Art Is Online
Supplement to What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (Open Court, 2000)
by Louis Torres & Michelle
Chapter 4 - "Art and Cognition"
Excerpt from What Art Is (pp. 60-61)
Rand begins her fourth and final essay on esthetics [in The Romantic Manifesto, hereafter TRM], "Art and Cognition,"
by asking this fundamental question:
What kind of objects may be properly classified as works of art? What are the valid forms of
art--and why these? [TRM, p. 45]
No issue of esthetics is more basic, of course--or has been more beclouded in the twentieth century. In her three
preceding essays, Rand did not deal with this question directly, though she clearly implied that by art she meant the
major categories traditionally designated as the fine arts, a term she did not use. In "Art and Cognition," she at last
offers a justification for this system of classification.
Before analyzing the principal branches of art, Rand restates the core of her esthetic theory:
Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments.
Man's profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires [and retains]
knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his
immediate perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man's
fundamental view of himself and of existence. [Ibid.]
Rand then differentiates the major branches of art according to "the specific . . . media they employ" and their
relationship to man's cognitive faculty. Literature re-creates reality through language and "deals with the field of
concepts"; painting employs color on a flat surface and "deals with the field of sight"; sculpture employs solid
materials, in three-dimensional form, and deals with "the combined fields of sight and touch"; and music, which
employs "sounds produced by the periodic vibrations of a sonorous body," deals with the field of hearing--it does not
re-create visual or tactile reality but rather "evokes man's sense-of-life emotions" [TRM, p. 46].
PAINTING AND SCULPTURE
Excerpt from What Art Is (pp. 66-67)
In contrast to literature, the visual arts convey abstract (conceptual) meaning through
directly perceptible physical entities; thus, both painting and sculpture "start with percepts
and integrate them [in]to concepts" [TRM, p. 47]. In other words, the painter or sculptor
creates visually and/or tactilely perceptible forms to convey, or concretize, an abstract
meaning. Rand's emphasis on the ultimately conceptual, integrative nature of painting and
sculpture is fundamental. She explains:
The visual arts do not deal with the sensory field of awareness as such,
but with the sensory field as perceived by a conceptual consciousness. The
sensory-perceptual awareness of an adult does not consist of mere sense data . . . , but of
automatized integrations that combine sense data with a vast context of conceptual
knowledge. [TRM, p. 47, emphasis in original]
Rand here implies that so-called abstract art is not art at all, since it reduces the visual field
to "mere sense data," in effect, by eliminating the representation of objects or entities.
Rand's stress on the fundamentally "conceptual" nature of art should not be viewed as
legitimizing the postmodernist phenomenon of "conceptual art," however, which we
discuss in Chapter 14.
Through the selectivity of the creative process, the visual artist forms an image that reveals
his conceptual focus. In everyday experience, individuals attend to and remember different
aspects of the innumerable entities in their range of perception. And what they remember
is not necessarily what is metaphysically most important. In place of their "countless
random impressions," the artist provides a "visual abstraction"--an integrated sum of the
aspects or details he has identified as significant [TRM, p. 48]. The apples in a still-life
painting, for example, may seem, at normal viewing distance, to possess a "heightened
reality"--although the illusory nature of that appearance may become evident on close
examination. The artist has isolated "the essential, distinguishing characteristics of apples"
and integrated them "into a single visual unit." He has performed the process of concept-formation in purely visual terms. The painter concretizes the idea of an apple (that is, of
apples in general)
by means of visual essentials, which most men have not focused on or
identified, but [which they] recognize at once. What they feel, in effect, is: "Yes, that's
how an apple looks to me!" In fact, no apple ever looked that way to them--only to the
selectively focused eye of an artist. But, psycho-epistemologically, their sense of
heightened reality is not an illusion: it comes from the greater clarity which the artist has
given to their mental image. The painting has integrated the sum of their countless random
impressions, and thus has brought order to the visual field of their experience. [TRM, pp.
. . . [T]he same process of visual abstraction is at work whether the subject is a simple still
life or a complex composition involving the human figure. . . .
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