Aesthetic Realism is a cult

  Who they are, how they operate • Written by former members

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A tale of getting sucked in

“What was it about Aesthetic Realism that compelled me to waste over two years of my life?”

written by a former AR student, April 5, 2005

My Introduction to AR

Decades have passed since I last had any contact with the cult known as Aesthetic Realism. I have also tried to limit how much I've thought about it as well (it's pretty embarrassing, actually), except for the purpose of answering the question: "What was it about AR that compelled me to waste over two years of my life?" Actually, there were a lot of reasons. The initial two are fairly typical, I would guess. I was a very idealistic (okay, gullible) young college student who wasn't nearly as discerning as I've hopefully become. As such, I still believed in the possibility of there being a singular technique to achieve personal happiness. For me, there was something very appealing

"The other reason is that I knew two very sweet 'students' of AR -- sweet when they saw a possible recruit."

about a philosophy that promised to unify one's life in a way that imitated art. The other reason is that I knew two very sweet "students" of AR -- sweet when they saw a possible recruit. They acted pretty balanced and normal and kept the Eli Siegel idolatry at a low volume, in the beginning. Both were men, one stating that ES and AR "changed" him from being a homosexual. The other fellow wasn't gay, or "H" as it was called in the language of AR Speak. He seemed to be kind of rudderless before dropping anchor on AR, which was the answer to all his questions and longings. Rudderless would describe some of the students, but I think AR convinced many that they were without hope, meaning, or direction just to prime them for indoctrination. Sounds like a cult to me.

My first impression of these guys was that they were pleasant, and seemed to be learning a lot about art, poetry, and life in general. This appealed to me, but I still didn't commit to looking into it, until one of them lent me the book, Hot Afternoons Have Been In Montana, which is a compilation of Eli Siegel's poetry. I was pretty blown away by it. It IS wonderful poetry. That was when I decided to "wade" into the waters -- tepidly, like a priest into a strip club. I signed up for one of Chaim Koppleman's Saturday art classes. I liked him and respected his vast knowledge of art, so next came the Saturday presentations at the Terrain Gallery. I went no further than attending the class and the programs for about eight months. Actually 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. I was enjoying the Saturday classes and didn't buy into the whole "infallibility" of ES, so I didn't see any danger.

In Deeper

Those first months, all my new friends from the AR Foundation were unusually kind to me. [Ed. note: Therapists specializing in recovery from cults call this "Love Bombing".] I was invited to Thanksgiving dinner (where they gave thanks to Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism, no mention of pilgrims), Christmas parties (where they gave thanks to Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism, Jesus who?) and New Year's Eve celebrations (where they gave thanks to Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism for the previous year and for the coming one). I guess if I had been asked to give a brief description of my new friends, I would say they were gentle, studious, and oh so thankful. Little did I realize, that within a short time, I would cave in to their pressure to be outwardly expressive of a gratitude that I just didn't feel and they didn't deserve.

Consultations

After recruiting someone into AR, the goal is to get them into "consultations", their special brand of three-on-one therapy. How I wound up having consultations is pretty simple: They reeled me in like a brook trout. Within months of my first foray into the world of AR, my life was suddenly entangled with AR students. I went to school with them, took AR classes with them, and socialized with them. I was foolish to have not seen this coming, but maybe that's easy to say when looking back over so many years. In either case, guilt

"They reeled me in like a brook trout...They told me I was "not showing respect for this great education I was receiving" by continuing to avoid having consultations."

was introduced into the experience. They told me I was "not showing respect for this great education I was receiving" by continuing to avoid having consultations. I didn't want the exposure consultations would mean as I always kept my feelings pretty close to the vest. I didn't know these people well, nor did I have reason to trust them. Also, I didn't really think I had much to say. I remember going to confession as a young Catholic boy and watching the priest roll his eyes out of boredom. Still, with all my "friends" pushing, I buckled like a belt and went.

The first few consultations were pretty tame as my consultants gently explained how AR has answers to my particular issues. It was all pretty innocuous and they never really got as personally critical as some of the other consultation tag teams in all the time I took consultations. They did gradually apply more and more pressure on me to commit ever more of my life to Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism. Looking back, I think I thought more about them then I did about what they had to say to me. Their lives of singular devotion to Siegel seemed excessive. One of my consultants was Koppelman, a man whose art I did and still do admire greatly. There seemed to be a suppressed warmth about him, a warmth that was evident in his more unrestrained moments, before he would catch himself and retreat behind the false party line of AR. Another consultant of mine, who I shall not name, was heart wrenching in what seemed to be continual uneasiness. He was young and clearly afraid to say the wrong thing in front of his older colleges so he often simply rephrased what the others had just said (but still in AR Speak). I was sure he wasn't into AR, but being that many of his family members were students, he was in up to his neck. I liked him and, not surprisingly, he is no longer with AR. He's free.

In Up To My Neck

Within a year of my introduction to AR, I was taking Saturday classes, going to seminars and programs on Thursdays and Saturdays, having consultations that were of little help to me personally and always left me wondering about the hidden lives of these consultants (and they weren't inexpensive), and attending what was called "The Critical Inquiry" with Dorothy Koppelman, wife of Chaim. To varying degrees, all these AR folks were manipulative, but this woman really raised the bar. Of the few members of the AR hierarchy that I met (thankfully, I was a lowly consultee so I wasn't interacting much with

"I went to 6 or 7 of these critiques and never once heard a dissenting opinion."

the top dogs), this woman was incredibly cruel. The Critical Inquiry was simply a Sunday "class" in which artists (AR students or not) would bring in their paintings, drawings, etc. for a critical review. The format was pretty simple: work would be displayed, finished or in progress, and Koppelman (who is quite knowledgable about art and art history, as well as being a talented painter in her own right) would ask the artist to state his/her purpose for creating their work. She would either praise or criticize the work. This was followed by others in the class echoing her opinion. I went to 6 or 7 of these critiques and never once heard a dissenting opinion. AR students could always be counted on to fall into lockstep when one of the hierarchy expressed an opinion ("opinion" translates to: "truth"). When she praised a work, they all praised it. When she criticized something, they followed suit. So be it, but what sticks in my craw to this day is how she would publicly humiliate some of these people in a very personal way because of the "contempt for Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism" that was evident in their work. I saw a woman quietly sob because Koppelman laced into her about how she saw men (as evidenced in a small sculpture that this woman, to my mind, courageously displayed with the hope of understanding her art and herself). All the other zombies piled on and to my enduring shame, I didn't defend her. If the woman I'm speaking of is reading this and, by chance, recognizes herself in this remembrance, I am deeply, deeply sorry, for I knew better and should have spoken up. Incidentally, this woman never returned to the AR Foundation. So much for their deep kindness and compassion.

This wasn't the only time Koppelman displayed her fangs. During another Critical Inquiry, a gay male student of AR brought in a charcoal drawing of a female nude. Koppelman noted with horror that the female looked sort of muscular and manly and that this was evidence of the student's homosexual tendencies, which had supposedly been changed to heterosexuality through his study of AR. This was a sure sign of...you guessed it... his "contempt for ES and AR". (Why do they even need teachers, just play a tape loop continuously over a loudspeaker of the limited AR phrases.) Well, it never occurred to Ms. Koppelman that HE'S GAY! ALWAYS WAS! ALWAYS WILL BE! SIEGEL DIDN'T CHANGE HIM! IT'S NOT A CHARACTER FLAW! Being a woman who is unable to empathize with people who don't adhere to her narrow and inflexible beliefs...that's a character flaw. I never went back to her class after that display and frankly, don't want to waste any more time on her here, except to express my great gratitude to her for her helping to lift the veil from my eyes about AR, for she was the one who got the ball rolling for my exit.

What The Hell Am I Doing Here?

After the "education" I got from D.K., it seemed that clues were popping up everywhere. It was like going from a darkened room out into the bright sunlight. After a short time, your eyes begin to adjust until everything comes into clear focus. 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...". I went along with it for a short time just to get them off my back, but that just wasn't my style. I didn't like saying what I didn't feel, so I started to resist (Heck, we all learn a lot more from parents, former teachers, friends, colleges, etc. and aren't expected to walk around all day expressing gratitude and flogging ourselves for being ungrateful.) That's when the "criticism" would come raining down, intending to break my spirit. It didn't work, for I didn't think much of these people at that point, but I was starting to hate that I was one of them. You know the old saying: "Show me your friends and I'll tell you who you are". More often, I skipped classes, didn't schedule consultations, and rarely went to seminars and programs. I didn't buy the "perfection" of ES and AR and couldn't share the hostility to anyone who would dare question anything about either.

Getting Out

In the last couple of months or so my doubts about AR were being confirmed. One of the men who introduced me to AR was one of Siegel's homosexual "changelings" who wrote paper after paper and gave many, many lectures on

"He told me that he studied with Eli Siegel for around 6 years and that it's taken even more to get over it. His eyes started filling up."

his [supposedly] permanent change from homosexuality, his passionate marriage to a woman and how Eli Siegel "saved him". He was what was called a "consultant in training" which was the middle tier in the strict AR caste system. Then one day I saw him leering at a man's body and that just added to my growing belief that all the proclamations that came from the students of AR were completely hollow. Reading the Orwell novel 1984 illuminated a little light bulb in my head. I kept thinking, "My God! Is this about Aesthetic Realism?!"

Lastly, a very jarring experience came on a day that I was having lunch at a counter in a Soho coffee shop. Two men came in and noticing my silly "Victim of the Press" button, one said to me: "So Aesthetic Realism is still around? That's unfortunate." A year earlier, I would have dutifully proclaimed that he was "having contempt for the most beautiful knowledge and greatest man the world has known", but those days were long gone. I asked him why he felt that way. He looked at me and said that my even asking showed that I would "leave and be all right". He told me that he studied with Eli Siegel for around 6 years and that it's taken even more to get over it. His eyes started filling up. That was more true feeling than I saw in all the "grateful" students combined. For me, that was enough. I was out of there.

Aftermath

When I left I immediately felt as though a 200 lb. weight was taken from my shoulders. Two years of tension between my family and myself rapidly eased. My father was thrilled that I "got that spark back". Recovering my self confidence and ambition, I started my own successful business. I began speaking like a free thinking person again, not with the group speak that the ARealists use. I didn't monitor every thought and word. I didn't use the group facial expressions. When listening to a fellow member pour his/her heart out about his/her terrible life before Aesthetic Realism, it was very effective to tilt one's head to the side, lean forward a bit, and arch the eyebrows upward in a pained expression. If you've ever seen a teary eyed clown painted on velvet, you kind of get the picture.

Life seemed to have more ease, like running after taking off the ankle weights. I did try to contact the closer friends I had at AR to explain why I left and that I still cared about them, but none would speak to me. (I believe that ARealists are very afraid of former students because we introduce doubt.) That was fine, I just hoped that one day they would wake up too. One did, a woman who left AR many years later. She called to apologize for ignoring me. The ARealists lies' about former students' never finding happiness were the complete opposite of what happened to me. Unfortunately, it did take awhile for me to fully appreciate art and poetry again as I had become so conditioned to block my personal responses and merely see them through the narrow prism of Aesthetic Realist dogma. That too came, in time.

Conclusion

A few days ago, I was rearranging my bookshelves and came across some of my old Eli Siegel poetry books. I took some time to read some of the work that I haven't read in so many years. Boy, he was quite a poet and his masterwork: Self and World is a masterpiece of philosophical theory. This is one reason why some (including me) were attracted to Aesthetic Realism. Ironically, his massively harmful cult has done more to obscure the value of his work than reveal it. Their quest to totally dominate one's patterns of thought is the most terrifying aspect. Reading the poems got me to thinking about the people I had met at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation. Out of curiosity, I keyed them in a search engine and found their website and, more importantly, this one. I was so thrilled to read the stories by the former students and kept finding myself saying out loud, "YES! YES! THAT'S HOW IT WAS!" I could hardly sleep that night out of happiness for the existence of this site. I kept reading passages from the site to my wife long into the night. The portrayal of Ellen Reiss was spot on. With the suicide of Big Brother, she took over as Big Sister in every sense. I remember her as a cold, haughty, and elitist woman who reveled in her queen bee position and, as ruler of the cult that preaches continual criticism, is hypocritically self-exempted. Out of a sense of delayed justice, I felt driven to write my story. I now feel I can truly put it to rest. What do I hope will come of it? Hopefully, someone who has joined or is thinking of joining this group will use my words to really think critically about this cult. The poor souls who have been there for 30 plus years are probably lost, but not the newer ones. I wish there was the web, and this site, when I went through my ordeal. It would have saved me a lot of time and pain. Oh, and by the way, despite their evasions, one of the central pillars of this cult was the changing of homosexuals into heterosexuals. It was everywhere in their literature and presentations. I even remember, after I had already left, some of the "changed" students being on David Susskind. They had deep disdain for homosexuality and saw it as a cause of insanity. I also remember a publication from the early 70's in which Eli Siegel trumpets the death of capitalism (how's that going?). I also still own an old copy of the book: Self and World in which Siegel's wife declares the publication to be greater than the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. So now I'm finished thinking about Aesthetic Realism and it's time to get back to my wife, family, and my happiness.

 
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Former members describe Aesthetic Realism


Aesthetic Realism at a Glance

Name

The Aesthetic Realism Foundation

Founded

1941

Founder

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

Purpose

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.


Philosophy

The key to all social ills is for people to learn to like the world. Having contempt for the world leads to unhappiness and even insanity. (Their slogan is "Contempt causes insanity".) For example, homosexuality is a form of insanity caused by not liking the world sufficiently.

Also teaches that "beauty is the making one of opposites".

Location

New York City (SoHo)


Membership

About 106 (33 teachers, 44 training to be teachers, and 29 regular students). Has failed to grow appreciably even after 70 years of existence, and is currently shrinking.

All members call themselves "students", even the leaders/teachers. Advanced members who teach others are called "consultants".

Method of study

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


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
  • Odd, specialized language.

  • More about cult aspects...

 


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Open offer to debate

Since 2005 I've had an open offer to debate the Aesthetic Realists publicly in a formal format at any time to defend what I've said on this site, and to answer their own charges against me. But the AR people won't do it. Their excuse is, "He's not worth debating." But if that's true, then why did they put up a ninety-six page website to try to snipe at me and to try to rebut what I'm saying? I think the answer is that they're content to hide behind the cover of the Internet, but they know how bad they'd look in a live format where anyone actually got to ask any pointed questions.

You know what's really funny? Someone went to one of their public presentations, said he'd seen this site, and asked about the cult allegations. The AR person said, "It's very easy to say crap like that on the Internet and never have to be challenged." Oh, the irony is killing me!

Anyway, Aesthetic Realists, as for a public debate, I'm ready when you are. And to everyone else, when the AR people won't stand behind what they're saying, why should anyone take what they say seriously?

 

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' statements in their entirety

 


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Open offer to debate

Since 2005 I've had an open offer to debate the Aesthetic Realists publicly in a formal format at any time to defend what I've said on this site, and to answer their own charges against me. But the AR people won't do it. Their excuse is, "He's not worth debating." But if that's true, then why did they put up a ninety-six page website to try to snipe at me and to try to rebut what I'm saying? I think the answer is that they're content to hide behind the cover of the Internet, but they know how bad they'd look in a live format where anyone actually got to ask any pointed questions.

You know what's really funny? Someone went to one of their public presentations, said he'd seen this site, and asked about the cult allegations. The AR person said, "It's very easy to say crap like that on the Internet and never have to be challenged." Oh, the irony is killing me!

Anyway, Aesthetic Realists, as for a public debate, I'm ready when you are. And to everyone else, when the AR people won't stand behind what they're saying, why should anyone take what they say seriously?


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Photo of Eli Siegel's gravestone from Find A Grave