Of the forty-five American writers "who have chronicled, reflected upon or influenced the course of our nation's history" selected to be profiled in this C-SPAN series, Ayn Rand is among the four featured on its logo--along with Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, and Mark Twain. See the Ayn Rand page on the American Writers website--which lists this "About Ayn Rand" page as the first of three internet resources about her.
NOTE: The Ayn Rand program first aired live on Sunday, May 12, 2002. Regrettably, it did not meet the high standard set by most other programs in the series. See C-SPAN American Writers Program on Ayn Rand a Sham: Cedes Control to Doctrinaire Rand Institute.
What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand
by Louis Torres & Michelle Marder Kamhi
"A splendid piece of work."--Jacques Barzun
By far the best concise overview of the life and work of Ayn Rand (1905-1982) is by Chris Matthew Sciabarra (author of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical and editor of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies), in an article written for Scribner's American Writers series. We quote here from an expanded version of that article, available from The Objectivist Center under the title Ayn Rand: Her Life and Thought:
Few twentieth-century American writers have provoked as much controversy as the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. Author of The Fountainhead  and Atlas Shrugged , and of numerous other works of fiction, drama, and nonfiction, Rand conceived a philosophic system founded on "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute," as she put it in Atlas Shrugged. She offered distinctive insights on the source and nature of knowledge, art, ethics, and politics. She eschewed contemporary alternatives in each of these areas of human concern, and forged an original philosophy which she called Objectivism. . . .
The Fountainhead details the struggles of Howard Roark, a brilliantly creative architect who rejects conventional styles in a display of his own . . . individuality. . . . Despite mixed reviews, some critics, like Lorine Pruette, praised the book. Writing for the New York Times Book Review, Pruette observed that "Rand is a writer of great power. She has a subtle and ingenious mind and the capacity of writing brilliantly, beautifully, bitterly." She compared the novel to such classics as Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain and Henrik Ibsen's The Master Builder. It was "the only novel of ideas written by an American woman" that she could recall. . . .
[In Atlas Shrugged, Rand] imagined a world in which the men and women "of the mind," the creative "prime movers," go on strike. . . . It was an ambitious undertaking . . . [incorporating] elements of science fiction and fantasy, symbolism and realism. . . . John Chamberlain, writing for the New York Herald Tribune, commended the book as a "vibrant and powerful novel of ideas," a "philosophical detective story," in the tradition of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. But most reviewers exhibited an intense hostility to Rand's novel and its long philosophic monologues. . . . Despite this frosty critical reception, Atlas Shrugged, like The Fountainhead, eventually became a long-term best-seller. . . .
In her [nonfiction,] Rand presented Objectivism as an integrated system with implications for every major branch of philosophy. In metaphysics (the study of the nature of existence), Rand argued in favor of an "objective reality." In epistemology (the study of the nature and means of knowledge), she accepted the validity of sensory percepton and the efficacy of human reason. In aesthetics (the study of the nature and function of art), she examined the conceptual basis of art and its role in human life. In ethics (the study of the nature and proper principles of morality), she advocated "rational self-interest." And in politics (the study of the principles guiding a proper social system), she favored individualism and laissez-faire capitalism. . . .
While Rand stressed the role of reason, she rejected the belief that there was an inherent antagonism between reason and emotion. . . . [She acknowledged] the importance of emotion to a fully integrated existence. She viewed emotions as responses emanating from a subconscious estimate "of that which furthers man's values or threatens them, that which is for him or against him." . . . Central to Rand's understanding of emotion was her conviction that the subconscious mind [is] a mechanism for the spontaneous integration of experience and the automatization of knowledge. This developed conception was most clearly expressed in her essays on the nature and function of art.
Anyone interested in learning more about Rand's life and work would do well to begin by consulting titles listed in the Bibliography below, in addition to the essay from which we have cited. Fuller bibliographies of Rand's work, including both her fiction and nonfiction, can be found in most of the following sources. (See also Ayn Rand's Status in American Culture.)
Omits Rand's fiction, as well as nonfiction works dealing exclusively with ethics, economics, or politics. Bibliographic information on these aspects of her work may be in found in many of the sources listed under "Biographical, Philosophic, and Literary Studies" below.
The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers. Edited by Tore Boeckmann. New York: Plume, 2000.
A freely edited compilation of Rand's lectures on fiction-writing, which she delivered privately in 1958, and which were previously available only on tape.
The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z. Edited by Harry Binswanger. New York: New American Library, 1986.
An invaluable compilation of quotations from Rand, culled from her essays, fiction, and lectures, on issues and concepts as diverse as the "Mind-Body Dichotomy" and "Implicit Knowledge." Entries are organized and cross-referenced primarily according to concepts of philosophy, psychology, and economics, but include general topics as well.
Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Enlarged 2nd ed. Edited by Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff. New York: New American Library, 1990.
This book on Rand's theory of knowledge, which is crucial to her philosophy of art, includes an analysis of concept-formation and a discussion of the principles of definition.
Journals of Ayn Rand. Edited by David Harrimon. New York: Dutton, 1997.
While this volume contains little of direct relevance to Rand's philosophy of art, it offers much illuminating material regarding her fiction and the development of her overall philosophy.
Letters of Ayn Rand. Edited by Michael Berliner. New York: Dutton, 1995.
Though one wishes for more information about Rand's correspondents and the context in which these letters were written, they shed much light on Rand's character, personality, and thought. Like the Journals (see above), this volume bears only indirectly upon her esthetic theory.
The Romantic Manifesto. 2nd rev. ed. New York: New American Library, 1975.
The first four essays of this volume constitute the crux of Rand's theory of art, which is examined in depth in What Art Is, by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi. The remaining essays pertain to her philosophy of literature and her analysis of contemporary popular culture.
Baker, James T. Ayn Rand. Twayne's U. S. Authors Series. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
Writing from an historian's perspective, James T. Baker regards Rand as a "formidable force" in American culture, who was "far greater than the sum of her distinctive personality, fiction, and philosophy" and who left an "enduring legacy." He aims to move beyond the hasty dismissal with which he admits that he and other academics tended at first to respond to her, but Mimi Gladstein (in The New Ayn Rand Companion) discerns in his treatment of Rand's fiction and philosophy a lingering "cavalier" attitude.
Branden, Barbara. The Passion of Ayn Rand. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1986.
This definitive biography of Rand by a former protégé, friend, and associate sheds considerable light on her complex life, personality, and work, especially on the genesis of her fiction--notwithstanding occasional unsupported assertions and factual errors. Reviewed by Louis Torres in "Boswell's Johnson, Branden's Rand: The Passion of Ayn Rand in Historical Perspective," Aristos, Vol. 3 No. 5, May 1987).
Den Uyl, Douglas J. The Fountainhead: An American Novel. New York: Twayne, 1999.
A philosophic analysis of Rand's novel as the quintessential fictional expression of the American ethos of individualism. In the Twayne's Masterwork Studies series.
Den Uyl, Douglas J., and Douglas B. Rasmussen, eds. The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1984.
The first collection of essays by academic philosophers on various aspects of Rand's thought--including her metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics but, regrettably, not her esthetics (on which, see What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand).
The only scholarly study to date of this most complex of Rand's novels. Gladstein offers an in-depth study of the plot and characters and a survey of the novel's major and minor themes, as well as relevant biographical information.
------. The New Ayn Rand Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.
A revised and expanded edition of a useful reference work first published in 1984. It includes biographical information, summaries of Rand's fiction and nonfiction and of the critical literature on her work, and a bibliography.
Gladstein, Mimi Reisel, and Chris Matthew Sciabarra, eds. Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.
This volume provides a broad spectrum of views on Rand's fiction and philosophy from diverse feminist and anti-feminist perspectives and political orientations. It is a title in Penn State Press's "Re-Reading the Canon" Series, which includes volumes on Aristotle, Plato, and Nietzsche, among other major philosophers.
Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. Edited by Chris Matthew Sciabarra et al. Vols. 1--. Port Townsend, Wash.: The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies Foundation, 1999--.
A peer-reviewed scholarly journal on all aspects of Rand's life and work. The Spring 2001 issue features a Symposium on her esthetics in response to What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand.
Kamhi, Michelle Marder, and Louis Torres. "Critical Neglect of Rand's Theory of Art." Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Fall 2000.
A survey of the meager literature on Rand's esthetic theory, and an analysis of the ways in which it has been misinterpreted and underappreciated, even by Rand's admirers.
An introduction to Rand's ideas by a philosopher who has long studied and written on them. Focusing on epistemology, ethics, and politics, it omits discussion of her theory of art.
Merrill, Ronald E. The Ideas of Ayn Rand. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1991.
A provocative, nonacademic overview of all aspects of Rand's thought, by an independent-minded Objectivist scientist-entrepreneur; weakest in its account of her theory of art.
Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Dutton, 1991.
Written by Rand's designated "intellectual heir," who benefited from philosophic discussions with her over thirty years and was her closest associate in the final period of her life, this is the most straightforward systematic presentation of Rand's philosophy to date. Although it is seriously flawed by the author's uncritical, largely ahistorical approach, Peikoff deserves credit for arguing that esthetics (the philosophy of art) fully qualifies as a branch of philosophy--indeed, that it is more important than politics in this respect--because art fills a need of man's mind, of man "qua thinker and valuer."
Sciabarra, Chris Matthew. "Ayn Rand." In American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies, ed. by A. Walton Litz and Molly Weigel, Supplement IV, Part 2. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1996. Updated and expanded version published as Ayn Rand: Her Life and Thought. Poughkeepsie, N. Y.: The Objectivist Center, 1999.
Sciabarra's 10,000-word essay offers a succinct account of Rand's life and fiction, as well as a lucid summary of her principal ideas and philosophic system, including her philosophy of art, and has the added advantage of being accessible to general readers, from senior high school on.
------. Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.
An original, exhaustively researched analysis of Rand's entire corpus in relation to what the author persuasively argues are its essential Russian roots, this is the first study that places Rand's work in a detailed historical context, thereby illuminating her distinctive contribution. Though Sciabarra's focus is political and social, he properly situates her theory of art at the very core of her philosophic system.
Torres, Louis, and Michelle Marder Kamhi. "Ayn Rand's Philosophy of Art: A Critical Introduction." Aristos, Vol. 5 Nos. 2-5 (1991 and 1992).
The first systematic critique of Rand's theory of art, this series of articles formed the basis for What Art Is (see below).
------. What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand. Chicago: Open Court, 2000.
This first book-length examination of Rand's philosophy of art analyzes it in historical context, offers scientific support for its basic principles, and applies it to a critique of modernism and postmodernism in the arts. A final chapter examines the unfortunate consequences of the lack of an objective definition of art with respect to government, corporate, and foundation support of the arts, art law, and--most lamentably--arts education in the early grades.