What Art Is:
The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand

by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi

[Open Court, June 2000. See also Abstract.]

Chapter Summaries


Essential disparity between alleged new art forms that have proliferated since the early twentieth century and the art of all other eras and cultures; acceptance of such forms by scholars and critics, in contrast with the ordinary person's common-sense view; traditional meanings of the term art, which is understood by the ordinary person to mean the "fine arts"; public skepticism toward avant-garde work reflected in cartoons and in commentary by leading journalists, as well as in popular television programs such as 60 Minutes and Murphy Brown; the ubiquitous question, "But is it art?"; prevailing view among art historians and critics that anything is art if a reputed artist or expert says it is; need for a valid theory and definition of art; failure of contemporary philosophers to offer a clear account of the nature of art; Ayn Rand's theory briefly summarized as a striking alternative to the prevailing philosophic and critical viewpoints; status of Rand's work in contemporary culture; overview of the present study.


Chapter 1: "The Psycho-Epistemology of Art"

The first of Rand's four essays on esthetics (1966-1971) from The Romantic Manifesto: the primary purpose of art as nonutilitarian and psychological in nature; art defined by Rand; the cognitive function of art: to bring man's fundamental concepts and values "to the perceptual level of his consciousness" and allow him "to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts"; Rand's view of the creative process compared to Aristotle's understanding of mimesis in art; her view of art, religion, and philosophy contrasted with Hegel's; her linking of art and ethics and her analysis of Romanticism vs. Naturalism as reflecting her idiosyncratic focus on literature.

Chapter 2: "Philosophy and Sense of Life"

Rand's second essay on esthetics: sense of life defined as a "pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence"; emotional abstraction in the formation of one's sense of life; Rand's mistaken view that sense of life determines character.

Chapter 3: "Art and Sense of Life"

Rand's third essay on esthetics: the individual's sense of life as the governing factor in both the creation of art and the response to it; her view of the role of emotion in art contrasted with the views of other thinkers, such as Tolstoy and Langer; the significance of artistic selectivity; Rand's seemingly contradictory analysis of subject and style in relation to the meaning of art; the distinction between esthetic judgment and esthetic response.

Chapter 4: "Art and Cognition"

Rand's fourth and final essay on the nature of art (supplemented with material from other sources): the major art forms (literature, painting, sculpture, and music) determined by the media they employ in re-creating reality and their relation to perception and cognition; Rand's misleading emphasis on "entities"; her misquotation of Aristotle on the nature of literature; the basic principles of literature summarized; painting and sculpture as necessarily representational; the performing arts distinguished from the primary arts; the dependence of dance on music; the choreographer's role; shortcomings of Rand's idiosyncratic views on particular styles of dance; her analysis of the director's role; her view that the art of film is a subcategory of literature; why photography is not art; the essential thrust of "modern art" toward the disintegration of consciousness; the need for a definition of art. (See also Chapters 5, 9, 10, and 11.)

Chapter 5: Music and Cognition

A critique of Rand's analysis of music in relation to her theory of art: her thesis that the response to music is experienced "as if it reversed man's normal psycho-epistemological process"; technical errors in her analysis; her view of the emotional response to music as a function mainly of the listener's sense of life; the inappropriateness of her emphasis on the epistemological significance of music; how her theory of music can be reconciled with her view of art as a "selective re-creation of reality."

Chapter 6: The Definition of Art

Contemporary philosophers' rejection of definition by essentials; the "institutional" approach to "defining" art as exemplified by the work of George Dickie, Marcia Eaton, Richard Wollheim, and Stephen Davies; the nature and function of definition; the value of an "analytical," or essentialist, definition; classification by essentials as the necessary precondition of a useful definition; critique of Rand's analytical definition; proposed alternatives to the differentia of Rand's definition.

Chapter 7: Scientific Support for Rand's Theory

An overview of empirical and theoretical work in the sciences that supports the basic premises and conclusions of Rand's esthetic theory: including material from the fields of archeology, cognitive evolution, anthropology, ethnomusicology, cognitive and clinical psychology, and neurology; the work of Ellen Dissanayake, Oliver Sacks, Howard Gardner, Louis Sass, among others; the crucial significance of Sass's account of the essential similarity between both modernist and postmodernist art and the psychopathology of schizophrenia.


Chapter 8: The Myth of "Abstract Art"

"Abstract" (nonobjective) art as unique to the twentieth century; the false metaphysical and epistemological premises of the pioneers of abstract painting--Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian; their collectivist aspirations, subjectivism, anti-individualism, and counterfeit elitism; their persistent concern that abstract work would be perceived as mere "decoration"; the theoretical revisionism of Meyer Schapiro and Clement Greenberg; Abstract Expressionism; its spurious claim to be a meaningful expression of the individual artist; disparity between critical commentary and artistic intention regarding the work of three leading Abstract Expressionist painters--Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Barnett Newman; public controversy over Newman's Voice of Fire; artworld views contrasted with common-sense reaction of ordinary people to Newman's work; abstract sculpture as exemplified by the critically acclaimed work of David Smith; Komar and Melamid's People's Choice survey of public opinion on art as documenting the widespread rejection of abstract art and the popularity of landscape painting; similar findings by sociologist David Halle of art in the home; critic Roger Kimball's resort to ad hominem argument in reviewing Halle's book.

Chapter 9: Photography: An Invented "Art"

Rand's argument against photography as art, compared to the views of other theorists; similarities and differences between serious photography and art; the growing tendency to elevate all photography, even snapshots, to the status of art.

Chapter 10: Architecture: "Art" or "Design"?

Rand's fictional treatment of architecture in The Fountainhead; her contradictory statements in "Art and Cognition" on the status of architecture; why architecture is not art, according to her esthetic theory; the traditional classification of architecture apart from the imitative arts up to the mid-eighteenth century, including the abbé Batteux's treatise on the fine arts; why architecture was subsequently incorporated into the system of the fine arts; relationship between contemporary view of architecture as a fine art and acceptance of the notion of abstract sculpture; Roger Scruton's view of architecture as a species of design.

Chapter 11: Decorative Art and Craft

Contemporary blurring of distinction between fine art and decorative art or craft; Rand's view that objects of decorative art are essentially utilitarian in function and therefore distinct from the nonutilitarian "fine arts"; historical trend toward obliterating such a distinction, a trend stemming in part from the mistaken notion that the primary purpose of art is the creation of beauty; the nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts Movement; American Indian artifacts mistakenly elevated to "art"; quilts in feminist art history; distinction between art and craft implicit in the work of African tribal cultures; pretensions to "art" of contemporary craftsmen such as "furniture artist" Wendell Castle and "glass sculptor" Dale Chihuly.

Chapter 12: Avant-Garde Music and Dance

Music: rejection by "avant-garde" composers of the basis of music in the natural modes of human emotional expression through voice and movement; their ignorance or defiance of the requirements of musical perception; the phenomena of atonality and serialism, "noise music," "aleatory (chance) music," and minimalism; the anti-esthetic of John Cage; Cage's schizoid tendencies reflected in his work.
Dance: the work of Merce Cunningham as an extension of Cage's postmodernist anti-esthetic, differing only in its concern for technique; Cunningham's denial of dance's dependence on music; Rand's idea that dance is the "silent partner of music"; Cunningham's influence on "postmodernist dance"; growing tendency to regard any type of movement as dance; why ice dancing is not art.

Chapter 13: The Literary Arts and Film

Literature: Rand's satirical characterizations of the literary avant-garde in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged; the elaborately contrived inaccessibility of the fiction of James Joyce, who is critically acclaimed as a master of the English language; style as the substance of his work; the inflated critical reputation of Samuel Beckett; the hopelessness and meaninglessness of his work as a reflection of his own psychological dysfunction; the inscrutable postmodernist "poetry" of John Ashbery, who was inspired by John Cage.
Film: the essential literary basis of the art of film, contrary to the prevailing view that it is a primarily visual medium; Rand as Hollywood screenwriter in the 1930s and '40s; the primacy of the screenplay, and the fallacy of the auteur theory; Harrow Alley, Walter Brown Newman's as yet unproduced original screenplay of the 1960s--considered by some to be the greatest example of the genre.

Chapter 14: Postmodernism in the "Visual Arts"

Postmodernist phenomena in the "visual arts" as predicated on a series of false ideas about the nature of art; the pervasive influence of Marcel Duchamp; a critique of spurious postmodernist genres (from "pop art," "conceptual art," and "performance art" to "installation art" and "video art") and acclaimed postmodernist "artists," including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Cindy Sherman, and Bruce Nauman, Nam June Paik, Chuck Close, and Matthew Barney; the mistaken premises of leading postmodernist theorists such as Joseph Kosuth, Allan Kaprow, and Arthur Danto; postmodernism and photography; art and technology.

Chapter 15: Public Implications

Government subsidy of the arts: artworld influence on the National Endowment for the Arts, which serves as a dubious model for other government arts programs and for arts support by major private foundations; support of contemporary work that is not art; inherent bias of so-called peer-review panels.
Corporate support of the arts: growing trend toward support of "avant-garde" work; absurd claims regarding kinship between such artistic "innovation" and innovation in business; AT&T's sponsorship of John Cage exhibition.
Art law: plagued by inconsistencies and contradictions; the issue of First Amendment protection, and the distinction between art and pornography in the Cincinnati Mapplethorpe case; the Visual Artists Rights Acts; the need for an objective definition of art to guide legislators, lawyers, judges, and juries.
Teaching the Arts to Children: Rand's critique of "progressive" education as essentially anti-conceptual; the implicitly anti-conceptual thrust of the influential "Discipline-Based Art Education" (DBAE) approach promoted by the J. Paul Getty Trust's Education Institute for the Arts; its spurious definition of art; misuse of the arts to promote extra-artistic psychological and social goals (such as enhancing cognitive skills and self-esteem and fostering multiculturalism); Jacques Barzun's criticisms of this and other fallacies; shortcomings in the arts education component of the "Core Knowledge" Program promoted by scholar E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and of The Educated Child, by William J. Bennett and others; the authors' recommendations for a radically different approach to arts education.

Appendix A - New Forms of Art

A list of purported new art forms invented in the twentieth century.

Appendix B - Artworld Buzz Words

A sampler of the meaningless expressions of the arts establishment, employed mainly in discussions of work that is not, in fact, art.

Appendix C - The New York Times--"The Arts"

Headlines and quotations from reviews and articles, reflecting indiscriminate use of the term "arts."

© Copyright 2000 Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi

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