What Art Really Is, and Why It Matters

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

Following is the edited text of remarks delivered at the Ayn Rand Centenary sponsored by The Objectivist Center on February 2, 2005, at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

It is both an honor and a pleasure to take part in this event to celebrate the life and work of the courageous and far-seeing woman from whom we have learned so much.

As other speakers will no doubt point out today, Ayn Rand's radical philosophical insights have exerted a remarkable influence on political and economic life here and abroad. Still largely unknown, however, are her profound insights into the nature of art and the role it plays in human life. Yet these have the potential to bring about a cultural transformation no less radical than the political and economic transformations in recent decades.

To set my claim in context, consider the following incidents reported in the press in the past month:

Trash collectors in Frankfurt, Germany, recently hauled away a pile of bright yellow sheets they thought were abandoned building material left on a city street. When the head of sanitation later read in the newspaper about an exhibition of public sculpture in progress, he realized that the heap removed by his men, and subsequently incinerated, was intended to be a work of art. "I didn't recognize it as art," he said. The trash collectors are now being subjected to monthly re-education sessions at the art school where the purported sculptor of the work was trained. The sessions are entitled "Check Your Art Sense."
Closer to home, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a rundown building was slated for demolition as part of the city's redevelopment program. When the head of that program was asked what he planned to do with the art on the side of the building, he replied, in effect, "what art?" Although he had often walked by it, he had never noticed a work of art there. After being informed of its existence, he remarked: "It just looks like a metal grid. I thought it was some kind of condensation pipes." According to the alleged experts consulted in the matter, however--experts ranging from the director of the Smithsonian Institution's "Save Outdoor Sculpture!" program to a professor of sculpture at Temple University--the piece (consisting of 35 galvanized steel bars) is not only a work of art but an important one, by "one of the top public sculpture artists of his time," as one authority put it.

These incidents and others equally absurd reveal the basic assumption of the contemporary artworld: Virtually anything can be art if a purported artist presents it as such.

Ayn Rand knew better. If she were alive today, she would no doubt admonish anyone holding such a view to "check your premises."

Who is ultimately to blame for a global culture in which a purported work of art can't be distinguished from a grid of condensation pipes or a pile of rubbish? Ayn Rand would have pointed to contemporary philosophers. And she would have been right. At root, it is their muddled thinking that we have to thank for such nonsense. Unwilling or unable to fulfill their primary task of analyzing, in objective terms, what art really is, today's philosophers of art have instead explicitly embraced the view that virtually anything can be art.

Common sense tells ordinary people otherwise. The two individuals cited earlier naturally assumed, if only subconsciously, that for something to be art, it should bear a recognizable similarity to the things that have customarily been regarded as art. To understand what art really is, therefore--as Rand wisely recommended--we need to consider what the term originally referred to. In this context, that means turning to what were originally called the fine arts; that is, to painting, sculpture, poetry, drama, fiction, music, and dance.

As Rand noted, the basic forms of artistic expression have existed in virtually every known culture--which suggested to her that they must meet a need rooted in human nature.

Of course, the difficult task--abandoned by most philosophers today--is to say what these diverse forms of expression have in common. Let me briefly distill four basic principles that Ayn Rand identified, which together can serve as sure-fire criteria for determining whether a given work is art.

As Ayn Rand emphasized, works of art convey ideas and feelings about things of personal importance--in ways that can be readily grasped, and can move us emotionally. The Chinese students in Tienanmen Square tacitly affirmed this principle when they bravely held aloft a replica they had made of our Statue of Liberty, a work of sculpture that represents to the world the ideal of America's free and open society. So, too, this principle has been affirmed by the generations of immigrants who have been moved by Emma Lazarus's poem inspired by the statue and the values it represents.

Art, Ayn Rand rightly understood, serves a deep human need. In everything we do, we humans must be guided by the ideas we have formed about the world, and by the values we hold. As she emphasized, such abstractions lack the clarity and immediacy of concrete sensory experience, however. Works of art can provide it. They embody our deeply held ideas and feelings in concrete perceptual form, so that we can grasp them with the emotional immediacy of direct experience.

That is why Rand's Atlas Shrugged has enabled readers the world over to grasp the destructive effects of statism and to appreciate the often heroic contribution made by businessmen and entrepreneurs in a free society, and why they have had a far greater impact than the theoretical treatises of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, great though those thinkers were. So, too, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was an incalculable force in the movement to end slavery. Both novels enable us not only to understand but to be moved by the realities involved. Like all art, they serve to integrate, clarify, and intensify our grasp of things that matter for us as human beings.

Ayn Rand was keenly aware that art can either support or undermine the values of a society, and that it can exercise a crucial formative influence on the young, in particular. And though she opposed government support of the arts, she would surely have agreed with the slogan of the National Endowment for the Arts: "A great nation deserves great art."

Setting aside the question of whether the federal government should be involved in the arts at all, therefore, let's take a moment to consider some recent grants awarded by the NEA, in light of the principles I've outlined.

Under the chairmanship of Dana Gioia (a poet and critic whose work I have admired) the NEA has been praised for such initiatives as its support for touring productions of Shakespeare. Such work is surely art, as are productions of Ibsen's Doll's House and Mozart's Magic Flute, or the work of first-class dance companies such as American Ballet Theatre, the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, and the Mark Morris Dance Group, all funded this year.

But what is one to make of other recent grant recipients, such as those in the category "Access to Artistic Excellence in the Visual Arts"? For example:

I could go on and on.

Do such projects qualify as art, we should ask--much less as great art? Would most American taxpayers even recognize them as art? I think not.

In time, I am certain, works such as these will be consigned to the trash bin of history, along with their underlying philosophical assumptions--much as the philosophy and practice of collectivism have largely been. And when that happens, the world will owe thanks to Ayn Rand for having helped us to understand what art really is, and why it matters.

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