Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Rand and Aesthetics 1

Intro. Aesthetics, if it aspires to be in the least rational, sane, and just, must seek to explain, rather than judge, personal responses to works of art. When aesthetics seeks to justify a specific set of preferences, it degenerates into mere special pleading and rationalization.

Rand's foremost consideration in her aesthetics was to judge. She belonged to what I call the malicious school of aesthetic criticism: it was not enough for Rand merely to glorify her own preferences, she also had to denigrate the preferences of those with different aesthetic tastes. Her entire aesthetics seems orientated toward disparagement. And for Rand, there was plenty to disparage. She appears to have disliked most of what passed for art. Her remarks on specific works of art are nearly always, in some respect, negative. Rand simply did not care for most of what passes for great art in Western Civilization. People who don't like most art usually don't make best aestheticians. Combine that with a mania for judging (particularly for malicious, narcissistic judging), and you have a recipe for philosophical malfeasance on a grand scale. The Objectivist aesthetics is largely a rationalization of Rand's own aesthetic prejudices and hatreds. Rand's actual doctrine is littered with overly vague generalizations, historical inaccuracies, false attributions, and a congenital incapacity to understand any work of art she failed to respond to. Despite all her high talk about reason and objectivity, her aesthetics remains rooted in her own blatantly subjective feelings. Given how different her emotional reactions were from those of most educated people, one wonders what business she had dabbling in aesthetics.

Rand's aesthetic tastes largely revolve around six main prejudices: (1) prejudice in favor of Rand's "ideal" man, i.e., the man who has "no inner conflicts," whose "mind and his emotions are integrated," and whose "consciousness is in perfect harmony"; (2) discomfort with tragedy; (3) mania for realistic description or literal representation; (4) strong preference for plot over character in literature; (4) indifference to most forms of beauty, particularly beauty of nature; (6) indiference, sometimes even hostility, to most aesthetic forms. These six prejudices make up the bulk of what could be called Rand's "real" aestethics. Her official aesthetics, though inspired by these prejudices, takes on a different aspect, as we shall see in the ensuing posts.


Anonymous said...

Rand's aesthetics was the first real sign to me that something was amiss in objectivism (scary that I could overlook so much more). I look forward to your posts.


Unknown said...

Ditto, here, too. Once I started reading the book that deals with her attitudes about art, I gradually became suspicious.

Ken said...

"... one wonders what business she had dabbling in aesthetics."

I am reminded of Terry Pratchett's Discworld, specifically where he describes a certain individual with: "Music, landscape gardening, architecture — there was no start to his talents."

(That would be Bergholt Stuttley "Bloody Stupid" Johnson, and I see he has his own Wikipedia section at .)

Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to this series.

I remember an objectivist prof at my alma mater strongly recommending the Romantic Manifesto at one of his lectures. Since the arts was my area of study, I thought I check it out.

I had been ambivalent about Rand up to that point. After reading the Romantic Manifesto, I thought she was full of it.

Her definition of Romanticism is just plain wrong, it claims that it's all about heroic individualism (which is a part of it), but denies nearly everything else that made the movement what it was. That's misleading, at best.

Her off-the-cuff dismissals of Beethoven, modernist composition, Hindu dance, rock music, etc. disgusted me. It was like her experience of these things came from soundbites on TV. No depth, no understanding, no insight, just pure prejudice.

Her idea that art's sole purpose is to represent the world as it ought to be (according to her) is so limited and would exclude so much great art, it's hard to even see how a thinking, feeling human being could arrive at such a conclusion. Art can do what she says, but there's *so much* more that it does. Indeed, art does much more interesting and complex things than she allows -- all of which probably confounds her ideas about cognition, psychology, creativity...and that's I'll bet that's why she hated so much of it.

- Chris

Rey said...

Yup-yup. Like the other commenters, I'm looking forward to this series, and like the other commenters, it in her views of art where I twigged something was really amiss in her thinking. I think it was the phrase "irrational music of the beatniks" (or some very similar wording...and I can't recall if it was something Rand wrote or one of her disciple's approved essays) that did it for me. I remember thinking something along the lines of "If she's talking about about bad poetry read to poorly beaten bongos, that's not 'irrational music,' it's just amateurish crap, and if she's talking about bebop, then her ears are too small, because bebop is as rich, complex, and 'rational' as Bach's fugues."

In either case she (or her disciple) didn't know what she was talking about, yet felt free to blithely denounce and dismiss an entire genre out of hand.

Bruce Hanify said...

I'm really grateful for this blog. I didn't recognize how poisonous Randianism was until I was on the receiving end of personal attacks for dissenting. That's how I learned that libertarian types can be as intolerant as any lefty. Whereupon I determined I needed to learn more about this.

The atheism seems to be a key component, if not THE key component. I've been attacked for making positive observations about Christianity, for example. Obviously religion plays no role in the history of freedom.

Rey said...

@Bruce: Your snark made me think of this piece of John Woolman ( ... surprisingly, he was able to recognize and persuade people of the wrongness of slavery without being a Randian superman.

Bruce Hanify said...

John Woolman. Havent thought about that name for 20 years.

Rey said...

"The atheism seems to be a key component, if not THE key component."

I'm not sure what you mean. I've been an atheist since before I encountered Rand. That said, her strident atheism is unsupported by any logical argument. "The concept of God is degrading to men," therefore, God doesn't exist. That's so weak, it's practically a nonsequitur. Give me Robert Ingersol any day. At least he's got a sense of humor about it.

Mark Plus said...

Someone defined romance novels as "propaganda for marriage." It looks as if Rand viewed all "proper" art as propaganda for Objectivism, or at least for what she called "the American sense of life." Objectivists who work in the visual arts have complied with some kitchy stuff.

stuart said...

Mark+, your comment on propaganda hits the mark. Given her premises, Rand had to view art,high or low, written or visual, as propaganda either for or against her shall we say unique prescription for life. Hence her star turn at the McCarthy hearings.

I missed her Bokor portrait on top of Aristotle in the gallery! Is this not a major draw for Quentin Cordor's clientele?

Anonymous said...

Rand's ideas regarding aesthetics are consistent with Borderline Personality Disorder. She was a Borderline, through and through.

Michael Prescott said...

I've long thought that Rand was most likely a BPS sufferer. Here are some symptoms of BPS, from a medical website:

"... long-term patterns of unstable or turbulent emotions ... impulsive actions ... chaotic relationships ... feelings of emptiness and boredom ... frequent displays of inappropriate anger ... substance abuse ...

"People with BPD also tend to see things in terms of extremes, such as either all good or all bad. Their views of other people may change quickly. A person who is looked up to one day may be looked down on the next day. These suddenly shifting feelings often lead to intense and unstable relationships."

People who live or work with a BPS sufferer will eventually ask themselves: "Is she crazy, or am I?" Compare this to Edith Ephron's statement quoted in Jeff Walker's book: "There is no way to communicate how crazy she was... Ultimately everyone who knew
her would ask themselves, 'Is she insane or am I?'... She was a
profoundly manipulative woman. And the flaw it implied in her was not
simply a neurosis but a profound disease."

Michael Prescott said...

BTW, in Googling the Ephron quote I came across this remarkable document:

Read it all the way through. It gets stranger as it goes along.

Is this the kind of person who sticks with Rand for a lifetime?

Sometimes, yeah.

Unknown said...
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Daniel Barnes said...

Ah, Wolf DeVoon. I've debated him over at Objectivist Living. He owns his own life: but it sounds like everyone else has paid for it.

Neil Parille said...

Has anyone read 100 Voices?

Mark Plus said...

BPS sufferers often cut themselves, like Dominique in the bombing scene of The Fountainhead. Rand makes Dominique's self-injury sound like an erotic experience!

I don't know if Rand cut herself in real life, but given that she characterized Dominique as herself in a bad mood, the thought had clearly crossed her mind.

Speaking of psychological profiling, Galt's stalking of Dagny resembles the behavior of an "unsub" character in Criminal Minds.

LearningByReading said...

Has Atlas Shrugged made it to film? Did you make it thru Anthem?