Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Rand and Aesthetics 6

Selectivity in art. In Rand's aesthetics, there is a strong tendency to over-interpret artistic works, reading into them all kinds of intentions and "metaphysical" value judgments that exist only in Rand's imagination. We see this quite distinctly in Rand's ascription of a "malevolent" sense of life to many works of art she did not care for. If an artistic production was either too dark or conflicted, Rand assumed it expressed the artist's fatalistic sense of life. For Rand, art is a "selective re-creation" in which the artist chooses to portray what he regards as most "fundamental" and important:

By a selective re-creation, art isolates and integrates those aspects of reality which represent man’s fundamental view of himself and existence. Out of the countless number of concretes—of single, disorganized and (seemingly)contradictory attributes, actions and entities—an artist isolates the things which he regards as metaphysically essential and integrates them into a single new concrete that represents an embodied abstraction. [RM, 19–20]

Armed with this corrosive principle, Rand could invent all kinds of pretexts for disliking a given work of art -- pretexts which carry her far beyond her invidious distinction between malevolent and benevolent senses of life. Consider, as one example, Rand's remarks about a painting of a beautiful woman with a cold sore:

If one saw, in real life, a beautiful woman wearing an exquisite evening gown, with a cold sore on her lips, the blemish would mean nothing but a minor affliction, and one would ignore it. But a painting of such a woman would be a corrupt, obscenely vicious attack on man, on beauty, on all values—and one would experience a feeling of immense disgust and indignation at the artist. (There are also those who would feel something like approval and who would belong to the same moral category as the artist.)

Another example involves Rembrandt's painting of a side of beef:

That particular painting may be taken as a symbol of everything I am opposed to in art and in literature. At the age of seven, I could not understand why anyone would wish to paint or to admire pictures of dead fish, garbage cans or fat peasant women with triple chins. Today, I understand the psychological causes of such esthetic phenomena—and the more I understand, the more I oppose them.

Rand's "psychological causes" are mere rationalizations. Rand was far too ignorant about human nature, psychology and art to present any plausible insights on why other people might enjoy a work of art she deplored. Per usual with Rand, she merely rationalizes her own private tastes and preferences, which she regarded, with her typical hyper-narcisism, as the infallible criterion of the good, the beautiful, and the true. But what evidence did Rand ever present that paintings of cold sores constitute a "corrupt, obscenely vicious attack on man," or that people who admire such art are some sort of moral lepers? Why must a painting of a side of beef, or a dead fish, or fat peasant woman be regarded as corrupt or malevolent or obscene? Such paintings may have seemed so to Rand, but on what grounds did she assume that everyone must share her rather limited and excessively opinionated aesthetic reactions? What if the purpose of such art is to find beauty in simple things? What if the corruption existed, not in those who respond to Rembrandt's side of beef, but in Rand herself and her exceedingly narrow aesthetic tastes and her mania for condemning people with different views and tastes from herself?

Rand tended to admire only that art which projected a vision of man and existence she shared. Given that Rand's own view of man was, in many respects, false (a product, not of careful, scientific fact finding and experiment, but of her own wishful thinking), her attempts to use her own aesthetic judgments as a means of judging the psychology of (1) the artist, (2) other people's aesthetic reactions, should be taken with the utmost suspicion. Rand's aesthetic psychologizing is egotistic and malicious. It doesn't take into account that other people may have very different aesthetic values from herself, and may be capable of aesthetic appreciations which go well beyond Rand's excessively narrow ken. Rand, for example, seems to have experienced little if any appreciation for beauty of form. Indeed, she had no formal theory of beauty whatsoever, and never wrote or said anything substantial on the subject; all of which which seems a huge oversight for a theoretician of aesthetics.

There may be any number of reasons why someone may enjoy an artistic reproduction of a side of beef that has nothing to do with Rand's malicious psychologizing. There may be beauty in the colors, the shape, and the form of the beef, and in the entire composition. There is, after all, such a thing as art for art's sake, beauty for the sake of beauty. While there is nothing wrong in disliking such art, Rand does go beyond the pale of common decency and good manners when she begins judging (and, in this instance, morally judging) those who favor such art. Rand's emphasis on selectivity in art merely serves to encourage a deplorable tendency to over-interepret aesthetic works, rather than just enjoying them for what they are. Works of art do not have to be seen as complicated exemplifications of metaphysical value judgments. They may be nothing more than the expression of form and beauty. Rembrandt's side of beef does not have to be seen as corrupt or viscious attack on values; it may be little more than an attempt to demonstrate how something as seemingly insignificant as a side of beef may be shot through with subtle beauty.


A. said...

In my own dealings with objectivists (well, the one I have known) I remember challenging Rand's dislike of abstract art by pointing out that most (instrumental) music is abstract. Although it might have been conceived to evoke a particular setting or image, as often music will deliberately not do so, even music that Rand liked, such as various pieces by Rachmaninov.

When challenging my objectivist as to why it should be OK for music to be abstract, but not visual art or poetry, I remember him quoting something bizarre about music being "the form" where abstraction is possible. Again, I challenged him as to why it should be the only form, but never got a satisfactory answer. Have you come across this particular double-standard in Rand; I'd love to see a post on it in the Aesthetics series (which, by the way, I am enjoying very much!).

Keep up the good work!


Anonymous said...

I think I'm seeing a subtext emerging in this series: for all her claims of running against the grain of the West's evil, corrupted culture, her taste is actually quite conventional.

This stuff about wanting beautiful women painted in the manner of photo-retouched cover girls isn't exactly artistically original.

Reading the Romantic Manifesto, I got the impression that she hated any artist in any medium who experimented, flouted convention, developed an idiosyncratic style, or demanded effort from the audience. In other words, the more they acted like Howard Roark, the more she balked at their works. Did she think that modernism was *only* for architecture?

I remember her ranting about "noise composers" for giving the mind the opposite of what it needed (i.e., chaos instead of order, dissonance instead of consonance, etc.). As always, it's maddening how she doesn't name names -- who is she referring to?

If she's thinking of modernists like Schoenberg, Webern or Boulez, the whole serialist school, shouldn't she be praising them? Like Roark, they went against aesthetic convention, and followed their vision. Their uses of form to produce elaborate symmetries and other types of structure were rigorously (though some might say aridly) rational -- certainly more overtly rational than most of the Romanticists she admired. They didn't pander to audiences, didn't compromise for the sake of popularity, etc. etc.

Yet she balked at all of this in favour of TV and Mickey Spillane novels. Hm.

- Chris

Rey said...

@Chris: Oh, man. I had a bit of a Micky Spillane rant in the comments section a few posts ago, and yes, it is maddening how she seldom refered to specific artists by name. It's "noise music" or "a woman who never used capitals in her books," which tells me she either wasn't familiar enough with modernism to identify specific artists or she didn't want to be forced to defend her stance against a particular artist*.

Her love of Micky Spillane and TV pretty much says it all: She prefered media that was both easy to digest and confirmed/reinforced her worldview.

I guess that whole "question your assumptions" and challenge yourself stuff was for other people to do.

*Weren't there some friends of hers who broke with her in the 60s, not because she thought abstract art was immoral, but because she would call them up in the dead of night to argue and re-argue the issue?

Michael Prescott said...

Besides Spillane, Rand also enjoyed and admired Ian Fleming's James Bond books. I've read them, and they are entertaining, though badly dated in their depiction of women, gays, minorities, etc. Great literature they are not. The odd thing is that Rand seemed to take the Bond books quite seriously, when it should have been obvious that they were written with tongue firmly in cheek. Fleming was having fun with the spy genre, gently spoofing it, yet Rand seemingly failed to perceive this at all.

She had a similar blind spot with regard to the British TV show The Avengers, which she seems to have taken seriously despite its obvious camp qualities. She even became incensed when the show's producer remarked in an interview that the show was a send-up of spy dramas. "Someone's values are being shamefully exploited," she pronounced darkly, not realizing that she was the one who didn't get the joke.

Xtra Laj said...

Sounds like there is some undiagnosed Asperger's in Rand's thought....

(For the record, I am not a psychologist and all I have done is read her pathetic attempts at empathy so this is highly speculative.)

Rey said...

One shudders to think what she would've made of "Archer" or "Burn Notice."

Daniel Barnes said...

Greg quotes Rand:
"At the age of seven, I could not understand why anyone would wish to paint or to admire pictures of dead fish, garbage cans or fat peasant women with triple chins. Today, I understand the psychological causes of such esthetic phenomena—and the more I understand, the more I oppose them."

Christ on a bike, that last sentence! The gap between Rand's absurd over-self-estimation and the actual crudity of her analysis never fails to astonish.

Daniel Barnes said...

>Have you come across this particular double-standard in Rand; I'd love to see a post on it in the Aesthetics series (which, by the way, I am enjoying very much!).

Hi A.

Glad you're enjoying the blog. There is actually a deep seated confusion between the abstract and the physical that runs unresolved throughout Rand. I would suspect this is just another area where it pops its head up, like Whack-A-Mole.

Ken said...

I am still a little unclear on whether by Rand's standards one bad apple spoils the barrel. In one of the current case, for example, is it just Carcass of Beef that is malevolent? Or does this one work mean that all of Rembrandt's work, and the man himself, are beyond the pale?

Anonymous said...

Daniel: "Today, I understand the psychological causes of such esthetic phenomena—and the more I understand, the more I oppose them." Christ on a bike, that last sentence!

Yes, she really over-uses "psychology" in her denigration of art, literature, and people. Pathology doesn't explain everything, and she certainly wasn't qualified to diagnose one.

- Chris

Michael Prescott said...

It seems to me that the first Rand quote is worth parsing in some detail. Besides, the stock market is closed today and I have nothing else to do.

"By a selective re-creation ..."

Rand made a big deal out of this "selective re-creation" business, but if you think about it, it's not much of an insight. Of course an artist has to be selective; he can't depict everything. If you're writing a novel set in 18th century China, you must omit a great many interesting things from other centuries and other cultures, such as airplanes and French fries. So what?

"... art isolates and integrates ..."

All this means is that the artist takes things he perceives and puts them together in new ways. Again, hardly a striking insight.

".. those aspects of reality which represent man’s fundamental view of himself and existence."

An assertion without evidence. Why must they be fundamental? Why can't they be simply things that interest the artist? Take our historical novelist. If he writes about an infirm old man, it may not be because he regards illness as the most fundamental aspect of reality, but for some other reason. Maybe it just makes a better story. Maybe he knew an old man like that and is writing what he knows.

"Out of the countless number of concretes—-of single, disorganized and (seemingly)contradictory attributes, actions and entities—-"

Just a fancy way of saying, "Out of all possible subject matter ..."

"... an artist isolates the things which he regards as metaphysically essential ..."

Again, why essential? If Van Gogh paints an old worn-looking chair, is it because he regards old chairs as metaphysically essential? Or is that he simply likes the texture or shape of the chair?

"... and integrates them into a single new concrete that represents an embodied abstraction."

How is Van Gogh's chair an embodied abstraction? For that matter, how is a sick old Chinese man an embodied abstraction? If the old man is intended to represent a Jungian archetype or a mythic figure, then he might be an abstraction. But sometimes an old man is just an old man. The author might say, "I based him on the old guy who lived next door to me. He was sick a lot, but he told great stories, and I thought he'd make an interesting character in a book." How is that an embodied abstraction?

Rand's theory may hold true for certain artworks - a Greek statue of Athena is probably an embodied abstraction (of the goddess's symbolic qualities) - but certainly not for all. And when stripped of its pretentious verbiage, her theory doesn't amount to much. Basically she's saying: Artists choose one possible subject among many, and figure out which details should be highlighted to give the desired effect; they end up with something that reflects a deeper meaning.

The first part of the statement is true but banal; the second part is only slightly less banal, and not always true.

Daniel Barnes said...

Mike P:
>And when stripped of its pretentious verbiage, her theory doesn't amount to much.

If there's one recurring theme here at the ARCHNblog, it's that!

Parsing Rand line by line really starts to bring that lack of quality out. I started doing it with a para by para read of Rand's "Ethics of Emergencies" essay a year or two back, but then I left my copy of "The Virtue of Selfishness" out in the rain...;-)

stuart said...

Daniel, but it took so long to bake it..sense of LIFE for crying out loud. Whose life was she prescribing a sense for...who'll ever have that recipe again?

Xtra Laj said...

The saddest part of the pretentious verbiage is its effect on Objectivists: people who are really reading their own biases and intelligence (or lack thereof) into Rand's thought think her writing is highly profound.

Neil Parille said...

Michael and Dan,

Aren't you guys being a little hard on Rand here?

The quote in question is in the discussion of art as a reflection of a culture. She talks about "medieval monstrosities" (as if the only think medieval man did was bad) and a "Greek god." I think she's talking about a general trend and probably knows that there are exceptions. But look at a culture's works of art or a person's over his life and there is some truth to her theory.

I don't dispute that Rand could have been a little more nuanced, but I think it's important to read her with some charity.

-Neil Parille

Xtra Laj said...

I don't dispute that Rand could have been a little more nuanced, but I think it's important to read her with some charity.

Ah, to read her with the charity that she refused to read others with...

But I think my point still stands. The main reason you find truth in her theory is not because she provided good evidence for it (she did not), but that you find it plausible based on your intelligence, views, personal experience and reading/study. In other words, you end up reading your intelligence into her writing. If more Objectivists were conscious of the problems with her writings, Rand's excesses would be far easier to stomach.

Neil Parille said...


One thing about Rand is that she didn't proceed the way contemporary philosophers (at least in the analytic tradition) do, which is by means of counter-examples. The end result is that there are a lot of gaps in her arguments that need to be filled in. Hopefully some of her followers will.

If you are going to discuss Rand you have to figure out what the missing steps in her arguments are.

This is a good essay on Rand's philosophy of religion in which the author (Stephen Parrish)tries to anticipate Rand's and Peikoff's arguments and then critiques them.

-Neil Parille

Michael Prescott said...

Wait ... now we're supposed to be fair to Rand?


I still say that her analysis amounts to very little, no matter how charitably we read it. Yes, it's generally true that if we survey an artist's entire oeuvre, we will have some sense of the things that mattered most to him, and the way he looked at life. (Though I don't think this is true of composers.) But so what? This is not a bold new insight, it's a tired banality. It amounts to saying that artists express themselves in their work. In the late Middle Ages this might have been a new concept. Nowadays, it's a truism.

Neil Parille said...

Laj and Michael,

Of course Rand wasn't always fair to people. If fact she was probably seldom fair when it came to someone she deemed a philosophical opponent.

In doing some research for my next post I was skimming the debate between Harry Binswanger, Travis Norsen and Bill Vallicella. Norsen and Binswanger thought Bill was being kind to them by calling them "Randians." I recall I posted asking HB what he thought of Rand's attacks on people and he didn't respond.

Nonetheless I think it's important to try to engage in friendly dialogue with Objectivists, although ,as you'll see in my next post, lots of good that's done anyone.

stuart said...

Oh, the verbiage. In the Art of Fiction for example, she recast the commonplaces of writing into her cauldron and when you boil out the "philosophy" you get the contents of your average Grade 9 English Comp course.

Xtra Laj said...


I think charitable debate is a virtue. Objectivists do not think charitable debate is a virtue. I think that while it is all well and good to request that we address Objectivists charitably, I hope you realize that you are making us engage in something that they despise and which Perigo often referred to as "clever dick hair splitting" back when I posted on SOLO and was more philosophically inclined.

Nowadays, I'm way too busy to deal with the philosophical depths of every detail of Rand (I probably don't have the required attention to detail either, which is why I admire the efforts of folk like you, Greg and Dan).

Criticizing Objectivism doesn't require charity and the arguments are not shoddy just because Rand refused to fill in the gaps. In my view, they are also shoddy because Rand, sometimes realizing her arguments were not incontrovertible, thought at times that filling in the gaps would expose her to criticism that she did not want to respond to. Someone as smart as she was must have on a few occasions realized that she was handwaving. But she forged ahead anyway, realizing that some people agreed with her and that was all that mattered and that ultimately, maybe more would.

Lumnicence said...

I hope the irony that the woman who said " must never attempt to fake reality in any manner," could not bear to see reality in art isn't lost on anyone.

gregnyquist said...

I hope the irony that the woman who said " must never attempt to fake reality in any manner," could not bear to see reality in art isn't lost on anyone.

No, it isn't; there's just so many examples of this type of irony in Rand that one becomes desentized to it after a while. Rand herself was a master faker of reality, particularly on the issue of human nature; which perhaps explains why she couldn't bear to see realistic portrayals of human nature in art.

Ken said...

As another example of irony, "Rand and Aesthetics 10" has the following Rand quote:

The contradictions in such a combination of elements are obvious; they lead to a total breach between action and characterization, leaving the action unmotivated and the characters unintelligible. The reader is left to feel: "These people couldn't do these things!"

Of course I speak with the benefit of having read more-or-less the above in many of the reviews of "Atlas Shrugged Part One".

BTW I have lost track; is the producer still planning the other two parts, or is this joining "Eragon" and "The Golden Compass" in defunct-trilogy land?

Nullifidian said...

In response to Chris above:

It's funny that you should mention The Fountainhead, because I read Atlas Shrugged only a few months after having been assigned The Fountainhead in high school, and I assumed Rand working in a contemporary composer into her narrative meant, in light of her defense of modernist architecture and the integrity of the architect, that modernist composers were going to get a similarly enthusiastic treatment. I'd been a fan of modern music ever since I had discovered Charles Ives—now there's a Randian hero for you!—when I was a ten-year-old.

Then I read this:
Above the door of a shop, the black hole of a radio loudspeaker was hurling sounds at the streets. They were the sounds of a symphony concert being given somewhere in the city. They were a long screech without shape, as of cloth and flesh being torn at random. They scattered with no melody, no harmony, no rhythm to hold them. If music was emotion and emotion came from thought, then this was the scream of chaos, of the irrational, of the helpless, of man's self-abdication.

This is exactly the sort of flack modern music has caught ever since it was first written. I can even cite equivalent things being said about Monteverdi. I was incredibly disappointed in her failure to discern that the rejection of the imitative neoclassical and Gothic Revival architecture was motivated by the same passion for originality that modernist composers were expressing.

Anonymous said...

Great response, Nulfidian.

The quote from AS just further confirms how ignorant she was about modernism.

Responding in square brackets to her last sentence:

If music was emotion [music is a complex human behavior, not reducible to emotion alone] and emotion came from thought [this site has vigorously shown that this is not the case], then this was the scream of chaos [almost no modernist music qualifies as this, unless from surface impression only], of the irrational [ever seen a serial matrix, Ayn?], of the helpless, of man's self-abdication.

- Chris

Skyknight said...

I suppose the whole situation with the cold sore is that Rand regarded art's primary purpose as exaltation of that which was right, proper, noble, living, etc. The proper thing for the artist to do would be to leave out the sore, because INCLUDING it is tacitly to exalt it. Considering her hatred of frailty, you can imagine what Rand would think of something she thought of as exalting even the slightest malady.

Basically, Rand couldn't see forests for trees. I guess she couldn't see how anyone would take pains to portray something they didn't believe to be perfection incarnate. Leaving out the sore would in a sense be, to Rand, portraying the "real" woman, without the problem that was presumably fading away. Include the sore, you tacitly say the beautiful woman OUGHT to be marred. What would she make of a view that the painting is saying that the woman's beauty is still real and present DESPITE the sore?

Dragonfly said...

@Skynight: see also the discussion on where the typical objectivist argument is used to condemn the statue of Allison Lapper in Trafalgar Square. There were a few dissenters, among whom yours truly (Calopteryx Splendens).

Ken said...

@Dragonfly: That's a bit ugly - not the statue or Ms. Lapper, but the Objectivist arguments against it. Do they also have problems with her appearing in public, or is it limited to art?

Xtra Laj said...


What I found most interesting about that thread was how no one moved closer to anyone else's opposing position all through it (with the possible exception of Jonathan, who accepted all the points made by others but continually expanded the context as others refused to do.)