Artist Shrugged

by Peter Saint-Andre (1999)


First published in the Monadnock Review, February 1999.


Art is the technology of the soul.
-- Ayn Rand

The writer is the engineer of the human soul.
-- Josef Stalin

Where are the Objectivist artists? Where are the novelists and poets, painters and sculptors, architects and musicians who aim to apply Ayn Rand's ideas and example to the creation of art that will inspire the soul? Why has Rand's work not led to an artistic renaissance, even one limited to some lively subculture of creative individuals under her influence?

The answer, I think, is that the artists -- like the heroes of Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged -- are on strike.

How can this be? Doesn't Rand's core philosophy advocate intellectual independence, individualism, and personal freedom? What in that combination can there be to strike against?

There must be something, because the artists are on strike. The silence of artists influenced by Rand is deafening. From the perspective of the wider culture, such artists do not exist. Even in the subcultures of fiction-writing and of libertarianism, there are precious few artists of note whom one can identify as having been influenced strongly by Rand -- generally one of the most influential thinkers and artists of the twentieth century. And the closer an artist was or is to Rand's orbit and the little world of Objectivism, the less likely he or she is to be artistically creative and productive. The few exceptions, such as novelist Kay Nolte Smith, are known for being just that: exceptions.

Why? Is there something in Rand's ideas that stifles artistic creativity? I think there is, and it is related to the ominous parallels between Rand's ideas and those of the revolutionary communists. The result of those parallels is manifest: a focus on adherence to a core moral vision at the expense of personal expression and artistic quality. On the model of Socialist Realism, I call this dark side of Rand's aesthetic thought "Objectivist Realism".

Before exploring Objectivist Realism in depth, we need to understand how a purely intellectual movement such as Rand's Objectivism can actively enforce its moral vision of art and of man. For Rand was not the leader of a totalitarian state nor even of a cult (her Objectivist movement had some cultish overtones during its heyday in the 1960s, which echo into the present day, but was not a cult). However, the censorship of force is not the only mechanism of artistic control. Indeed, even more effective is self-censorship. I can find no better statement of the matter than some words by Miloš Forman, the great Czech film director, on his experience behind the Iron Curtain:

You know, the censorship itself -- that's not the worst evil. The worst evil -- and that's the product of censorship -- is the self-censorship, because that twists minds. That destroys my character, because I have to think something else and say something else. I have to always control myself. I stop being honest. I become a hypocrite. And that's what they wanted. They wanted everybody to feel guilty. (Cold War, CNN, January 17, 1999, edited slightly for grammar.)

For reasons both psychological and philosophical, self-censorship has always been rampant in the Objectivist movement. However, my concern here is not with the psychology of the individuals involved, but with the explicit and implicit philosophical premises of the Randian aesthetics. For even those premises, absent the magnetic pull of direct exposure to the person of Ayn Rand, have been enough to lead creative artists to strike.

The key premise, articulated both by Rand and by Stalin, is that the artist engineers the soul. The artist applies the practical science of ethics or politics to the problems of life by creating working examples of what we might call "spiritual technology". As Rand puts it in her essay "The Goal of My Writing", art "builds the model" of how to be (Rand 1975, 169). Whether that model is "New Socialist Man" or "New Objectivist Man" is not the question here; for both Socialist Realism and Objectivist Realism, the function of art is to "display the full, concretized reality of the final goal" (ibid.). And that goal is determined by something more fundamental than art: in the case of Socialist Realism, the root is politics, economics, and Marxist-Leninist ideology; in the case of Objectivist Realism, the root is ethics, metaphysics, and Randian ideology. Either way, art is not an independent realm of free creation, but instead is determined by the politico-economic superstructure or by philosophical premises.

This conception of art is well captured by a quote from Rand's disciple Leonard Peikoff (Peikoff 1991, 418):

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.

The formulation "philosophy by itself cannot satisfy man's need of philosophy" is catchy but misleading. The problem lies in the hidden premise that a work of art "represents" a metaphysics, for this 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. The sorry result of this hidden premise is the notion that human beings require "the union of the two": art that is explicitly philosophical in the same way that Socialist Realism was explicitly political.

For Rand, the connections between art and philosophy occur at the level of metaphysics (especially what José Ortega y Gasset used to call philosophical anthropology) and the level of ethics. I dispute both of these connections.

Regarding the connection between art and metaphysics, consider the following part of a poem by Victor Hugo (Guest 1981, 95):

She formed the habit in her earliest years
of coming to my room each morning so
I'd wait for her as you might hope for light.
She'd enter, say hello, take up my pen,
open my books, sit on my bed, disturb
my papers, laugh -- then leave abruptly as
a bird that passes. Easier then in mind
I'd take up what she'd interrupted till
among my manusrcipts I'd come across
some funny arabesque she'd scribbled or
a few blank pages which she'd crumpled up --
and somehow, though I don't know why, on these
would always come my most successful lines.

Is this poem is about being qua being or even about the metaphysical meaning of children in the great scheme of life? No: it is about about the meaning to Hugo of his daughter, the inspiration he found from her innocence and joy in living. To generalize, an art-work is never about the nature of reality as such, but always about an aspect of reality -- and often a deeply particular and personal aspect. Art focuses on the personally important or significant, whereas philosophy (metaphysics) focuses on the essential or universal.

Regarding the connection between art and ethics, consider The Adams Monument by Augustus Saint-Gaudens:

The Adams Monument, photographed by Sean Collins

(photo ©1997 by Sean Collins)

Is the message of this statue that sorrow is good and a thing to be valued as essential to the meaning of life? No: what it shows is "this is what it is like or feels like to lose the one you love". If one must extract a message from this work, it is 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". To generalize, an art-work does not model moral values and "the good for man", but life-experiences and the personally-significant aspects thereof.

The modeling achieved by an art-work is neither the modeling of what is essential to life (the metaphysical interpretation) nor the modeling of what Rand, in a telling misquote of Aristotle, called "what might be and ought to be" (the ethical interpretation), but the modeling of what is important to the artist. The underlying meaning is something like: "anything that evokes such a deep response is significant". But this meaning is instantiated through the image of a particular art work, not through the abstractions of discursive language or logical argument.

Despite this avowed particularism, I 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 built from 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?). I'm not saying that no art has philosophical meaning, or even that being philosophical is a bad thing for a work of art to be. 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 even, dare I say, philosophical. However, to put the point paradoxically, the best art is philosophical in a non-philosophical way: it formulates its principles aesthetically. To the extent that a work of art is philosophical, it is so in itself and in its own way -- it is not a mere condensation of an already worked-out philosophical viewpoint. So the deeper meaning of art is organic, not discursive: it grows out of the particulars presented in the work of art. It is not forced by ideology or pre-existing philosophy, but emerges from an individual artist's reflections on experience. And that kind of personal reflection is the precise opposite of self-censorship.

The cash value of forcing oneself to observe a strong connection between art and philosophy is the pressure to present the kind of human being that is the ultimate product of that particular philosophy. In the case of both Socialist Realism and Objectivist Realism, this means that art must be, above all, heroic. For example, Leonard Peikoff claims 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)". Some art works portray heroic individuals, scenes, or emotions -- Michelangelo's "David", Chopin's Polonaise in A-Flat (Op. 53), Jacques-Louis David's painting The Death of Socrates, Beethoven's Symphony #3, and Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G Minor (Op. 23, #5) spring quickly to mind -- but the history of art reveals that heroism is only one color in the pallette of the artist. Yet an artist under the sway of Objectivist Realism thinks that the heroism of man qua man must be either symbolized or undercut in every work of art. This insidious notion is the leading edge of self-censorship.

When an artist seeks to be philosophical or political in a forced manner (i.e., in adherence to a pre-existing viewpoint), then the work he or she creates descends into propaganda and the artist becomes a hack. Unfortunately, examples of hack art are all too numerous in recent times. But while the sight of a potentially independent creative artist stifling his or her personal voice for the sake of ideologically correctness is sad enough in the case of censorship at the point of a gun under authoritarian regimes, the spectacle of self-censorship by artists in a free society who voice agreement with a philosophy of individualism is much harder to understand or accept.

What is the solution to Objectivist Realism? I think it is two-fold: to recognize that art is a realm of independent value, creation, and enjoyment; and to cultivate an aesthetic individualism that truly honors the personal needs of the human soul.

References

Guest, H. 1981. The Distance, The Shadows. London: Anvil Press.

Peikoff, L. 1991. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Dutton.

Rand, A. 1975. The Romantic Manifesto. Second expanded edition. New York: New American Library.


Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Randian Reflections