Cover image: Mercury by Nick Gaetano (Image obtained from: https://theartstack.com/artist/nick-gaetano/mercury-10)
Ayn Rand is an author-philosopher who continuously awakens conflicting opinions, faithful followers of his thought, faithful opponents and others who take an middle position. As an example, we have two recent articles that are quite illustrative, one criticizing her, considering that Ayn Rand was not truly a philosopher, or that her philosophy is not to be seriously considered as that of other thinkers (link), and a response to that article defending Rand, even if the author does not totally agree with all her arguments (link).
Without entering globally into such debates, my interest here is to discuss an interesting and worthwhile analyzing approach of her thinking about art, and how she connects it with other elements of Philosophy. Having done that, I will make a brief critique of such propositions, without denying the validity of several aspects of her thinking about art.
According to Ayn Rand, “art is a selective recreation of reality, according to the judgment of an artist’s metaphysical values” (Rand, 2009, page 23 – this is my translation from the Spanish version). This would mean, first of all, that art cannot be considered any type of human creation according to the author. This implies a clear attitude towards the consideration of what is and is not art. In this way, something square hanging on a wall would not be a definition of a painting, or a bunch of pages grouped together with a large number of letters would not be a clear definition of what a novel is. In the same way, a continuous group of sounds is not a definition of a symphony. Therefore, you cannot call anything art. What distinguishes the various forms of art, according to Ayn Rand, is the fact that the artistic work is an integration of different elements of reality, which can be colors, sounds, words, etc., that express in a concrete, in the work itself, diverse metaphysical abstractions, while at the same time the work accounts for psycho-epistemological characteristics or the artist’s vision of human cognition. These would be the philosophical elements of art and its primary purpose. Art can be analyzed by the style, the form, the originality and other stylistic characteristics, but these would be in the function of expressing certain abstractions and psycho-epistemology, following the considerations of the author. These last two elements are what constitute what Ayn Rand calls “the sense of life”, which has a relatively unconscious characteristic in people, unless it has been captured and conceptualized in an explicit and conscious philosophy in the person, this is so to the extent that many artists usually express an illustrious sense of life, according to the parameters of Ayn Rand, a sense according to the nature of the rational human being, but consciously maintain a philosophy totally opposite to that sense.
The sense of life does not have to be understood in this case as the purpose of one’s life, but as the partly unconscious “corpus of integrations” that guides people’s lives and that is one of the primary elements with which we can contemplate a work of art and pronounce ourselves on its beauty or ugliness. All people would be guided by a sense of life, some would be more aware of it than others. The meaning of life would be composed of the two elements mentioned above: the metaphysical and the psycho-epistemological. The metaphysical represents the ideas that the person has about reality and the things that he or she considers important in the world. The metaphysical sense of life is expressed very well in art. Following Rand, imagine a sculpture of the ancient Greeks or Romans, these showed in some way man as god, we could say that the ancient Greeks and Romans were a culture centered on man and saw that the natural state of it was greatness, strength and beauty. That would reflect the metaphysical conception of existence, which would be expressed in the sense of the life of the ancient Greeks or Romans. If in comparison we observed a statue or painting of the Middle Ages we would observe a different type of stylistic conception of man, probably a deformed, ugly, gray and suffering man according to Rand because that was the metaphysical vision of reality and of man of the culture in the Middle Ages expressed in the meaning of the life of the people at that time, given the influence of sin for example in the vision of man expressed in Christianity.
Let us compare the earlier Greco-Roman sculptures with a Middle Age’s portrait of Bartholomaeus Anglicus.
Without making the mistake of selectively choosing those works of the Middle Ages that show man in a state of sadness, suffering, with a pale or weakened physical aspect and selecting the opposite in the Greeks or Romans, as there are exceptions in both cases, and leaving aside the stylistic advances of the respective periods, a general search of works of both periods shows what the previous example shows, a general tone of suffering and physical weakness in the medieval works which many times leaves a rather unpleasant feeling when observing the works than in the case of the Greeks’ and Romans’ art.
The psycho-epistemological sense, on the other hand, reflects the notion about man’s capacity to know and deal with reality. You may think that you have the ability to know reality, to deal with it, to use reason to understand the universe, to see things clearly, with the greatest possible focus and concentration, which expresses the degree of awareness that we can have about reality. In art, this rational vision would be expressed by clarity and detail, and the opposite by an opaque, diffuse image, difficulty in seeing the contours, where one thing starts and the other ends. This will give rise again to different types of artistic works.
Consider the clarity of the following works, the first by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and the second by Ann Davis, consider the clarity that would demonstrate a rational epistemology of the sense of life, which in turn denotes the ability and the great level of the artist’s cognition and the general approach of his psycho-epistemological sense of life.
Compare the above with the following works, the first by Monet and the second by Kirchner:
Following these ideas of Ayn Rand, we could appreciate the clarity, the expression of a rational psycho-epistemology and the exemplification of the metaphysical value of feminine beauty in a painting by Sir Edward Poynter or see something as the opposite in a Picasso painting, in the order mentioned:
Here comes into play an important issue, which is the integrative faculty of man, his rational capacity. As Peikoff, a disciple and follower of Rand’s philosophy argues in his book “Dim hypothesis: Why the lights of the west are going out”, what distinguishes the different types of cultural constructions throughout history is the integrative capacity that underlies them, from high integration to disintegration exposed in a nihilistic type philosophy. This is expressed very well in art, where in a work like Poynter’s, all the physical aspects of colors, shapes, textures, etc., are integrated into something coherent and easily distinguishable, where, in turn, there is a particular explicit meaning, where it is clearly tried to show something, where the facet of the interpretation is not something farfetched, because the exhibition of the work leaves an immediate impact and opens meaning in the person. This does not occur, for example, in contemporary abstract art, where forms and colors intermingle, where there are no clear meanings, where both the metaphysical and psycho-epistemological dimensions are almost absent, as there is no coherent global integration of the different aspects in something that jointly follows a defined sense. Consider the following work by Kandinski as an example:
Suffering versus well-being and rationality versus irrationality have a central role in Rand’s thinking. According to her ideas, man as a rational being does not see himself in a permanent state of anguish that accompanies him throughout his life. Yes, there can be anguish, there can be a void, there can be suffering, there can be tragedy, but for his meaning of life, these are momentary states of his existence. It is not that he does not give place to suffering, it is that he does not consider it important in the existence of man. The natural state of such a rational being is joy, happiness, enjoyment, rationality, being passionate and having sense or purpose. Metaphysically, values such as strength, independence, beauty, justice, honor, pride, happiness, joy, intelligence and creativity represent what the human being as a rational entity considers important in the world, and is faithful to its being that the art it expresses contains these values, through concrete forms, through integrations of different elements taken from reality: colors, sounds, forms, etc. Psycho-epistemologically the important thing is reason, not the irrational, which is not the same as leaving passions aside, it is a position about our ability to know and deal with reality, the rational being considers that it can know reality more and more intensely and precisely, to face the world with its own cognitive tools. The result of expressing these values in conjunction is the great art, which gives one a vision of the best that exists in the world, a vision that can even push oneself to self-improvement, and represents spiritual food for consciousness in terms of Rand in moments of ugliness and mediocrity, which reminds us how the world can become or the best it has to give.
It would seem then that there is a scale of values of the artistic work, building a specific hierarchy, and here I begin to introduce my criticism. I argue that such a scale does not necessarily exist considering the metaphysical and psycho-epistemological elements. Following Ayn Rand, one could consider the following works as standing on the cusp of artistic valuation, not precisely because of the technical skill and ability of the artist, but because of the aspects of greatness with which they represent the human being and the clarity and detail with which it is represented:
Following the order from above: Jacques Louis David: “Napoleon crossing the Alps”; Herbert James Draper: “Gates of Dawn”; Johannes Vermeer: “The Art of Painting” or “The Allegory of Painting”.
These works, with the exception of Vermeer’s (which is part of a previous period, that of the illustration) are examples of the art school called “Romanticism”. Ayn Rand gave particular emphasis to this. Most people have taken this school as irrational and emotionally oriented, rejecting reason, but in fact Romanticism could not have exemplified a more rational sense of life as Rand indicates. To see just the emotional content of this art is a very superficial analysis, for Rand the primordial source of emotional responses are the evaluations that the individual makes of reality, it is the values that are in direct contact with emotions and the ones that have the capacity to unleash them. For the author, Romanticism was the best school of art, both in painting as in music and literature (the basic arts), since it was the first type of art to grant man the characteristic of a being of volitional consciousness. This does not mean that man escapes from causal forces, but implies a vision in which man is capable of reaching greatness, through his faculties of thought and his passion to be better. This differentiates it from other schools that saw man tied to forces alien to himself, like destiny, the gods, etc. Following Rand, Romanticism combined with a quota of realism would express the Aristotelian ideal of great art, for it shows man “as what it can and should be”. Remember that the rational being is a deeply passionate being and through the emotions we can reach those values and metaphysical abstractions that result in what we consider important in the world.
However, I would argue that a work with a rational psycho-epistemology but with a dramatic metaphysics or that exemplifies suffering or another type of emotion or quality not directly related to the peak of well-being, is not a work of lower philosophical value or of minor greatness, than one that exemplifies both things simultaneously. This is one of my criticisms. In this case, my position is more realistic, but claiming that in the realism of sometimes everyday things or not necessarily of things directly rational or associated with well-being there is an art of incredible beauty and of equal philosophical or spiritual value. A work does not have to have a highly rational psycho-epistemology to be said that it is equally beautiful to one that does. For there seems to be a certain conception in Rand, although perhaps it is a misinterpretation, that a combined rational metaphysics and psycho-epistemology is more beautiful than both things separate.
We can for example compare the previous works with the sculpture of “Laocoön and His Sons”:
Could we say that this work brings together the rational peaks of both dimensions, the metaphysical and the psycho-epistemological? While it is true that the psycho-epistemology of this representation is highly rational, clear and detailed, and that the representation of man is that of the man-god, exalting attributes of physical strength and majesty, the prevailing theme and what it seems to make sense of the work as a whole is that of pain or suffering, each contortion and expression reflects that experience, consequently: is the work reflecting man in a state as it could and should be? Although suffering is something that even in the novels of Ayn Rand is present, it does not represent the cusp point or the main theme of her works, given her philosophical conceptions, however, in the previous sculpture, it is not possible to finish the work, like someone who ends a novel highlighting other things such as happiness, this is not the purpose of the sculpture. Does this mean that the work is less beautiful or of less philosophical or spiritual value? I do not think so. The work in any case is more realistic and I would add that it has a relevant meaning, like many works, that does not necessarily have to allude to the most positive aspects of existence, it is enough that it might refer to necessary aspects or that the work leaves us an important philosophical lesson, all this already implies great conceptual integration. Imagine all the works of art were alike and showed happy people leaving aside other aspects of human experience, I think art would become monotonous and boring, and would leave aside a part of human existence, without necessarily saying with all this that the Rand’s conception is always to show happiness, but in any case it is not something that can be applied to all areas, sculpture is something frozen, it does not show as much the evolution towards greater happiness as a novel can do. But neither does the novel always have to be that way to be good and important for a rationally being, spiritually and philosophically.
In her work “The Romantic Manifesto”, Rand seems to give a sense of superiority to those works that are developed in a more realistic scenario, that is, not in another universe, another galaxy or other worlds, but in the here and now in a certain way, or in a world that is possible for man. Here I propose another criticism, a great work can be done, showing diverse moral and philosophical aspects in general, without leaving aside the possibility of writing about fictional worlds, with imagined creatures or totally fictitious scenarios. Think of works like the Lord of the Rings by Tolkien or the saga of Star Wars by George Lucas, entire works of this kind would be in a lower rank or hierarchy according to Rand’s ideas, just because they are unreal and show things like magic or certain mystical aspects, invented creatures with non-human abilities, etc. And I think that does not take away beauty or philosophical value within a rational philosophy with a metaphysics that focuses on happiness and positive values in general, in addition to the added artistic and imaginative value that these works have.
Consider as an example Roger Dean, a painter who works on landscapes of exotic worlds or planets that are not ours, with an exceptional skill and a very marked personal style, creating very beautiful pieces of art:
On the other hand, regarding the psycho-epistemological aspect, we also find examples where the greater clarity and detail of a work does not make it better or necessarily more beautiful or of greater philosophical value. Consider, for example, Roberto Bernardi’s hyperrealist painting:
This is not a photograph, in Rand’s terms it is the demonstration of a rational psycho-epistemology, as well as exceptional talent and ability. But a greater clarity and detail in the work does not mean that it is necessarily better or more beautiful. Compare the previous one with examples of works of similar themes of van Gogh:
(The middle painting is an extract from the larger original painting)
The ability, the particular type of stroke, the colors and their combination surpass any additional value that a greater clarity could give to these paintings, moreover, clarity could even remove the particular effect and the distinctive style that van Gogh gives to his works. But what is more, the lack of clarity or detail is even one of the elements that together with the rest makes the work beautiful, original, where the artist marks his individuality, without reaching the point of a disintegrated or abstract art, which Rand would particularly criticize. We can see this effect of lack of clarity in the oil paintings of Joaquín Sorolla and Bastida for example, in which this does not take away the artistic value of his paintings:
If we were to combine these two aspects, the not so rational psycho-epistemology (lack of clarity, details, fuzzy contours, less realism, etc.) with a metaphysics showing facts or aspects of existence not so good or not so positive, even then we can find beautiful art, with high integration and relevant philosophical messages and spiritual value. I consider as examples, “The Great Wave of Kanagawa” and “Red Fuji” by Katsushika Hokusai:
Despite these criticisms, I agree with Rand on the value and contribution of Romanticism to art, in terms of the metaphysical and psycho-epistemological aspects. Following her, in the field of music, for example, Romanticism gave rise to the concert focused on an instrument in a way that was previously unseen, works such as the first piano concert by Tchaikovsky or the second by Rachmaninoff, are in themselves a chant to greatness and virtuosity of the individual and the clarity and focus of a rational individual. Unlike painting, music is special in transmitting values or metaphysical abstractions by emotional evaluation, rather than with a direct representation as in painting. In the field of literature on the other hand, the novel arises, the ultimate expression of literary art for its infinite creative possibility. Authors such as Victor Hugo or Dostoevsky are great examples of great art according to Rand.
But again, despite all this, as I indicated earlier, these metaphysical and psycho-epistemological aspects in their most rational dimension understood by Rand do not necessarily, in my opinion, imply that other works of art different in these aspects are less beautiful or valuable. It should be noted, however, that today, there seems to be a degeneration of the values of the rational being and a constant change towards a philosophy that denies life, focused on pessimistic and nihilistic aspects, where seeking creativity through disintegration, has led to the boom of an art that increasingly lacks beauty and philosophical value. And it is true that two elements are disappearing in current art: the meaning of the life of the rational being, and the integration that makes art itself. Nowadays, art generally exemplifies more than anything metaphysical values such as suffering, ugliness, defeat, madness, despair, etc. At the psycho-epistemological level we have works where any consistent significant element is lost. At the same time, the integration that makes every work of art is increasingly being lost, now we can see isolated forms, stains, mixtures of colors and so on, as if nihilism became a concrete expression in today’s art. As indicated by Rand, colors, for example, are attributes of objects, but they do not express anything else by themselves, a so called painting of abstract mix of colors has no value as a concretion of a metaphysical abstraction, it may be a nice mixture of colors, but it can not easily and significantly represent something else. Rand is more blunt to say that paintings made of spots and colors is a return to the primitive-sensory level of our cognition, which reflects the preponderant psycho-epistemology of culture, according to her, the art of figures and integrated elements have the function to “expand our consciousness”, not to return to the basics and the concrete. All this does not imply, following the author, that one reacts negatively to contemporary art, because it is the very sense of life that encourages us to feel good or bad about a work of art, the person with a sense which expresses the common, extremely routine or mediocre, will be fine with the work for the person has this vision of life, and it will be unpleasant for those who have a sense of life based on reason and excellence.
Peikoff, L. (2013). Dim hypothesis: Why the lights of the west are going out. Penguin Books.
Rand, A. (2009). El manifiesto romántico. Buenos Aires: Grito Sagrado.