Monday, June 06, 2011

Rand & Aesthetics 14

Style and "psycho-epistemology." With her over-emphasis on selectivity, her sense of life construct, and her invidious distinction between Romanticism and Naturalism, Rand has plenty of tools to criticize aesthetic tastes she didn't approve of (i.e., nearly any taste she did not share). She had yet one tool her aesthetics that she could make use of to flog art she despised: namely, style as it relates to "psycho-epistemology." According to Rand:
The subject of an art work expresses a view of man’s existence, while the style expresses a view of man’s consciousness. The subject reveals an artist’s metaphysics, the style reveals his psycho-epistemology . . . .

An artist’s style is the product of his own psycho-epistemology—and, by implication, a projection of his view of man’s consciousness, of its efficacy or impotence, of its proper method and level of functioning.

Predominantly (though not exclusively), a man whose normal mental state is a state of full focus, will create and respond to a style of radiant clarity and ruthless precision—a style that projects sharp outlines, cleanliness, purpose, an intransigent commitment to full awareness and clear-cut identity—a level of awareness appropriate to a universe where A is A, where everything is open to man’s consciousness and demands its constant functioning.

A man who is moved by the fog of his feelings and spends most of his time out of focus will create and respond to a style of blurred, "mysterious" murk, where outlines dissolve and entities flow into one another, where words connote anything and denote nothing, where colors float without objects, and objects float without weight—a level of awareness appropriate to a universe where A can be any non-A one chooses, where nothing can be known with certainty and nothing much is demanded of one’s consciousness.
With this weapon in her aesthetic arsenal, Rand can make some startling pronouncements about various styles of painting:

Style is the most complex element of art, the most revealing and, often, the most baffling psychologically. The terrible inner conflicts from which artists suffer as much as (or, perhaps, more than) other men are magnified in their work. As an example: Salvador Dali, whose style projects the luminous clarity of a rational psycho-epistemology, while most (though not all) of his subjects project an irrational and revoltingly evil metaphysics. A similar, but less offensive, conflict may be seen in the paintings of Vermeer, who combines a brilliant clarity of style with the bleak metaphysics of Naturalism. At the other extreme of the stylistic continuum, observe the deliberate blurring and visual distortions of the so-called "painterly" school, from Rembrandt on down—down to the rebellion against consciousness, expressed by a phenomenon such as Cubism which seeks specifically to disintegrate man’s consciousness by painting objects as man does not perceive them (from several perspectives at once).

Much of the psychological bafflement Rand confesses to arises out of her definition of art. It's from Rand's own insistence that art is a "selective recreation of reality" that so many of her invidious conclusions about art, particularly modern art, arise. After all, on what basis does Rand justify her conclusion that individuals who respond to "blurred mysterious murk" (presumably this is Impressionist and non-representional art) spend most of their time "out of focus." What evidence does she have to support so implausible a contention?

Art is not merely a selective recreation of reality. It is the creation of something that leads to an aesthetic experience. Nor is there any evidence that an artist's style necessarily reveals the degree to which his mind is in or out of focus. Impressionist painting was driven, in part, by the desire to paint, not in a studio, but outdoors. This encouraged painters to adopt quicker methods of composition, in which the painstaking attention to detail was replaced by bold strokes and emphasis on color. The Impressionists were generalists seeking to capture the "essentials" of a scene: just what Rand claimed to do in her philosophy; only the Impressionists had a much greater excuse than Rand, as they were merely trying to convey light and beauty, not information or philosophical truth.

I suspect that one of the main draws of Rand's aesthetics is that it provides an uncompromising condemnation of "modern" art. Such modernism, Rand implies, is a "rebellion against consciousness." Cubism, in particular, "seeks specifically to disintegrate man's consciousness by painting objects as man does not perceive them." Oh really? How does Rand know such a thing? Using the same logic, couldn't something very similar be said about emoticons and smilies? or stick figure illustrations? or any graphical representation that isn't absolutley photographic in its representation? While there is absolutely nothing wrong in deploring modern art, if one wishes to criticize it, one must do better than this.


Rey said...

I'd love to see a childen's show called Fun-time Philosophy with Ayntie Rand.

It would feature a muppet Ayn Rand making various pronouncements at children, such as "Remember, children, art must be photorealistically representational, but photography is not art*! Oh, and music is art too--but sometimes not!" followed by shots confused children trying to ask her questions and being shouted down.


Rey said... should be called Fun-house Philosophy...

stuart said...

Rey, have some respect. This unequalled mind had essentialized aesthetics by the age of seven. Yet these individuals, tabulae who insist on remaining rasae, waste her time with such scorn-inducing questions as "Is A the one for Apple?" and "Can I go to the bathroom?" You'd shout too in her place.

Lloyd Flack said...

I think this post touches on why Rand was incapable of appreciating beauty in nature. She insisted on trying to see what the artist was thinking. So she allowed the artist, or her conception of the artist, to get in the way of appreciating the art. She wanted to focus on the creator rather than the creation.

Some of this is her focus on accomplishment. Some is her desire to be in complete control when appreciating art. She wanted everything to go through the conscious part of the mind. I would expect that this was a fear of loosing control.

So she would not let herself appreciate something that had no creator, or at least none that she would acknowledge. And she would not let herself value anything that required her to abandon conscious control of what she was experiencing, as much art does.

Daniel Barnes said...

That's a good comment, Lloyd.

If Greg's ARCHN master thesis is correct - that Rand's basic motivation was man-worship, from which much of the rest of her philosophy is rationalised around - this then explains why Rand thought that she would never see a tree as lovely as a smokestack.

Lloyd Flack said...

More, Objectivism's attitude towards nature is part of the reason why there are so few Objectivist scientists. Most scientists have a sense of awe and wonder towards the World whether they are religious or not. Even a strident atheist such as Richard Dawkins talks about the numinosity, the sense of the sublime in nature.

There are other reasons why Objectivism is unattractive to scientists. One of them is that science is to a certain extent a collective goal. Scientists see themselves as adding their bit to the edifice of human knowledge. While their discoveries are individual accomplishments part of the goal is to gain recognition by others. And of course scientists generally work in teams.

Another feature of Objectivism that is alien to scientists is its demand for certainty. Science is to a large extent an error correction mechanism. Love certainty too much and you are stuffed. Science deals in degrees of belief in theories. Objectivism abhors this.

Objectivism does not understand the methods or motives of most scientists. Rand showed little sign of curiousity and I think most Objectivists don't either.

gregnyquist said...

[Rand] insisted on trying to see what the artist was thinking. So she allowed the artist, or her conception of the artist, to get in the way of appreciating the art.

Is it an issue of insisting on what the artist thinking, or was it merely an attempt to rationalize conclusions that had already been adopted for very different reasons? One that is clear even from the old Rand-sanctioned biography Who is Ayn Rand? is that Rand formed her aesthetic tastes early on and pretty much stuck to them the rest of her life. Rand seems to have suffered from prejudices very common to those who grow up accustomed to being the smartest person in the class: she developed an over-confidence in her judgment. This was reinforced by her position as an outsider in the society she grew up in (a Jewish girl in Russia, a daughter of businessman under Soviet communism), which encouraged entrenchment and intransigence in her own views. She therefore never developed any respect for people who held different views from herself. On the contrary, those other views had to have their source in some kind of corruption, whether moral or epistemological. People could not enjoy art she despised because they had more advanced tastes than her; no, there had to be more sinister reasons, such as spending most of one's time out of focus or being malevolent and anti-life.

Anonymous said...

The first quote from Rand provides a pretty good example of the straw man fallacy. Who *is* this man who lives in a fog of his feelings, for whom words have no connotations or denotations, etc.? No one I've ever heard of.

Meanwhile, all this stuff about being "in a state of full focus," "ruthless precision," "cleanliness, purpose, an intransigent commitment to full awareness and clear-cut identity" reminds me of my Calvinist grandfather tersely explaining the Protestant work ethic to me and my cousins! I'm sure Rand would be horrified if she known how unoriginal some of these ideas are, and how religious people thought of many of them first. But then again, she would have denied and rejected such a reality, no matter how it was presented to her.

- Chris