Concretizing Abstractions

1994-10-24

In a sense, all creation is a process of concretizing abstractions -- thus Rand's analogy between engineering and art in "The Goal of My Writing". On the other hand, I think that there is something special about art in this regard, because the very purpose of art is to concretize abstractions. That's the whole point about art. The purpose of engineering is to create material technologies that benefit us materially, using the abstractions of physics, chemistry, biology, etc. along the way. But it would strike us as exceedingly strange if someone were to say that the purpose of engineering is to concretize scientific abstractions, or that the purpose of business is to concretize the abstract universals of economics (not to create value or to make money)! Art is unique in that it serves no material purpose in the way that engineering or business does. All these can be said to in some way concretize abstractions, but only art has as its sole purpose the creation of concretes that objectify abstractions.

Why do we need art to do that? Marsha Enright points out that the need is driven by ethics, on Rand's view: in order to live on earth as the conceptual creatures we are, we need something that can enable us to grasp perceptually the reality of our deepest convictions and beliefs about the world and especially about man (since such views set the tone for all of our thoughts, choices, actions, and feelings). That perceptual grasp is given to us by art.

One problem I have with Rand's views as laid out in the Romantic Manifesto is that she focuses almost exclusively on the metaphysics of man as opposed to general metaphysics (and thus on literature as opposed to all the other arts). I think this leads her to believe that heroic art is the best art, since only art that has heroes at its center shows man at his highest potential. Now, I think showing man at his highest is important, but that's not all that art can (or even should) do. Think of landscape painting: no heroes here. Yet a well-rendered landscape gives me a great deal of pleasure because it concords with my belief that the world is orderly, that things are in their places metaphysically speaking, etc. Think of the contrast here with someone like Dali, whose style one can admire but whose paintings (on the whole) give the viewer the feeling that all is not right with the world metaphysically speaking, that what we perceive in reality is not the way things really are, and so on (indeed, I have the quotes to back up my belief that this is exactly the effect Dali intended). So, what is the "objective aesthetic judgment" we should pass on landscape painting, on Rand's view? Should we damn it because it does not put man at the center of things? Or should we praise it and let it please us for the value and view of reality it does offer?

Let me raise an issue that is perhaps related to the foregoing. At the end of "The Psycho-Epistemology of Art", Rand says something that I do not understand (and to which Torres and Kamhi take exception in their series on Rand's philosophy of art in Aristos). She says: "The reason why art has such a profoundly personal significance for men is that art confirms or denies the efficacy of a man's consciousness, according to whether an art work supports or negates his own fundamental view of reality" (24).

Why? Does a work of art really "confirm or deny the efficacy of a man's consciousness"? What would that mean? Is the same true of philosophies? For example, should I say that the works of Kant or Schopenhauer deny the efficacy of my consciousness, just because I disagree with them quite violently? I don't think philosophy has the power to do that, nor do I think art can do that either (by "that" I mean confirm or deny the efficacy of my consciousness). Art that I "agree with" gives me pleasure because through it I can experience in an objectified form my own view or sense of life, but I don't think that it confirms the efficacy of my consciousness.

A related point: Rand seems to believe that there are only two possible reactions to a work of art: love or hatred. However, she seems to be ignoring something: the phenomenon of aesthetic indifference. There are plenty of works that I don't love and don't hate -- they just leave me cold. Is there no room in Rand's theory for this reaction?


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