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

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What is a cult? (a mind-control cult)

by Michael Bluejay  •  Original: Dec. 2004 • Last Update: April 2022

12 common characteristics of cults

A cult is a group that has some or all of the classic characteristics:

  1. Fanatical devotion to their founder or leader.
  2. Fanatical devotion to their cause, which they believe is the most important knowledge in the world.  (Delusions of grandeur.)
  3. Disconnection from reality.
  4. Brainwashing used to recruit members, keep them in, and get them to disconnect from reality.  (Otherwise, who would agree to all this stuff?)
  5. Ultimate goal is to recruit new members.
  6. Members disassociate from family who won't join, or who join and then leave.
  7. Membership is a lifelong commitment.  Members are expected to stay until they day they die.
  8. Members' lives are controlled or directed, often down to whom they can marry (always within the group, of course).
  9. Paranoid feelings of persecution.  Belief that the world or media is conspiring against them.
  10. Hysterical reactions to criticism, including personal attacks on critics to try to discredit them.
  11. A peculiar way of talking, using specialized language, often repeating special words or phrases.
  12. Members required or pressured to donate their assets to the group, often for the personal enrichment of the leader(s).

Most cults are actually extremely similar; only the core beliefs are different.  For example, on one page I compare three different cults to show that they have a lot in common.

Other useful lists of cult characteristics include the Bonewits list and the Cult Checklist.

Not all cults are religious

Lots of cults are religious (e.g., Christian, Hindu, Buddhist), but not all are.  Aesthetic Realism is one such example.  The AR beliefs are centered around philosophy and psychology, not religion.  The Cult Information Centre of London broadly classes cults into two groups, religious cults and therapy cults, and Aesthetic Realism is clearly the therapy flavor.

Communal living is common, but not standard

Communal living is common among cults, but it's not a defining aspect.  One of the most famous communal cults was the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas.  A lesser-known one was Zendik, whose farm I once visited.  Aesthetic Realism doesn't currently do communal living, but in the past, thirteen of them lived together.  Single AR people generally have AR roommates.

Mind control techniques(aka "brainwashing")

People aren't likely to become fanatical devotees who sever ties with their families unless they're being manipulated psychologically.  That manipulation is called mind control or brainwashing.  A common misconception is that it works only on desperate or dumb people.  The truth is, it can work on anyone, even highly intelligent people.  I know, that's hard to believe.  You think it could never happen to you.  Well, most members of cults thought the same thing.  Decades of psychological research show that we are way more vulnerable to manipulation than we think we are.

What can make it less likely for you to get brainwashed is to understand how it's done.  Then, if someone starts trying to do it to you, you've got a chance of recognizing the methods and rejecting them.  The main method is:

  1. Offer you something that you want (e.g., the answer to the meaning of life, ending alcoholism, fabulous wealth).  I'll call this "the prize".
  2. Slowly pressure you to adopt the group's beliefs and become more involved.
  3. Whenever you resist, suggest that you're not ready for the prize, or you're never gonna get the prize with an attitude like that.  You get sucked in deeper because they're leveraging your desire to get something they know you want.

I have a whole article explaining this method in detail.

That's certainly not the only mind control technique, there are many others.  Another one that Aesthetic Realism is particularly fond of is directed origination.

Various psychologists have made good lists of mind control techniques.  Below I list those techniques from each list that are especially relevant to my cult, Aesthetic Realism.

The Lifton model

  • Demand for Purity. The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection.  The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.
  • Sacred Science.  The group's doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute.  Truth is not to be found outside the group.  The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.
  • Doctrine over person.  Member's personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.
  • Dispensing of existence.  The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not.  This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group's ideology.  If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members.  Thus, the outside world loses all credibility.  In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also.

Phinn Web

  • REJECTION OF OLD VALUES: Accelerating acceptance of new lifestyle by constantly denouncing former beliefs and value.
  • CONFESSION: Encouraging the destruction of individual ego through confession of personal weaknesses and innermost feelings of doubt.
  • FINGER POINTING: Creating a false sense of righteousness by pointing to the shortcomings of the outside world.
  • ISOLATION: Inducing loss of reality by physical separation from family, friends, society and rational references.
  • NO QUESTIONS.  Accomplishing automatic acceptance of beliefs by discouraging questions.
  • GUILT.  Reinforcing the need for 'salvation' by exaggerating the sins of the former lifestyles.
  • CRITICISM AND SELF-CRITICISM.  The subjects are supposed to feel uncertain; under the constant threat of being humiliated and despised.

Steve Hassan's BITE model

  • Need to ask permission for major decisions
  • Need to report thoughts, feelings and activities to superiors [in AR, that's "consultants"]
  • Individualism discouraged; group think prevails
  • Access to information critical of the cult and to former members is discouraged or disallowed
  • Pairing up with "buddy" system to monitor and control
  • Reporting deviant thoughts, feelings, and actions to leadership
  • Need to internalize the group's doctrine as "Truth"
  • Us vs. Them (inside vs. outside)
  • Adopt "loaded" language (characterized by "thought-terminating clichés"). Words are the tools we use to think with. These "special" words constrict rather than expand understanding. They function to reduce complexities of experience into trite, platitudinous "buzz words". [e.g., "contempt", "being completely fair"]
  • No critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy seen as legitimate
  • Make the person feel like if there are ever any problems it is always their fault, never the leader's or the group's.
  • Excessive use of guilt
  • Fear of leaving the group or being shunned by group
  • Phobia indoctrination : programming of irrational fears of ever leaving the group or even questioning the leader's authority. The person under mind control cannot visualize a positive, fulfilled future without being in the group.
  • Never a legitimate reason to leave. From the group's perspective, people who leave are: "weak;" "undisciplined;" "unspiritual;" "worldly." [Or in AR, "selfish and full of contempt"]

Incidentally, my 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, they're simply accused of having contempt for AR or Eli Siegel.  And since everyone believes that contempt must be purged, they're convinced that they 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.

Now that you know what a cult is, see how Aesthetic Realism fits the definition.

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...

Yet more people who say
Aesthetic Realism is a cult

  • Rabbi Steven Greenberg, in his book Wrestling with God and Men, referred to AR as "the once popular cult of Eli Siegel". (PDFp. 293)
  • New York Songlines says AR is "a kind of philosophical cult".
  • Shaun Aisbitt, who writes, "I accidently met two [AR] members while having a quick snack on a hot day in Central Park, New York. Their talk, mannerisms and deceptive attempts to get me to come on over led me to check out their group. Aesthetic Realism followers hold to a thinly disguised form of Taoism with teachings that opposites are dependent on each other like Ying-Yang, good & evil, male & female.  The group is based in lower Manhattan and members display all signs of cultic mind manipulation (persecution complex, loading the language or 'inside terminology', cutting off the 'old life', shunning former members, unable to accept simplest questioning of / or criticism that may appear to go against their beliefs, deceptive recruiting practices)." (source)

James Bready of the Baltimore Evening Sun made reference to the cult idea in a 1982 article:

There are always belittlers, who speak of Siegel as a Village guru and call his followers a cult.

Of course, I think if this website were around in 1982, Bready would have concluded that AR's critics amount to more than "belittlers". :)

A reader writes...

Hello, I have never been involved with AR or any cult, but I wanted to send you a note responding to your site. I was made curious about the organization in the early 1990s when I had a job as a photographer's assistant in the building next door to AR's headquarters. I remember that something about the look of the building and the "literature" and posters displayed made me suspicious (I never did enter the place). Maybe my upbringing in Los Angeles around that other so-called "non-cult," Scientology, spurred both my curiosity and my suspicions. I can't remember what kind of research I did at the time, but somehow the anti-homosexual nature of the cult was revealed to me, and I began to tell people what I had discovered to be the truth behind that mysterious SoHo building masquerading as some kind of arts-related organization (as a student of both philosophy and poetry, I was particularly offended by the misappropriation of these pursuits....) After the passage of many years and a move to Brooklyn, I had forgotten all about AR -- until I found myself working the table of a small press I'm involved with at the International Small Press Fair in midtown Manhattan late in 2004. The AR people also had a table, right across from ours. They were hawking their new book that claims AR holds the answer to beating racism. (!) I spent the entire two-day fair stealthily checking them out, trying to figure out whether these were the hateful people I imagined — I also started telling my friends again about what I had once learned about AR's dirty secret. But I kept disclaiming my statements, saying "I'm not sure about this, but somehow I have the idea that this is basically a disguised anti-gay cult."  Since I didn't want to spread rumors, I decided to do a little research and hit upon your site. I just wanted to write you a note so you will know that a site like this can be interesting and valuable even to those of us who have never been involved in a cult. I see it as a matter of personal duty to discredit groups that spread false science and fuzzy logic. Thanks for putting up such a nice site, and I hope that it continues to help and inform. — Jan. 16, 2005

The best bits:  Cult aspects of ARDream to NightmareA journalist infiltratesAll the articles

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