Aesthetic Realism

Aesthetic Realism

Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy of aesthetics founded by the American poet and critic Eli Siegel in 1941. Its primary teachings are:

* Beauty in art is the making one of opposites, such as order and freedom, logic and passion, strength and grace.
* Everyone's deepest desire is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
* The desire to have contempt—that is, to lessen the meaning of things in order to see one's self as superior--causes unhappiness and even insanity.

Students of Aesthetic Realism say it encourages exactness, kindness, and creativity. They who promoted it as a way for gays and lesbians to stop being homosexual (1971 to 1990), and still view it as the answer to poverty and racism. They use the Aesthetic Realism principles to analyze and teach a wide variety of topics, including classes in poetry, anthropology, art, music, and marriage. The philosophy is taught at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City.

Several critics allege that, while many of Siegel's ideas have merit, the Aesthetic Realists comprise a cult. Aesthetic Realism proponents say that their critics are attempting to smear a benevolent, scientific philosophy that is beneficial to humanity. []

Aesthetic Realism: the philosophy

Aesthetic Realism is based on the idea that reality, or the world, has a structure that is beautiful— like the structure of a successful poem or painting. Since reality, which can be defined as “everything that begins where your fingertips end," is made in a beautiful way it "can be liked honestly."

Siegel explains that beauty “is the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality.” A good poem, for instance, is both logical and passionate at once. Logic is order, passion accentuates freedom. So a good poem represents the structure of the world: freedom and order made one. Freedom at one with order is what we see in an electron, the solar system, a tree whose leaves are shaking in a summer breeze.

The reasoning is similar for other opposites. Walt Whitman explained (his 1855 preface to "Leaves of Grass") that a good poem arises the way an organic form arises: it is "one" thing with "many" details that serve one another. American philosophers like Emerson wrote of reality as "one" while it has "many" manifestations. Siegel asked that since a beautiful poem is "one and many", and reality is one and many, isn't this evidence too that reality is beautiful and can be liked the way we like a good poem?

A primary teaching of Aesthetic Realism is that it is every person's "greatest, deepest desire to like the world on an honest or accurate basis." But there is another desire opposing this--the desire to have contempt for the world and what is in it, for that makes one feel more important.

Since its beginnings in the 1920s Aesthetic Realism has said three things have to change for the world to be better. First is the contempt for “human beings placed differently from ourselves"—the contempt that causes racism and makes war attractive. Second, the ill will on which the ownership of land, industry, & commodities is based must change— enabling people 'to think that they are dealt with justly.' And third, the thoughts known only to oneself—in which one feels “the world’s failure or the failure of a person enhances one’s own life”—need to go for "good will rather than ill will" (“Civilization Begins,” The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, no. 229, 17 August 1977).

Aesthetic Realism believes that one’s attitude to the world governs how we see things—the way we see a friend, a spouse, a lover, a book, food, people of another skin tone. When we seek self-esteem through contempt—"the addition to self through lessening something else"—we have to be unjust to people and things. Instead of building up our self-approval we dislike ourselves. And we lessen the capacity of our own minds to perceive and feel in the fullest manner. In the extreme, contempt makes for insanity. That is why in everything one does, Aesthetic Realism says, he or she has the ethical obligation to give full value to things and people as the one means of liking oneself. To honor that obligation is the same as accuracy, mental well-being, and joy.

Aesthetic Realism and poetry

Aesthetic Realism states that the world and all that is in it can be seen poetically. Whatever we may meet--whether fortunate or unfortunate--we can be proud of how we see it. Siegel explains why poetry is needed for this: “Poetry, like life, states that the very self of a thing is its relations, its having-to-do with other things. Whatever is in the world, whatever person, has meaning because it has to do with the whole universe: immeasurable and crowded reality.”

Eli Siegel's 1924 poem "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana" begins,

::;Quiet and green was the grass of the field,::;The sky was whole in brightness,::;And O, a bird was flying, high, there in the sky,::;So gently, so carelessly and fairly…

Aesthetic Realism and preferences

Aesthetic Realism proponents see it as enabling persons to make choices that enhance their lives. The idea is that persons learn how to consciously make ethical decisions which result in more self-respect. Women respect men more [] ; children respect parents more, parents respect their children more [] ; and people of diverse ethnicities respect those who do not share similar cultural backgrounds. [] . Aesthetic Realism students also believe their study to have cured their eating disorders [] and stuttering. This is because emotion itself, Aesthetic Realism says, is a "for and against of self shown through the body"—that is, emotion is preference, and preference can be accurate or inaccurate. We can learn to have our preferences more deeply and truly exact. Likes and dislikes may be based on adequate knowledge or insufficient knowledge.


"See also: Timeline of Aesthetic Realism"

Predecessors to Aesthetic Realism

The beginning of Aesthetic Realism is seen in Siegel's 1922-1923 essays, "The Equality of Man" and "The Scientific Criticism", and his poetry, especially the poem "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana."

In the "Baltimore Sun" (2 February 1925) Siegel explained: "In "Hot Afternoons" I tried to take many things that are thought of usually as being far apart and foreign and to show, in a beautiful way, that they aren't so separate and that they do have a great deal to do with one another." The key concept of Aesthetic Realism—"The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites"—arises directly from this.

Beginning in 1938 Siegel taught poetry classes with the concepts of Aesthetic Realism as their basis. Students of Siegel asked him to give individual lessons in which they could learn to see their own lives in relation to poetry. These were the first Aesthetic Realism lessons (1941). "The method does things to people of a most discernible kind,"; wrote Siegel. "It has helped to organize lives." [Preface, "The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict"]

Early years

In 1942-3 Eli Siegel wrote "Self and World" explaining the philosophic basis of Aesthetic Realism. In 1944 his first series of philosophic lectures on the basis of Aesthetic Realism was given. In 1945 he completed "Definitions, and Comment" defining 134 terms needed for a philosophic outline of reality, including Existence, Change, Fixity, Freedom, Thought, Will, Wonder, Fear, Hope, Negation, Reality, and Relation.

In 1955 the Terrain Gallery was founded, and the Siegel Theory of Opposites--so termed by Siegel's students--was presented in the publication "Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?" by the Terrain.

By 1969 artists and students of music had formally extended the Siegel Theory of Opposites to include discussions of photography, acting, painting, printmaking, and music. "Aesthetic Realism: We Have Been There" by six working artists who write on their own craft was published. Wrote the "Library Journal": "Heraclitus, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and even Martin Buber have posited contraries and polarities in their philosophies. Siegel, however, seems to be the first to demonstrate that 'all beauty is the making one of the permanent opposites in reality'." (1 September 1969) [3] (

Aesthetic Realism's approach to racism

As early as 1923, when Eli Siegel was twenty-one, he wrote in his essay "The Equality of Man," published in the Modern Quarterly: "I wish very much to show the Equality of Man to be true. It is my business to go on showing it to be so."

Aesthetic Realism states that the opposition to racism lies in seeing the sameness and difference of people aesthetically. Historically, it says, race and ethnic differences have been used by people to have contempt for one another, and much pain has arisen from this. But Aesthetic Realism teaches a person to see the diversity of humanity in much the same way as notes in music--different from each other while also needing each other in their difference, and also as deeply the same because they have sound in common. In a lecture of 1951 on H.G. Wells "Outline of History", Eli Siegel stated: "While there is a force making things different, there is also a force making them the same. This is so everywhere, and it is part of aesthetic profound gratification to see it working."

Aesthetic Realism and homosexuality

As early as 1946, writer Sheldon Kranz stated that studying Aesthetic Realism changed his preference from homosexual to heterosexual by encouraging what he saw as a "more accurate way of seeing women, the world, and himself". After his first Aesthetic Realism lesson, he said, he never had sex with men again. In 1957 he married a fellow student of Aesthetic Realism, the actress Anne Fielding. She wrote that what she loved most about her husband was "his love for Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism". In the 1950s and 60s other students also said their sexuality had changed. Three were interviewed on Jonathan Black's "Free Time" show (WNDT Channel 13, New York City : all had married women who were also students of Aesthetic Realism. Five were interviewed on the "David Susskind Show" (1971); at least two of these students had similarly married Aesthetic Realism students, one of whom was described as a former lesbian. The Aesthetic Realism Foundation published a book, "The H Persuasion", containing the transcript of the Jonathan Black interview, personal statements, and transcripts of the sessions of Aesthetic Realism criticism which they said had converted their homosexual feelings into heterosexual ones.

In 1971 the foundation began "consultations," in which three advanced students called consultants met privately with a student to teach Aesthetic Realism in a three-on-one format. At first there were twelve consultants, three of whom— "Consultation with Three"—concerned themselves primarily with men who wished to "change from homosexuality" (see Timeline, 1971). Later three more instructors, "The Masculine Inquiry," joined them. In 1986 a second book, "The Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel and the Change from Homosexuality" was published by Aesthetic Realism's Definition Press.

In 1978 Aethetic Realism students purchased advertisements in major newspapers stating "we have changed from homosexuality through our study of the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel." ("New York Times Magazine", the "Washington Post," and the "Los Angeles Times"). The ads were signed by fifty men and women who said that they represented over 140. The ads characterised the means "by which we changed" as both "scientific and beautiful".

The idea that gay men and women could become heterosexual through the study of Aesthetic Realism ran counter to the growing consensus that considered homosexuality neither pathological nor amenable to change. Siegel asserted that "all homosexuality arises from contempt of the world, not liking it sufficiently" and that "this changes into contempt for women". He defined "contempt" as "the difference between what a thing deserves and what you give it." His method was based on the belief that a man could be educated, including through poetry and literature, in order to come to a "more complete perception of woman and the world--giving them what they deserved"--thereby becoming heterosexual ("The H Persuasion", 1971). Such choices, once made, were encouraged in consultations. Several of the Aesthetic Realism students who claimed to have overcome homosexuality married other Aesthetic Realism students. Siegel characterized his attitude as tolerant. One of the "Consultation with Three" wrote that Siegel did not "approve" of homosexuality, although he respected homosexual people. Men who have experienced this "change" wrote that "not liking the world sufficiently" was countered by the study of how to see the world fairly; and in seeing the world, and women, more fairly they began to have bodily responses to the opposite sex. Siegel did not explain why he believed that all homosexuals had an incomplete understanding of women, or in what ways he had validated his beliefs. A number of persons who studied Aesthetic Realism in order to change from homosexuality say they did not change. Furthermore, a number of persons who said they had changed later decided they had not changed, after all. It is impossible to know how many of the "changed" actually have exclusively heterosexual ideations and sex lives.

The members of Aesthetic Realism's "Consultation with Three" agreed that "homosexuals will probably find quite a lot that is offensive" in Aesthetic Realism's teachings. They also wrote: "The explanation was was more than that," in that it made them see the "biological disaster" of homosexuality as "a cultural lapse or an educational gap" instead - akin to biting one's nails, gambling excessively, or being depressed. Some gay men in the 1970s welcomed the promised possibility of change and welcomed criticising ways they saw the world. This use of this promised change in order to promote Aesthetic Realism, however, engendered adverse feeling toward the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in many, some of whom became vocal opponents. As a result, the Aesthetic Realism Foundation decided in 1990 to discontinue their public presentation of their belief that Aesthetic Realism was a means of change from homosexuality. No further classes or presentations of this subject have been given since that time, though Aesthetic Realism consultants continue to assert that “It is a fact that men and women have changed from homosexuality through study of Aesthetic Realism. Meanwhile, as is well known, there is now intense anger in America on the subject of homosexuality and how it is seen. Since this subject is by no means central to Aesthetic Realism, and since the Aesthetic Realism Foundation has not wanted to be involved in that atmosphere of anger, in 1990 the Foundation discontinued its public presentation of the fact that through Aesthetic Realism people have changed from homosexuality, and consultations to change from homosexuality are not being given. That is because we do not want this matter, which is certainly not fundamental to Aesthetic Realism, to be used to obscure what Aesthetic Realism truly is: education of the largest, most cultural kind." []

"Victim of the press"

The Aesthetic Realism Foundation regarded the lack of reporting about it as an intentional policy of the major media. For many years they wore lapel buttons that said "Victim of the press" and held protests in front of the New York Times building. In the mid-1990s they dropped the campaign.

Aesthetic Realism Foundation

The Aesthetic Realism Foundation is the school in New York City that teaches the Aesthetic Realism philosophy. It was founded by students of Eli Siegel in 1973. He visited the Aesthetic Realism Foundation only once--in 1978 shortly before his death, when he attended a public presentation there--preferring to continue teaching classes for its faculty from his home on Jane Street. Since Eli Siegel's death (by suicide) in 1978, Ellen Reiss has been its academic head and teaches these professional classes for consultants and those who wish to become consultants at the Foundation. Ellen Mali, a former executive director, has since left the school and become a critic. The executive director today, Margot Carpenter, is a poet and teacher of Aesthetic Realism.

A faculty of 46—only some of them approved consultants—now teach Aesthetic Realism to the general public through conducting classes, public programs and seminars, private consultations, and through the recorded lectures of Eli Siegel. Many of its faculty have blogs. It publishes books through Definition Press (other books about Aesthetic Realism have been published by Orange Angle Press and Waverly Place Press) and the biweekly journal "The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known", which has been published over 1600 issues since its beginnings in 1973. Classes in a variety of subjects are offered throughout the week and students may enroll for as many or few as they desire. There are also seminars and public presentations of Aesthetic Realism offered to the public on a regular basis as well as privately scheduled consultations for those who wish to study how Aesthetic Realism principles relate to their own individual lives. The faculty and those studying to teach on the faculty attend the professional classes conducted by Ellen Reiss twice a week, on Tuesday and Friday evenings.

The Foundation's Terrain Gallery was founded in 1955 by director Dorothy Koppelman to show contemporary art and to develop the understanding of beauty in the arts provided by the Siegel Theory of Opposites: "In reality opposites are one; art shows this." For its opening, the Terrain published Siegel's [ "Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?"] , subsequently reprinted in "The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism" and other sources both academic and otherwise. Artists from the 1950s on who exhibited at the Terrain included Larry Rivers, George Tooker, Rolph Scarlett, John von Wicht, Elaine de Kooning, Jim Dine, Roy Lichtenstein, Chaim Koppelman, Robert Blackburn, Astrid Fitzgerald. [] In public talks artists explored the validity of the Siegel Theory in diverse styles, periods, and media. Artists and critics began utilizing the theory in their work, including Ralph Hattersley, editor of the photography journal "Infinity"; Nat Herz, author of articles in "Modern Photography" and of the "Konica Pocket Handbook: An Introduction to Better Photography" (Universal Photo Books series. New York: Verlan Books, 1960); Chaim Koppelman, founder of the printmaking department at the School of Visual Arts, New York City; Anne Fielding, Obie Award winning actor; and Lou Bernstein, columnist for "Camera 35". "Aesthetic Realism We Have Been There" was published (1969) with essays in acting, photography, painting, and printmaking. For more recent developments see “Aesthetic Realism Scholarship” below.

Aesthetic Realism scholarship

Eli Siegel stated that art, the self, and the sciences have in common a structure of fundamental opposites--opposites which make for beauty.

Aesthetic Realism has been the basis for scholarly work in both the arts and sciences, including the work by anthropologist Arnold Perey, [ "Oksapmin Society and World View"] ; and by musicologist Edward Green whose paper, written with Perey, was published by the University of Graz in Austria's conference "Proceedings" [ "Aesthetic Realism: A New Foundation for Interdisciplinary Musicology"] . Papers were recently given at the International Society for Education through Art (InSEA) sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Social, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) describing the Siegel Theory of Opposites in relation to painting, world art, and art education. One paper focused on the way the study of art can be a more effective means of opposing prejudice than ever. This was published in the [ "Proceedings" of InSEA, titled "Aesthetic Realism, Art, and Anthropology: Or, Justice to People"] by Marcia Rackow and Perey.

The new anthology, "Aesthetic Realism and the Answer to Racism", edited by Alice Bernstein, written by teachers and students from a multicultural point of view explores how effective the Aesthetic Realism way of seeing people is in understanding and defeating racism. Marguerita Washington, publisher of the "Omaha Star", said of the book, "We can't have too much awareness of the inequality of the races. The approach of Aesthetic Realism is valid, exciting, and a benefit to the community."

Allegations of cult behavior

Aesthetic Realism supporters have responded to allegations of cult behavior in detail on the web site "Friends of Aesthetic Realism: Countering the Lies." [] They state that the technique of the people attempting to discredit Aesthetic Realism is “1) [to] find out what characteristics a cult is supposed to have, 2) then [to] say Aesthetic Realism has them (though of course it doesn’t).”


*Baird, Martha and Reiss, Ellen, eds. "The Williams-Siegel Documentary. Including Williams' Poetry Talked about by Eli Siegel, and William Carlos Williams Present and Talking: 1952." New York: Definition Press, 1970. ISBN 0-910492-12-3.
*Corsini, Raymond J. "Aesthetic Realism" in "Handbook of Innovative Psychotherapies." New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1981. ISBN 0-471-06229-4.
*Hartzok, Alanna. "Earth Rights Democracy: Land, Ethics, and Public Finance Policy," paper presented at the "Richard Alsina Fulton Conference on Sustainability and the Environment", 26-7 March 2004, Wilson College, Pennsylvania.
*Herz, Nat. "Konica Pocket Handbook: An Introduction to Better Photography" Universal Photo Books series. New York: Verlan Books, 1960.
*Kranz, Sheldon, ed. "The H Persuasion; How Persons Have Permanently Changed From Homosexuality Through the Study of Aesthetic Realism With Eli Siegel." New York: Definition Press, 1971. ISBN 0-910492-14-X
*Matson, Katinka. "Aesthetic Realism" in "The Psychology Today Omnibook of Personal Development." New York: William Morrow & Co., 1977. ISBN 0-688-03225-7.
*"Foes Accuse Teachers of Cult", "I threw out 15 years of my life,' says ex-follower", "Foundation Refutes 'Smear' Tactics", "The New York Post", 8 February 1998.
*"On a Website's Reprinting a 7-Year-Old Attack on Aesthetic Realism from that Bastion of Integrity, the New York Post" by Devorah Tarrow "in" Friends of Aesthetic Realism Countering The Lies, online.
*Nishikawa, Mary. "Organizing Information in a Corporate Intranet" in "Aggregated Proceedings for the Extreme Markup Languages Conferences (2001-2005)" (
*Parker, Carol. "Filmmaker Tackles Homelessness Issues," "Northport Journal", Huntington New York, 16 December 1999.
*Siegel, Eli. "Self and World: An Explanation of Aesthetic Realism." New York: Definition Press, 1981. ISBN 0-910492-28-X.
*Siegel, Eli. “Civilization Begins,” in "The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known," no. 229, 17 August 1977
*Siegel, Eli. "Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?" New York: Terrain Gallery, 1955; reprinted in the following periodicals: "Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism", December 1955; "Ante", 1964; "Hibbert Journal" (London), 1964.

External links

* [ Web site of Aesthetic Realism Foundation]
* [ The Terrain Gallery]
* [ “Friends of Aesthetic Realism--Countering the Lies”]
* [ "Aesthetic Realism: A New Foundation for Interdisciplinary Musicology" by Edward Green, Professor of Music] in the Proceedings of the Conference on Interdisciplinary Musicology (CIM04), Edited by R. Parncutt, A. Kessler & F. Zimmer, Graz/Austria, 15-18 April, 2004.
* [ Hattersley, Ralph. Review of Aesthetic Realism: We Have Been There—Six Artists on the Siegel Theory of Opposites by David Bernstein et al, Popular Photography, November, 1969.]
* [ "Aesthetic Realism and the Answer to Racism"] An anthology of writings by people of diverse ethnicities.

ites critical of Aesthetic Realism

* [ “Monumental Man--The controversial legacy of poet philosopher Eli Siegel] Melissa Goldman, "Jewish Times", August 22, 2003.
* [ "Aesthetic Unrealistic: Answer to Racism"] Review in the Greenwich Village Gazette.

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