The Psycho-Epistemology of Art

1994-10-15

In her essay "The Psycho-Epistemology of Art" (the first chapter of the Romantic Manifesto), Ayn Rand raises three crucial questions about art (RM 15): What is the nature of art? What is its function or role in human life (i.e., what does art do)? And: why does art have such tremendous psychological power? I would like to use these three questions as the starting-point for our discussion of the Romantic Manifesto.

Perhaps the most fruitful question to start with is: what does art do? We are all familiar with the fact that art can do many things: it can inspire, send shivers up the spine, delight, anger, frighten; it can make one think, feel, shake one's head in astonishment, cry, laugh out loud; it can evoke feelings of triumph, melancholy, light-heartedness, serenity, excitement, boredom, rightness, anxiety, joy, sorrow; and art can do many other things, besides. However, according to Rand, the fundamental thing that art does is the following (I am paraphrasing and rearranging from the third full paragraph on page 19):

Art gives man the power to hold his widest abstractions -- i.e., the sum of his knowledge about the fundamental nature of reality -- in the focus of his immediate conscious awareness.

This insight is really the key to Rand's aesthetics, I believe. And Rand seems to think so as well, given the amount of space she devotes to it in the essay. Allow me to include diverse quotes on this point, so that you can see for yourself the importance of this insight to her theory of art.

"Art isolates and integrates those aspects of reality which represent man's fundamental view of himself and of existence." (19)

"... an artist isolates the things which he regards as metaphysically essential and integrates them into a single new concrete that represents an embodied abstraction." (20)

Rand says about two works of sculpture that they "are metaphysical estimates of man ... projections of the artist's view of man's nature ..." (20)

"Art is a concretization of metaphysics. Art brings man's concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts." (20)

"Art converts man's metaphysical abstractions into the equivalent of concretes, into specific entities open to man's direct perception." (20)

"The basic purpose of art is not to teach, but to show -- to hold up to man a concretized image of his nature and his place in the universe." (22)

"A man ... is often in danger of losing his perspective and the reality of his own convictions. Remember that abstractions as such do not exist: they are merely man's epistemological method of perceiving that which exists -- and that which exists is concrete. To acquire the full, persuasive, irrestible power of reality, man's metaphysical abstractions must confront him in the form of concretes -- i.e., in the form of art." (23)

Art "reach[es man's] mind and emotions simultaneously, with the combined impact of abstract thought and of immediate reality ..." (23)

Now, the question is: why and how does art do these things? What is art that it can help a person "to integrate his values, to choose his goals, to plan his future, to maintain the unity and coherence of his life"? (19)

Of course, this is the big question: what is art? Rand's definition is famous in Objectivist circles, and pretty easy to recite once you get the hang of it: "Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments." But what does the definition mean? I will try to tease out some of the meaning of Rand's definition here, but part of what Rand means will depend on future discussion -- especially, I think, discussion of Rand's conception of "sense of life".

First, what is Rand referring to in reality when she talks about art? As her text makes fairly clear (esp. in "Art and Cognition"), Rand is referring not just to visual art, but to all of "the fine arts" as well as to the performing arts. So Rand mentions as forms of art the following: painting, sculpture, literature in all its forms (poetry, the short story, the novel, the play), motion pictures (when based on literature), music in all its forms (instrumental music, opera, song), and the dance, as well as performing arts such as music performance and acting. These are unquestionably forms of art, and it is to these that Rand is referring in her discussion of art. Note that architecture is not included here -- Rand says (47) that it is "in a class by itself" (for reasons we will probably explore later). Also, Rand excludes the decorative arts, as well as photography (as we have discussed before and no doubt will discuss again).

So what do all these things have in common? What is the conceptual common denominator for these disparate creations? Throughout history there have been conflicting opinions on whether each of these things is art, though poetry and music have usually made the list (the novel is a recent innovation historically speaking, and painting and sculpture for example were thought by the Greeks to mere crafts). What is the one concept and definition that can unify these things in abstraction?

As we have seen, what Rand herself calls "the crux of the Objectivist esthetics" is not the fact that art expresses (or evokes) emotions or that it represents reality (though both of these facts are of great importance, as we shall see), but that "art is a concretization of metaphysics" (20).

But why do people need concretizations of their "widest abstractions" about "the fundamental nature of reality" (19)? We don't make or use (at least to any great extent) concretizations of our abstractions in physics, economics, or any of the special sciences -- why do we need such concretizations in relation to metaphysics?

Rand does not put the question that way, but I think she does have an answer. Her answer depends on her view of concepts, and of the central importance of concepts in human cognition (17-18). "The source of art lies in the fact that man's cognitive faculty is conceptual" (17). Concepts by their nature are abstract (they unify over concrete differences between particulars) and universal (they unify over an open-ended series of all units of a given kind). However, there is nothing in reality that is abstract or universal: abstract universals (i.e., concepts) are merely the epistemological tools that enable us to grasp reality in the way that we do. Reality itself is and always remains concrete and particular, no matter what we make of our universal abstractions.

"Well, so what?", you may be thinking. The cash value is that there is an inherent tension between our abstract universals and reality's concrete particulars -- not a contradiction, but certainly a tension. We have to engage in abstraction in order to grasp the world and live in it, but the world is always concretely particular. So we need to make damn sure that we pay attention to the concrete particulars of reality, even as we engage in ever deeper and higher levels of abstraction. The highest such level of abstraction is, of course, metaphysics: our abstractions about the very nature of reality itself, including our abstractions about the nature of man (who is, as Rand notes, often his own greatest enigma).

Rand is saying, then, that the power of art derives from the fact that the artist creates a concrete particular that is an embodied abstraction (20). In other words, art provides a connecting point between the concrete particularity of reality and the abstract universality of our very widest abstractions. [It is not clear why art deals only with metaphysical abstractions, but not with other very wide abstractions, for example those about physical reality -- Rand seems to be basing some of her views about art here on what we could call the "ultimate" abstractness and complexity of metaphysical abstractions.]

But how does art do this? Again, what is art?

One way of approaching the answer is by way of an analogy with language. For example, Rand asserts: "The claim that 'art is a universal language' is not an empty metaphor, it is literally true -- in the sense of the psycho-epistemological function performed by art." (20) Rand does not just make this assertion, but provides an argument. "Man retains his concepts by means of language" (17) and "Language is a code of visual-auditory symbols that serves the psycho-epistemological function of converting abstractions into concretes or, more precisely, into the psycho-epistemological equivalent of concrete, into a manageable number of specific units." (18) Finally: "Just as language converts abstractions into the psycho-epistemological equivalent of concretes, into a manageable number of specific units -- so art converts man's metaphysical abstractions into the equivalent of concretes, into specific entities open to man's direct perception." (20) Thus both words and works of art 'stand for' or are concrete representations of human abstractions.

In a way, this is a radical view in aesthetics. Traditionally, it has been held that art is a representation of reality -- the so-called mimetic tradition. By contrast, Rand holds that art is a representation of our abstractions about reality, specifically the fundamental nature of reality.

Even though Rand's view of art is not the traditional mimetic one, she does hold that art is a selective re-creation of reality (and in fact that "selective re-creation of reality" is the genus of which art is a species). But how can art be a selective re-creation of reality and at the same time be a representation of metaphysical abstractions? Isn't there a tension here? There is (after all, not all selective re-creations of reality are representations of metaphysical abstractions), but Rand overcomes that tension by hypothesizing that the selection "mechanism" involved in creating or responding to art is an individual's views about -- and specifically evaluations of -- the nature of man and reality. Rand calls these fundamental evaluations (see the list on page 19) "metaphysical value-judgments". Thus Rand's definition: "Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments."

Later on, Rand will say that the actual selection mechanism is not metaphysical value-judgments per se, but rather the emotional repository and sum of one's metaphysical value-judgments, which Rand calls one's "sense of life" (what Ortega y Gasset calls "metaphysical sentiment"). Her view has its difficulties, I believe (or at least its unexplored complexities), but that is a topic that Will Wilkinson shall be addressing soon in his essay on "Philosophy and Sense of Life" and "Art and Sense of Life". The question I would like to pursue now is: how exactly does art constitute both a selective re-creation of concrete reality AND a universal representation of a metaphysical abstraction?

Rand's answer is subtle, and depends again on her view of concepts. In "Art and Cognition", Rand writes as follows about the visual arts, specifically about the art of painting (RM 47-48):

The sensory-perceptual awareness of an adult ... [consists] .. of integrations that combine sense data with a vast context of conceptual knowledge. The visual arts refine and direct the sensory elements of these integrations. By means of selectivity, of emphasis and omission, these arts lead man's sight to the conceptual context intended by the artist....

The artist has ... created a visual abstraction

He has performed the process of concept-formation -- of isolating and integrating -- but in exclusively visual terms. He has isolated the essential, distinguishing characteristics of apples and integrated them into a single unit. He has brought the conceptual method of functioning to the operations of a single sense organ, the organ of sight.

No one can perceive literally and indiscriminately every accidental, inconsequential detail of every apple he happens to see; everyone perceives and remembers only some aspects, which are not necessarily the essential ones; most people carry in mind a vaguely approximate image of an apple's appearance. The painting concretizes that image by means of visual essentials, which most men have not focused on or identified, but recognize at once.

As I commented previously (March 8, 1994):

What's the implication of this, applied not just to painting and sculpture but to all the arts? It is that art is at root conceptual -- and that the conceptual nature of art manifests itself not through linguistic symbols (i.e., words) that represent or stand for concepts only in conventionally- accepted ways, but through perceptual images that represent concepts through the rearrangement of the sensory elements of our perceptual impressions of the world.

I believe that art then relies on a deeply selective manner of creation, in order to be conceptual at all. It is only by creating ex nihilo, as it were, that art attains conceptual importance. This, at least for Rand, is the difference between a documentary and an original film (based on a screenplay with at least some kind of literary merit), between a sound recording of birds chirping and a piece of music, between a news story and a short story, between a chronicle and a novel, between those duplicative statues that keep popping up in more and more public places and a work of sculpture, between children running in the yard and a choreographed dance, between a photograph and a painting.

A work of art is not just the mimesis of reality or the expression of emotion -- it is a representation of an abstraction about the most significant, emotionally charged aspects of reality by way of a re-creation of reality whose selectivity in many ways mimics the selectivity of concept-formation. These are some of the reasons why art is such an incredibly complicated -- and, psychologically, such an incredibly significant -- phenomenon.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal