Aesthetic Realism is a cult
Who they are, how they operate • Written by former members

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What is Aesthetic Realism?

Details about the group and its beliefs

by Michael Bluejay, ex-member • last update November 4, 2023

This article is about the group itself and its beliefs.  For the cult aspects of the group, see: Cult aspects of Aesthetic Realism.

The philosophy

In 1941, a poet named Eli Siegel created a philosophy that he called Aesthetic Realism, and recruited a group of devotees to promote it as the one great truth.  Siegel died in 1978, but his followers are still trying to get the world to realize that AR can (supposedly) solve all the world's problems.

The teachings of Aesthetic Realism aren't particularly crazy.  (The associated beliefs are, such as that their founder is the most important person ever to live, there's supposedly a conspiracy in the press to not report positively about AR, etc.)  Most former members like me aren't critical of the group's basic tenets.  We're critical of the manipulative and hurtful way the Aesthetic Realism Foundation operates, breaking up families and destroying lives.  (However, there are some former members who do indeed take issue with the group's core beliefs.)

The main idea of Aesthetic Realism is that we all have a tendency to be critical of other people and things as a way to make ourselves seem more important in comparison ("contempt"), though that tendency actually poisons our minds and causes unhappiness.  And not just unhappiness—contempt is supposedly the cause of every single problem in the world: learning difficulties, homosexuality, boredom, stuttering, you name it.  Aesthetic Realists believe that only the study of AR can teach a person how to purge their contempt.  Therefore, they think that the solution for all the world's problems is for every person in the world to become AR students.  (They also think that Eli Siegel invented the whole "put others down to make yourself seem superior" concept, but it's actually an old, and rather common idea.  In a review of a singer on America's Got Talent, the critic writes, "Her embarrassment is played for tawdry laughs, and viewers are encouraged to feel superior to her and so feel better about themselves.")

The other main idea of AR is that beauty is found in the contrast of opposites, something most artists would probably agree with.  This concept dates back thousands of years to Chinese yin/yang, but Aesthetic Realists think Eli Siegel invented it.  Understanding that beauty comes from contrasting opposites is supposedly what helps a person purge their contempt.

Recruitment is the main focus

As with most cults, the group's main goal is to get the whole world to adopt its beliefs, and that starts with recruiting as many people as possible.  A person typically gets involved in AR by first being invited to an art or drama presentation or exhibit at AR's Terrain Gallery in SoHo.  From there the student will be encouraged to take Aesthetic Realism classes.  After that the recruit will be strongly encouraged to have "consultations", a kind of therapy with three AR "consultants" vs. one student.  (See a transcript of an actual consultation.)  The consultations are ostensibly to help the student learn more about Aesthetic Realism and to live their life better, but the real goal is to get the student to more strongly adopt the group's beliefs.  Consultants ask probing critical questions that have only one right answer, and if students give the "wrong" answers they're worked on until they give the "right" ones.  The whole process is designed to break down the self-identity of the student so that s/he will be willing to accept the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel as the One Truth and the greatest gift the world has ever known.  Students who show promise can train to become consultants themselves.

Some AR members are public schoolteachers, and got some flak for trying to recruit in the classroom.

A former student describes consultations
“Three-on-one is a total power trip. They reinforce each other.  It's utter persuasion, all three with the same point of view.  If I expressed a doubt about what was happening, they would say, 'It's your contempt'. With three people telling you that, it's definitely going to affect you.  Their technique is forceful in a subtle kind of way.  They tap right into the negative side of your self-identity, all of them feeding off each other.” —Paul Grossman quoted in “Aesthetic Realism & Homosexuality”, Boston Globe

Mind Control

By the time a student has gone through several consultations, the group has a fairly good grip on the inductee's mind, and can start to direct the student's life.  They might start out with pushing the student toward a certain line of work, then directing them to whom they should marry (always within the group, of course), and then even having them cut off relations with friends and family who won't join the group.  They get the inductee to do these things by using mind control methods.  After all, no one would do these extreme things unless they were being manipulated.

People without cult experience have a hard time understanding how people can give up their autonomy so easily, and often think cult members must be stupid for not seeing what's going on, and for not leaving.  The truth is that mind control is powerful stuff and can work on anyone.  Cult members typically score well on IQ tests.  Decades of psychological research shows that we're way more susceptible to manipulation than we like to believe.  Everyone reading this will think, "Oh, that could never happen to me."  Well, most cult members used to think the same thing, for the same reasons…before they got sucked in.  One woman covertly entered Aesthetic Realism with the goal of rescuing a family member who was stuck there.  The woman got sucked in herself and is still there.

For more on AR's mind control methods, see basic brainwashing and directed origination.

Once someone is sucked in, they tend to stay for at least four reasons:

  1. The mind control methods that got them involved, are effective at keeping them in.
  2. Basic cognitive dissonance.  It's basic human nature to be reluctant to admit we've made mistakes.  How easy is it for anyone to give up a deeply held belief?   Pretty hard.  For a cult member, leaving the cult would be tantamount to admitting that one made a massive mistake by getting involved in the first place.  Given the choice between admitting that they made a big mistake and wasted a good chunk of their life, or continuing their membership which requires no such uncomfortable realization, it's pretty clear why many people have a hard time leaving cults.
  3. They might feel they have nothing to go back to.  As another former member says, "One reason people stay in AR is that after breaking up their family relationships, with spouses, parents or siblings, there is little to go back to once the light comes on." Ouch.  They reality, though, is that most families are quick to forgive and are just happy to have their family member back.
  4. Those born into the group are especially damaged.  Methods for trying to rescue people from cults focus on how to awaken the member's pre-cult identity.  But with people born into cults, there is no pre-cult identity.  The cult and its way of thinking is all they've ever known.  If it's hard for regular members to wake up and get out, it's nearly impossible for those born into such groups.

Incidentally, this particular cult's teachings have a built-in way of reinforcing compliance. The foundation of AR is that contempt is the root of all evil.  Everyone inside has bought into that idea.  So if anyone ever questions what's going on, she's simply accused of having contempt for AR or Eli Siegel.  And since everyone believes that contempt must be purged, he's convinced that she must have been wrong to question.  AR can thus shut down dissent faster than some other cults, just by using the group's teachings themselves against their members.  It's pretty insidious.


You can't learn it in a lifetime

Aesthetic Realists are expected to study Aesthetic Realism their whole lives, to the day they die. First, AR people think you can't ever master AR completely, because no one could fully understand founder Eli Siegel's genius even in a lifetime.  No matter how long they study, Aesthetic Realists are expected to say that they still don't get it all.  (That's one of their ways of praising Siegel as having had the ultimate mind.)  Quotes like this one are typical:

"Even now, with ten years of Aesthetic Realism study behind me, I am far from understanding all of what Siegel means..." (The H Persuasion, p. viii) 

And he won't ever do so.  You won't find an Aesthetic Realist who admits to understanding Siegel completely.

The other reason that Aesthetic Realists are expected to "study" their whole lives is so they can recruit new members and promote AR in general.  That's why the AR people get so flustered when anyone leaves.  No one is supposed to leave.  Here's what one former member said about this:

"[I]t is almost impossible to describe how filthy, disgusting, degenerate, and depraved we saw anyone who left AR. Take all the worst people throughout history you can think of, roll them into one, and you have what we were conditioned to think of them. I used to believe, for example, that while Hitler was evil because he wanted to kill all Jews and did succeed in killing 6 million of them, a person who left AR was even worse. They wanted to doom every person in the whole world for the rest of time to lives deprived of AR. There was no evil greater than that." (source)

As intelligent and insightful as Siegel was, it doesn't take very long to grok a tome like Self and World.  The people in AR aren't learning more and more, year after year.  They remain so they can defend AR (from critics like the ones on this site), recruit, and promote.


They're all married to each other

     In most cults you can't marry outside the group, and Aesthetic Realism is no exception.  Every single Aesthetic Realist who is married (and most of them are), is married to another Aesthetic Realist.  They're also generally at the same level, too.  That is, consultants are married to other consultants, consultants-in-training are married to other consultants-in-training, and consultees are married to other consultees.  As one former member said, "There was a time when the only way a guy could get a date with me was to attend the Saturday night program at the foundation."

     And back when AR was promoting its gay cure, students were declared "cured" and then pushed into marriages with other students.  This was to prove to the outside world how successful the cure was.  (It might have worked, too, if the "cured" didn't inconveniently keep deciding they were gay after all and resume having gay sex—even if they were still married to another Aesthetic Realist and hadn't left the group yet.)  These marriages were generally rushed along.  No years of dating, no dilly-dallying thinking about it—the "cured" were generally married off within two years once they began to study AR.

     Here's a question:  What do you suppose an Aesthetic Realist would find most attractive in another person?  Why, it's their love of Aesthetic Realism!  This is from the first book about their gay cure:

"[W]hen I saw Sheldon Kranz listen to Eli Siegel's criticism and not run away, I began to care for him.  Sheldon has told me since that it was my response to Aesthetic Realism that made him respect me....What I love most in my husband is his love for Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism." (Anne Fielding Kranz, The H Persuasion, p. 44)


The group is dwindling away

Aesthetic Realism's membership is shrinking and they haven't been covered by the press in years.  There are many reasons for their downfall.

  1. Loss of their charismatic leader.  Most successful cults have a charismatic leader who draws in new members like a magnet.  That was true of AR, in its heyday.  But once Siegel died in 1978, the downward slide began immediately.  I remember my father telling me at the time that that would be the beginning of the end.  He was prescient.
  2. Fallout from Siegel's suicide.  The fallout from Siegel's suicide was too much for some members to deal with, and they left as a result.  Some of them couldn't reconcile that Siegel killed himself, especially as Siegel had previously railed against suicide as a form of contempt.  Further, some of them weren't down with being blamed for his suicide:  leadership said all of Siegel's students were to blame for Siegel's decision, either for encouraging him to have the surgery that supposedly left him worse than before, or just because their gratitude to him was insufficient and that somehow that was the cause of his illness:
    1. "The biggest shame of my life [was] my own coldness and cruelty when Mr. Siegel most needed comprehension and justice.  He had not wanted that operation, though doctors said that he must have it and would die if he didn’t.  He said he would rather die than have it.…  [A]ll of us [students] hurriedly said we thought the surgery should take place.… It has become clear to me that the biggest reason I was in such a horrible hurry to agree with the doctors was, like Mr. Siegel’s other students, I too was resentful that I respected him so mightily.  I was uncomfortable that the person whom I valued so much through using my careful, critical, even skeptical thought, was not praised by the press.  I see that I welcomed the chance to feel at last superior to Mr. Siegel: to feel I and others knew better than he did about his own health." (AR newsletter) 
  3. They discouraged members from having children.  Starting in the 1970s, AR discouraged most of its members from having kids.  There were only a handful of children born into the group since ~1975; the overwhelming majority of AR couples are childless.  Notably, Siegel and his wife didn't have any children.  I'm wondering whether Siegel didn't really like children, since he certainly showed his irritation with me during my lesson with him when I was two years old.  Anyway, discouraging kids was a stunning blunder, because prior to that, children born into the group were an important source of new, committed members. 
  4. No more gay cure.  The biggest source of interest in AR, by far, was people seeking the "gay cure" that AR pushed from around 1970-90.  When AR stopped offering its conversion therapy, it stopped the primary reason that people were joining.
  5. They pushed people away by being too mean.  Part of brainwashing is to cultivate guilt, because that makes people easier to control.  Cults have to walk a fine line:  if they're not mean enough then they won't have a good hold over their members, but if they're too mean, then members will decide enough is enough and leave.  During one period AR leadership went overboard on the cruelty, and it caused an exodus.
  6. They can't recruit, because they're old.  The group is now made up almost entirely of senior citizens.  They can't easily recruit other older people, because older people are less likely still be looking for a way to change the world, and also because with their worldly experience, they're more likely to recognize a cult as a cult, and be resistant to any mind control methods that the group tries to apply.  The group can't easily recruit younger people, because what younger person wants to hang out with a bunch of people old enough to be their grandparents?
  7. The general public knows they're a cult.  The word is out about what AR truly is.  If anyone Googles AR, one of the first things they find is this "AR is a cult" website.  It was easier for AR to pull a fast one on new recruits before the Internet.
  8. They refused to let AR expand outside of SoHo.  In a stunning contradiction, while the Aesthetic Realists believe that AR should be studied by the whole world, at the same time they actively prevented it from spreading.  When my family moved to Texas, the AR people should have said, "Oh great, you can start a new chapter there!  What help do you need from us?"  Instead, the AR people ex-communicated her as an enemy for leaving the SoHo nest.  They had other opportunities to help other members open new outposts but fought them every time.  And when another student left the group but tried to teach AR on his own, the AR people put this worried notice on their website: "Please note that the only persons authorized to teach Aesthetic Realism are those working under the auspices of and with the consent of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, Inc., a not-for-profit educational foundation. Any others presenting themselves as Aesthetic Realism teachers or consultants are not authorized to do so, are misrepresenting themselves, and may be 'teaching' something grossly different from and entirely out of keeping with what Aesthetic Realism truly is."  This is all because the AR leadership is scared of anything it can't control.

    Contrast AR's opposition to expansion to cults like Hare Krishna, the Moonies, and Scientology who successfully spread across the globe, because they recognized that you don't achieve world domination by refusing to let your group expand.

In 1971 AR had around 100 people studying. (The H Persuasion, p. xix)  Throughout the 70's and 80's with people seeking the gay cure, membership perhaps doubled or tripled.  But now (2022) it's down to much less than a hundred, and with an elderly membership, the attrition will only accelerate.  Aesthetic Realism is ending even without my efforts.

I have a page tracking the status of the group's demise.

But in the meantime, small as AR is becoming, they're still hurting people.  I still get email from people who lost a loved one to AR and haven't been able to talk to them in years.  So as long as AR operates the way it does, I'll be here to let people know about that.


Victim of the Press

One hallmark of cults is paranoid feelings of persecution.  Aesthetic Realism is no exception.  ARists have always complained bitterly that there's a conspiracy in the media to not report the "wonderful news" about Aesthetic Realism and its ability to bring about world peace, harmony in marriage, an end to homosexuality, etc.  (Why?  Because, supposedly, people in the media want to feel that they're more important than Aesthetic Realism.  Riiiiight.)  Thus, ARists perceive themselves, and the whole world in fact, as victims of the media, and they describe that victimization with gems such as these:

"I accuse the American press of preferring the continuing pain of children and even death to being honest about Aesthetic Realism." (Robert Murphy on AR's website, emphasis added)

"In keeping Aesthetic Realism—in all its grandeur, all its kindness—from you, the American press has committed a crime against humanity as much as if it deliberately kept from starving people the news that the food they needed was available for them." (AR's ad in the NYT, emphasis added)

To protest this imagined press conspiracy, they adopted the slogan "Victim of the Press" to advertise their complaint.  They even signed their names that way—a member writing his name in the inside cover of one of her books would write "Jane Doe, Victim of the Press", and they'd sign their names the same way when they wrote letters to the editor.  Famously, they printed up "Victim of the Press" buttons, which they wore from the 1970s to the early 90s, until a newspaper article mocked them for the practice.  References to the buttons include:

Socialist ideology

AR's politics are far left, being highly critical of greed and profit in capitalism—with which I happen to sympathize, but not to the extent that the AR people take it.  Eli Siegel was actually a self-proclaimed socialist, in the real meaning of the word (not the imaginary meaning where any effort by Obama to increase government services is called socialism by the right wing).  AR even published a book in the 1970's based on Siegel's lectures called Goodbye Profit System predicting the fall of the free market system. (How's that working out?)  Here's part of AR's summary of that book:

Eli Siegel showed in a series of lectures what no other economist saw, and what is true now and for all time: A way of economics based on contempt for man—though it went on for many centuries—no longer works.....Eli Siegel's knowledge of history was unsurpassed, and he was humanity's greatest friend.

As another former member writes about AR:  

They are rabid left-wing extremists, completely blinded to the injustices and human rights violations of communist (or other anti-American) dictatorships, but always eager to rail against the actions of our government.  They are highly critical of the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the West's intervention in Kosovo, but have never once criticized the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Tienanmen Square Massacre, or the murderous ethnic cleansing of Milosevic.  They claim that Hussein's invasion of Kuwait was justified, because the world's resources should belong to all the people (I guess Saddam was going to share all the Kuwaiti oil with all of us, out of the goodness of his heart).  I was "studying" with them when communism collapsed in Europe; just a few months before that happened, they were writing in TRO about how happy the people of Eastern Europe were with their economic system.  After these happy people overthrew their wonderful system, Aesthetic Realism never admitted they had been wrong.  Then again, they never admit to being wrong about anything. (source)

Jewish demographic

Religiously the group is non-denominational but a large number of its members and leaders are Jewish, perhaps the majority of them, with names like Siegel, Koppelman, Blaustein, Shapiro, Fishman, Rosen, Weiner, Weiss, Reiss, Kimmelman, Kestenbaum, Bernstein, and my birth surname, Freedman.  The Jewish involvement in the group is so strong that Jewish Times did a story on the controversy surrounding AR.

This is not a criticism, I'm just documenting various facts about the group.


Siegel's role

Many people have asked me whether Siegel promoted AR as the universal answer to everything and saw himself as deserving extraordinary praise, or whether his students just took his work and got carried away with it.  The answer is the former: Siegel believed in the supremacy of AR and in his deserving a high status for having come up with it, and he wanted his students to promote these things.  One former student related to me how Siegel said, "You're supposed to be out there making me famous."  And here's another student's account of Siegel's lust for notoriety, and yet another one.

Former students also say that Siegel had quite a temper and could be particularly mean.  Heck, in my lesson with him when I was two years old, he thought it would be a good idea to get all the adults in the room to taunt me to make me cry. Another former member writes in, "There were many classes and lessons in which Siegel literally yelled at people. I vividly remember him screaming at people with spit flying out of his mouth. I  guess that's where 'spitting angry' comes from.  That would often happen when he spoke about the press and others he saw as slighting him — he would become so enraged as he spoke about it; he was wild with fury."  Yet his current followers say that Siegel was actually the kindest person ever to live. Siegel was a formidable poet, critic, and philosopher, for sure, but he certainly didn't come close to winning any awards for kindness.

Others who had no involvement at all with Aesthetic Realism at all have been critical of Siegel. Harold Norse wrote in his memoirs:

Eli Siegel...founded a school of writing called Aesthetic Realism, which among other bizarre claims, professed to "cure" homosexuality.  Thinking of Siegel, a man in his fifties whom I had known from the WPA Writers' Project as a mirthless, self-important intellectual, made me wonder who would discover a cure for heterosexuality.  He enjoyed, if that is the correct word for a grim-faced maven whose long nose sniffed disdainfully at everything, [contempt?!] a minor notoriety for a poem called "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana", which in the 1920s or 1930s won a prize in Nation.  Based on long Whitmanesque lines, it was actually about the weather.  But Williams was right to include him; the poem defied existing norms with a flat, bland insouciance that mocked conventional taste.

Before founding Aesthetic Realism, Siegel had been an emcee at a poetry club called the Village Vanguard.  Here's how the owner of that club remembered Siegel:

Siegel was putting [the Aesthetic Realism] movement together when he was the M.C. at the Vanguard. He told me this once when I ran into him on Jane Street almost forty years later.  "You need Aesthetic Realism in your life," he said, looking me in the eye.  "I know the kind of man you are.  It'll straighten you out.  And not only you—it can straighten out the whole world.  Aesthetic Realism can straighten out the whole world, if only the world will listen to me."

I see now what ailed Eli when he was the Vanguard M.C., why he was always getting so mad at the customers.  He was trying to straighten them out, that's what he was doing.  It's a good thing I got rid of him. (source)

Anyone reading Siegel can readily see a powerful mind at work.  It's easy to understand how his followers found that to be both intimidating and attractive.  But there's quite a difference in saying he was exceptionally intelligent (which is what most observers would say) and that he was the absolute greatest person ever to walk the face of the planet (which is what only the Aesthetic Realists say).

Here's another example of how he wasn't everything he was claimed to be.  First, we see how one of his students says that Siegel was exceptionally dynamic:

"As a guest, I have attended many Aesthetic Realism lessons of people of all ages and professions, and coming from states all over the country.  I have never heard Mr. Siegel talk the same way to any two of them.  Nor have I ever heard him repeat himself in any mechanical or routine way.... [T]he questions and comments occur differently with each person because of a deep aesthetic instinct in Siegel that recognizes each person's individuality." (Sheldon Kranz, The H Persuasion, pp.41-42)

Yet in that student's own lesson detailed in that book, Siegel says this student thinks his mother is stupid for being so devoted to him (and that this is a big reason for the student's psychological problems), and then a few pages later, in that very same book, Siegel says the exact same thing to another student. Here are the two instances:

"Do you respect your mother?" Mr. Siegel asked.

"Of course," I said.

"I don't think you do. Did you feel as a child that you owned your mother, that she was utterly devoted to you?"

"Yes," I said.

"Do you think that was intelligent or stupid of her?"

"It was natural," I answered.

"But was it intelligent?"

"Not so intelligent," I said finally. (p. 34)

And then to the other student in a different lesson:

"I think you make your mother less intelligent than she is, because in so far as she needs you so much, you already downgrade her." (p. 66)

 When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Cult aspects

Aesthetic Realism has all the characteristics of a mind control cult, including:

  • Fanatical devotion to their founder/leader.
  • Belief that they have the one true answer to universal happiness if only people would listen.
  • Ultimate purpose is to recruit new believers, and members are pressured to recruit family and friends.
  • Cutting off relationships with friends and family who can't be recruited (or who leave the group).
  • Belief that they're being persecuted or censored by the rest of the world. (Well, I guess I'm persecuting them, but I'm hardly the whole world.)
  • Members lives controlled to a frightening degree, right down to whom they must marry (always within the group, of course).

These and other aspects are explained in more detail on the page cult aspects of Aesthetic Realism.


The purported gay cure

AR is best known for its efforts to turn gay people straight from around 1970-90.  They said that homosexuality was the result of having contempt for the world.  And they had the cure!  Just study AR and you'll learn to like the world and then you won't be homosexual any more.  (Of course it wasn't a very successful cure, with large numbers of the "cured" deciding later that they really were gay after all.)  They stopped offering their conversion therapy because it clearly wasn't working, and because they were tired of getting protested by gay rights groups, not because they changed their beliefs about the cause and the solution.  They still believe those things as fervently as ever.  I have a separate page covering AR's purported gay cure.


The cure for racism

Since their cure for homosexuality was a bust, they've moved on to having a cure for racism.  After all, that's something that everyone should easily be able to get behind.  And you'll never guess how this cure is achieved!  Yes, it's teaching people about Aesthetic Realism, so they'll learn to like the world, and purge their contempt, and then they won't be racist any more.  They have a book out about this now.  The problem is that the message of the book is, essentially, "Don't be racist."  Apparently they think that there are lots of people sitting around thinking, "Gee, I don't want to be racist any more.  If only there were some book I could buy that could teach me how to not have these feelings, then by golly I'd buy it!"

I'm all for ending racism as much as the next person, but I'm skeptical that AR holds any magic key in that regard.


Aesthetic Realism in the schools

Cult members teaching your children!  Realizing how important it is to introduce young minds to AR, many AR members have become public school teachers, where they promote Aesthetic Realism and Eli Siegel in the classroom.  An award-winning investigative reporter for the New York Post did a series of articles about this, which are quite a scandalous read.  Former students of those teachers also complained about the proselytizing, and how they didn't learn about the subjects the teachers were purportedly teaching (like Spanish).

More on Aesthetic Realism's beliefs

The idea of Aesthetic Realism that one's contempt causes unhappiness isn't particularly controversial.  It makes sense, and most people would probably agree with it.  But the ARists don't stop there, and that's where it gets questionable.  Contempt doesn't just make you unhappy, according to AR, it can actually make you insane.  AR's slogan is "Contempt causes insanity."  In fact, they believe that all mental illness is caused by contempt:

"One of the greatest humanitarian and intellectual achievements of all time was the discovery by Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism, that contempt causes insanity; in fact, that it causes all mental trouble." (source; emphasis added)

So how do we deal with this problem of contempt?  AR's answer is that we have to learn that all beauty comes from the contrast of opposites.  Once we realize that, we'll see the beauty in the world and we won't have contempt for it.   Here's "The Aesthetic Realism Imperative":

"[T]he only way you can like yourself is by liking the world, and the only way you can like the world is by seeing it as a oneness of opposites, aesthetically." (The H Persuasion, p. viii)

And if the whole world will get in on this, then everyone will join hands and sing together in peace and harmony.  AR says that it has the one and only answer to end "loneliness, depression, boredom, learning difficulties, pain in marriage", racism — and of course, homosexuality.  And let's not forget racism, poverty, and conflict between nations.  Here's what the AR people said in their NY Times ad:

"[W]hen the United Nations studies Aesthetic Realism (it can begin today) there will not be war."

Here are the three principles of AR:

  1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
  2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it. Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
  3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves. (From AR's website.  For years they had "four statements" instead of "three principles", as seen in The H Persuasion, p. vii.  An expanded definition of AR is on AR's website.) 

Aesthetic Realism at a Glance


The Aesthetic Realism Foundation




Eli Siegel, poet & art/literary critic.
Committed suicide in 1978.


To get the world to realize that Eli Siegel was the greatest person who ever lived, and that Aesthetic Realism is the most important knowledge, ever.


We have a tendency to look down on others to make ourselves seem superior by comparison (contempt).  Every single problem in the world (including homosexuality) is the result of contempt.  By studying AR, we can learn to purge our contempt so the world will be perfect.  Also, beauty comes from the contrast of opposites.


New York City (SoHo)


About 66, as of 4/22, as ~23 teachers + ~43 teachers-in-training.  (In 2009 it was ~77 (33+44), and ~29 regular students.  You could consider them members, but I'm not including them in the total.)  Anyway, with only ~66 committed members, much for world domination.

All members call themselves "students", even the leaders/teachers.  Advanced members who teach others are called "consultants".
StatusIn serious decline.
They might have ten years left.

Method of study

Public seminars/lectures at their headquarters (in lower Manhattan), group classes, and individual consultations (three consultants vs. one student) (usually in-person, but also remote).

Cult aspects

  • Fanatical devotion to their leader/founder
  • Belief that they have the one true answer to universal happiness
  • Ultimate purpose is to recruit new members
  • Feeling that they are being persecuted
  • Wild, paranoid reactions to criticism
  • Non-communication (or at least very limited communication) with those who have left the group, and family members who refuse to join
  • Odd, specialized language.

  • More about cult aspects...

What former members say...
They reeled me in like a brook trout... Guilt was introduced into the experience. They told me I was "not showing respect for this great education I was receiving" by [not getting more involved].
If there is anything the Aesthetic Realists are good at, it is convincing people that if they think they see anything wrong with Siegel, AR, Reiss or how the organization is run, there is really something wrong with them. Any time I began to question things or think I saw something amiss, I had been programmed to think that what it really meant was that something was terribly wrong with me.
My new AR friends were starting to apply the hard sell a bit more so the word "cult" did come to mind , but I naïvely believed that it couldn't be a cult because it wasn't religious in nature.
They get you to actually control yourself. A lot of people's lives have been hurt --ruined.
So, there was Eli Siegel, who came up with all these rules, but to whom none of the rules applied, and there was everybody else.
[Eli Siegel] was a hurtful person. He was a sociopath. He was a control freak, and he was a cult leader.
Poor John then would be the subject of an onslaught of criticism to help him see his own contempt for Eli Siegel.... This is merely one example of the way people were controlled and humiliated if they stepped out of line or didn't conform to accepted behavior.
We all had to present ourselves as essentially miserable failures whose lives were in shambles until we found the glorious "answers to all our questions" in AR.
It was very difficult for me to surrender to AR in the total fashion they seemed to want.
I received a call from one of the AR bigwigs asking me to donate money to the foundation.  When I told him I was low on cash I received a considerable verbal drubbing.
I consider my "study" of Aesthetic Realism to be one of the factors that led to the eventual breakup of my marriage, to my eternal sorrow.
I felt a bit raped psychologically.... if you are thinking of getting into the AR consultation process, realize that they could end it all suddenly, and that you could find your most intimate thoughts on tape in someone else's possession.
They flatter you to death and tell you that you're so wonderful, and you have all these qualities that others have never seen. And then there's this horrible criticizing.
That's when I finally knew for sure: AESTHETIC REALISM IS A CULT.  I swore on that moment that if I was ever given the opportunity to tell the world what these people did to me, I would.

When I left I was definitely shunned by other students. I would meet people in the NYC streets -as I still do to this day - and they would turn the other way to avoid me, or some even made derogatory comments about me.

[New AR students] would be shocked if they knew that the lives of the people they are supposed to learn from are very different from the principles they are taught in consultations. Even though publicly the AR foundation preaches respect for people and like of the world, inside the organization the message is very different. The underlying feeling is, "People who do not study AR are inferior to us, and the world is our enemy, out to get us." We had contempt for outsiders and were scared of the world. We huddled together for safety, secure in our sense of superiority.
When I was studying, we were allowed to associate with our families only if they continuously demonstrated that they were grateful to and respectful of Eli Siegel and AR. This did not include going to visit them if they lived far away because then we would have had to miss classes, and that would have meant we were "making our family more important than AR."
Some of the students I remember going at most intensely and viciously to stop them from associating with their families, (and whom we succeeded in stopping for many, many years), are people who are now bragging on the AR website about how great their relationships with their families are and writing as though that was always the case.
There were even instances of students refusing to visit their parents when one of them was dying because the parents did not "express regret" and renounce their unfairness to Eli Siegel and AR. There were parents who literally begged their son or daughter to relent so they could see them one more time, but the child refused. The parent died without ever seeing their child again. Far from being criticized for such behavior, students who went this far were seen as heroes in AR. They received public praise from Ellen Reiss.
While I was in AR, I did believe that Eli Siegel was greater than Christ.... It would have been accurate to say I worshipped him.
People were told that if their families did not support aesthetic realism, they were not their families.
Some of the people with statements on the Countering the Lies website claiming that AR students do not shun former students have actually passed me on the street, looked straight at me, and pretended they were seeing right through me. This includes people in the highest positions in the organization.
More and more the AR zombies demanded that I express gratitude to ES and AR. Every paper that a student wrote had to end with the obligatory "I am so grateful to ES and AR for..." along with "I deeply regret that I have met this great knowledge with contempt..."
Eli Siegel was an evil person. And I don't use the word evil lightly.
See former members' stories in their entirety

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