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What Does Objectivism Consider To Be Art (Aesthetics)?

What Does Objectivism Consider to be Art (Aesthetics)?

By William R Thomas

(Picutred above: Arch Cape, Oregon Coast, by Tom Wheeler)

Question: What does Objectivism consider to be art?

Answer: "Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value judgments. Man's profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man's fundamental view of himself and of existence. It tells man, in effect, which aspects of his experience are to be regarded as essential, significant, important." (Ayn Rand, "Art and Cognition," The Romantic Manifesto, p. 45)
 
Just as language is distinctively human, so is art. Every human society has imagined and recreated its world in stories and music, in pictures and sculpture, and in derivative forms of art such as theater and dance.
 
Many people think art is an indescribable, almost mystical aspect of human existence, that it is a self-contained realm, indefinable except in terms of itself. This has given license to those who want to turn making art into play, who say that art is anything one wants it to be and who reject objective standards for the arts. This view is standard fare among art promoters, philosophers of art, and many self-proclaimed artists. The result is that today the average person does not know what is art and what isn't, and believes that the only basis for aesthetic preferences is subjective opinion and personal taste.
 
The artist's function is to interpret the world and present it as he or she re-envisions it.
 
In fact, art is a distinctively human institution because it fulfills a vital need of human consciousness. And aesthetic issues can be analyzed objectively, like any aspect of reality.
 
The Objectivist epistemology teaches that humans are conceptual beings. We are aware of the world directly and immediately through sense-perception, but we do much of our thinking at the conceptual level, using abstractions, language, and logic. Our concepts and theories have meaning only insofar as they are grounded in reality, but one cannot see a theory or feel an idea, nor can one perceive, in a single glance, all the facts of reality that validate a theory or idea. The wider and more fundamental the abstraction, the harder it is to experience it as having the reality of the concrete things we can see and feel in perception.
 
The unique and vital function of art is to present, in concrete form, what is essentially an abstraction. We can use artistic techniques like pictorial representation or metaphor to show what an idea looks like; this is what a graph of economic growth does, for example. Art as such performs this function for the most fundamental abstractions: the elements of a worldview. And because a person's worldview, his deepest values, are experienced most clearly in the emotional form of a sense of life (see FAQ “What is Philosophy?”), a work of art can touch the deepest places in us, feelings we often have trouble defining and making explicit.
 
The different forms of art do this by re-creating reality, selectively representing things, sounds, or events either directly to the senses (as do pictures, sculpture, theater and cinema, music, and dance), or through the vividness of directed imagination (as with literature). The artist does the selecting, stylizing the scene or the world and presenting it in a certain light, with some things emphasized and others taken away. Journalistic and historical narratives, audiovisual recordings of an event, and museum displays are, like artworks, representations, but they are representations that attempt, in so far as possible, to convey the actual facts of a matter. The artist's function, by contrast, is specifically to interpret the world and present it as he re-envisions it, using particular concrete elements to capture a deeper, more universal truth.
 
An artwork must therefore be accessible to comprehension at the level of perception. It must be recognizably representative of something. A painting that presents a figure or scene is art. Paint splotches are not. A composition of recognizable tones is music. Random noise is not. A fictional narrative of sufficient length is a novel. A collection of sentences with no narrative structure is not. So it goes for every form of art: It must present something accessible to the senses, in the ways appropriate to connecting with those senses as forms of awareness.
 
Saying that something is not art does not mean it is not a pleasant decoration, nor does it mean it is worthless. It simply means that it cannot be used for the function of concretizing our deepest values and experiencing directly the equivalent of a sense of life. For instance, because architecture has significant structural and functional obligations (a house must have a roof, bathrooms, kitchen, and so on), Ayn Rand concluded that it was not a pure form of art. Yet anyone who has read The Fountainhead knows how passionately she cared about the artistic dimension of architecture and what worth she attached to it.
 
Part of what makes art "good" is the artist's skill at capturing his worldview and essential concerns in his art. This has many aspects. It includes making an engaging and clear presentation, which requires drawing skill in the visual arts, for example, and talent with plot, character, and dialogue in drama and the novel. It also requires skill in organizing and integrating ideas. This is vital to choosing thematic elements of a work and for making it rich in symbolism and inner structure.
 
Some of these are skills that make for good decoration and design. In this sense, works of design, such as a fine Persian carpet, can be lovely and well-made, even though they are not art. Many conventional accounts of aesthetics confuse decoration with art because they center aesthetics on the question of "what is beauty?" Objectivism regards this as a secondary issue, and because one's idea of beauty is inevitably informed and affected by one's sense of values, it is an issue that, like art in general, depends for its explanation on the fact that man needs philosophical principles.
 
In addition to the artist's skill, art can be judged in terms of its meaning. One may find a piece of work to be skillfully realized, yet be repulsed by what it says at the level of values and sense of life. This was Ayn Rand's reaction to Tolstoy's novels. Similarly, one may be greatly pleased by an artist's sense of life while not being entirely enamored of his skill in conveying it. This appears to have been Rand's reaction to the detective novelist Mickey Spillane, for example.
 
Ayn Rand envisioned a school of art called "Romantic Realism." Romantic realist artists would, like Rand, combine a commitment to presenting believable scenes set in something like the real world with the ideals of a new romanticism, one that shaped scenes, melodies, and stories to present the essentially heroic character of man. In her own novels, Rand developed a style of "slanted realism" that wrapped rich characters around plots centered on key principles and ideas. Thus the world of her novels is not merely a report of the world as it is, but as it "might and could be
 
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William R Thomas has written on topics in politics, ethics, and epistemology, and has spoken internationally on the theory of individual rights and Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. His works include Radical for Capitalism, and, as editor, The Literary Art of Ayn Rand. He is the director of programs for The Atlas Society. Thomas is currently a lecturer in the Department of Economics of the University at Albany.