What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand

by Louis Torres & Michelle Marder Kamhi

Authors' Response to Navigator Review

Since What Art Is is a study in the philosophy of art, and therefore deals with all the arts, its ideal reviewer would probably be a philosopher--preferably one with a strong background in esthetic theory, in addition to a close acquaintance with all the art forms. Given the importance of assumptions about the nature of both emotion and the subconscious in Rand's theory of art, moreover, a strong familiarity with psychology and with the philosophy of mind would also be desirable. It was therefore disappointing that The Objectivist Center could find, on its ample roster of scholars interested in furthering Ayn Rand's ideas, only specialists in particular art forms--one in literature, the other in painting--to review the book for its journal, Navigator (October 2000).

Before we respond to particular points, we must note the major deficiency of coverage that resulted from this division of labor in Navigator's two-part review of What Art Is--a deficiency implicit in the titles of the parts: "The Role of Literature in Ayn Rand's Esthetics" (by Kirsti Minsaas, a research fellow in English literature at the University of Oslo) and "The Visual Arts in What Art Is" (by painter and art historian Joan Mitchell Blumenthal). The virtual exclusion of both music and dance--major arts to which we devote two full chapters, as well as important sections in other chapters--is most unfortunate. It is, we think, yet another sign of the skewed interest that has been exhibited by Objectivists in Rand's esthetics (an imbalance we noted in "Critical Neglect of Ayn Rand's Theory of Art"). More surprising, if no less disturbing, is the failure of either reviewer to consider our discussion of both the scientific support for Rand's theory and the theory's implications for issues of broad public concern (namely, for public support of the arts, arts education, and art law)--subjects that we would have expected to be of particular interest to Objectivists.

Ideally, a review should begin by identifying the book's intended purpose and offering an overview of its content, and then move on to judge whether the content adequately serves that purpose. Since Minsaas's comments assume the lead position in Navigator and thus purport to be the main part of the review, she ought to provide such information. Instead, after crediting us, perhaps somewhat perfunctorily, with providing a "stimulating and thought-provoking account of Rand's esthetic views," she comments only briefly (albeit mostly favorably) on the first part of the book, and then focuses mainly on her own field of interest, devoting more than three quarters of her review pointing to the book she wishes we had written, rather than assessing the book we did write.

Moreover, Minsaas's enthusiasm for certain aspects of Rand's literary esthetic--as well as her insufficient consideration of the other art forms--lead her into a series of errors. Championing Rand's emphasis on ethical values in art, for example, she faults us for dismissing Rand's ideas in this regard as irrelevant for a general theory of art. While Minsaas agrees with our contention that Rand's notion of art as a means of "ethical model-building" applies only to her concept of good literature, not to all literature, she judges that we should have devoted more attention to it. The subject of our book, however, was what art is, not what good art is. We deliberately chose not to deal with the latter issue, because it has too long dominated esthetic considerations, to the neglect of the more fundamental issue of the nature of art. Minsaas also mistakenly claims that Rand regarded art which depicts human depravity as "inferior, both morally and esthetically" (emphasis ours). Such a claim ignores Rand's express admiration for Dostoevsky's brilliance in this respect (see The Romantic Manifesto, pp. 43, 86-87, 88, 107, and 114).

Further, Minsaas questions our contention that the idea of art as a means of ethical model-building has little relevance for art forms other than literature. As evidence for her view that ethical principles may, in fact, be communicated through the visual arts or through music, she (not unexpectedly) cites no examples from actual works of art. Instead, she rather naively refers to Rand's comments on fictional works of sculpture in The Fountainhead and of music in Atlas Shrugged. Such fictional accounts prove nothing, however. They may merely reflect confusion on Rand's part regarding the nature of these art forms (as we suggest in relation to a crucial scene from Atlas Shrugged involving the composer Richard Halley, in What Art Is, p. 368, n. 40). In contending that "music can express heroic struggle and triumph," Minsaas gives great weight to Rand's fictional description of Halley's Fifth Concerto, but overlooks her explicit philosophic proposition (in "Art and Cognition") that, while a piece of music can convey a "a passionately dedicated struggle and triumph," the ethically crucial issue of "by whom and in the name of what, is for each individual listener to supply." Finally, contrary to Minsaas's charge, it is not up to us to seek examples to support a connection between ethical values and the non-literary arts. Since we maintain that there is no connection, the burden of proof is on those who assert that there is one.

A similar argument applies to the question of whether Rand's view of Romanticism is relevant to a general theory of art. Criticizing us for not substantiating our contention that it is irrelevant, Minsaas herself offers little evidence for her counterclaim that it is. She cites cites only the claim of Roger Bissell--an Objectivist who is a professional musician and a graduate student in psychology. He argues that (as Minsaas puts it) "music may express a purposeful progression of action, delineating a pattern of conflict and struggle that parallels plot in fiction." Music cannot parallel plot in fiction, however, if one accepts Rand's definition of plot as "a purposeful progression of logically connected events leading to the resolution of a climax." Here, again, Minsaas ignores what Rand says about the nature of music in "Art and Cognition" (quoted above). Also relevant here is Rand's further analysis of the relationship between the emotional states suggested by music and the values evoked in the listener. As we note in What Art Is (p. 81-82):

[Rand's] explanation is that, when "music induces an emotional state without external object, [the listener's] subconscious suggests an internal one." On a subconscious level, music evokes, as it were, a random, fragmented sequence of images, scenes, events, or experiences, which seems "to flow haphazardly, without direction, in brief, random snatches, merging, changing and vanishing, like the progression of a dream."

Rand's account, which can be readily verified through introspection, scarcely suggests that music parallels plot in fiction. In any case, Bissell does not limit his idea of plot-like direction to Romantic music. He seems to regard it as applicable to all music, or at least to all Western music. (We will be responding in greater detail to Bissell's view in the Spring 2003 issue of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.)

Regarding Romanticism in sculpture, we have argued that the sort of heroic qualities Rand attributes, in a fictional context, to Steven Mallory's sculpture in The Fountainhead could be applicable to works of art before the Romantic era. In this connection, Minsaas dismisses as merely our "claim" the idea that Romanticism is, as we stated in What Art Is (p. 32), "an historical phenomenon, a product of a unique set of forces in the Western world during the nineteenth century." In so doing, she not only omits our crucial phrase "as Rand herself emphasizes" at the end of that sentence but also ignores our note (p. 340, n. 50) quoting Rand's own claim ("What Is Romanticism?" The Romantic Manifesto, p. 103): "Romanticism is a product of the nineteenth century--a (largely subconscious) result of two great influences: Aristotelianism . . . and capitalism." These were inexcusable omissions on Minsaas's part.

Further, in charging that we fail to consider "Romantic" features of Rand's esthetic theory, Minsaas overlooks our citation of Stephen Cox's observations regarding the "unique combination" of Aristotelian and Romantic principles in Rand's literary theory (What Art Is, p. 63). In addition, both the ghost of Aristotle and Zen and African esthetic theorists would be surprised to learn that "the importance of organic unity in art" is a particularly Romantic notion--as Minsaas seems to imply.

Finally, Minsaas objects that our application of Rand's theory in Part II of What Art Is is too negative. Rand's theory, she argues, would have been better served by being explored "through art works that test its validity" (in other words, by genuine art) than through the spurious avant-garde work we focus on. As Karl Popper long ago pointed out in relation to the sciences, however, theories are best tested by the refutation of counterexamples. Minsaas further argues that Rand's theory would be more useful "in a campaign conducted, not against specious forms of literature, but for good literature," since one's response to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, for example, "will have more to do with one's personal sense of life than with one's esthetic convictions." Here Minsaas completely misses the main point of our discussion of avant-garde trends in the literary arts--which was to show that reputations such as Beckett's have been made by a critical establishment responding mainly to the unremittingly bleak sense of life conveyed by the work, rather than to any objective criteria of artistic excellence. And who has illuminated more clearly than Rand the role played by an individual's sense of life not only in his personal response to art but also, often unwittingly, in critical pronouncements that purport to be authoritatively objective? Moreover, as we expected, it is our critique of modernism and postmodernism that has attracted the most attention to What Art Is beyond Objectivist circles. Our primary goal was not to present Rand's theory of art for its own sake, or to aid readers in understanding the difference between good and bad art, but to expose the fraudulence of avant-garde work that has dominated the artworld for nearly a century, eclipsing much real art in the critical and economic marketplace.

Though Minsaas's piece is in the lead position in Navigator, the review by Joan Mitchell Blumenthal reflects a broader perspective. On the crucial issue of Rand's definition of art, she offers a fuller analysis of our discussion than Minsaas did--noting comparisons and contrasts with other theories, and indicating the relevance of our chapters explaining why photography, architecture, and crafts do not belong in the category of art Rand was concerned with. Further, in striking contrast to Minsaas, she fully appreciates the value of applying Rand's theory to an in-depth critique of avant-garde phenomena, both modernist and postmodernist. Given her own background and professional interests, Blumenthal is intimately--and, no doubt, painfully--aware of the bizarre course the artworld has taken, with far more extreme results in the realm of the visual and performing arts than in the field of literature. Our focus on the non-literary art forms was therefore due not to a "modest interest in literature" (as Minsaas infers) but to a concern for the greater threat to culture that is posed by the present degradation of the visual arts.

We must correct a few points in Blumenthal's account, however. Though she is quite right to observe that, "in the respects that count, the postmodernists do not differ from the pioneers of the avant garde" (as we ourselves argued), the Abstract Expressionists are generally regarded as among the last of the modernists--not as "postmodernists," with whom she groups them. In addition, Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word focused primarily on the theoretical and critical windbaggery on abstract painting--not (as Blumenthal suggests) on "so-called Conceptual Art," though he did offer a few scathing remarks on that subject in the closing pages. On our use of the term "abstract art," to which Blumenthal objects, we explained (p. 391, n. 1) that it is less than ideal--for the same reasons she notes. Yet we continue to think our use was justified by the term's wide cultural currency. Finally, on Blumenthal's "minor reservation" regarding our assessment of Harriet Frishmuth's The Vine--vis-à-vis a "classical work of genius, such as The Belvedere Torso" --we would suggest that our differing views of its merit may stem more from personal stylistic preferences than from purely objective criteria of absolute quality. Be that as it may, it is, as Blumenthal notes, a "minor" point of difference, given the broad range of substantive issues on which we agree.

In any case, we wish that Blumenthal's assigned task had included an assessment of our chapters on music and dance, two other arts with which she is intimately acquainted. Since she is a former dancer with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the co-author (with her husband, psychiatrist and concert pianist Allan Blumenthal) of the excellent lecture series Music: History, Theory, and Performance, her remarks on these art forms would have been of particular interest.

Finally, the biographical information following Blumenthal's remarks unfortunately omitted any mention of the fact that she and Rand were close friends and associates for many years, beginning long before Rand wrote her essays on esthetics, until her death in 1982. Knowledgeable about all the arts, and long familiar with Rand's writings on esthetics, Blumenthal would have been an ideal non-philosopher reviewer for What Art Is in its entirety.


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