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

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How Aesthetic Realism has been covered in the media

by Michael Bluejay • Last update: May 2023

Journalists:  If you're writing about AR, they will try to mislead you, and they'll probably be successful unless you read up on their obfuscations.  They've successfully duped multiple media outlets about their true positions.

References in the media about AR being a cult

Most of these references are old because AR has become increasingly irrelevant.  After their founder died in 1978 and they stopped offering their gay-cure program in 1990 (even though they still fervently believe it worked), the press hasn't been especially interested in them.

  • New York Times: "This is less a book than a collection of pietistic snippets by Believers." (review of AR's first gay cure book, Sept. 12, 1971)
  • New York Magazine: "[Aesthetic Realism is a] cult of messianic nothingness that hangs out somewhere in the Village." (1976, excerpt)  Also, in a private letter on NY Magazine letterhead, the Arts Editor called AR "a crackpot cult lodged in the woodwork down in Greenwich Village."
  • VICE:  "I joined NYC's most boring cult." (2013)
  • New York Native: "Aesthetic Realism is a cult...employing all the subtle and manipulative techniques of mind control used by such masters of the genre as the Moonies [and] the Scientologists.... Like all cults, Aesthetic Realism reduces the wonder and complexity of the world to a strict polarity of black-or-white reality. By cultivating an individual's sense of negative identity, the program weakens the ego enough to gain admittance and eventual control over a person's mind. Put most succinctly by a woman whose friend had made the change: 'I liked him when he was gay. At least then he was a person. Now he's just an Aesthetic Realist.'" ("The Victims of Aesthetic Realism", 1981, full article)
  • Harper's Magazine: "'Fair' is a word favored by the Aesthetic Realists, a.k.a. the Embattled Disciples of Eli Siegel and, in some of their incarnations, the Moonies of Poetry." ("The guru of Aesthetic Realism", April 1982, by Hugh Kenner; see excerpt)
  • Literary Times associate editor:  "[The Aesthetic Realists] should be considered liars.  I made my appraisal of Aesthetic Realism only after extensive thought, research, and field trips.  I could only conclude that as philosophy it is primitive and, as religion, worse than having none at all.  I sadly decided most people who think about aesthetics, ethics, or the cosmos do far better than the AR devotees or even the guru himself, assuming he believes in his system.  The absurdity of the movement is well illustrated by its propaganda." (Harry Smith, Associate Editor of Literary Times, in a letter to the editor in the Village Voice, Dec. 24, 1964, p. 4)
  • Psychology Today: "[T]oday cults are not limited to religious groups but include EST, Scientology, yoga cults, psychotherapy cults, and philosophy cults such as Aesthetic Realism." (July 19, 2014)
  • Virginian-Pilot: "[A] woman with a curious button on her chest sat down beside us. Her button read: 'Victim of the Press.'  She looked safe enough to ask questions. Some ruse. As she spoke of her cause, she began to emerge as, well, deranged. ... Clearly, she had memorized the tracts she was passing out....We looked at her blankly, as if she were across from us on a subway train." ("A media 'victim' meets the press", Teresa Annas, The Virginian-Pilot, June 30, 1991, p. G6)
  • New York Magazine: "The Aesthetic Realists: An oddball presence in SoHo for more than twenty years..." (by Tom Roston, Jan. 2, 1995, p. 27, link)
  • Commentary Magazine: "It reminds me of those screwball buttons an odd New York psychiatric cult used to send out, protesting the New York Times’s refusal to acknowledge them, insisting on 'Aesthetic Realism’s Right to Be Known.'" (by Stephen Hunter, Pulitzer-Prize winning writer, July/August 2009; link) 
  • Soho Weekly News.  Excellent long-form narrative about a reporter's experience in investigating the group, and how they tried to manipulate her from the beginning.  She doesn't come out and use the word "cult", but that's exactly what the piece describes.  It was a cover story, with the cover title being "Aesthetic Realism: Madness Meets the Media". (5/27/76, pp. 12-13, see scan; names of those who have left AR have been redacted) 
  • ICSA Today (International Journal of Cultic Studies): "Because I left, my parents [who are still in AR] cut me off.  The exception was in 1998 when critical statements I made about Aesthetic Realism were quoted in an article in The New York Post, and I received a five-page vitriolic letter, most likely written in committee, but over my parents' signatures.  The letter compared me to Brutus assassinating Julius Caesar, and to Benedict Arnold.  Today, if I pass former colleagues on the street, they look past me as if I do not exist." (by Ann Stamler, Ex-Member Editor, April 2012; link)
  • New York Blade: "Anti-Gay Cult Pulls Fast One....Until the mid-1990s, AR members wore buttons that read 'Victims of the Press.' Feelings of persecution, intolerance of criticism, slavish devotion to a leader, a belief that only they know the one true path to enlightenment—these are distinguishing characteristics of a cult." (by Bill Schoell, Apr. 25, 2008, link)

References in books

  • Wrestling with God and Men: "In the early eighties a young man at Yeshiva University, troubled by his homosexual desires, came out to a religious studies teacher and was sent to Aesthetic Realism, the once popular philosophic cult of Eli Siegel, who had a theory for healing homosexuals. The therapy enforced his self-blame and made his situation worse. Six months later the young man attempted suicide and was sent home by the university, never to return." (2005, Steven Greenberg, p. 293, Amazon page)
  • American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War:  "In the early 1940s, Siegel moved from the social realism of people's poetry to his own philosophy, which he called 'Aesthetic Realism,' and in the process founded a cult promoting the bizarre cause of switching homosexuals to heterosexuals.  The conversions of the new group frequently came in the form of arranging marriages among Siegel's followers….  When Siegel committed suicide at the home of one of his followers in 1978, the Aesthetic Realists disputed the fact, bizarrely insisting that Siegel 'died of a broken heart' after fifty years of unjust neglect by the literary establishment."  (2012, Alan M. Wald, professor emeritus at U. of Mich. Ann Arbor, p. 284) 

Other references to AR being a cult in the media

Print media

  • Jewish Times: "I never believed it was a cult. I didn't see my parents for 15 years, and I thought nothing of it. I used to plan trips to go home, and all the cult members would get around you and talk you out of it."  "This is one of the characteristics of the organization that is cult-like -- you can't have reservations. Either it is the most important thing you have ever known and you have to devote your life to them, or you are an enemy."  (2003, full article)
  • Boston Globe: "Gay individuals and organizations trying to change anti- homosexual attitudes in society view Aesthetic Realism as a hostile and antagonistic fringe group.... New York psychotherapist Jack Doren, immediate past president of the National Assn. of Gay Psychologists, said: 'If they want to be a group helping people who have a preference not to be gay, fine, but they are very antagonistic. They are more of a cult than anything else. If they made the statements as theory, fine, but they make them as fact. They say homosexuality is based on antagonism to women, with its foundation as hatred toward Mother. That's not responsible . . . It's an archaic view.'"  ("Aesthetic Realism and Homosexuality" by Kay Longcope, April 18, 1981)
  • Albany Times Union: "Grant recipient alleged to be a cult." (2008; full article)
  • Village Voice: "Typically, you were excoriated in the public meetings if they didn't like what you were doing," he says. "Your decisions had to be made [on the basis of] what was best for the group." Mali says he was pressured to break up with his girlfriend, who wasn't part of the group, and to bypass college because everything he needed to know could be learned at the foundation. "My father is still in there, and he doesn't talk to me anymore because he thinks I betrayed the group, " Mali says....Steve Hassan, a former Moonie and the author of two books on controversial religious groups, describes Aesthetic Realism as a "psychotherapy cult." He has counseled eight former Aesthetic Realism students over the last two decades and says the foundation employs all the typical methods of undue influence: "The group was cutting people off from loved ones, regulating all aspects of behavior—their thoughts and feelings—and encouraging the idolization of Eli Siegel. (2008, full article)
  • Gay City News: "The Aesthetic Realism Foundation has attracted particular attention, partly because the group has long been viewed as a small cult and also because of its past claims that its members were able to change their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual." (2008, full article) 
  • New York Post: "Former followers of Aesthetic Realism brand it a "cult" that controlled their minds and manipulated every aspect of their lives -- from money to sex. They told The Post that their innermost feelings were scrutinized and condemned -- and that they were pushed to submit to the group's beliefs ultimately losing their free will. They said Aesthetic Realism leaders told them where they should live and with whom, what friends and relatives to talk to, and how to use their spare time -- all to ensure complete devotion to the group's beliefs and its charismatic founder, Eli Siegel." (1998, full article)
  • Wilmington Daily Star: "Among the offerings in my mail box was a pitch for a group in the form of a newsletter entitled The Right of Aesthetic Realism to be Known....It seemed to boil down to a diatribe against Katherine Graham and the Washington Post.  Seems The Post won't publish the columns submitted regularly by 'Aesthetic Realism'." (1981, full article)
  • The Globe and Mail:  "Pity the lot of the Aesthetic Realists, a New York-based group with fewer than 200 members who are mad at the New York Times because the Times, they claim, refuses to print a story that 123 homosexuals have changed (to heterosexuality) through Aesthetic Realism." (April 28, 1978, p. 8, excerpt)

Online media


I did a radio interview with OutQ on Sirius about the AR scandal covered by the Albany Times Union. (2008)

The only favorable treaments of AR that I could find


Excerpts from some articles

"Contempt causes insanity: The guru of aesthetic realism" (Harpers, April 1982, by Hugh Kenner)

"When rumor got out that [this article] had been scheduled, someone rang Harper's to ask if it would be 'fair'..... 'Fair' is a word favored by the Aesthetic Realists, a.k.a. the Embattled Disciples of Eli Siegel and, in some of their incarnations, the Moonies of Poetry. They also favor impersonal constructions, words like "large" and "good," boiler plate like "having-to-do-with." What they push isn't poetry, though poetry is part of it; they push Aesthetic Realism, the banner of a way to psychic wholeness taught by Eli Siegel for forty years. They will testify that he changed their lives, and they cannot get over it. A few months ago some of them rushed a talk show on homosexuality and gave Phil Donahue a hard time. (Are you whole and serene if you stay obsessed with your deliverance? Donahue was too flustered to ask.) ... Thus the title, Self and World, of a posthumous prose 'Explanation of Aesthetic Realism,' from which we (and the press) can at last learn what the press has been Unfair to. Not that we're allowed to forget the intensity of discipleship that pickets, flaunts buttons, and testifies in chorus. At the book's threshold you bang your head on an introductory note by Martha Baird Siegel, who says Self and World is 'the greatest book ever to have been written. If you think I am saying greater than the Bible or Shakespeare--yes, I am.' After that, you'll not be blamed for walking warily. ... Sentence by sentence [Siegel] can be sweetly credible, and you'll not miss what he's overlooking till you come up for reflection. ... The introductory note laments what [Siegel's] isolation may have cost us: 'He thought, for example, if he had been able to work with doctors, he could have found the cause of cancer.' I'm afraid he did think that."

"FYI Put those fears away, all citizens-to-be" (Robin Green, The Globe and Mail, Toronto, Ont.: Apr 28, 1978. p.8)

"Pity the lot of the Aesthetic Realists, a New York-based group with fewer than 200 members who are mad at the New York Times because the Times, they claim, refuses to print a story that 123 homosexuals have changed (to heterosexuality) through Aesthetic Realism. In fact, the AR people are so mad they've been bombarding the Times' city desk with more than 65 calls a day demanding that the story be run. Not just that - they have also taken to holding vigils in front of publisher C. L. Punch Sulzberger's home and those of other top Times officials, and to staging little protests in the Times news room. It's really quite funny, in a sad sort of way, a friend at the Times tells us. They come in a couple of times a week - three sorry-looking guys flanked by two women. The guys wear signs around their necks saying something like 'I used to be a homosexual but Eli Segal (founder of the AR movement) saved me.' At least they had an identity when they were gay; now they look as if they've been put through the laundry. The Times, we understand, is holding to its rise-above-it-all stance and has no plans to publish the story."

The New York Times' review of AR's first gay cure book (Sept. 12, 1971)

"This is less a book than a collection of pietistic snippets by Believers. There is no reason to believe or disbelieve these ex-homosexuals who claim that Eli Siegel put them on the straight and narrow by showing that homosexuality was unaesthetic and therefore contemptuous of life. By the aesthetic realization that Beauty lies in Opposites, they were cured. Nor is there reason to believe that anyone reading this volume would be moved, intrigued, or piqued enough to try the cure." (This is actually the full text of the review, not an excerpt.)

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

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©2004-2023 Michael Bluejay    moc.tluCkroYweN@rotide   Media/Interview requests • (512) 402-4364