Objectivist Aesthetics and the Nature of Art

by Peter Saint-Andre

This essay-review of Chapter 12 ("Art") of Leonard Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand was first published on the Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy. My essay Artist Shrugged makes use of some of the insights first developed here, as will my forthcoming essay on "The Conceptual Nature of Art".

Leonard Peikoff divides Chapter 12 of Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR) into three sections. The first of these is the one I will focus on in this review, since it alone addresses the most fundamental issues: the nature of art, why art is a fundamental need of man qua man, and therefore why aesthetics is a branch of philosophy.

The second section of OPAR 12 is entitled "Romantic Literature as Illustrating the Relation of Philosophy to Art". I will not discuss this section at any length, mostly because I don't think that a topic exclusive to literature is universal enough to belong in a discussion of aesthetics -- I believe that issues of aesthetics apply to all the arts. However, I will make several comments here on Rand's (and Peikoff's) conception of Romanticism, about which I believe there is a great deal of confusion. Peikoff makes some interesting comments on Romantic style, which he characterizes as a special focus on "the perceptual essentials . . . that make the object concretely real" (OPAR, p. 437), but it is in regard to the subject-matter of Romantic art that the greatest confusion has arisen. Part of the problem is Rand's misrepresentation of Aristotle's great formulation that art deals with the possible, or in Aristotle's words "what might be and could be". Rand paraphrased this passage as "what might be and ought to be", and unfortunately Peikoff has allowed this error to stand uncorrected in OPAR. Rand's reading seems to have been tied in her mind and by Peikoff to what Peikoff calls "the model-building aspect of art", which he characterizes as the power of art to portray the heroic or a moral ideal. Unfortunately, there is much else of importance that can be portrayed in art, to which Rand and especially Peikoff seem to give short shrift in their emphasis on Romanticism and model-building. Louis Torres and Michelle Kamhi argue in their series "Ayn Rand's Philosophy of Art: A Critical Introduction" (Aristos 5:2-5:5) that Rand's conception of Romanticism is suspect since it applies only to plotted literature. I argue elsewhere ("A Philosophy for Living on Earth", Objectivity 1:6) that Rand's conception of Romanticism can be seen more broadly as the acceptance and celebration of the very fact of the selectivity of art -- a fact that the Naturalists seek in vain to escape. I will argue later in this essay that art does indeed model reality in a special way, but that the scope of phenomena that art can model is far wider than just the heroic.

The third section of Peikoff's chapter is "Esthetic Value as Objective". This topic forms a small part of Rand's own writings on aesthetics (as far as I can find, only one paragraph). In this section Peikoff does provide a helpful summary of certain cardinal principles of art -- selectivity, intelligibility, and integration -- and draws attention to the important distinction Rand made between aesthetic judgment and aesthetic response (the former consisting in reasoned judgment of means to end, the latter in an emotional reaction according to one's sense of life). Unfortunately, by discussing the topic of the objectivity of aesthetic value at such length, Peikoff makes it out to be a greater part of Rand's aesthetics than in fact it is. Especially bothersome in the third section is Peikoff's introduction of the concept of beauty, when he says that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder or in the object itself, but is "in the object -- as judged by a rational beholder" (OPAR, p.448). Whence beauty?? Rand never mentions beauty in her discussion of aesthetics. For Rand, aesthetics is not the science of perceptual "taste" or "the beautiful" (the original meaning of the term 'aesthetics' as introduced by Baumgarten, extended by Kant, and accepted by most aestheticians ever since), but that branch of philosophy which supplies the fundamental principles for understanding -- and, by extension, creating -- art.

Art as a Conretization of Metaphysics

Following Rand (Philosophy: Who Needs It, pp. 4-5), Leonard Peikoff claims that aesthetics is a branch of philosophy (one of the five). He further claims that a branch of philosophy has an intellectual status different from that of a mere application of philosophy, such as the philosophy of science, of law, or of education. A branch of philosophy, Peikoff argues, is universal and timeless, for it addresses a need of man qua man. Peikoff characterizes such needs as intellectual needs, or needs of the mind: needs of man as thinker and valuer. Given Rand's and Peikoff's enumeration of the branches of philosophy, then, there would seem to be only five such universal and timeless needs of man qua man:

Let me try to flesh these out a bit . . .

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy because man, by his nature as a conceptual being, requires a comprehensive view of reality to set the widest context for his thoughts, choices, actions, and feelings; this comprehensive view is provided by metaphysics.

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy because man, by his nature as a volitionally conceptual (and therefore fallible) being, requires reliable methods for gaining knowledge about reality; these methods are provided by epistemology.

Ethics is a branch of philosophy because man, by his nature as a conceptual being whose actions are determined by his choices, requires a code of value principles to guide him in life; this code is provided by ethics.

Politics is a branch of philosophy because man, by his nature as an independent being who pursues his values in a social context, requires the controlled protection of his pursuit of value from coercive interference by other human beings; this protection is provided by government, and the principles of government are provided by politics.

Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy because man, by his nature as a conceptual being who acts consciously or subconsciously on the basis of his view of reality, requires the concrete image of his widest abstractions to guide him in his choices and actions; such concretizations are provided by art, and the principles of creating and understanding art are provided by aesthetics.

What kind of need is the need for art? Peikoff stresses that art is non-utilitarian: the purpose of art is contemplation, not consumption. Art fulfills a spiritual need, not a material need. Art serves the preservation and survival of a person's consciousness (or mind or self), as opposed to the preservation and survival of a person's body or material nature. (Issues for possible discussion: does this set up a needless opposition between mind and body? What does it mean to talk about the "preservation and survival of [one's] consciousness"?)

For further elucidation, let us investigate the argument Rand and Peikoff set out to prove that art is a human need -- an argument which I have reworded slightly in the following presentation . . .

The Argument

  1. Human consciousness is conceptual, i.e., it works in abstractions.
  2. The ultimate abstractions are metaphysical abstractions: abstractions about the nature of the world and of man.
  3. There exists a special kind of question that is metaphysical: questions about "what is possible to me" by my nature and the nature of the world (see "Our Cultural Value-Deprivation", The Objectivist 5(4-5); cf. also The Romantic Manifesto (RM), p. 170 and Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 4).
  4. The answers to such metaphysical questions "assume in [my] mind the function of metaphysical value-judgments" -- they act as value-conditioners that add their tone to everything I think, choose, do, and feel in life.
  5. The sum of such answers makes up my view of reality, which can be held either subconsciously (sense of life) or consciously (metaphysics).
  6. My world-view provides the widest context for my life, and is present in everything I think, choose, do, and feel.
  7. I need to be actively aware of this widest context so that I can use it as a guide in my thinking, choosing, acting, and feeling.
  8. Because the basic and ultimate form of human awareness of reality is perception, I need to be aware of my view of reality not only in the abstract form of conceptualizations but also in the concrete form of perceptible objects.
  9. Such concretizations are provided by art.

From this argument we can see that art concretizes and objectifies a view of existence. Another way of putting this is by saying that art is a concrete form of metaphysics -- it is a vividly perceptible way of presenting a world view. And as Peikoff notes, art, though a re-creation of reality, is so selective and stylized that at root it is also a kind of creation: the creation of another world, a reality other than the reality we know. As Peikoff says, it is in the person of the artist that man comes closest to being a god! The artist is a creator of worlds. [Issue: if all men, including those Rand calls "the folks next door" were heores, would we need an art that glorifies the heroic? Is the re-creation of what "might be" as opposed to what is a shaky basis for art, or for the distinction between Romanticism ("good art", according to Rand and Peikoff) and Naturalism ("bad art", according to the same)?]

According to Peikoff, however, art is not an independent realm -- it is not fundamentally creative or causative in human life, because art (as everything else in the human world) is determined ultimately by philosophy. "An art work does not formulate the metaphysics it represents; it does not . . . articulate definitions and principles. So art is not enough in this context. But the point is that philosophy is not enough, either. Philosophy by itself cannot satisfy man's need of philosophy. Man requires the union of the two." (OPAR, 418, emphasis added)

The formulation "Philosophy by itself cannot satisfy man's need of philosophy" is catchy, but I think it is a little misleading. The problem is with one of the hidden premises lurking behind Peikoff's presentation. Peikoff maintains that a work of art "represents" a metaphysics, which implies that the metaphysics or world-view in question pre-exists the work of art -- that the world-view has already been presented, and now needs only to be re-presented in concrete form via art.

However, this characterization of the respective roles of art and philosophy flies in the face of cultural history. Think, for example, about ancient Greece: first came Homer, then Aeschylus and Sophocles and Sappho and the others, and then finally at the end of the line came Aristotle. It didn't happen the other way around. Homer's artistic abstractions provided guidance for generations of Greeks before Aristotle ever came on the scene to codify that vision into philosophical abstractions, i.e., into explicit metaphysical and ethical doctrines.

Art (e.g. the cave paintings) predated the birth of philosophy in ancient Greece by at least 30,000 years (to avoid recognizing this Peikoff makes the incredible claim that "philosophy . . . has always existed among men"). It cannot be that art was "condensing philosophy" all that time -- what it was concretizing and objectifying were views about the nature of man and reality. Yet it is highly likely that such views were presented originally only in art, and that art was the repository for such views long before they were presented conceptually in the form of philosophy or even explicit religion (though this last is a little more murky, since the earliest religious beliefs were probably presented in the form of oral poetry -- though in the form of legends and myths, i.e., stories, i.e., art).

Contra Peikoff, I would argue that a work of art does "formulate its metaphysics" -- but artistically or aesthetically, not philosophically. A work of art is metaphysical in itself and in its own way -- it is not a mere condensation of an already worked-out metaphysics. I will have more to say on this topic after discussing some of the connections Rand and Peikoff make between art and ethics.

Art and Ethics

Peikoff argues for a strong connection between art and ethics. He maintains that ethics, like metaphysics, is a complex sum of broad abstractions. To apply a code of value-principles in living, he reasons, you needs two things: "A series of separately identified moral rules" (a formulation that is questionable in itself, given its emphasis on rigid rules as opposed to more flexible principles) and "their integration -- i.e., the moral character and way of life to which they add up". Peikoff thus argues that the full experience of moral rules requires their reduction to a perceptual unit or concrete -- that is, to a specific person. And he equates "specific person" with "fictional character". Such a character is a moral ideal, after the model of whom one can build one's own soul. Thus the importance in Peikoff's presentation of what he calls the "model-building aspect of art", captured in Rand's aphorism "Art is the technology of the soul".

[I note, without comment, that another famous Russian thinker once expressed the idea that the writer is an "engineer of the human soul". That thinker was Josef Stalin (see B.G. Rosenberg, Nietzsche in Russia, pp. 36-7).]

Rand and Peikoff's argument proceeds along the following lines, where "-->" is shorthand for "leads to":

The "main field here is literature", as Peikoff puts it -- since literature (or more precisely plotted literature) is the only art-form that can depict choice-based action through time. Yet Peikoff makes the incredible claim that "all art works involve some moral content, at least implicitly", and talks about the power inherent in all art "selectively to re-create reality (and, directly or indirectly, to project a hero)".

Now, I'm not denying that some non-literary works portray heroic individuals, scenes, or emotions -- Michelangelo's David, Chopin's Polonaise in A-Flat (Op. 53), Jacques-Louis David's paintings The Death of Socrates and Napoleon Crossing the St. Bernard Pass, Beethoven's Symphony #3, and Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G Minor (Op. 23, #5) come quickly to mind.

But heroism is only one color in the pallette of the artist -- only one thing of importance that an artist can feature in a work of art. Other works of art are devoted to highlighting other aspects of life, such as sorrow over a lost love (August Saint Gaudens' powerful Adams Memorial in Washington, DC) or a lost friend (Duke Ellington's piercing performance of his friend Billy Strayhorn's composition Lotus Blossom), playfulness (Beethoven's Eccossaises for piano), wonder (the grand American landscapes painted by Albert Bierstadt), simple joy in the sheer presence of light (any painting by the great Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla), delight in order and the rational harmony of the universe (Bach's Art of the Fugue), the beauty of the female form (American sculptor D.C. French's extraordinary Andromeda), unabashed joy in living (Harriet Whitney Frishmuth's The Vine in the Metropolitan Museum of Art), power (the famous statue of Poseidon now in the National Museum in Athens), the loss of youth (Raphael's portrait Student and Fencing Master, next to Leonardo's Mona Lisa in the Louvre), the acquisition of wisdom (Rembrandt's later self-portraits), romantic passion (Rodin's The Kiss), an almost painful wistfulness (Vaughan Williams' soaring Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis), etc. And these are only works of painting, sculpture, and music. Many more examples could be adduced from the art-forms of poetry, theatre, and fiction, as well as from architecture.

Peikoff's claim that every work of art projects or denies the heroic seems to be based on the assumption that every work of art projects or denies a universe disposed to the achievement of human values (the old benevolent vs. malevolent universe issue). What seems to confuse Mr. Peikoff and many others is the level of particularity that is appropriate to art. Rand's definition of art posits that "art is the selective re-creation of reality according to the artist's metaphysical value-judgments." But this does not mean that the theme or subject of every art-work is highly abstract or metaphysical in the sense of dealing with an essential issue of the nature of man or reality as such. Only certain art is like that -- namely, philosophical art. What Rand's definition means is that the producer's world-view acts as the mechanism of selection for the particulars that are included in a work of art, and that the consumer's world-view acts as the mechanism of response to a work of art. The re-creation and the subject matter are particular -- the selection proceeds according to abstractions.

To illustrate the difference, let me take as my example a work I mentioned above: the Adams Memorial by Augustus Saint Gaudens. For those of you who have never experienced this work, it is an incredibly powerful statue that depicts a draped figure of overwhelming sorrow (I have seen people react to it by turning away, because the emotion it evokes in them is almost unbearable). Yet is the meaning of this work that "life is sorrow", and was Saint Gaudens therefore a sculptor whose work is tainted by the malevolent universe premise? I think not. The work was commissioned by Saint Gaudens' friend Henry Adams, who had recently lost his dearly beloved wife and desired a monument that would do justice to his grief and to his acceptance of the finality of the loss -- which monument Saint Gaudens produced.

What the Adams Memorial communicates is not "life is sorrow", but "this is what it is like to lose the one you love". Thus I believe the "message" of this work is not that "sorrow is essential to life" (the metaphysically essentialist interpretation), or that "sorrow is good" (the ethical interpretation), but that "love is deeply important in life, which is why losing the one you love is like this, i.e., is a deeply sorrowful experience". This last message is indeed metaphysical in a way: not in the sense of what is essential to life but in the sense of what is important in life. The underlying sense is something like: "anything that evokes such deep emotion is significant, even if the emotion or experience (in this case, sorrow) is not the essence of life".

To generalize, then, I think that art build models of a sort by producing objects or experiences that communicate the message "this is what it's like to..." or "this is what it feel like to... " (see Rand's discussion of music, specifically RM p. 51, for a similar characterization of the meaning of art). But what art models is the particulars of reality (in Rand's terms, art is a selective re-creation of particular reality). Yet despite this avowed particularism I would also maintain that the underlying tone or widest context put into the work by its producer and taken out of the work by its consumer is made up of answers to certain fundamental, metaphysical questions about what is possible to human beings in reality (e.g., is passion or joy or happiness or achievement or knowledge possible to human beings?). Perhaps there is a figure-ground analogy here: what is modeled in the foreground of a work of art is particular, but the background or context of the work is abstract or metaphysical.

Now, one of the things that art can model is heroism. And much art has been produced that models the experience or the feelings of heroism. But heroism is not the only thing that art can model, nor, I would argue, is it the only thing that is important enough in human life to merit modeling (even according to Objectivism). Thus when Peikoff says in regard to heroism in art that "the model-building aspect...is not a universal attribute of art", I would have to agree with him.

Peikoff goes on to say that "even where [the model-building aspect] is present, it is not a primary". This is part of what Peikoff, following Rand, means that by saying the purpose of art is not didactic -- that art exists not to teach what is good or essential about man or reality, but to show what is possible or important in life. In this way art makes possible a certain kind of experience: the experience of a world-view in concrete form.

However, Peikoff also says that there is one sense in which we can say that art teaches: it teaches you how to use your consciousness -- it teaches a technique of directing your awareness to metaphysical essentials. This is part of what it means to say that art is selective. Art does not represent things the way they are actually, which is the task of science or journalism; art represents things the way they are metaphysically. Thus art does not consist in an escape from reality, but in a peculiar attentiveness to reality. Science and journalism and such deal with what is, and try to get at the essentials. Ethics deals with what is good. Art, by constrast, deals with what is important; and artistic selection constitues an evaluation that this particular thing being modeled or recreated is metaphysically significant (be it love, heroism, joy, achievement, sorrow, jealousy, or any other action or emotion).

In sum, Peikoff maintains that the element responsible for our creation of and reaction to art is one's subconscious metaphysics or sense of life, and that art is therefore always philosophical, at least implicitly. Following Rand, he further maintains that the view of life presented in a work of art can be identified rationally. Thus art does not have to be the "dark mystery" (RM, p. 15) that it has always been held to be. Art is a human product with a specific nature, open to human understanding and enjoyment. In the context of the murk that is twentieth-century aesthetics, this call to reason -- along with the introduction of an objective definition of art to back it up -- is perhaps the most significant contribution of the Objectivist aesthetics.

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