David Bernstein: Aesthetic Realism Associate

by David M. Bernstein

I am extremely thankful to say what I have learned from Aesthetic Realism, Eli Siegel, and Ellen Reiss about a subject that concerns and even pains men everywhere: courage--because what I learned has made my life good.  Growing up in the Bronx, I very often saw the world as against me; an enemy I had to defeat.  Sitting on the stoop I even once imagined myself as Taras Bulba leading the Mongolian hordes, and equated courage with conquest over people and things.  When I was confused, rather than trying to understand, I looked for a fight because at least that was decisive.  As a boy, I felt beating up another boy and impressing others, was courage.  But I didn't understand why it made me feel ashamed.

I learned from Aesthetic Realism that what courage is is so different and much more beautiful than I thought.  In his great Definition and comment on Courage, Eli Siegel explains:

Courage is the belief that the way things are is not against oneself, and therefore that these things should not be gone away from....Courage is an organic like of the facts, making for a wish to know them.
Courage, I learned, is not defiance of reality, but accuracy about it. Abraham Lincoln didn't run away from the ugliness of slavery--he wanted to know the forces behind slavery and to end it.  Aesthetic Realism taught me that in every instance of true courage there is a feeling in a person "that the way things are is not against oneself."  What I learned from Eli Siegel, the most courageous and kind man who ever lived, I proudly tell the men of America: we can make choices every day that are truly courageous: good for ourselves and for the world.


I once mistook ego for bravery, contempt for heroism, as men right now are doing.  And, like me, men who feel they have "guts"--who intimidate people, drive recklessly, endangering their lives and others'--can feel terribly unsure.  Mr. Siegel defined contempt as "the addition to self through the lessening of something else."  I saw people as hypocrites whom I had to unmask and defeat, and my contempt made me unsure, including where it mattered most that I feel sure--in my relations with people, particularly women and in photography which I loved.  I tried to make up for meanness by being suddenly nice: paying a restaurant bill, hoping to charm people with a surprising sweetness.

I thank Eli Siegel for explaining the pain I gave myself and others, and how it could change.  In an Aesthetic Realism lesson early in my study he asked me:

Eli Siegel:  Do you think that while you can scare people a little, you're doing good?  Suppose you were sweet for the next 30 days, wouldn't you be looking for your fangs?
David Bernstein:  I do have two fangs.
Eli Siegel:  If you felt that your present way of seeing was really hurting you, do you think you would change?
David Bernstein:  Yes, I think I would.
Eli Siegel:  It's tearing you apart, because the same mouth that has fangs also gushes.  It's when we smile and also intimidate for different purposes that we hurt ourselves....I'm trying to give courage and sweetness of feeling that he wholly believes in to David Bernstein.
I love Eli Siegel for the way he saw me and all people.  He taught me the way to be courageous and sincerely sweet is to have one purpose with people--to want to know and strengthen them; to like thinking about what something else deserves: whether it concerns a mountain one is climbing or the depths of a person whose eyes you are looking into.

I once felt it was easier and more courageous to hang from a helicopter taking aerial photographs, which I volunteered to do in the Air Force--than to give ten minutes of consecutive thought to another person or object.  When I learned that courage has centrally to do with thought, my whole life changed.  In his definition, Mr. Siegel explains:

Courage...is an accurate point between faint-heartedness and foolhardiness, hesitation and stubbornness. It is a rhythm, and a rhythm implies here...a profound accuracy.
The place I felt most interested in being accurate was in photography.  From the time I was 11, and my father gave me a Brownie Hawkeye camera for Christmas, I loved what a camera could do and how I felt using it.  I was thrilled by the exactitude of photography; and the mystery of how what I saw with my eyes later became a precise image on photographic paper.  The seeing that takes place in art, I was to learn, is fearlessly exact and kind because you want to know and be fair without your ego interfering.  Yet, the mixup in me between wanting to see accurately or to grab, of hesitation and stubbornness, interfered with my photography.--And also with my ability to love someone.


As a young man I was in a terrible fight between being angry with the world and attracted by girls who were both pretty and interested in knowledge.  I usually kept my distance because when I talked to them I felt terrifically unsure of myself and this made me angry.  In Self and World, Eli Siegel describes a young man Ronald Hill who, "when 18 noticed that the desire for woman was strong, mastering," but who hated the world women he was attracted to represented.  Mr. Siegel says:  "He swung from insolence to humility; from triumphant malice to tears." This describes me.

Once at a singles weekend at the Concord Hotel, I went to ask Leona Lowenstein for a dance, but when I opened my mouth nothing came out.  I was terrified and felt like a coward.  On the one hand I worshipped women, imagining myself in all sorts of  "romantic" situations in which I was debonair and masterful, and on the other hand I felt women were all waiting to humiliate me, and I should just ridicule them and put them out of my mind.

In an Aesthetic Realism lesson which took place in 1961 when I was 25 and which my younger sister Ellen Bernstein and I had the honor to attend.  At one point Mr. Siegel asked her, "What criticism do you have of David?  Do you think he's brave?"  She said, "He's still too quick in his temper when he gets mad."

Eli Siegel:  The basis of Aesthetic Realism is that every person is trying not to see something as a means of getting to what that person thinks is a better life....Now, David Bernstein has tried to solve the problem of his life by keeping away from things in his mind and also changing them.  This is not brave.
And Mr. Siegel, with accuracy and kindness that are great, said:
Your brother has felt bad for years because he was so angry he wanted to run away from things. I've tried to tell him there's another way of meeting what he's angry with. Was I friendly to him then?

Ellen Bernstein:  Yes.

I love Eli Siegel for teaching me that courage is not flight, but "an organic like of the facts, making for a wish to know them." As Mr. Siegel spoke in classes to women, I was moved to learn they had questions like mine; and felt the way they wanted criticism, was strong.  I was affected by the way one student, Alice Bernstein, wanted to know people different from her including--I am so glad to say--me. As we studied and talked together, I increasingly saw the world as friendly.  I am proud that we were married in 1963.

Yet too much I ran from Alice's criticism and tried to blame her for shortcomings in myself.  Love, I learned, takes courage because we have to give up a swaggering, ego narrowness in order to know another and be known by her.

In Aesthetic Realism classes and lessons, I was learning what men through the centuries have yearned to know--how to be critical, kind, and really courageous with their wives.  I saw in Eli Siegel during the 17 years I had the great fortune to be his student, beautiful, living evidence of this statement in his Definition: "Courage is a love of the external, and a belief in it, even when we fight it."  The way Mr. Siegel fought my desire to evade, to resent, to flee from truth, was great kindness and love.  It means so much to me to continue learning, in the thrillingly honest and kind classes taught by Ellen Reiss, how to be courageous.  In one class, Miss Reiss asked me:

Do you think if a person were to see honestly where he respects himself and where he doesn't, he would feel "the way things are is not against oneself"?  The question is: Is the knowing of oneself, including one's motives...as much a field for courage as climbing a mountain?"
The answer, I am so glad to be learning, is Yes.  As I think of these 33 years of study and a marriage I cherish, I am proud that I care for thought more and more: about people and things.  This makes for happiness and expression I will be grateful to Mr. Siegel and Ellen Reiss for all my life.


I speak now about courage in relation to a person important in the history of photography and film, the American Paul Strand, who lived from 1890 to 1976.  "Real courage, which wishes to be graceful," Mr. Siegel writes, "is always after the facts."

Strand was one of the first photographers to show the abstract forms--circles, straight lines as thrillingly dramatic in ordinary objects.  This is a Porch Chair. . .

This is Wire Wheels. . .

His subject matter was tremendously diverse: portraits . . .

Hebrides: by Paul Strand


landscapes . . .

Devid Bernstein, Aesthetic Realism Associate on Paul Strand Portraits
Haut Rhim

South Uist, Hebrides

architecture . . .


Gaspe Peninsula, Nova Scotia

Wall Street

and objects . . .

And in films he was passionate about justice to people of many nations, courageously dealing with the subject: How should the land be owned?

Strand's desire to be affected by things is in this statement of his: "If I see something, it's because something outside of myself...stops me and says quietly, Look at me, Look at me!"  He traveled the world, photographing people in relation to the land, making portraits of whole villages . . .

Aswan, Egypt

Luzzara, Italy

Family, Luzzara, Italy

When Cesare Zavattini, screenwriter, saw Strand's photographs of Luzzara, Italy, he said: "I will always be grateful to Strand for what he made me able to see about my own townspeople."  Strand wrote: "To know a land,...the temperament and life of its people is a process of gradual absorption, of sympathetic perception."

Yet, Strand was in a terrific fight as I was, about how much people close to him--including the women in his three marriages--deserved his "profound accuracy" of thought and feeling.  The way he ran away from thought about another person, made for great pain. His second wife, Virginia Stevens, an actress, said of him:

I was being made aware of things..I had never been aware of before. I appreciated him in his work and what he was trying to do in the world, but as a human being wanting somebody close--no.  He could not sit next to you, or touch you.
Paul Strand's parents immigrated to New York City from Czechoslovakia, and he grew up here.  He went to the Ethical Culture High School and was deeply affected by his science teacher, the great photographer, Lewis Hine--whose work compassionately revealed the horror of child labor. "To know that we can fight something beautifully," Mr. Siegel writes, "is to love that which enables us to fight beautifully."  Hine used photography to fight injustice; and I believe he encouraged Strand to give courageous form in art to his life-long hatred of economics based on using the lives of people for another's private gain.

For instance, I think of all of Strand's portraits this one of a tailor's apprentice in Italy affects me most . . .

This young person who has to make a living in a tailor's shop, looks old before her time, her youthful face has a hardness, a guarded tightness, so different from the sweet, bright curve of that large round straw hat she is holding which brings an element of softness.  She seems hardly aware of the delicate branches near her.  If she had not had to spend hours each day just to get enough money to help feed her family, her eyes could be bright, her expression eager.  As Ellen Reiss writes in her commentary to The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known 1162, about a poem by Carl Sandburg telling of girls sewing clothes in a mill, she says:

Maybe some of these young women could have gone to college; played a musical instrument importantly; discovered new things in science,...if they did not have to use their lives to make big profits for a boss....
This photograph, I believe, is courageous and has "a love of the external, and a belief in it, even when we fight it."  Here Strand welcomed more the seeing of what another person feels.

And fate enabled him to meet another great photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, whose historic gallery 291 was the first to exhibit photographs as fine art, along with paintings and sculpture by new artists: Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso.  Stieglitz devoted the last issue of the historic magazine, "Camera Work" to Strand's photographs.

Strand served in the Army Medical Corps in the First World War, as an X-Ray technician and cinematographer, later made a revolutionary short film with artist Charles Sheeler called Manhatta,which captured the essence of Manhattan . . .

--its busy streets, places and people--using abstract shapes and stunning pictorial views. Even today the film is hailed as an instance of cinema as courageous and fresh.  In the early 1930's Strand went to Mexico and joined with other artists to make a film showing the terrible exploitation under which the peasants worked. This film, The Wave, is a visually stunning and passionate work about a strike by fishermen and their life-and-death struggle to survive . . .

Filmed without a soundtrack, cranking the camera by hand, Strand's technique showed respect and love for these workers; and he is credited with the first use of slow motion as a cinematic device.

In studying Strand's life, I am very affected by the fact that along with his courageous desire for justice to people, he does not speak with warmth about particular individuals he knew.  What Eli Sieget wrote in Self and World, I feel explains what pained Strand:

[P]ersons will, quite often, take a political point of view which is collective, has otherness in it, seems... altruistic, and yet have within them a preponderant belief in the self not as other, not as related, but as a point and as apart from reality as a whole.
This division hurt Strand's life, made him lonely, stopped him from feeling that he was courageous as a colleague and a friend.  One of the people who worked most closely with him--Fred Zinnemann, the noted Hollywood director--said:
Strand was not inclined to open up and be generous and talk about himself...He didn't have too much contact with people. He loved humanity in the abstract, not the specific.
In 1935, with Leo Hurwitz and others, Strand formed Frontier Films, a non-profit company, to show America what was happening politically all over the world.  Some of these courageous films--are: Heart of Spain about the Loyalist fight against Franco and fascism in the Spanish Civil War; in China they filmed Canadian doctor, Norman Bethune, training the Red Army and peasant doctors to fight disease.  The last film Hurwitz and Strand made together was Native Land, about civil-rights violations in the United States, including union busting and the actions of the Ku Klux Klan.  In 1951 Strand showed tremendous courage during the McCarthy era, when the Photo League where Strand had taught and exhibited, was accused of being subversive.  He spoke out against the blacklisting and indictment of artists, saying: "It is our job to defend [the Bill of Rights,] not only for ourselves, but for all the American people today."

Yet, Leo Hurwitz with whom he worked so closely for years, said about Strand's life:

His work was standing behind the camera concentrating on ...that tiny rectangle....He wanted to come from under the dark cloth, but he was always in the tunnel of himself.
What Aesthetic Realism made possible for me, I wish Paul Strand could have studied, learning how to have courage with the people in his life. Every person in America, has the right to study the beautiful, kind knowledge, of the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel, and to have the courage they hope for.

© 2016 by David Bernstein