troops, photo by Lee MillerWhat Conscience Wants

I think there were two reasons that in 1942 Lee Miller became a war correspondent. One was because of the feeling Mr. Siegel described with such kind, deep humor: "I should have enlisted in the Foreign Legion and been massacred." The other was a courageous desire to record reality as it was, and not leave things out. As a correspondent it was illegal for her to be in combat zones, but that is where she went. After D-Day, the invasion of Normandy, she went to France into the midst of battle in the once picturesque town of St. Malo. Vogue ran her pictures and description.  Then she went to where troops from many countriesRussians, Spaniards, Free French, the Foreign Legion, Argentineans, Hungarians, Americanswere pushing the nearly defeated Germans back over the Rhine. It was 1945, and I think it is here she took one of her best pictures, of Moroccan troops arriving to join the Allies. It has the precision and suggestion Mr. Siegel describes. There is mystery as we do not see any one face of the men and they are covered by their robes and helmets, and there is a sense of dignity and grandeur in the tall vertical trees disappearing in the distance, which are like the men and different from them. There is disorder in the foreground, and the suggestion of an exact triangle made by the line of men. And there is strength and grace, humility and pride in the man with his head bowed in the foreground, standing before a grave he has dug. 

Lee Miller went to the concentration camp at Dachau on the day it was liberated by the Rainbow Company. She was, Penrose writes, at first numb and speechless with disbelief at the horror of death and dying she saw; then in great anger she took pictures and cabled them to Vogue's editor with the message: I IMPLORE YOU TO BELIEVE THIS IS TRUE. 

It is hard to know all that Lee Miller felt at Dachau; I do not think I know. I respect her for wanting other people's consciences to be moved by it. Over 20 years later when I was travelling in Europe, I went to a very different looking Dachau, a tremendously important reminder of what was. That was 1968 and I was cold and uninterested in as large an evil being done by my own country--the tortuous, brutal killing of thousands of innocent persons in Vietnam. If I and millions like me had consciences that were fully alive and known, Vietnam would not have been--had Aesthetic Realism been known and studied, I know the Vietnam War would not have been.

Whenever we see evil in the world there is a choice that a person has, which Aesthetic Realism makes clear, about how to use it. Our conscience is asking that we use it to have greater feeling for the world, by being passionately against what is evil in ourselves and others. We can also use it to justify our desire to have contempt for everything. For Lee Miller, the battle in herself continued after the war was over; she was never able to be at ease with her conscience. She didn't know how to clearly distinguish between these two choices. She didn't know what Eli Siegel describes in "The World, Guilt and Self-Conflict," a chapter of Self and World:

In keeping with notions that have been present all through history, the human being does have two sides, just as he has a profile and a full face. These two sides, it is true, make up a one; yet in the same way as you get a different impression from the side view of face from that got from a full view, so, though these two sides of self make up a one, they can have different effects.
It seems Lee Miller wanted to mock the best thing in her, and not have such large feeling. She suffered very much after the war, Penrose describes, from "self-laceration...she would weep alone in bed all day." She, a member of the press, was a victim of the press boycott of Aesthetic Realism. Studying her life has had me realize in a new way how fortunate I am to be able to know what my own conscience is asking of me. Aesthetic Realism understands and describes accurately the importance to every person's life of their conscience--why it is their friend. Eli Siegel showed every day of his life the power and beauty of ethics in how he was just to the world. He made people believe in themselves; he made me able to. He also described what is really our enemy within--our desire to have contempt for the world--so we can defeat it. He was the world's conscience and its greatest friend.
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