Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy founded by the American poet and critic Eli Siegel in 1941.
In Siegel’s critical theory of art, a good poem is both logical and passionate at once. Logic embodies order while passion accentuates freedom. His studies led him to conclude that any successful work of art or music combines essential dualities. In the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism, Siegel developed this concept, writing that the arts and sciences all give evidence that reality has an aesthetic nature. He envisioned the world sharing the quality of construction characteristic to good poems; it too, is composed of opposites. In Siegel's eyes, freedom at one with order could be seen in an electron, a tree, or the solar system. Siegel also asked, "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?"
This idea led to Siegel's primary belief, that the world "can be liked honestly." Further, a core teaching of Aesthetic Realism is that it is “every person's deepest desire to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.”
But Siegel recognized another competing desire which drives humans away from such an appreciation—the desire to have contempt for the world and what is in it, in order to make oneself feel more important. Siegel argued that when a person seeks self-esteem through contempt—"the addition to self through the lessening of something else"—he or she is unjust to people and things. Contempt, the philosophy maintains, may seem like a triumph, but ultimately results in self-dislike and mental distress, and lessens the capacity of one's mind to perceive and feel in the fullest manner. Siegel held that, in the extreme, contempt causes insanity.
Aesthetic Realism attests that one’s attitude to the world governs how all of life's components are seen: a friend, a spouse, a lover, a book, food, people of another skin tone. Accordingly, Aesthetic Realism argues, individuals have an ethical obligation to give full value to things and people, not devalue them in order to make oneself seem more important. Aesthetic Realism states that the conscious intention to be fair to the world and people is not only an ethical obligation, but the means of liking oneself.
The philosophy identifies contempt as the underlying cause of broader social problems as well: societal evils like racism and war arise from contempt for “human beings placed differently from ourselves” in terms of race, economic status, or nationality. Siegel stated that for centuries ill will has been the predominant purpose in humanity’s economic activities. The philosophy asserts that humanity cannot overcome its biggest problems until people cease to feel that “the world’s failure or the failure of a[nother] person enhances one’s own life.” Siegel stated that until good will rather than contempt is at the center of economics and in the thoughts of people, “civilization has yet to begin.”
Aesthetic Realism states that the world and all that is in it can be seen poetically. Whatever one encounters—whether fortunate or unfortunate—one can be proud of how he or she sees it. Siegel explained 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…
Proponents of Aesthetic Realism see it as enabling people to make choices that enhance their lives. The proposition is that persons who know how to consciously make what Aesthetic Realists see as ethical decisions it will result in more self-respect as well as towards others: women towards men; children towards parents, parents toward children more; and people of diverse ethnicities toward those who do not share similar cultural backgrounds. Students of Aesthetic Realism also believe their study to have cured their eating disorders and stuttering. This is, according to Aesthetic Realism, because emotion itself is a "for and against of self shown through the body", meaning that emotion is preference, and preference can be accurate or inaccurate. Aesthetic Realists teach that people can learn to have preferences which are more deeply and truly exact, since likes and dislikes may be based on adequate knowledge or insufficient knowledge.
See also: Timeline of 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]
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)  (http://www.definitionpress.org/WHBT-Review-LJ.htm)
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 attempts to teach individuals 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."
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 Obie award winning 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 had changed from homosexuality. Three were interviewed on Jonathan Black's "Free Time" show (WNDT Channel 13, New York City: all three 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, transcripts of Aesthetic Realism lessons, and narratives describing how these men had become physically attracted to women rather than men.
In 1971 the foundation began Aesthetic Realism consultations, in which three of the authors of The H Persuasion and 9 other teachers, seen as qualified by Eli Siegel to teach the philosophy he founded, met privately with students to teach Aesthetic Realism in a three-on-one format in 50-minute sessions. 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 not 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 not known how many of those who profess having "changed" actually have remained exclusively heterosexual in either their sexual preferences or and behavior.
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 kind....it 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 criticism of their perception. The 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, finding the subject a distraction to their core mission of "education of the largest, most cultural kind." 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".
For many years most individuals who studied Aesthetic Realism wore lapel buttons, "Victim of the press," and held protests/vigils in front of the New York Times building weekly.
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 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 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 an effective means of opposing prejudice. 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 and written by teachers and students from a multicultural point of view explores the approach of Aesthetic Realism to 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."
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).”