What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand

Review: Full Context (July/August 2000)

by David Oyerly

What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi is one of those rare books that are so good that you don't want them to end. It's a masterly blend of Objectivism, history, and contemporary issues. It's tightly reasoned: concise and focused on essentials, precise without nit-picking over trivialities.

Perhaps the first thing one notices about What Art Is is its organization. The Introduction is broken up into eight sub-topics, and some of these are further broken down. For example, there's "What the Ordinary Person Thinks" which is further subdivided into "The Cartoonists," "The Journalists," and "Prime-Time Television." Like the Introduction, the chapters are clearly divided and subdivided. The authors move surely, step-by-step, and the reader is not lost in the kind of broad generalities or long chains of deductive reasoning that so fatally undercut Leonard Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.

This kind of subdividing is an absolute necessity for a field as vast as art. The book itself is basically in three parts. Part I is devoted to an exposition of Ayn Rand's theory of art. This part consists of seven chapters; the first four describe the essence of her art theory: "The Psycho-Epistemology of Art," "Philosophy and Sense of Life," "Art and Sense of Life," and "Art and Cognition." These four chapters are, in effect, the heart of the book. The authors have taken Ayn Rand's ideas and reworked them, re-expressed them and shown their importance. Torres and Kamhi present a clarified and re-invigorated view of Rand's theories that makes the reader rethink and re-appreciate what she has to say.

Part I continues with three chapters: "Music and Cognition," "The Definition of Art," and "Scientific Support for Rand's Theory." These round out her thinking on art. Philosophically, the chapter "Music and Cognition" is the most important. Here Torres and Kamhi make a sharp break with Rand's tentative theory of music. They argue that her idea that the pleasure of music comes from the process of integrating it "is as mistaken as if she were to argue that one's enjoyment of a novel depends more on an abstract appreciation of its intricacies of plot than on the particular nature of the characters and value-conflicts involved in the plot." And they disagree with Rand that musical tones are sensations and not percepts. If music is a matter of percepts then the concept of entity and the imitation of entities can be applied to it. Thus an objective theory of music, based on the same principles as the other arts, is possible.

While "Music and Cognition" may be the theoretically most important chapter, chapter seven, "Scientific Support for Rand's Theory," is the most exciting. Here we see art theory where it belongs: grounded and rooted in reality. The titles of the subchapters--"The Cognitive Psychology of Music" and "The Integrative Nature of Perception"--sound high-brow and tedious. They are not. The subchapter, "Neurological Case Studies" doesn't sound like an emotional subject, but its story of Rebecca, a severely retarded young woman, is deeply moving. She says: "'I come apart, I unravel, unless there's a design. . . . I must have meaning. . . . What I really love . . . is the theatre.'" (124) Here, as elsewhere, the authors focus on the real value of art, of how it can be so intensely personal.

The other two parts of What Art Is are Part II, "Extension and Application of Rand's Theory" and a very extensive and often fascinating section of notes. Both sections allow for a sharp distinction between the authors' ideas and those of Rand. In addition to simply being honest and respectful toward Rand, this distinction makes it easier for the reader to think and judge issues for himself. This is very useful whether the authors are agreeing with Rand on the nature of photography or disagreeing with her on architecture. The section of notes, in addition to referring to the authors' sources, allows them to digress, provide further information, and occasionally to disagree or correct Rand without intruding into the main text.

However, simply summing up What Art Is by a brief look at its organization fails to convey the excellence of the book. What is truly impressive is the breadth and integration of knowledge that Torres and Kamhi bring to their subject. I'm not easily impressed, but the number of the authors' sources, the variety of artistic subjects, and the time-span covered is far beyond anything else written in Objectivist literature. For one of many possible examples, on page 142, concerning the relative importance of form versus color, the authors refer to Ayn Rand on visual perception as the foundation of human cognition, refer to the art of Kandinsky and Mondrian, quote from the clinical neurologist Oliver Sacks, and finally finish by quoting Titian and Ingres. All this is done in a single paragraph, less than a page, with no showing off, no obscure jargon-slinging, but all strictly relevant to the subject. This is true scholarship, never trivial or distracting, but integrated and purposeful.

There's another impressive quality about What Art Is, and that's what might be called its fighting spirit. This is a subtle quality and it might even surprise some that I mention it. The authors are eminently fair and even-tempered. Their politeness reflects a real spirit of objectivity that seeks to understand rather than to disagree. One example of this is in their comment on Susanne Langer's theory of art (346) where they conclude with a sensitive and respectful sentence: "Her misplaced emphasis on the expressive' or feeling' content of art no doubt stemmed from her initial focus on music and her subsequent generalization from music to the other arts." But, while always maintaining a polite, seriously thoughtful manner, What Art Is is at least half a polemical work--an attack on the modern, avant-garde arts establishment. This is evident from the authors' first sentence: "Early in the twentieth century, for the first time in history, works purporting to be art were created that were not, in fact, art at all." Throughout the book Torres and Kamhi make it clear that the irrational avant-garde is the enemy; they're throwing down the gauntlet and not taking any prisoners. This is done with judicious, but firmly stated, descriptions: "theoretical baggage," "pretension to total originality," "obfuscating jargon," "absurd pretentiousness" are a few of the authors' forceful, but quite justified, expressions. They make it clear what their purpose is, and that they're not afraid to rock the boat.

A blunt characterization of irrationality, while refreshing to read, is only a minor aspect of the whole book. A major virtue is its objectivity. This is expressed in a variety of ways. My favorite is the authors' literalness, that is, their insistence on defining terms and then referring back to that definition. Foremost in their use of this technique is their repeated correction of references to abstract painting as being "pictorial" or a "picture." They refuse to let this use of the stolen concept slip by; an abstract is not a picture, that's what makes it an abstract. Another excellent use of insisting on definition is on page 399, where they demolish the description of "risk taking" and "total freedom" being applied to some abstract expressionists. "The idea of risk inevitably entails the possibility of failure--which, in turn, implies (as does discipline) an objective standard of value, thereby nullifying a condition of total freedom'." Whether it's defining drama and opera (444) or the nature of collaboration (437) or dance (277) the authors refuse to concede basic premises or to allow unfounded assumptions to be smuggled into an argument.

The refusal to accept emotional or mystical mumbo jumbo and the insistence on words making sense is a powerful tool. If a person cannot make sense, then we can emulate Torres and Kamhi when they respond to the confused sculptor, David Smith: "But why should anyone hope to understand Smith's work when he himself could not?"

While an exacting literalness is the mental attitude of What Art Is, it's thinking in principles that is the essence of the authors' rationality. For anyone who wants art to make sense or wants to rescue it from the irrationality to which it has sunk, therefore, this is a treasure trove of intellectual ammunition. Literally all of the book is about principles. In Chapter Six, Torres and Kamhi expose the institutional definition of art: "A work of art is an artifact of a kind created to be presented to an artworld public." The authors condemn this as "essentially circular and therefore vacuous, in spite of subsequent attempts . . . to invest it with meaning." (96) They follow this up by showing that this argument commits the fallacy of intellectual authoritarianism. The principle that art is universal is maintained in the chapter "Scientific Support for Rand's Theory." In regard to research on the biology of emotion, the authors refer to "universal patterns of emotional behavior." Further on, in regard to the human face in the visual arts, they quote: "Unlike the recondite content ascribed to abstract art . . . , they require no expert interpretation. . . . [S]uch features greatly contribute to the universality of works of art, enabling them to transcend the particular culture in which they were created." (123) One principle repeatedly illustrated is how the avant-garde artists--whether in music, dance, painting, sculpture, poetry or novels--want to have style without content. This is the artistic equivalent of the primacy of consciousness. They want to produce an emotional effect through style alone without having to appeal to the conceptual mind.

Torres and Kamhi don't belabor the principles they assert or illustrate. The book is swiftly paced and never bogs down into abstract haranguing. They make their point and move on. But they do reintroduce various principles in different contexts. Elitism, intellectual authoritarianism, arbitrariness, cognition, perception and various Objectivist principles or definitions are shown operating across art forms. The result is an integrated, cause-and-effect view of the history of art in the twentieth century.

As a final word on the objective, principled nature of this wonderful book, I would mention that the authors always keep in mind the objective nature of man. Emotions are not allowed to take the place of definitions or explanations. An example of this focus on man's nature is in the subchapter "Polling the People." Commenting on the popularity of landscape paintings with ordinary people (not the arts establishment), they write the following: "In our view, the value of solitude (and related states of being), cited or implied by many respondents, suggests a powerful motivation for being drawn into a peaceful landscape setting. . . . Such depictions of solitude in natural settings . . . appeal to viewers, in part, because one can project one's self into the scene and experience, vicariously, a psychological state that is profoundly necessary for the most private and deeply personal workings of the mind." (177-78)

I don't agree with the standard practice of reviews finding fault just in order to appear objective (or to appear as smart as the author). I do, however, have some disagreements with the authors. Some are relatively minor, such as their belief that poetry must rhyme. Rhyme is only one ethod of providing words with an emphatic sound effect, and it's never sufficient by itself but requires metre and a predictable rhyme scheme. In any case the nature of the language determines the kind of sound effects necessary for poetry.

Another minor disagreement is with the authors' defining the term "Romantic" solely as an historical period of art and not as a style or quality that can exist prior to or after that historical period. To define something in terms of an historical period begs the question of what quality emerged or was created so that a time period became recognized. It is the change in the art that defines the time period.

A more serious disagreement I have is with the authors' view that for Rand the essence of the Romantic artist is to be "value-oriented." (31) They admit to confusion because Rand also states that all art deals with values, so how can it be a defining characteristic of Romanticism? The answer is provided by the authors themselves on the next page when they give a different definition of Romanticism by Rand: "art based on the recognition of the principle that man possesses the faculty of volition." As they point out, this principle can only be concretized in narrative and dramatic literature, that is literature in which there is a plot. The nature and purpose of plot is to concretize freedom of choice. But to the degree that this is done, the purpose of plot, that of goal-directed action is undermined, and the story is unsatisfactory. It was not values as such that appealed to Rand, but the choosing and striving for values. (Her description of the various characters in her Introduction to Victor Hugo's Ninety-Three is a good example of this.) Rand's two favorite novelists, Dostoyevsky and Hugo, were both religious mystics, altruists, and socialists. It was not their values, but their dramatization, that she found inspiring.

The reason I go on about this subject is that it illustrates the completely non-didactic, non-utilitarian nature of art--of how art is for enjoying for its own sake, as a confirmation of how we feel (not think) about life and reality. This leads me to my biggest disagreement with at least one of the authors, Louis Torres, and his very thoughtful proposal that Rand's definition of art ("a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments") would be improved by changing "metaphysical value-judgments" to "fundamental values." The metaphysical nature of art, admittedly, sounds a bit pompous, but it is of profound significance. (It is the metaphysical value that lies behind, so to speak, the plot value, the explicit value conflicts of the characters.) It constitutes that spirit of a work to which people respond.

There are a number of arguments why "fundamental" cannot replace "metaphysical." First of all, fundamental is vague. Any avant-garde artist could arbitrarily claim it as his justification. The reason why he could is my second argument. Fundamental has no connection to the first part of the definition, "a selective re-creation of reality." The term metaphysical directly connects back to the term reality and ties the two halves together; similarily, "selective" and "value-judgments" complete this interconnected unity. How does one select?--by value-judgments. What kind of value-judgments?--those that are metaphysical. What is being selected?--reality. Fundamental simply does not fit into this definition. Everybody has fundamental values and everybody creates or can create a selection of reality. A plumber or a bricklayer selectively re-creates reality, and if his professional ability is his most important value, then is he an artist?

The authors base their book on the age-old art principle of mimesis or imitation, but this principle, by itself, proves of little use in their argument that neither architecture nor photography qualifies as a fine art. As excellent as their discussion is on these subjects, both could have been improved by noting the complete lack of expression of metaphysical values. There is never any greater significance to a building other than its being that building. A photograph is never a statement about reality, as such, but always a specfic, concrete selection of it.

The profundity of Rand's definition lies in the term metaphysical. It is the prefix, meta, that indicates that much more than a physical judgment is involved. I could speculate on what this meaning is but, in fact, Torres and Kamhi answer that themselves early in the book when they devote two chapters to Rand's concept of "sense of life." It is the artist's sense of life which selects and stylizes his re-creation of reality--which provides the meaning to the term metaphysical.

The above objections are not made with any intention of stealing any thunder from the authors. The fact is that their book is such an intellectual treat, so clear and rational, on a subject that's usually dealt with in such a confused and murky manner, that anyone reading it wants to participate. It sparks one's thinking--like reading Ayn Rand for the first time.

It would be an injustice to finish with negative criticism, so I will conclude by mentioning what I think are the book's two most enjoyable aspects. These might seem irrelevant, having little to do with its intellectual content, but I think they are the cause, the background, for the authors' truly brilliant philosophical work. In any case, they go a long way toward making the book a pleasure to read.

The first is the authors' respect for Ayn Rand. This is a real respect, not a dogmatic eulogizing or parroting of her ideas. Equally important is that they have none of the chip-on-the-shoulder resentment or casual condescension toward Rand that is also quite common. When the authors correct her they do so with a painstaking care and honesty. They're not trying to score points or show that they're just as smart as she is. The greater clarification of her ideas and of understanding art is their goal. Torres and Kamhi are top-notch independent thinkers who have a wealth of their own knowledge and ideas, and they're not afraid to give credit to Ayn Rand when it's due.

Yet, more important than respect for Ayn Rand is the authors' love of art. This is not an obvious quality, because they do not posture as art lovers nor indulge in their emotions. But an intense love for what art is and for what it can mean to people permeates their writing. It gives their book a highly personal quality which, combined with their rigorous insistence on principles and objectivity, reminds the reader that reason and emotion are intertwined and mutually reinforcing.

In the subchapter "Polling the People," Torres and Kamhi refer to a study that they describe as having "respect for ordinary people and an impatience with the arbitrary elitism of the artworld." From an interview, one of the men doing that study spoke of the ordinary person's genuine need "to talk about art. . . . Nobody ever asks them about art. . . . [T]hey were very passionate. . . . But they don't have the words." (174) With What Art Is, Torres and Kamhi provide those words.

David Oyerly is Contributing Editor of Full Context. This is a lightly edited version of the review that appeared in the July/August 2000 issue, and is reprinted by permission of The Objectivist Club of Michigan. (That issue also featured an intervew with Michelle Marder Kamhi. An interview with Louis Torres appeared in the October 1990 issue.)

Authors' response

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