What Art Is:
The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand

by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi

Response to The Art Book review

In a brief section devoted to "The Art Historians" in the Introduction to What Art Is (pp. 9-11), we noted that authors of standard art historical surveys in recent decades have invariably begun by asking What is art? as if to acknowledge the widespread public skepticism about both abstract and recent avant-garde "art." As we further observed, however, these authors never offer what the question implicitly requires, and what the reader might naturally expect--an objective definition--and they invariably treat such work as an essential part of the art historical continuum. Nevertheless, as we also noted, they at least provide informative surveys of pre-modernist art. In contrast, we pointed out, a new generation of art historians are completely rethinking the standard survey of Western art, and are questioning not merely the traditional hierarchy of the arts but even the distinction between art and ordinary imagery--the very distinction that lies, logically, at the base of their discipline. Explicitly recommending that art historians should now concern themselves with "images that are not art," members of this new generation have turned their attention to such non-art objects as maps, documents, technical drawings, and scientific illustrations.

In view of such disturbingly revisionist trends in the profession, we were both surprised and delighted to learn that What Art Is has been favorably reviewed in The Art Book [more] [September 2001 review citation], the respected quarterly review journal of the Association of Art Historians in the United Kingdom.

The review--by Jonathan Vickery, an art historian now at the University of Warwick and formerly at the University of Essex--is both informative and fair-minded. Free of the animus against Rand exhibited by many academics in the United States, Vickery begins by simply noting (with some surprise) the recent burgeoning of scholarly Rand studies here, which is documented in our Introduction. In Britain, he observes, Rand "tends to be remembered only as the author of the novel (later film) The Fountainhead." What Art Is, he further observes, is "situated within the current debates concerning the precise interpretation of Rand's philosophy, and constitutes a concerted attempt to demonstrate the relevance of that philosophy within contemporary cultural criticism."

Vickery then goes on to offer a largely accurate account of the book's contents and thesis. He correctly points out, for example, that it is "as trenchantly anti-modernist as anti-postmodernist, citing the continued public consternation over, and distrust of, contemporary art as evidence of its fundamental artistic bankruptcy."

In characterizing Rand's position, however, Vickery introduces a mistaken emphasis that warrants correction. Of her view, he writes, in part:

Modern art and all that follows it is a mystification of art's true social function. . . . [Rand] affirms the efficacy of the traditional fine art genres, and art's fundamentally mimetic character, but [she] is no reactionary aesthete. She believes the modern concept of the 'esthetic' to be an abstraction from art's true function as both an embodiment of collective metaphysical ideals and a medium of the artist's individual ethical consciousness.

Vickery's implication that Rand views art as having a primarily "social function" and as embodying "collective metaphysical ideals" mistakes her emphasis on rational individualism and objectivity in art for the conventional traditionalist view that art's primary function is social. Rand insisted (correctly, we think) that the primary function of art is to meet a psychological need of the individual--a need that is both cognitive and emotional. Since human consciousness is conceptual but knowledge of reality is based on sensory-perceptual experience, she holds that humans need to translate their fundamental values (or view of life) into concretes that can be experienced with the sensory immediacy of direct perception. In her view, the social function of art--though not insignificant--is secondary. Not only in the modern world but in the most traditional societies as well, an artist projects his own values (and temperament)--even when he consciously aims to serve a supernatural being, deity, or spirit. It just happens that in relatively homogeneous traditional cultures, the individual artist is likely to share, rather than challenge, his society's values.

In Rand's view, the problem with modernist art is not excessive individualism (the traditionalist view) but extreme irrationality and the rejection of objectivity in favor of pure subjectivism. This is an important distinction. Rand embraces freedom of individual expression without sacrificing intelligibility and potential relevance to society.

That point aside, Vickery's assessment of What Art Is is noteworthy. As it happens, its significance is highlighted by his review of another book in the same issue of the journal--But Is It Art? An Introduction to Art Theory, by Cynthia Freeland (a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston and an active member of the American Society for Aesthetics). As Vickery observes, Freeland attempts to "create an unproblematic historical trajectory" from the great Spanish painter Francisco Goya to Andres Serrano (the photographer whose controversial Piss Christ--an image of a crucifix immersed in a jar of Serrano's urine--provoked a public outcry a decade ago). But in so doing, he says, she "obviates some of the most problematic aspects of contemporary art," for she gives little attention to the "shifts in artistic practice in the 1960s in which historic artistic conventions, circumscribed by the traditional fine art genres, effectively collapsed." Vickery further argues that those shifts have

serious consequences for any understanding of the 'aesthetic' import of art and art's cultural function. The problem, in the context of a philosophy of art, is criteria: without stable criteria of identity embedded in artistic convention the relation between art's meaning and art's value becomes radically arbitrary; that is, without a categorical separation between art and non-art, aesthetic concepts lose their autonomy and become bound up with cultural representation, its social 'meanings' and political 'values.' The extent of this shift in art's history is not acknowledged by Freeland, and ironically, the question, 'But is it Art?' is never explicitly pursued.

Thus Freeland's book (published by Oxford University Press last year) is yet another instance-- added to the many from today's artworld which we cited in What Art Is (pp. 7-8)--of a writer's raising the question "But is it art?" without even attempting to answer it. That this failure on Freeland's part does not escape Vickery is reassuring. In contrast, it is disappointing that, while he notes that Freeland embraces Arthur Danto's "'open door' approach to art criticism, accepting [as 'art'] whatever object . . . happens to warrant the attention of the 'art world,'" he nonetheless recommends But Is It Art? for students of art history "resistant to 'theory.'" (1)

Vickery concludes his review of What Art Is by observing (almost wistfully, it seems) that, though Rand's esthetics is "not likely to find many converts in the contemporary art world," we have offered "a balanced critical assessment of her arguments, finding justification for those arguments from archaeology, cognitive science and clinical psychology, and applying Rand's ideas to every area of contemporary culture." He thus appears to imply that his fellow art historians would do well to give the theory presented in What Art Is careful consideration.

1. For our discussion of the open-ended approach to defining art advocated by Arthur Danto and others, see What Art Is, pp. 95-100.

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