Aesthetic: concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty
Realism : the quality or fact of representing a person or thing in a way that is accurate ad true to life
Aesthetic Realism is a unique philosophy offering an alternative outlook on life. The movement was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 and concentrates on 3 main factors: firstly, to never gain a sense of contentment or glory within the world, secondly every person is to ‘like the world on an honest basis’ and finally the idea that beauty within art will gain you beauty within life, therefore uniting opposites.
At first one may perceive this philosophy as a happy, idealist concept; however, throughout its years the ‘cult-like formation’ has faced numerous accusations of mind control as well as holding some very controversial beliefs. When understanding Aesthetic Realism it is important to take note that the foundation of their ideas convey a great sense of intellect and culture, and therefore have inspired numerous artists; however, it is also clear that there is an issue when one reads into AR’s beliefs too literally.
As mentioned, a key belief within AR is that ‘ all problems stem from one's contempt for the world’; despite the innocence of this viewpoint, Aesthetic Realists take the idea one step further by stating that ‘contempt causes insanity’. Eli Siegel even thoroughly believed that contempt was the biggest sin and was the reason for all mental illnesses, his most controversial view being that homosexuality stemmed from contempt. This theory of contempt of happiness and peace stretched as far as this statement from their NY Times advertisement: ‘When the United Nations studies Aesthetic Realism there will not be war’.
However, over time light was shed on the cult's methods and their authoritative and controlling attitude over its members was exposed. It was slowly uncovered that the cult was able to exert enough power over its members that they used methods of mind control. Gradually members were pushed into marriages with other members and strongly encouraged to cut off all relations with family. The mind control would occur during consultations as Paul Grossman remarked ‘ Their technique is forceful in a subtle kind of way. They tap right into the negative side of your self-identity, all of them feeding off each other’. However their strict regulations have led to self destruction as the numbers of its present members dwindle dramatically after they discouraged members having children during the 1970s (as this would mean less time spent on AR and more focus on the kids).
The main principles of Aesthetic realism offer a safe idyllic philosophy for anyone looking for peace within themselves; however, their cult-like attitude has discouraged thousands of people as well as their crazy self-acclaimed remedies. They claimed to have a simple cure for racism: teaching people about AR, so they would learn how to like the world and then in turn lose their racist attitudes. However, despite their controversy within our time there are numerous key photographers who are inspired by the aesthetic realist principles including Henrike Purienne, from the artistic viewpoint that it allows one to utilise the idea of ‘beauty being found in the contrast of opposites’.