New York's SoHo neighborhood has plenty of art galleries, and it certainly has plenty of crazy people. But an art-gallery cult? The Terrain Gallery, owned by a group called the Aesthetic Realism Foundation may well just be that.
Aesthetic Realism’s raison d'être is the worship of a poet named Eli Siegel who killed himself back in the 70s. The reason they're so into this guy is because he claimed to have discovered the "One True Answer" to societal ills. His panacea goes something like this: man has a desire to like the world while fostering an equal and opposing desire to have "contempt" for the world.
If you pay attention to Eli’s teachings one can, somehow, achieve something called "Aesthetic Reality." As you might imagine, the first person to achieve this feat was the man of the hour himself, Eli Siegel.
Eli Siegel saw mainstream success with his 1925 poem “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana.” He used his newfound celebrity status to his advantage by holding classes on his philosophies of life around New York City. Eventually his lectures became so popular that they were hosted at New York’s Steinway Hall. Lectures touched on every subject of academia, rejecting "conventional thought" for Eli's own crackpot theories.
Aesthetic Realism operates as an art gallery because they believe you are affected by art, as it puts together opposites that you are having trouble make amends with. Or something.
However, achieving "Aesthetic Reality" in an art gallery may not be as hunky-dory as it seems. An Aesthetic Realism defector named Michael Bluejay described the duties of group members to me thusly: being brainwashed out of any independent thought, being forced to marry inside the cult, denying oneself an education, converting from homosexuality (where applicable), spending large amounts of money on the cult, and, generally, being a giant prick to all nonmembers.
The "brainwashing" takes place during what is called a "consultation." A consultation is structured as a three-on-one format interview with three teachers and one consultee. According to Aesthetic Realism’s website, consultations are meant to answer “a person’s individual life questions… through the principles of Aesthetic Realism. People find that the matters which confuse them most are made sense of at last, with cultural width, immediacy, and satisfying logic.” Or, as critics like Michael Bluejay claim, "It’s a mind-control technique that ends with the cult’s full control over you life."
So pretty much you either become a brainwashed sheep or some sort of self-actualized guru with the answers to all of life’s questions.
Googling "Aesthetic Realism" yields a conflicting array of results. If you are using your parents' computer that doesn’t have Adblock, the two sponsored results at the top are Michael Bluejay's website, "Aesthetic Realism a cult?” and the antithesis of that, Counteringthelies.com.
Also, the Wikipedia article seems to have been hijacked by supporters, as many of the footnotes link back to the foundation’s website.
I don’t know what the hell to believe about these people, so I decided to check it out.
I called the number listed on their website and a soft spoken woman answered the phone. As it turned out I was in luck. She explained to me there was a meeting the very next day. On the schedule for the meeting was a book review, a recap of Eli Siegel’s teachings on interpersonal relations, and something called "the music scale." Not exactly my idea of a fun Saturday night, but nevertheless, I told her to expect me.
I walked through the storefront door with five minutes to spare before the presentation. The 50 or so attendees looked like the crowd from an Ourtime.com dinner party. Everyone was dressed to the nines and milling about the room talking among themselves. I was approached by a bald 60-something man who exuberantly welcomed me with hand outstretched.
“I hope I am not underdressed,” I told him. Being in my 20s, wearing a T-shirt and sneakers I stood out like a sore thumb. “Not at all! Welcome!”
I found the woman I had spoken to on the phone behind the desk. “Hi! It is nice to finally meet you,” she said to me, excitedly. After paying my tax deductible $10 charge and being given some literature on the night’s topics, I was ready for my first cult meeting.
The lights dimmed, two people stood up from the front row and walked on stage to lead Act I. They were introduced as an elementary school teacher and a university professor. They began with a few of Mr. Siegel’s jokes to warm up the crowd:
“What is the difference between England and capitalism?”
“What is that?” replied the professor playing the antagonist.
“There will always be an England.”
The crowd roared with laughter. This was the beginning of a long and boring two hours of which I nodded in and out of. The group covered Eli Siegel’s interpretation of the musical scale, a book discussion on one of Eli Siegel’s works, and the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company’s reenactment of a consultation Eli Siegel gave that ended up with the consultee bursting into tears upon realizing the greatness of Eli Siegel’s teachings.
The presentation concluded with a jab at “established musical thought” where the piano player banged at two keys on the piano. “It is the opposites in sound that make music beautiful! All the great composers used opposites. They just didn’t realize it! Thanks to Eli Siegel we now know what makes music work!”
Much to my relief the lights came on and everyone got up. The woman sitting to my right enthusiastically turned to me, “Wow! That lesson was so beautiful. I never realized there was that amount of complexity in the musical scale. Amazing. So profound.”
People said their goodbyes and started to file out. I mingled for a minute before being approached by a middle-aged woman in a gray suit. “How did you like today’s presentation?” “Loved it!” I responded. She followed this up with five minutes of gushing about the day's presentations. I interrupted her praise to ask how I could get more involved. “Well you have two options. You can take one of our classes. Do any of these topics interest you?” She put a piece of paper in front of me. The paper explained that the foundation gave regular classes on poetry, visual arts, drawing, teaching, anthropology, music, singing, acting, marriage, and special classes for kids. All classes are $60 a semester. “Or you can go for a consultation. I was about your age when I went for my first. It completely changed my life.” “Great!” I responded. “Let’s do that.”
I was introduced to the head of consultations, a woman in a fire-engine-red dress who looked like Gloria Steinem. “You are going to love the consultation, it will answer all of the questions you have in your life,” she said as she leaned in to me. “This is a very exciting moment in your life.”
She informed me they would arrange a personalized "consultation panel" and get back to me in a week.
The following week, I arrived for my consultation with five minutes to spare. The bottom floor of their complex in SoHo was eerily quiet, with the chairs still out from the meeting I'd attended. There was a woman behind the desk, who brusquely pointed me up a flight of wooden stairs.
The "consultation room" greets visitors with a photograph of Eli Siegel and displays of his books on a small portable shelf. If one could get over the idol worship part of the room, the rest of the place was pretty impressive. The bookshelves contained leather bound books, all of which “Mr. Siegel used to achieve Aesthetic Realism.”
I took a seat in one of the chairs, next to the only other person in the room, a fifty-something woman who was rummaging through her purse. When I told her this was my first consultation the woman almost lost her shit she was so pumped, “Wow, congratulations! This is so courageous of you. You will love it, this is a new beginning for you.” With occasional pauses followed by, “Wow, great, congratulations, I am so excited for you.” I asked how many this was for her. She chuckled, “I don’t know. Hundreds.”
Eventually, a short woman appeared, “Ryan McCarthy” she said as if it were a dentist's office. I followed her into a room with more bookshelves, with little cubicles set up around the floor space. I was escorted into one of the cubicles where I was greeted by three men sitting at a small table waiting for me.
My consultants were: Robert Murphy, a man with slicked back white hair who was by far the most enthusiastic member of the panel; Joseph Meglino, the Felix Unger of the group; and Dr. Arnold Perry, who looked like he would rather be somewhere else the entire time. All of them are married to other members of Aesethic Realism.
After a brief introduction, the consultants started peppering me with questions. “What do you have most against yourself?” They would go back to this question several times during the consultation. After 20 minutes it became obvious that my answers to the questions weere irrelevant, my problem was pre-diagnosed with a very unsurprising answer: I failed to see the opposites in my life as Mr. Siegel had. The consultation quickly moved away from me and became a 101 lesson in Aesthetic Realism’s beliefs and Eli Siegel’s book Self and World. As it turns out the only way I was going to be able to make one with these "opposites" was to keep coming back to consultations.
After my diagnosis was handed down I was assigned homework to keep a daily journal of everything that made me happy, and we said our goodbyes. I returned to the room of bookshelves where the overenthusiastic woman from earlier was just coming out of her consultation. She asked me how it went. “Great!” I sarcastically responded. “Amazing. I am so happy for you. This is a new beginning,” she said as she shook my hand with a death like grip. I received a recording of my consultation, and left into the world of opposing opposites that is SoHo.
A week later I received a call from Aesthetic Realism. I didn’t pick up, they didn’t leave a message.
That was the end of my involvement with Aesthetic Realism.
Despite the bizzaro nature of the place and its members—and this may just be the mild brainwashing talking—the teachings of Aesthetic Realism aren’t all that wrong. Trying to be at peace with contradictions in your life seems like a reasonable goal for all to pursue. However, what there is to get so excited about is beyond me.
For some cults that aren't nearly as boring: