What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand

by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi

Authors' Response to Full Context Review and Letters

The following response is reprinted, in slightly edited form, from a letter published in the November/December 2000 issue of Full Context. It comments both on the review by David Oyerly and on letters from Gary McGath and Roger Bissell about What Art Is in the September/October 2000 issue.

Full Context Review

We greatly appreciate David Oyerly's informative and perceptive review of What Art Is in the July/August 2000 issue of Full Context. Our brief response to a few of his objections follows:

First, we didn't state, nor do we think, that all poetry must rhyme. What we wrote was: "Most writers (ourselves included) agree that the defining attributes of poetry include meter and stanzaic organization--some add rhyme as well" (453, n. 47). We did not include ourselves among those "some." Second, Oyerly questioned our analysis of Rand's definition of the term "Romanticism." This term, as we noted, has become a catchword among Objectivists, who often use it in ways she herself did not. Contrary to Oyerly's implication, it wasn't just we, but Rand herself, who regarded Romanticism as a historical phenomenon. She wrote unequivocally (if not precisely accurately) that "Romanticism is a product of the nineteenth century" ("What Is Romanticism?" The Romantic Manifesto, 103). In this, she was following standard usage. See, for example, the entry in Webster's New International Dictionary, 2nd ed.:

As a critical term, romanticism generally denotes the principles, characteristics, or spirit of the . . . romantic movement, primarily in literature, for reasserting imagination and sentiment and emphasizing individualism in thought and expression as against the restrictive formality of classicism.

(In contrast with Rand, however, Webster's properly dates the origins of the movement to the late eighteenth century.) Something that is "a product of the nineteenth [or late eighteenth] century" is clearly inapplicable to earlier periods, though it may legitimately apply to later ones. Indeed, though Rand used the term Romantic regarding certain nineteenth- and twentieth-century works, she never applied it to earlier centuries.

Similarly, it wasn't we, but Rand, who wrote: "If . . . an artist holds the premise that man possesses the power of volition, it will lead his work to a value orientation (to Romanticism). If he holds . . . that man's fate is determined by forces beyond his control, it will lead to an anti-value orientation" ("The Psycho-Epistemology of Art," The Romantic Manifesto, 23). Referring to this passage, we wrote: "Rand argues as follows: If an artist believes that man possesses volition, his work will be value-oriented; this is the essence of Romanticism. If, on the other hand, an artist is a determinist, holding that human life is controlled by external forces, his work will have an 'anti-value' focus; Rand identifies this approach with Naturalism" (What Art Is, 31). In stating that such propositions were "confusing"-- and in noting that Rand stated, in the first of her fiction-writing lectures, that it " is inconceivable to have an art divorced from values"--we were not admitting to confusion on our part but, rather, pointing out a lack of clarity in her writing. Her use of vague terms such as "value-orientation" and "'anti-value orientation" regarding a literary work do not clearly convey her intention--which was that the characters in the work are engaged in the purposeful pursuit of values.

McGath Letter

In a letter in the September/October 2000 issue of Full Context, Gary McGath objects that our "Extension and Application of Rand's Theory" (Part II of What Art Is) devotes more attention to the abstract painter Mondrian than to Michelangelo and more to James Joyce than to Victor Hugo. The positive focus he recommends would have contributed far less of immediate relevance to today's critical and philosophic discourse about art, however, and would have done nothing to reverse the insanity of the contemporary artworld--which we explained in our Preface was the main motive for our writing What Art Is. Countless critics and philosophers have sung (and continue to sing) the praises of genuine artists and art works. Nonetheless, the theory and practice of art have been deteriorating for a century. In today's culture the surest way to defend what art is is to state, in no uncertain terms, what art isn't. The surest way to do this is to analyze a variety of works the artworld claims to be art and to show why the claim is mistaken --depressing though McGath, and we ourselves, may find that task. [See also McGath review of What Art Is and our response.]

Bissell Letter

In the same issue of Full Context, Roger Bissell claims that we have misunderstood what Rand meant by "re-creation of reality." In his view, our "essential error seems to be the equation of [Rand's concept] with the ancient doctrine of art as mimesis or 'imitation of nature, and the interpretation of the latter as the view that art [literally] represents nature/reality." He adds: "This might explain why some theorists claim that music cannot be a re-creation of reality." In so arguing, Bissell misinterprets what we did say, and then suggests that we should have said what we were, in fact, saying.

As we pointed out on page 28 of What Art Is, Rand's conception of the artist's selective re-creation of reality differs from Plato's notion that the artist merely "holds a mirror up to nature," and is instead comparable to Aristotle's concept of artistic mimesis ("imitation"). Whereas Plato had used the term "imitative arts" disparagingly, to suggest a slavish copying of nature (a pejorative connotation that regrettably persists in modern usage), Aristotle broadened and deepened the meaning. For him--much as in Rand's idea of "re-creation"--artistic mimesis was not a literal transcription of reality but a process of selecting and transforming (or "stylizing," as she put it) aspects of human experience and awareness so that the particular "likeness" produced would convey a more general, or "universal," significance. As we noted, Rand's term "selective re-creation" suggests more clearly than mimesis, however, the complexity of the process involved, and illuminates its purposeful nature.

We also noted that music has often been cited, mistakenly, as a cause for rejecting the idea that art is mimetic, or imitative ( 88). The source of this error, we argued, was to view music merely "in literary or visual terms--to regard it as 'telling a story' or as 'painting a picture' "--in other words, as representing reality, verbally or visually. We then went on to analyze the aural aspects of reality that music properly re-creates: most fundamentally, the tonal and rhythmic attributes of emotive expression and vital experience.

It is precisely because music does not represent visual or tactile reality that both Leonard Peikoff's and Bissell's use of the term "'microcosm' (world-in-miniature)" is inappropriate, in our view. To characterize the emotional or feeling states re-created by music as "a world in miniature" serves only to perpetuate the sort of mistaken notions Bissell is objecting to.

Full Context review

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