Ayn Rand’s Aesthetics

I had time on my hands one day and wondered if Ayn Rand had any view on aesthetics. Of course she did – her views are well documented and this being Ayn Rand, controversial and argued over.

Ayn Rand in 1943

Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982) was a writer and thinker whose novels and thought now have a cult following, especially in America. Her ideas fit, perhaps too conveniently, into the ideology of the libertarian right. This explains the number of well-funded foundations and institutes which expound her ideas, and the number of salaried writers and bloggers poring over them. There is capital and power behind the dissemination of her ideas.

Academic philosophers have never accepted Rand as a major philosopher, so much of the discussion of her work has been carried out by those with only a limited knowledge and aptitude for philosophy.

From all of this I have attempted to extract some details about her views on art.

Rand described art as follows in her book ‘Romantic Manifesto’:

“Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value judgments. Man’s profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness. Art fulfils this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. It tells man, in effect, which aspects of his experience are to be regarded as essential, significant, important.”

Ayn Rand

Simply, Rand thinks that we need art to be able to fit the complex world of reality of ideas into our minds. The role of the artist is to abstract what is important in life and the world, and use his or her skill to represent it as art. We choose to consume various representations of the world created by artists each of whom already has their own world view.

“A false philosophy can be embodied in a great work of art; a true philosophy, in an inferior one”

Ayn Rand

It seems that for Rand art provided a sense of spiritual fulfilment and this is its primary purpose over that of conveying information or opinion. Rand accepted that the world according to artists is not necessarily based on rational philosophy and observation. This is already obvious to anyone who enjoys art of any kind from cinema to music to painting.

“As a re-creation of reality, a work of art has to be representational; its freedom of stylization is limited by the requirement of intelligibility; if it does not present an intelligible subject, it ceases to be art.”

Ayn Rand

Rand thought that art must figuratively represent something and must be comprehensible. Presumably abstract art is seen as unable to accomplish this because it does not abstract anything in particular. Modern artists would dispute this, and claim that abstract art can represent emotions. But Rand thought that abstract art was not really art – it may be decorative or have some worth, but it is not art. Architecture is similarly deemed not to be art because it has a practical function.

“Now a word of warning about the criteria of esthetic judgment. A sense of life is the source of art, but it is not the sole qualification of an artist or of an esthetician, and it is not a criterion of esthetic judgment. Emotions are not tools of cognition. Esthetics is a branch of philosophy—and just as a philosopher does not approach any other branch of his science with his feelings or emotions as his criterion of judgment, so he cannot do it in the field of esthetics. A sense of life is not sufficient professional equipment. An esthetician—as well as any man who attempts to evaluate art works—must be guided by more than an emotion.

The fact that one agrees or disagrees with an artist’s philosophy is irrelevant to an esthetic appraisal of his work qua art. One does not have to agree with an artist (nor even to enjoy him) in order to evaluate his work. In essence, an objective evaluation requires that one identify the artist’s theme, the abstract meaning of his work (exclusively by identifying the evidence contained in the work and allowing no other, outside considerations), then evaluate the means by which he conveys it—i.e., taking his theme as criterion, evaluate the purely esthetic elements of the work, the technical mastery (or lack of it) with which he projects (or fails to project) his view of life . . . .

Since art is a philosophical composite, it is not a contradiction to say: “This is a great work of art, but I don’t like it,” provided one defines the exact meaning of that statement: the first part refers to a purely esthetic appraisal, the second to a deeper philosophical level which includes more than esthetic values.”

Ayn Rand

Here Rand seems to believe that art can be judged objectively according to a set of criteria. Her modern followers have used this to attack modern art and culture en masse. Rand herself attacked Kant for his view that judgement is subjective, and claimed that he was the major enemy of her philosophy and of intellectual judgement in general.

“The visual arts do not deal with the sensory field of awareness as such, but with the sensory field as perceived by a conceptual consciousness.

Romanticism is the conceptual school of art. It deals, not with the random trivia of the day, but with the timeless, fundamental, universal problems and values of human existence. It does not record or photograph; it creates and projects. It is concerned—in the words of Aristotle—not with things as they are, but with things as they might be and ought to be.”

Ayn Rand

Rand’s approval of romantic art is well known. It aligns with her books in many ways with its strong vision of how the world should be. It sees strength in strength and the exceptional.

She grasps the wonder of art in that it is the world as perceived by the artist, which might be better or worse than the real world. The film ‘Alien’ is a lot worse than what happened on Apollo 13. To some Van Gogh’s landscapes look better than the real thing.

“Beauty is a sense of harmony. Whether it’s an image, a human face, a body, or a sunset, take the object which you call beautiful, as a unit [and ask yourself]: what parts is it made up of, what are its constituent elements, and are they all harmonious? If they are, the result is beautiful. If there are contradictions and clashes, the result is marred or positively ugly.

For instance, the simplest example would be a human face. You know what features belong in a human face. Well, if the face is lopsided, [with a] very indefinite jawline, very small eyes, beautiful mouth, and a long nose, you would have to say that’s not a beautiful face. But if all these features are harmoniously integrated, if they all fit your view of the importance of all these features on a human face, then that face is beautiful.

In this respect, a good example would be the beauty of different races of people. For instance, the black face, or an Oriental face, is built on a different standard, and therefore what would be beautiful on a white face will not be beautiful for them (or vice-versa), because there is a certain racial standard of features by which you judge which features, which face, in that classification is harmonious or distorted.

That’s in regard to human beauty. In regard to a sunset, for instance, or a landscape, you will regard it as beautiful if all the colors complement each other, or go well together, or are dramatic together. And you will call it ugly if it is a bad rainy afternoon, and the sky isn’t exactly pink nor exactly gray, but sort of “modern.”

Now since this is an objective definition of beauty, there of course can be universal standards of beauty—provided you define the terms of what objects you are going to classify as beautiful and what you take as the ideal harmonious relationship of the elements of that particular object. To say, “It’s in the eyes of the beholder”—that, of course, would be pure subjectivism, if taken literally. It isn’t [a matter of] what you, for unknown reasons, decide to regard as beautiful. It is true, of course, that if there were no valuers, then nothing could be valued as beautiful or ugly, because values are created by the observing consciousness—but they are created by a standard based on reality. So here the issue is: values, including beauty, have to be judged as objective, not subjective or intrinsic.”

Ayn Rand

Here we have a strong statement of Rand’s belief in objective standards in aesthetic judgement. She is saying that subjective judgement rests on deeper objective standards which are innate.

There are many problems with Rand’s ideas here. She seems to dictate for example that there are objective standards of beauty in peoples’ faces. But she is not a philosopher so she does not explain what those standards are. This is the difference between philosophy and art. Philosophy has to define every concept and idea in its arguments. Art does not have to explain anything.

Many say that philosophers are not good at art, and artists are not good at philosophy. Rand’s detours into aesthetics are interesting as they have the freshness of the creative mind. Alas they disappoint because they never quite explain why something might be so, before building an argument on top of it.

Any Rand’s ideas on aesthetics deserve to be more widely read and evaluated. They are flawed but nevertheless fascinating in that they show is the strengths and weaknesses of the creative mind when it takes up philosophy.

I am indebted to this website for some of the excerpts in this article: http://aynrandlexicon.com/ This website has a lot of fascinating quotes from Rand on a variety of subjects, and is a good way to grasp her ideas.

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