The Conceptual Nature of Art

by Peter Saint-Andre (2005)


Throughout history, art has often been seen as a realm of pure emotion, the unfathomable territory of a "dark mystery" (Rand 1975, 15) -- a human product whose nature and function are impervious to reason and objective definition. Yet recent times have witnessed phenomena that give heightened urgency to the question of the nature of art. For ours is a period riven by total abstraction in painting and sculpture, serialism in music, the abandonment of meter in poetry, and similar movements in the other arts -- as well as Socialist Realism and propagandistic art in general, strong undercurrents of nihilism and irrationalism [1], the opposition between the "two cultures" of science and art, the rise of technological competitors to the traditional arts (portraiture, for example, largely having been supplanted by photography), the centering of artistic activity in the universities, government subsidies for and influence over the arts, and the increasingly theory-laden perception of aestheticians, art historians, and critics. All this has left art that strives for "joy and reason and meaning" (Rand 1943, 543) without a voice and, famously, without a theory (Wolfe 1975).

In the midst of this chaos, one of the great artistic outcasts of the twentieth century reflected on the nature and power of art: the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. This essay distills what I see as the essence of Rand's contribution to aesthetics. [2]

Art as a Conceptual Endeavor

The hallmark of human life is its conceptual nature. What Jacob Bronowski called "human specificity" (Bronowski 1978, 62) lies in the fact that human beings are able to abstract from their immediate perceptions to grasp the nature of things in ways that range widely and deeply in space, time, and cognitive scale. What makes this possible is the fact that human beings are conceptual. Following and extending Rand's insights in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and The Romantic Manifesto, I hold that there are four main fields of conceptual endeavor among human beings:

  1. Language
  2. Mathematics
  3. Art
  4. Technology

Each of these fields has deep roots in human history. There are also important similarities, differences, and connections between them (e.g., language and mathematics are generally seen as directed toward the pursuit of knowledge, whereas art and technology are directed toward creation). Yet all four are distinctive to human beings and grounded in the human ability to abstract, conceptualize, and project their insights and imagination forward and backward in time and space.

Traditionally, there have been two opposing theories of art: the mimetic theory and the expression theory. While Rand saw value in each of these approaches, she did not accept these theories as the only alternatives. In aesthetics, as in so many other areas of philosophy (Sciabarra 1995), Rand sought to overcome the traditional dichotomies. So let us investigate the texts to see how Rand went about finding a third way in aesthetics.

There are many questions one can ask about art, each of which leads in a different direction. Philosophers have traditionally asked: What is art? More recently, biologists and ethologists have asked a question to which we shall return later: What is art for? [3] Ayn Rand seems to approach the topic by asking: What does art do? We are all familiar with the fact that art can do many things: it can inspire, enlighten, 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. Yet according to Rand the fundamental thing that art does is this:

Art brings man's concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts. (Rand 1975, 20)

How does a work of art accomplish this feat? The language that Rand uses to describe the process is fundamentally the same as the language she uses to describe the process of concept-formation. Consider:

By a selective recreation, art isolates and integrates those aspects of reality which represent man's fundamental view of himself and existence. Out of the countless numbers of concretes -- of single, disorganized and (seemingly) contradictory attributes, actions, and entities -- an artist isolates the things which he regards as metaphysically essential and integrates them into a single new concrete that represents an embodied abstraction. (Rand 1975, 19-20)

A concept is a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated according to a specific characteristic(s) and united by a specific definition.... The act of isolation involved is a process of abstraction: i.e., a selective mental focus that takes out or separates a certain aspect of reality from all others.... The uniting involved is not a mere sum, but an integration, i.e., a blending of the units into a single, new mental entity which is used thereafter as a single unit of thought. (Rand 1990, 10)

According to Rand, isolation and integration are the core processes involved in both concept formation and artistic creation. We can see the similarities more fully by paraphrasing several paragraphs from Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, substituting a few key terms:

"The purpose of [art] is to expand the range of man's consciousness, of his knowledge, beyond the perceptual level: beyond the direct power of his senses and the immediate concretes of any given moment.... The process of [creating art] is a process of integrating an unlimited scale of knowledge to man's limited perceptual experience -- a process of making the universe knowable by bringing it within the range of man's consciousness, by establishing its relationship to man. It is not an accident that man's earliest attempts at [art] (the evidence of which survives to this day) consisted of relating things to himself..." (Rand 1990, 9, substituting 'art' or 'creating art' for 'measurement')

"It is here that Protagoras' old dictum may be given a new meaning, the opposite of the one he intended: "Man is the measure of all things." Man is the measure, epistemologically -- not metaphysically. In regard to human [art], man has to be the measure, since he has to bring all things into the realm of the humanly knowable. But, far from leading to subjectivism, the methods which he has to employ require the most rigorous [aesthetic] precision, the most rigorous compliance with objective rules and facts -- if the end product is to be [art]." (Rand 1990, 8, substituting 'art' for 'knowledge' and 'aesthetic' for 'mathematical')

"In order to be used as a single unit, the enormous sum integrated by a concept has to be given the form of a single, specific, perceptual concrete, which will differentiate it from all other concretes and from all other concepts. This is the function performed by [art]. [Art] is a code of [aesthetic images] that serves the psycho-epistemological function of converting concepts into the [actual or mental] equivalent of concretes.... [Aesthetic images] transform concepts into [actual or mental] concretes." (Rand 1990, 10, substituting 'art' for 'language', 'aesthetic images' for 'visual/auditory symbols' and 'words', and 'actual or mental' for 'mental')

The Epistemology of the Image

The foregoing is merely suggestive. We now delve deeper by defining our terms and exploring what I call the epistemology of the image.

By "art" I mean the sum of works created in the fields of drama, fiction, poetry, painting (including allied fields such as drawing and watercolor), sculpture, dance, song, and instrumental music. By "aesthetic" I mean of or relating to art. By "aesthetic image" I mean a visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or mental likeness contained in or evoked by a work of art.

The term "likeness" requires explication. Because human beings are primarily visual creatures, we tend to think of images as visual images. Yet I follow the ancient roots of the word in holding that an image is a likeness that is captured or communicated in the terms of any sense modality (or combination thereof), whether physically embodied in a created object or mentally embodied in human thoughts. The import of this usage will become clearer through examples and discussion.

As can be seen from my substitution of 'art' for 'language' in the preceding quotations, one way to approach the question of the nature of art is by way of an analogy to and contrast with language. Indeed, 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." (Rand 1975, 20) The essence of her argument is threefold:

  1. "Man retains his concepts by means of language." (17)
  2. "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 concretes, into a manageable number of specific units." (18)
  3. "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 art-works 'stand for' or are concrete symbols of human abstractions.

However, in line with the traditional distinction between philosophy and art, we can make an important distinction here between conventional symbols (such as words or mathematical symbols) and "organic" symbols (of which aesthetic images are an instance). Both words and images stand for or symbolize concepts, but they do so in different ways (on the distinction between words and images as indicative of the distinction between philosophy and art, see Rand 1975, 158-159). The fact that in English we use the letters "c-o-u-r-a-g-e" or the phonemes "kuhr-ij" to symbolize or stand for the concept of "moral strength in the face of fear" (or somesuch) is purely conventional; we could just as well use some other letters or phonemes, as languages other than English do. And this is true of all words (except perhaps onomatopoetic words). However, to symbolize the abstraction courage by means of an image or likeness of Socrates drinking the hemlock -- as in J.L. David's painting "The Death of Socrates" -- is to do so in a direct or "organic" way, since Socrates' drinking of the hemlock was itself an act of courage. David's painting does not define the concept of courage in a discursive manner, but presents an instance of it; it says not "this is the definition of courage", but "this is what courage is like". Similarly, images in other art-forms and genres present what it is like to perform an action or live through an experience, what the world would be like if a certain course of events occurred, what it feels like to experience a certain emotion, and so on. [4]

Language consists in the representation of abstractions through discursive, purely conventional visual-auditory symbols that convert those abstractions into a manageable number of specific units, primarily for the purpose of understanding reality. Art consists in the representation of abstractions through presentational, "organic" images or likenesses; such images are developed by rearranging the sensory elements of our perceptual impressions of the world, they convert abstractions into specific entities that are open to human perception, and their primary purpose is to enable the experience of a heightened sense of the reality or importance of the presented abstractions. To put it another way: the image presented by a work of art represents or bears a likeness to something (e.g., Socrates' action of drinking the hemlock) that is an instance of the abstraction -- something that is, in Ayn Rand's terminology, a unit of the concept. For Rand, art works are at root conceptual because they present abstractions in perceptual form. [5]

This is a radical view in aesthetics. In opposition to the mimetic theory of art, Rand holds that art is not a direct representation of particular entities in reality, but a concretization of abstractions about reality (or, more precisely, aspects thereof [6]). In opposition to the expression theory of art, Rand holds that art is not a direct expression of individual emotion, but a concretization of an individual's concepts (albeit concepts that often are strongly charged with value-meaning). Thus Rand's is an abstract approach to art: not in the sense that she thinks the best art is non-representational, but in the sense that art represents a human abstraction from reality. Rand recognizes that an art-work, like a word, is not an abstract universal (as a concept is); instead, it is a concrete particular that stands for or symbolizes an abstract universal. For Rand, an art-work is a delicate unity of abstract and concrete, of universal and particular -- an organic unity, as opposed to the conventional unity of concept and word in language. This organicism, which emerges by means of a process of what we might call "abstraction through perceptual selection", makes art more universal than language because we all perceive the same reality in roughly the same ways, whereas we do not all speak the same language.

The Nature of Aesthetic Abstraction

Rand provides two examples of the process of abstraction through perceptual selection. The first is a passage on visual abstraction, in which Rand uses as her example a still-life painting of apples (Rand 1971, 47-48):

The sensory-perceptual awareness of an adult does not consist of mere sense data (as it did in his infancy), but 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. They teach man to see more precisely and to find deeper meaning in the field of his vision.

It is a common experience to observe that a particular painting -- for example, a still life of apples -- makes its subject "more real than it is in reality." The apples seem brighter and firmer, they seem to possess an almost self-assertive character, a kind of heightened reality which neither their real-life models nor any color photograph can match. Yet if one examines them closely, one sees that no real-life apple ever looked like that. What is it, then, that the artist has done? 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. What they feel, in effect, is: "Yes, that's the way an apple looks to me!" In fact, no apple ever looked that way to them -- only to the selectively focused eye of an artist. But, psycho-epistemologically, their sense of heightened reality is not an illusion: it comes from the greater clarity which the artist has given to their mental image. The painting has integrated the sum of their countless random impressions, and thus has brought order to the visual field of their experience.

The second is a discussion of characterization in literature (Rand 1971, 87-89):

Characterization is the portrayal of those essential traits which form the unique, distinctive personality of an individual human being.

Characterization requires an extreme degree of selectivity. A human being is the most complex entity on earth; a writer's task is to select the essentials out of that enormous complexity, then proceed to create an individual figure, endowing it with all the appropriate details down to the telling small touches needed to give it full reality. That figure has to be an abstraction, yet look like a concrete; it has to have the universality of an abstraction and, simultaneously, the unrepeatable uniqueness of a person....

Characterization requires the portrayal of essential traits....

It is a man's basic premises and values that form his character and move him to action....

To maintain the inner logic of his characterizations, a writer must understand the logical chain that leads from the motives of his characters to their actions. To maintain their motivational consistency, he must know their basic premises and the key actions to which these premises will lead them in the course of the story. When he writes the actual scenes in which the characters appear, their premises act as the selectors of all the details and small touches he decides to include. Such details are innumerable, the opportunities for revealing a character's nature are virtually inexhaustible, and it is the knowledge of what he has to reveal that guides the writer's selections.

These examples provide valuable clues to Rand's thinking on the nature of aesthetic abstraction. Specifically, they show that what Rand calls "measurement-omission" in the process of forming concepts is operative as well in artistic creation. Yet one crucial difference between language or mathematics and art is that an aesthetic image or likeness portrays a unit of the concept, which means that in art the inclusion of measurements is as important as the omission of measurements. In language or mathematics, the operative principle is that of "omitting all particular measurements" but realizing that "the relevant measurements must exist in some quantity, but may exist in any quantity" (Rand 1990, 12). The process of artistic creation necessarily adds back some measurements in order to present a perceptible, concrete image or likeness that stands for the relevant abstraction. Where language and especially mathematics seek abstraction above all, art revels in the particular at the same time that it presents an image or vision of some aspect of human experience. [7]

Rand's examples of painting and literary characterization may be seen as relatively easy applications of the concept of artistic abstraction, since we are all familiar with the physical objects and human beings from which these visual and literary abstractions are formed. Similarly, it is straightforward to extend Rand's analysis of painting to sculpture, and to draw analogies between her analysis of characterization and the phenemona of human beings in action as abstracted in story-lines or plots. More imagination is required to apply the same principles to the art of dance (of which the current author is woefully ignorant), although the likeness of stylized movements in the dance to familiar human motions such as leaping, falling, and spinning provide important clues. But the most problematical art-forms for the abstractive approach to art that I have sketched are poetry and music. I shall deal with these in turn.

Matters of Style

In the only substantive sentence that Rand devotes to poetry in her published works, she says that a poem's "basic attributes are theme and style" (Rand 1971, 81). Although this characterization does violence to the historical role of poetry -- there is much more than theme and style in the epic poems of Homer, Vergil, and Dante, or in the dramatic poems of Shakespeare, Moliere, and Schiller, to name but a few -- it is somewhat accurate with regard to lyric poetry. It also helps us isolate an aspect of artistic creation that provides another realm of abstractive power, namely that of style.

Verse poetry is distinguished from other forms of linguistic practice by the presence of meter. Yet what is meter? It is an organization of or abstraction from the natural rhythms of language (Steele 1999, 6, 39, 51). The fact that meter is an abstraction is indicated by the existence of different systems of meter in particular languages. For example, in Latin and ancient Greek the metrical system is based upon the spoken duration of syllables, in modern Romance languages upon syllable counts, in older Germanic languages meter is eschewed in favor of a system of accented syllables, and modern English combines Romanic syllabification with Germanic accentual stresses to yield a hybrid accentual-syllabic system that reveals the Anglo-Saxon and Franco-Latin roots of modern English. No matter what metrical system is native to a language, its skillful use results in linguistic patterns that delight both ear and eye, thus making thoughts more striking and memorable.

Poems also treat single words and phonemes, in their role as "visual-auditory symbols" (Rand 1990, 10), as sensory units in the auditory (and, more recently, visual) presentation of thematic material. Thus the importance in most poetries of regularities of sound -- primarily rhyme (mainly end-rhymes that signal line-endings in stanzaic verse) but also assonance, consonance, and alliteration (repetition of vowel sounds, end-of-word consonants, and start-of-word consonants respectively) as well as parallelism and anaphora (both of which involve repeating the same grammatical construction in successive phrases or clauses). Here again, these techniques result in harmonies that human beings find naturally pleasing.

Another aspect of linguistic style that makes poetry (and much prose) more memorable is the use of metaphor and simile, in which something in one domain of experience is explicitly likened to another thing in a different domain. For example, when Rand in her novel We The Living writes that pine trees are "tall red candles" (Rand 1936, 206) or "like columns of dark brick" (195), she draws the reader's attention to similarities that were not previously imagined -- similarities that reuse aspects of existing concepts to make new mental connections. [8]

Matters of style reveal that there is more to aesthetic meaning than strict representational or mimetic meaning: the internal arrangement, coherence, and integration of artistic materials plays an important role in the meaning of art and the pleasure it gives. Painter and critic Kenyon Cox, in his essay "What is Painting?" (Cox 1988), isolates two aspects of visual art: the art of imitation (representational or mimetic content) and the art of relation (the internal coherence of artistic materials). This distinction is easily extended beyond colors and forms to the materials specific to other sense-modalities, such as movements in dance, words and phrases in the literary arts, and tones and rhythms in music.

Furthermore, different art-forms combine these aspects in different ways and to different degrees. For example, I would argue that the best painting is fairly strongly mimetic, and that to make painting or sculpture strictly an art of relation, as the abstract artists of the twentieth century have done, is to turn these arts away from their true vocation. On the other hand, music is by nature a much more abstract art-form, which is why it can stand alone with much less imitative or mimetic content than the other arts. Similarly, poetry can in the hands of a master gain much of its power from the relation of word to word, although I believe there must always be some connection between word and reality, else poetry is nonsense (although the existence of nonsense poetry shows that poetry is strongly an art of relation).

Music: A Special Case?

It is difficult to fit music into the traditional mimetic views on the nature of art. Although vocal melodies can be seen as an imitation or exaggeration of human speech (indeed it seems that the earliest poems were all sung or chanted) and musical rhythms can be seen as representations of human movements (as witness the historical connection of music to dance), the rise of purely instrumental music in the West since the eighteenth century has given impetus to the expression theory of art and more recently to a dedicated "philosophy of music" (Kivy 2002, 10-11, 50-52) that has no counterpart in the other arts (there is no dedicated philosophy of painting, sculpture, poetry, or dance).

Yet there is a tradition, stretching back to Aristotle, of claiming that at least some features of musical works bear a likeness to human speech, movements, emotions, and states of character. The main word that Aristotle uses to describe music in a famous passage in the Politics (Book VIII, Chapter 5) is "homoiomata" (likeness) rather than "mimesis" (imitation), and he claims that the rhythms and melodies of music bear a likeness to states or qualities of character (not, it must be noted, to emotions). The thrust of this line of thinking was resurrected in the twentieth century by Susanne Langer, who argued (Langer 1942) that music is iconically symbolic of, even isomorphic with, the emotional life of human beings -- what pianist Glenn Gould called "a representation not so much of the known exterior world as of the idealized interior world" (Gould 1984, 99; see also my essay Glenn Gould: Musical Individualist (Saint-Andre 1999b). More recent investigators have placed less stress on the directly emotional qualities of music and more on the syntactic or grammatical combinations of musical elements (Lehrdahl and Jackendoff 1983, Kivy 1990 and 2002), which can (but need not) evoke an emotional response in the listener.

Rand's writings on music betray many confusions, not least between cognitive and arousal theories of musical expression (Torres and Kamhi 2000, 79). She focuses primarily on melody, nearly to the exclusion of rhythm and harmony, which are equally important in musical experience (there may be a connection here to Rand's focus in literature on story, since both melody and story can be seen as varieties of movement through time). At times she seems to find the meaning of music in extra-musical associations such as the visual images that listening to music can induce in certain persons (Rand 1975, 51), at other times in the emotional state of the composer (Rand 1975, 52), at still other times in the cognitive resolution of "complex mathematical relationships" (Rand 1975, 58) such as those of tones to melodies, tones to rhythms, melodies to harmonies, and smaller structures to larger structures within a piece of music (Rand 1975, 61).

These last topics bring Rand closest to the syntactical approach to music. And her comment that a melody is an integration (albeit physiological rather than conceptual) of individual tones into a new auditory entity (Rand 1975, 57) brings to mind the linguistic integration of individual words into sentences. Further similarities between music and language are not explored by Rand, such as the analogy between generative meter in poetry and in music (Jackendoff 1989). As with poetry, there is much evidence that these syntactic elements are themselves abstractions from human experience and activity.

Yet music differs from poetry in several crucial respects, especially in its lack of reference to entities and in its extreme repetitiveness (even when making use of parallelism and anaphora, no poet could ever get away with the musical practice of repeating everything from melodic fragments to whole sections). But these differences do not detract from the experience of music; paradoxically, they heighten it. Human beings delight in finding patterns and recognizing similarities to what has come before within a piece of music. The fact that these features are unconnected to entities in reality matters not at all.

This lack of connection to reality proves problematic for Rand, who defines art as (in part) a "selective re-creation of reality" (Rand 1975, 19); indeed, when listing the manner in which various art-forms re-create reality, Rand can say only that music "evokes man's sense-of-life emotions" (Rand 1975, 46), not that it is in any way mimetic. Thus Rand claims that music can only "convey the emotions" that are "evoked in the composer" by stories, events, and ideas; even highly abstract concepts are, she says, "too specific, too concrete" to be represented in music (Rand 1975, 52). Yet I think Rand gets it exactly wrong here: music is not too blunt an instrument, but in its inexhaustible subtleties of sound, combinations of tone, and gradations of rhythm, it is too fine an instrument for capturing the kinds of straightforward meanings that we express in discursive language. As nineteenth-century composer Felix Mendelssohn put it: "It is not that music is too imprecise for words, but too precise."

Further, we must ask if music even conveys emotions. It may be thought that the standard "cognitive theory of emotions" (exposure to an object, combined with a belief about the implications or meaning of that object, leads to a feeling) does not apply to music; indeed, Rand seems to believe so because she argues that "when music induces an emotional state without external object, [one's] subconscious suggests an internal one" in the form of memories or imaginative projections (Rand 1975, 51). But Rand's analysis precludes a specifically musical understanding of music, since she grounds its conceptual nature in the formation of abstractions from the feelings and emotions evoked by music (Rand 1975, 51), not in the nature of music itself (in fact, according to Rand one's experience of music could not be conceptual if one did not experience emotions!). Yet there is an external object involved in one's emotional response to music: the music itself (for a lengthy and persuasive argument on this point, see Kivy 2002, 110-134). The conceptual nature of the musical arts is not pictorial or narrative or emotive but specifically musical, and arises from the special qualities and endless syntactic combinations of rhythms, melodies, and harmonies.

Concepts of Importance

We can agree that art works are conceptual, but still wonder what kinds of concepts are presented in artistic images and likenesses. The creation and experience of works of art have long fascinated human beings. We perceive that there is something distinctive, even magical, about art, and that an art work brings whatever it portrays into sharp relief by "making it special" (Dissanayake 1988). Art works are deliberately set off from normal experience by "sharp gradients" (Jilk 2003) such as unrealistic costumes, picture frames, specialized venues (theatres, museums, concert halls), and the kind of exaggerated attributes that let one know that what one experiences is an abstraction from reality. The message one absorbs is: "This is important, so pay attention!"

Yet why pay attention? As Rand observes, one's interest or attention is a core resource of life and one form of "currency with which one pays for the enjoyment one receives from [everything one values]" (Rand 1990, 34). Only that which is important deserves attention or consideration (Rand 1975, 27-28). Yet according to Rand the realm of "the important" is different from and more personal than the realm of "the true" or "the good", since it is concerned with the evaluation of aspects of reality as significant to the individual (cf. Rand 1975, 36: a person's "selection constitutes his evaluation").

This individualism is, however, of recent vintage. In a series of books exploring the evolutionary significance of art, Ellen Dissanayake has argued persuasively that the realm of the aesthetic arose through the addition of perceptually striking elements to early human rituals, thus making them seem special and important (see especially Dissanayake 1988). Such aesthetic elements included stylized movements (leading to dance); costumes, masks, body painting, icons, and totemic objects (leading to painting and sculpture); chanted speech and specialized vocal intonations (leading to song, poetry, and eventually even purely instrumental music); and integrated stories in the form of myths and legends (leading to the arts of plotted literature). The rituals so presented were not of purely personal significance and were not merely aesthetic ("art for art's sake"), but provided a way to improve the cohesion of early human groups such as bands and tribes, thus leading to greater evolutionary success for those groups that adopted aesthetic means of presentation (for further evidence, see Pfeiffer 1982).

Eventually, specialized art forms arose from these beginnings. In the modern West, we are accustomed to seeing these art forms as merely aesthetic and as highly personal, even subjective. By contrast, Ayn Rand sees art as of critical importance to human life. In large measure, Rand personalizes what Dissanayake has eludicated, for she sees art as crucial to one's own internal cohesion [9], rather than to the evolutionary cohesion of human groups. For Rand, that cohesion comes about through the aesthetic presentation of philosophical insights on fundamental realities of human experience: "art is a concretization of metaphysics" (Rand 1975, 20).

I have argued in my essay Artist Shrugged (Saint-Andre 1999a) that this emphasis on the metaphysical is misguided: what a work of art presents is something that is personally important to the artist. Naturally, what is important to the human being who creates a work of art may be something philosophical, and the work may "express his vision of the relation between man and nature" (Bronowski 1977, 69). But at the same time it may be something as simple as the artist's appreciation for a scene or a person, or even the artist's joy in the sensuous materials of a certain art-form (as painters are often said to take light and color as their subject-matter). Thus a poem about a flower or a child embodies first and foremost the poet's thoughts about the flower or the child, and may or may not sustain any kind of broader interpretation. Robert Frost expressed this well when he wrote that a poem (and by implication every work of art) "ends in a clarification of life -- not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion" (Frost 1973, 126).

Even so, the fact that a poet writes about flowers and children (as opposed, say, to wars and skyscrapers) -- along with what the poet says and how he says it -- does give us some sense as to what kind of world he values. So I think that Frost captures something important when he says that not all art-works present a great clarification, but all art-works present a clarification. Yet in one respect I incline more to Rand than to Frost: for long human experience proves that a work of art can provide something more permanent than a "momentary stay against confusion", and indeed that the most personally significant works can provide even something approaching "the courage to face a lifetime" (Rand 1943, 505).

That is reason enough to pay attention.


[1] On the topic of irrationalism, consider this statement by one of the signature artists of the twentieth century, Salvador Dali: "I believe the moment is at hand when, by a paranoiac and active advance of the mind (simultaneously with automatism and other passive states), it will be possible to systematize confusion and thereby discredit completely the realm of reality."

[2] See for instance Bissell 1999, Torres & Kamhi 2000, and the many valuable contributions to the symposium on "Ayn Rand and Art" published in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, volume 2, number 2 (Fall 2001). The approach taken in the current essay was developed mainly in 1994 and thus pre-dates much of the recent work on Rand's philosophy of art.

[3] The most accessible summary and extension of this line of thinking can be found in Dissanayake 1988.

[4] These "what-if" scenarios are similar in a way to the controlled conditions of scientific experiments, so that the relationship between aesthetic experience and normal human experience is not unlike that between scientific data and uncontrolled perception. This analogy is perhaps closest in the literary genre of science fiction, the best examples of which represent significant thought experiments regarding the future of humankind. See also Rand's short story "The Simplest Thing in the World" (Rand 1975, 173-185), in which novelist Henry Dorn realizes that his way of writing is different from the journalistic approach of his contemporaries because he asks himself "what if . . . ?" ... "What if it's not what it seems to be at all . . . Wouldn't it be interesting if . . ." (183).

[5] The precise epistemology of the image depends on the sense modality involved, which is why a full exploration of these issues would require a distinct treatment for each major art-form. This particularism is important, for there are in reality no works of "art" but only poems, statues, songs, drawings, stories, and so on (just as there no "artists" but only composers, choreographers, playwrights, painter, poets, and so on).

[6] It makes little sense to say, in a global or synoptic manner, than art is the selective re-creation of reality, because it is always about a specific aspect of reality (rather than about existence in general) that the artist has something to say.

[7] The mere outline of a house or the stick-figure drawing of a human being can be said to "represent" the thing in enough detail to enable one to identify the object. However, a work of art seldom leaves out that much detail; rather than including only the barest essentials, a work of art usually ensures that the object represented or abstraction presented has a kind of "living reality", which it does by means of the telling detail, the vivid characteristic, the realistic feature, the concrete image, the included measurement. Thus art does not draw us away from concreteness, as conceptual knowledge does, but rather draws us to the concrete in all its sensuous glory, while at the same time drawing us away from the particular toward the universal and that which has significance for all human beings.

[8] For examples of Randian style, see my essay Image and Integration in Ayn Rand's Descriptive Style (Saint-Andre 2006). Some poets see rhyme as something close to a species of metaphor. For example, Gerald Manley Hopkins thought that "there are two elements that the beauty of rhyme has to the mind, the likeness or sameness of sound and the unlikeness or difference of meaning" (Hopkins 1959, 286). And Robert Frost said (Frost 1972, 380):

[A]ll there is to thought is feats of association... Now, wouldn't it be a pretty idea to look at that as the under part of every poem: a feat of association, putting two things together and making a metaphor... Carry that idea a little further, to think that perhaps the rhyming, the coupling of lines is an outward symbol of this thing that I call feats of association.

[9] Rand claims that "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" (Rand 1975, 24). On this point, see Torres and Kahmi 2000, 33, 57.


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