Saturday, May 06, 2017

Aesthetic Realism & An Important Movie Against Racism

A stirring movie on the subject of racism and athletics was released last year. "Race" depicts part of the life of Jesse Owens, one of eighteen courageous African-American men and women to compete in the 1936 Olympic Games held in Nazi Germany. Owens beat all the odds by winning four gold medals in the packed Berlin arena, which had been created with the express purpose of putting the stamp on Hitler's evil, unfounded claim of Aryan racial superiority. His victory inspired people all over the world and strengthened them at a time when fascism's power was rising, culminating in the titanic struggle of World War II. 
Student Athlete Jesse Owens
Jesse Owens at Ohio State University

Before I saw this movie I already had great admiration for Jesse Owens. “Race” had me respect him even more. The film shows some of the virulent racism he faced as a young man in Ohio, and gives a sense of how infuriating it was, how demeaning, and how disheartening. He faced enormous difficulties even to get to the Berlin games, including discrimination at every turn. One great value of the film is that we see events unfold through the eyes of Owens before he became world-famous, when the struggle was all
Hitler, Olympics, Munich, Jesse Owens, 1936, Nazism
Nazis saluting Hitler at opening of Olympic Games in Munich
before him. It helps us place the magnitude of his victory in that arena. 

"Race" had me see newly the need for people everywhere to know this: the cause of racism has been understood definitively by Aesthetic Realism. It is contempt. Eli Siegel, the American poet and critic who founded Aesthetic Realism in 1941, described contempt as "the disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world."

Contempt is common but it is brutal. It is contempt when a husband dismisses his wife's ideas and sees them as inferior to his own; when a man ponders over what he'll be doing later while his friends is speaking about something that concerns him; it's contempt when you sum up a person you see on the street and don't see him or her as having the depth of thought and feeling that you do, just because they look different or have a different sense of style. 

Yet that "ordinary" contempt is what has one person see someone with a different background, religion, ethnicity, language, or skin color, as beneath him. Contempt has been the phony justification for great cruelty in history such as slavery, imperialism, and the Holocaust. As a student and teacher of social studies for many years, I am sure none of these would have occurred had it not been for contempt on the part of individuals, including those in government.  

Segregated Cinema Entrance, 1939
One of the tragedies of Jesse Owens' life is that after the glory of Munich, having personally shattered the myth of Aryan supremacy, he had to return home to live out his life in the America of Jim Crow. "Race" presents this situation through one single incident as it shows how he, a national and international hero, arrived for an awards ceremony only to find himself forced to use the service entrance of the hotel!

Meanwhile, the enduring legacy of Jesse Owens is that he beat the Nazis in their own stronghold where they had planned to demonstrate their supposed racial superiority. He gave courage and strength to millions of people.

A moving and important aspect of this film is the surprising, real-life friendship between Jesse Owens and German star athlete Luz Long. There's been some questioning of the details, but the movie is pretty accurate from what I've read. About Long, Jesse Owens said later: "It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler...
You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be a plating on the twenty-four karat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment." Shortly before he was killed in the war, Long wrote to Owens: "Someday find my son...tell him about how things can be between men on this Earth."

I believe Aesthetic Realism is the knowledge that can, through education based on principles, meet that hope to have "things between men on this earth" everywhere be kind, inter-enhancing, beautiful. Their friendship reminds me of sentences I've quoted before on this blog. They are by Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education: 
For racism to end...what is necessary is the seeing and feeling that the relation of sameness and difference between ourselves and [another] person is beautiful. People need to feel...that difference of race is like the difference to be found in music: two notes are different, but they...complete each other; each needs the other to be expressed richly, to be fully itself.
I think Jesse Owens and Luz Long would have been so grateful for this. 
Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic 

Jesse Owens
Jesse Owens (AP)
Games. He won gold in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash,
the long jump, and the 4-by-100 meter relay. He set three world records and tied another in under an hour of competing at the games." [History versus Hollywood]

You can watch some of the races of Jesse Owens and the other great athletes at those games in these videos

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To learn what people are saying about Aesthetic Realism and how it opposes prejudice, see the important work of Alice Bernstein, the website of anthropologist Arnold Perey and his seminal talk on the aesthetics of evolution - what a refutation of the ignorance and ill will of racism!
For more on how this philosophy sees art and life, - in this case, music - go to the website of rock singer and critic, Kevin Fennell

Educator Leila Rosen writes on Wilfred Owen's World War I poem "Strange Meeting" and how her use of the Aesthetic Realism teaching method. Here too is Ms. Rosen's report of a lecture Eli Siegel gave on the poetry of Sterling Brown. 
Read the international periodical The Right of Aesthetic Realism To Be Known with commentaries by Ellen Reiss, Chairman of Education and poet.