This paper is from the July 7, 2016 seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation titled “A Man’s Urgent Question: How Can I Be Both Critical and Kind?” It includes a discussion of the life and work of the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. The Aesthetic Realism Foundation, is a not‐for-profit educational foundation, at 141 Greene St., NYC 10012, (212) 777-4490
A Man’s Urgent Question: How Can I Be Both Critical and Kind?
By Len Bernstein
Growing up I tried to avoid criticism as much as possible; I felt its sole purpose was to point out what was bad, and humiliate you. I also wanted very much for people to think I was kind. Outwardly, I was solicitous, holding a door open for someone or giving up my seat to an elderly person on the train, and felt the best way to show people you were kind was to give them a gift, especially if it wasn’t their birthday.
But I would have felt mortified if anyone knew what my thoughts were really like, as they went back and forth between tearing people down because I relished finding their flaws, or daydreaming of myself as a superior being with people clamoring to be my friend. Tonight as I speak about myself I will also discuss one of the 20th century’s great photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Known for his critical eye and for the compassionate way he saw humanity, his art can teach us about the subject of our seminar tonight.
I. Where My Attitude to Criticism and Kindness Began
I grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950s with my parents, Helen and Milton and my sister Richel. While I enjoyed reading I got poor grades in school. In spite of this, my mother, thinking she was kind, would praise me, saying, “Your friends are not your intellectual peers,” and urge me to get new ones. I remember feeling uncomfortable when she did this, but I lapped it up and saw myself as a little prince among commoners. And we would have so called “critical” conversations, just the two of us, and point out how selfish this person was, or how that one wasn’t very bright, and this included the people who sat enjoying each other’s company in front of the apartment building where we lived because “all they do is sit around and gossip.” Then when my mother did say something usefully critical of me, I felt betrayed and resentful. Meanwhile, I didn’t know that my increasingly inflated opinion of myself was why I had such difficulty taking in what another person said. In conversations, I could only remember the important parts—what I had said.
My dad was more critical; he tried to teach me things, like how to play ball, and to swim, but I resisted, feeling it was an insult for someone as grand as me to have to learn anything. Once, when he tried to show me how to find a subject in the volumes of encyclopedias on our bookshelf, I punished him, deliberately choosing the wrong volume again and again, until frustrated, he gave up.
In my first Aesthetic Realism consultation with the trio The Kindest Art, as I spoke about my trouble listening to people or learning from them, I was asked, “How long have you felt you were perfect?” Surprised, I answered, “I guess since I was born.” And they explained, “If you feel you are perfect, you have to feel it is an insult to listen to others or learn from them, because it shows you are incomplete and need the outside world.” I drank in what they were saying like a thirsty man who’d been in the desert for a long time. I was hearing criticism of my contempt, my desire to diminish the meaning of people and things for my own glory—and this was the same as encouraging my deepest desire: to like the world. Consultations were the oneness of criticism and kindness I was looking for.
Life in the Bernstein household was like many others: we enjoyed things, like singing folk songs while my mother played the piano, or going on trips to the beach and Coney Island. When I was 5 my parents bought a luncheonette around the corner from where we lived and for about seven years they worked long, hard hours to make a comfortable life for us. Yet when they came home exhausted, all I could think of was how they ran a lowly business that didn’t make me look like a big-shot to my friends.
II. What I Did with My “Criticism” of the World
My parents’ business did well for a few years, until the bus stop that was right in front and brought in a lot of customers, was moved to another street. This was a difficult time, and I used the financial worry and growing discord in our home, including arguments between my parents, to be disgusted with the world. I started withdrawing more into my favorite daydreams and sometimes showed my anger outwardly in ways I regret very much. Once, I took my B-B gun and from the window of my room shot at a person across the street. He was startled and wasn’t hurt, but I had no idea what was running me. Years later I was to learn that when you have contempt you cruelly deprive a person of their meaning and they are not real to you. Eli Siegel writes in the book James and the Children, a Consideration of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw: “As soon as you have contempt, as soon as you don’t want to see another person as having the fulness that you have, you can rob that person, hurt that person, kill that person.”
As my consultations continued, I was learning to understand contempt and how I had welcomed it. I was asked, “Do you think you used the fights between your mother and father to respect the world more or to have contempt for it?” From the beginning, my consultants encouraged me to know my parents, to be an exact critic of them and that meant relating what was good and bad in them, as I was learning to do with myself. I was given assignments such as “Write a character sketch of my mother Helen Bernstein at the age of 26.” Another assignment was to read Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev to begin studying how the literature of the world describes the relation between parent and child, and this encouraged me to stop making myself the dramatic centerpiece of everything that happened in my family. I began to see that my father and mother didn’t exist to make me important, or to make me unhappy; they had lives of their own they were hoping to like; and they were in relation not just to me but the whole world. As I was learning to be fair to the thoughts and feelings of Helen and Milton Bernstein, I became kinder.
III. Kindness vs. Meanness in Love
Another aspect of my self-absorption, my not seeing the feelings of other people as real was in how I was with women. I judged a woman according to whether she showed I was the most important thing in her life. I was often tormented with jealousy and thought this was a sign of how much I loved her—when in fact, I was to learn later, it showed just the opposite, my desire to own her. Once, I went with a woman I was living with to a sporting goods store because she wanted to buy a pair of sneakers. The salesman was useful and helped her pick them out. When she told me she appreciated his assistance, unable to contain myself, I said, “The only reason he helped you was because of how you look.” She was hurt and angry, and I felt unappreciated for explaining the facts of the situation, unaware of how deeply I had insulted her. Mr. Siegel was to ask me in a class, “Can you tell the difference between candor and brutality?” I couldn’t. I prided myself on what I thought was telling it like it is, and couldn’t understand why people didn’t welcome my insights. But somewhere I knew I was mean and was ashamed of this. I think that is why I could sometimes look at myself in the mirror when I was alone and grimace and start cursing myself.
When I first met Harriet Glazer I was stirred by her beauty and the grace with which she moved—she loved the dance—and I respected the way she talked with people and listened to them, remembering with detail the things they said. I felt more complete being close to her. But I was plagued by jealousy, and resented it when she talked about her past, and bullied her into throwing away her pictures of a man who had been important in her life, saying if she really loved me she wouldn’t need to keep them. At the same time I kept all my own photos.
Eli Siegel defined love as “proud need,” and I felt that in knowing Harriet I was learning new things and having new and deeper emotions. But I also felt that if I cared so much for someone I should be able to own and feel superior to her. Thus, began my series of pompous little lectures designed to improve Harriet’s knowledge of things and which I would deliver as I felt they were necessary. In doing this, I was very unkind.
But Harriet and I were fortunate to begin studying Aesthetic Realism shortly after we were married. In an early consultation I was asked, “Do you see learning as a humiliation that you have to make up for by asserting yourself, and do you do that with your wife?” “I have,” I answered.
Harriet and I began to learn how to have good will for each other, which Aesthetic Realism describes as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.... Good will is a true mingling of kindness and exactness or severity; in other words, good will is aesthetics....” My desire to have a good effect on Harriet was growing, and for the first time I was able to welcome criticism from a woman, instead of fearing and resenting it—and Harriet could have such style and humor as she criticized me that I loved her more for it. One time, when I wasn’t listening to what she was saying, she pointed to one of my ears and said with firmness and good nature, “You know that’s not a decoration; it’s an instrument.”
As I look at Harriet today I see a friend who encourages me to be a kinder, stronger man, who wants me to be fair to the whole world.
IV. Seeing Meaning Makes for True Kindness, Says Photography
One of the things I’m most grateful for is learning from Aesthetic Realism about the meaning of photography—which is the art I love. In his definition of Kindness, Mr. Siegel writes: “A person is kind who feels a sense of likeness to other things; who accepts accurately his relation to other things.”
A photographer who I see as great because of the way his photographs are both critical and compassionate is Henri Cartier-Bresson, born in France in 1908. In his art, through powerful and tender images he took from every country he visited, he deeply “accepts…his relation to other things.” And he said of photographing candidly in the street, “I love watching people. It’s a close relation.” The expressions he caught on their faces have moved people worldwide, and the compositions he created have surprising and beautiful geometry. Whether his photographs capture what is beautiful in the world or scenes of suffering and disorder, they make you have more feeling for people and things. He once said of the pleasure he felt taking photographs,
It’s a way of saying, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ It’s respect and tremendous enjoyment to say, ‘Yes!’ Even if it’s something you hate. ‘Yes!’ It’s an affirmation.
I believe that as a photographer the way he saw form in things, including what was disorderly, puzzling, even ugly, met his hope to see meaning in things and be a kind critic.
In his great essay, “Art As Criticism” Eli Siegel writes:
Art is criticism and devotion. Criticism, however, is an accurate interaction of rejection and acceptance. It has been given to man that he be able to like and dislike reality; be for it and against it; indeed, to be a man means that you are always in the midst of antagonism and welcome.
In his personal life, I think Cartier-Bresson questioned the way he could be against someone, saying self-critically that sometimes he was “bad tempered.” But he also said, “Without my bad temper, no photographs.” He couldn’t distinguish between the “bad temper” that was unformed criticism of people, and the truly critical eye that was so kind to the subjects of his photographs. It is clear that the power of Cartier-Bresson’s work comes from his desire to be affected. He said, “There’s no rule but one: to be receptive,” and he felt that photography was a way of asking questions, not summing things up. “The real point is,” he said in an interview, “What is it all about?” and I think he would have loved Eli Siegel’s explanation of beauty in art and life: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
When Cartier-Bresson felt something was beautiful, he wanted to make it permanent. And he valued the work of others, saying of this moving photograph by Martin Munkasci that inspired him to become a photographer, “it made me suddenly realize that photography could reach eternity in a moment.”
In interviews he talks about his family life thoughtfully and critically. He was grateful for how they encouraged him to care for music and the visual arts; as a young boy he cared for photography and later studied to be a painter.
But he also questioned the way his family amassed substantial wealth through the labor of the men and women who worked in their textile factory. When he was 11 years old he cut out an article from a newspaper and hung it on a gilded mirror in his room; it was titled, “Where Does the Money Come From?” and later in life he expressed his abhorrence of colonialism and the horrible effect it had on the lives of people.
In spite of the fact that he never sought out honors, he was showered with them. He said that going up to the podium to receive an award is “a torture…. It makes me sick…. I’m happy if what I do interests people. But fame is terrible. You’re trapped you understand...It gets in your way, every day….” And when he felt an interviewer was praising him inexactly, unlike me as a child, he didn’t lap it up, he simply said with quiet conviction, “Don’t exaggerate.”
I learned about the fight in self between praise, self-importance, and seeing meaning in things in an Aesthetic Realism class for consultants and associates. When I said I wanted to understand better what interfered with my photography, Ellen Reiss asked:
ER: In any person, what’s the big thing that’s in a fight with seeing?
LB: One’s ego, one’s contempt.
ER: All right. As a photographer you want…to have that seeing which is with the eye, and also that seeing which is with knowledge…. We want to see, but we also want to be seen as wonderful….
“And everyone here can ask,” she continued,
‘Does oneself put limits on how much meaning one wants to see in things?’… If we want to see the meaning of other things, something in the self feels it has insulted itself. ‘What about my meaning?’ And Aesthetic Realism, of course, says the way you’re going to see your meaning is through seeing the meaning of other things.”
I am enormously grateful to Ellen Reiss, for the good will she has that I have so deeply and personally benefited from. I think Cartier-Bresson was hoping very much to hear what I just quoted. He once said, “One must always take photographs with the greatest respect for the subject and for oneself.” His purpose was not to mock people, or exploit their flaws, he wanted to be exact about their meaning and it made him one of the most important photographers who ever lived.
V. A Successful Photograph Is a Oneness of Exactitude and Love
Cartier-Bresson popularized the phrase “the decisive moment” which he described as “the…recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.” These are the opposites of a specific instance and its meaning for all time. This is epitomized in this well-known image the result of breathtaking exactitude and a desire—equivalent to love—to reveal the significance of an event.
He has caught the exact moment when a leaping man is mid-air, his heel a hair’s breadth away from breaking the surface of the water, upon which his mirror image is reflected. There is a sense of wonder. In its precise organization of forms, this photograph is kind in showing a relation between this man and what is around him. We see the leaping figure and then in the background there is a poster on a wall showing a similar, but stylized dance-like figure leaping in the opposite direction. The man in dark silhouette has mystery and recedes, as he simultaneously jumps boldly out of his confined self. And Cartier-Bresson has included in the composition another person against the fence in the background, appearing somewhat hunched and furtive. In his presenting of Man as both hidden and shown, expansive and contained, the photographer is simultaneously exact and kind.
This next photograph, “Children playing in ruins,”
was taken in Seville, Spain in 1933, where Cartier-Bresson saw terrible poverty in the wake of a worldwide depression. I believe it is a moving example of what he meant when he said that for him photography was “the best way to testify to the scars of the world.” In “Art As Criticism” Mr. Siegel writes,
Only he who has found the universe tough, grudging, or puzzling; or God not so bland, granting, placid, can come to true devotion. Art is the criticism which is also love.
I think that as Cartier-Bresson saw these children playing in the midst of devastation he wanted to testify, give evidence that what was tough, grudging, or puzzling has form, showing the structure of the world can be liked. The photographer chose a point-of-view that transforms the jagged hole in the wall into a frame that unifies the play of the children with their rubble-strewn playground. In the foreground, moving toward us, with a smile on his face, is a boy on crutches. And those very crutches, outstretched, give him the shape of a triangle, the most stable geometric form in reality.
Throughout, we see a mingling of disorder and symmetry, the brokenness of things and how they are continuous with each other. For example, there are the vertical lines on the wall on the left and the crumbling pillars on the right that echo the vertical forms of the children, and I feel there is some sympathy of relation between them, for what they have endured. Then there are the swift diagonals formed by the top and bottom of that same wall on the left which creates another triangle that encompasses the children and brings some order to their, for the most part, unrestrained play. This, I learned, is the purpose of art, to show that the world has a structure that can be honestly liked, and it is the “affirmation” that Cartier-Bresson was passionately searching for.
Cartier-Bresson hoped to be fair to what he saw, that his work would have a good effect on people, saying he would be happy if a person could say of any of his photographs, “Ah, this is true. You felt it right.” He died in 2004 at the age of 95 a national treasure of France. He did have the quest that represents us all; to see the world in a way he could like himself for; to find the imperishable meaning in reality that art honors, and Aesthetic Realism enables us to see and love.