What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand

by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi

Authors' Response to Gary McGath Review

While Gary McGath says he finds much of value in What Art Is, his assessment of the book as a whole is less than enthusiastic, mainly because he, like Kirsti Minsaas, finds our focus in Part II, "Extension and Application of Rand's Theory," too negative. Our analysis of spurious art forms, he suggests, "could have been given in a quarter as much space, leaving room for more inspiring topics." Such a view ignores the larger cultural context, however, without which we would not have been motivated to write a book on Rand's theory of art at all. And analyzing her concept of Romanticism in relation to the Romantic movement--as McGath suggests--might be an interesting critical project that many Objectivists would find of personal value; but it would be tangential to the question of what art is. Moreover, it would be unlikely to draw readers and critics with no prior interest in Rand's work into a consideration of the value of her theory of art. In this connection, it is worth noting the value placed on our debunking of spurious twentieth-century art by non-Objectivist reviewers in both Choice and the Midwest Book Review.

On Music

Regarding our view of the nature of music, McGath seems to misconstrue what we were, in fact, saying. As if to correct us, he states that "the emulation of vocal expression and movement are the means, not the subject, of a piece of music"--a proposition with which we could not agree more. "The first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is agitated music," he continues, "but it isn't a depiction of agitated music." In mistakenly inferring from our contention that music imitates "vocal expression and the sonic effects of emotionally charged movement" that we regard these as the subject matter of music, McGath misses the thrust of our entire chapter on music. Throughout we emphasize that the content of music is the emotional and feeling side of human experience. In that connection, we cite Susanne Langer on music as "the tonal analogue of emotive life" (80), and Anthony Storr's observation that the composer brings his deepest emotions into full "consciousness by converting them into those ordered structures of sound we call music." We note that "what the composer 'expresses' in music are 'his deep, permanent, significant emotions." We further state: "Since music consists of sounds, the only aspects of reality it can sensuously 're-create' are auditory in nature--although the meaning of music is far deeper and wider than that of mere 'sounds'" (88). [insert] And we clearly suggest that music does not, properly speaking, "depict" at all, for that term is appropriate only to visual and verbal representation.

On the main issue of what music deals with, then, we are in substantial agreement with McGath. We do not, as he claims, "miss the actual object of the abstraction" in music, for we hold, as he does, that it is a "progression of mental-emotional states." For that very reason, however, we do not share his view that music "creates a 'microcosm.'" As we argue in our letter to Full Context, the term microcosm--which implies a tactile, visual reality--cannot be properly applied to the mental-emotional states music deals with.

Finally, we should note that McGath neglected to note our debt to Roger Bissell's analysis of Rand's error regarding the nature of musical perception, which we acknowledged in What Art Is (366nn23,25).

On Public Implications

On our final chapter, "Public Implications"--which deals not only with art law and government funding but with foundation and corporate support of the arts and, most importantly, with arts education--McGath's only comment is to criticize our failure to focus on censuring all government involvement in the arts. To do so would have carried us into an entirely different realm of discourse from the subject of our book, however. Moreover, politicizing an issue too often obscures other, equally important considerations. (This has certainly been the case in the recent "culture wars," in which neoconservatives opposed to the postmodernist politicization of art have tended to champion the equally false alternative of modernism.) What we tried to show is that--regardless of one's political views or convictions-- many public programs and laws related to the arts are inconsistent and incoherent, absent an objective definition of what art is.

McGath argues that "[a]s Rand noted in 'Censorship: Local and Express,' the very fact of using 'artistic merit' as a legal criterion in obscenity cases gives the courts a lever for censorship." While that essay (in Philosophy: Who Needs It) indeed offers a forceful defense of freedom of expression, it does not answer all the questions raised by cases we dealt with. For example, does failure to provide government funding for a work constitute censorship? Does child pornography merit First Amendment protection? What voluntary standards should public institutions such as major museums ideally exercise? Does every form or content of "speech" protected by the First Amendment automatically merit a public forum? Though we value freedom of expression as strongly as anyone, we do not think the answers to such questions are obvious.

In any case, we find it both surprising and disturbing that McGath, among other readers, seems to ignore the extent to which the entire cultural establishment has been pervaded by avant-gardism. How can anyone who cares about the future and about the progress of culture fail to be concerned about such a phenomenon? Perhaps the problem is that among libertarians there is sometimes a tendency to think that the only real problems in society stem from government intervention.


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