December 2016

Ayn Rand's Theory of Art

"Original" and "Inspiring" Says Academic Philosopher

by Louis Torres & Michelle Marder Kamhi

It has taken about half a century, but Ayn Rand (1905-1982) seems to have finally arrived as a bona fide philosopher of art. Despite the publication sixteen years ago of our book What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand and our article "Critical Neglect of Ayn Rand's Theory of Art" (in the then-nascent Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, now published by Penn State University Press), her theory of art has languished in relative obscurity in academic circles. Happily, that sorry state of affairs has begun to change.

The Romantic Manifesto--which contains Rand's four seminal essays on the nature of art--is among the recommended works on a reading list published in 2015 as part of a "Curriculum Diversification" project by the American Society for Aesthetics, the chief organization in the U.S. for philosophers of art. Though we've long been ASA members, our work on Rand's theory has fallen on deaf ears there. We were therefore both astonished and delighted to find her work recommended on the society's "What Is Art?" reading list--prepared by Simon Fokt [cv], who teaches at the University of Edinburgh. His fair-minded treatment of Rand reminds us that another British scholar, art historian and aesthetician Jonathan Vickery, was the only academic to have reviewed What Art Is. [correction]

Fokt's reading list comprises four units, the first of which, "Definitions of Art," cites The Romantic Manifesto. Rand's work is one of thirteen recommended readings--some by such eminent figures in the field as Susanne Langer (1895-1985), others by leading ASA philosophers, including Cynthia Freeland, whose But Is It Art? was less than favorably reviewed in Aristos by Louis Torres some years ago ("Judging a Book by Its Cover," May 2003).

Rand would no doubt have taken umbrage at being included as a "non-male author" on a list aimed, in large part, at "deconstructing the stereotype of philosophers as white males." (Two of the male authors on the list are cited as "non-white"; the others, for such reasons as having written "content focusing on historical diversity and criticising universalism.")

Such spurious "politically correct" reasoning aside, Fokt's comments on Rand's work are not only fair-minded, even admiring at times, but quite astute in important respects. Characterizing her as a "philosopher and writer" who "developed a philosophical system she called Objectivism," he credits her with presenting an "original definition of art." After quoting it ("art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments"), he notes that it "has seen little attention from analytic philosophers and the attention it received was rarely positive."

As Fokt further observes, Rand's definition is "definitely very problematic," because it "effectively excludes much of avant-garde art and likely all of architecture. Teaching it might thus be quite challenging." Yet he urges its inclusion "for the same reasons why Plato's or Kant's works are typically included in aesthetics syllabi: despite the fact that virtually everything they said has been challenged, we can still learn from them."

Most significantly, Fokt concludes:

Rand's text can be inspiring in two ways. Firstly, it can encourage a discussion on the status of the avant-garde and most abstract art forms--some students will likely share the sentiment that many such works are not art. Second, Rand's definition has clear normative undertones: it is not only about what art is, but about what art is for and what its purpose should be. It might be instructive to use her text to inspire a discussion on whether we should expect definitions of art to cover these points.

Regrettably, Fokt appears not to have known of our own work on Rand. It might have spared him some unfortunate lapses in his account. For example, he fails to note the ill-titled Romantic Manifesto's misleading subtitle, "A Philosophy of Literature," which appears on its title page but not on its cover; and he mistakes the book's Signet paperback edition publication date as 1962 (the original publication date of the earliest essays in the volume), instead of 1971 or 1975 (the date of the second revised edition, which we hope he consulted, as it includes "Art and Cognition," Rand's final essay on her theory). Nor does he indicate that only the first four essays in the volume deal with Rand's theory of art. Finally, he might have avoided the rather infelicitous statement that the "ultimate function of art" in Rand's view "is to make available fundamental values in life" (emphasis added). As we emphasized, her key statement regarding that function was this: "Art brings man's concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts."

Such lapses notwithstanding, Fokt merits praise for bringing Rand's work to the long-overdue attention of his fellow philosophers. Is it too much to hope that his recognition of her value may spur them to consider our own efforts to analyze and expand upon her theory of art?

Correction (July 20, 2017): What Art Is was also reviewed, very favorably, by Richard E. Palmer, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at MacMurray College, in Choice magazine.