What Art Is:
The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand

by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi

Response to Public Interest review

Roger Kimball's review of What Art Is--"Can Art Be Defined?" in the Spring 2001 issue of The Public Interest (reprinted in his Art's Prospect, 2003)--can be regarded as something of a milestone for Ayn Rand studies, since no book dealing with her ideas has ever before been given serious consideration in an influential general-interest periodical not devoted to Objectivist or libertarian ideas. Consequently, his review is of particular significance, notwithstanding any reservations he ultimately has about the validity of the book's thesis.

Kimball's remarks reflect a close reading of at least some portions of the book, as well as an awareness of its overall content. Taking into account its long genesis, he offers readers a fair sense of its scope and contents, and indicates its scholarly attributes. What Art Is, he concludes, is a "rich, opinionated melange . . . , full of notes, asides, and second thoughts, but [and here's the rub] positively steely in its pursuit of its main theme: laying down the law about what does and does not qualify as art." Though he finds "the most persuasive part of the book" to be our concluding chapter--in which we apply Rand's theory of art to a critique of government and corporate support of the arts, art law, and arts education--Kimball is uneasy with our "steely" conviction regarding the validity of that theory, and with the certainty it implies. "Certainty is a marvelous thing," he observes in his opening paragraph--further noting that it "is perhaps the one mental commodity that everyone . . . will agree that the novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand . . . possessed in abundance." He then suggests that, as her "disciples" (a term that mistakenly suggests a greater degree of adherence to her ideas than we in fact exhibit), we too are "well endowed" with that trait. While Kimball shares our impatience with the contemporary art world, and earnestly laments that we "really do live at a time when anything can be hailed as a work of art," he ultimately answers the question in the title of his review--"Can Art Be Defined?"--with a resounding no, arguing that the sort of certainty we aim for, by our "emphasis on the importance of having 'an objective definition' of art," is impossible.

It is worth noting here that Kimball's mistrust of objectivity does not extend to science or to other fields of philosophy, in which he has explicitly and consistently upheld it. To cite but a few examples culled from The New Criterion (of which he is managing editor), he has not hesitated to criticize postmodernist thought for its "epistemological relativism" and its dismissal of Western culture's "belief in objective truth" (May 1994, 14); with the journal's editor Hilton Kramer, he has excoriated the academy for its abhorrence of the idea of "'a universal, objective, impartial position'" (February 1995, 10); in extolling "the ideal of objectivity that stands behind and guides modern scientific inquiry," he has lauded philosopher Karsten Harries for defending "'the pursuit of objective reality'" (May 1996, 9); and he has censured philosopher Richard Rorty for proclaiming "'I do not have much use for notions like 'objective value' and 'objective truth'" (June 1997, 4), while he has praised another scholar for his "refreshingly discordant" insistence that scholarship "'must always remain objective'" (ibid., 5). And one can assume he concurs with the view expressed in the "Notes & Comments" for February 1998, criticizing the current pursuit of "women's studies" because, among other reasons, "it castigates the goal of objective knowledge as a patriarchal fiction."

With respect to an objective definition of art, however, Kimball's reservation is clear. Noting our frequent citation of Aristotle's Poetics, he cites as "even more pertinent" to the subject of art Aristotle's observation (in the Nicomachean Ethics, Book I) that "the same exactness must not be expected in all departments of philosophy," and that "it is the mark of an educated mind to expect that amount of exactness which the nature of the particular subject admits." We could not agree more, but would argue that--contrary to Kimball's view that, "like many important things in life, art cannot usefully be defined"--the identity of art is a subject that admits to a fair amount of exactness. In this connection, it is worth calling attention to a passage of the Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, not cited by him, in which Aristotle refines and extends his idea of the degree of exactness appropriate to diverse "departments of study" (a broader category than his prior "departments of philosophy"). Contrasting the work of the carpenter and the geometrician, Aristotle observes that "both try to find a right angle, but in different ways; the former is content with that approximation to it which satisfies the purpose of his work; the latter, being a student of truth, seeks to find its essence or essential attributes" (emphasis added). This, in fact, is precisely what Rand did in formulating an objective definition of art--though she regarded her view of the nature of "essences" as differing in an important respect from Aristotle's. She argued in her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (2nd ed., p. 52) that, for Aristotle, definitions refer to metaphysical essences, "which exist in concretes as a special element or formative power" (and that the process of concept-formation "depends on a kind of direct intuition by which man's mind [directly] grasps these essences")--whereas she viewed the "essence" of a concept as an epistemological abstraction, identifying the "fundamental characteristic (s) . . . on which the greatest number of other characteristics [of the referents subsumed by the concept] depend, and which distinguish [these referents] from all other existents within the field of man's knowledge" (ibid.).

Kimball's reservation regarding Rand's definition of art becomes clearer when he argues that, in our attempt to "introduce sanity" into considerations of art, we "threaten to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater." In the visual arts, as he notes, we not only reject postmodernist icons such as Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, and more recent artworld celebrities such as Karen Finley and Robert Mapplethorpe, we also discredit the modernist pantheon of Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian, Pollock, Rothko, and David Smith, even going so far as to challenge the very notion of "abstract art." Moreover, Kimball is troubled by our questioning the critical reputations of such major figures in the other arts as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, John Ashbery, and Merce Cunningham. Further, as Kimball notes, we argue that neither photography nor architecture should be classified as art in the sense we are dealing with. Thus catalogued, our consignment of "virtually all of modernist and postmodernist art to the limbo of non-art" might indeed seem to the reader not merely "quite breathtaking," as he puts it, but downright "silly"--absent any indication of the argument we build regarding both the origin of the concept and the psychological function of art, neither of which Kimball cites.

Observing that we do not discuss Picasso (except for a note), Matisse, Cézanne, or Braque--all of whom "took painting a long way toward abstraction"--Kimball wonders whether "they qualified as artists" in our view. At the risk of oversimplification, we respond briefly here. Matisse? We enjoy much of his work, but regard it as largely "decorative art," in effect, not art in the sense we intend. Cézanne? Definitely an artist, and deserving of an important place in the history of modern painting, though one perhaps not quite so exalted as that now assigned to him. Picasso is the most problematic of all, for he was so prolific, over a long period, and his work ranged over so many different styles. He was brilliantly talented, of course, and many of his portraits and figure studies (for example, Woman in White, 1923, Metropolitan Museum of Art)--especially from his early years--reveal great power and sensitivity as an artist. As for his Cubist work, however, the more benign of his "Synthetic" Cubist paintings (such as Three Musicians, 1921, Museum of Modern Art, New York) are, to our mind, pleasing, sometimes whimsical, but (like most of Matisse's work) essentially decorative in nature. Similarly, much of Picasso's other work--from his essentially abstract "Analytic" Cubist paintings to his found-object "sculpture" Bull's Head (1943) and his numerous collages--is not art, in our view.

Picasso's more brutal vein of Cubism, however (as in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, Museum of Modern Art), and the savage portraits of his children and various wives or mistresses (e.g., Seated Woman [Dora], 1938, in the 1996 exhibition "Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation," Museum of Modern Art), is art, though of an intensely pathological variety. As for Braque, his signature canvases were either in a style comparable to Picasso's "benign" Synthetic Cubism (and therefore essentially decorative) or in the vein of Analytic Cubism (and therefore essentially abstract--i.e., not art).

In any case, contrary to Kimball's implication, the historical trend toward increasing abstraction discernible in the work of such late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century painters does not justify the eventual rejection of all representation in works of "abstract art." To imply that artists such as Cézanne, who died before the advent of total abstraction, were aiming for it themselves or would have approved of it, is simply false. As for Picasso, moreover, it is well known that he quickly abandoned Analytic Cubism and adamantly rejected abstract art.

Believing that "art is not susceptible to the sort of definition [we] seek," Kimball concludes that "persuasive critical judgments about [it] rely not upon possession of the correct 'formal definition' . . . but upon the exercise of taste." On this point, he quotes Immanuel Kant's observation that "there can be no objective rule of taste which shall determine . . . what is beautiful." In so doing, Kimball shifts attention from our concern with the objective nature of art (the topic of our book) to the question of taste in art--that is, to the perceiver's subjective response. But the quotation from Kant is inapt here, since the section of his Critique of Judgement from which it is taken ("Third Moment of the Judgement of Taste," sec. 17) does not deal primarily with taste in art. In a later portion of the Critique, when Kant does focus on art, he makes clear that the value of a work of art depends not simply on its beauty but on its presenting what he terms "aesthetical Ideas" ("Fourth Moment of the Judgement of Taste," secs. 49-50). Though Kant is never easy to decipher, he seems to mean by this perceptual embodiments of important concepts--much as Rand wrote that, through the "selective re-creation of reality," art "brings man's concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts." In Kant's words:

by an aesthetical Idea I understand that representation of the Imagination which . . . cannot be completely compassed . . . by language . . . [and] is the counterpart (pendant) of a rational Idea. . . . The Imagination (as a productive faculty of cognition) is very powerful in creating another nature, as it were, out of the material that actual nature gives it . . . , and by it we remould experience, always in accordance with analogical laws. . . . Such representations of the Imagination we may call Ideas, partly because they at least strive after something which lies beyond the bounds of experience, and so seek to approximate to a presentation of concepts of Reason (intellectual Ideas), thus giving to the latter the appearance of objective reality. [Critique of Judgment (tr. J. H. Bernard), sec. 49; in Kant: Selections, ed. Theodore M. Greene, p. 426]

Among the sorts of ideas (or concepts) that are represented in art, Kant lists both invisible things such as heaven and hell and existential phenomena such as death, envy, love, and fame. Though the products of the artist's imagination are similar to nature ("objective reality") in appearance, he emphasizes, they embody concepts more fully than any single instance in nature.

Contrary to Kimball's implication, then, Kant did attempt to analyze the essential nature of art works--though, unlike Rand, he did not offer a formal definition. Moreover, he proposed a cognitive function for art not unlike the one Rand presents in greater detail and with more clarity. It is precisely because abstract art, as well as more recent "avant-garde" work, does not fill such a function that we argue it is not art.

That virtually anything can now be accorded the status of art, Kimball suggests, may be due to "an important spiritual breakdown as well as a massive failure of nerve." In his view, moreover, "the real issue is not whether a given object or behavior qualifies as art but rather whether it should be regarded as good art. In other words, what we need is not definitional ostracism but informed and robust criticism." What Kimball ignores, however, seems to us a matter of common sense--i. e., that the very notion of "good art" presupposes an objective understanding of what art is. As Aristotle and others have held, "goodness" (in Aristotle, "the Good," Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1) implies fulfillment of a thing's fundamental nature. That is why we argue that critics who fail to understand what the nature of art is lack a solid basis on which to judge the value of a given work, or to explain why it is good or bad.

In our view, the present state of affairs in the artworld is due far more to an epistemological breakdown and a massive failure of rational thought than to the "spiritual breakdown" and "massive failure of nerve" postulated by Kimball. If a failure of nerve is a factor, it has been mainly that of philosophers and critics unwilling to risk saying that some things put forward as art simply do not qualify as such.

Kimball declares that, while he does not like Warhol, Duchamp, or Mapplethorpe, for example, any more than we do, "it is silly to deny that what they produced was art." In contrast with his approach, however, our rejection of their work, and of virtually all the modernist and postmodernist inventions that have been put forth in the name of art, is not based on mere dislike (our taste), but on the fact that with each innovation the would-be artists have deliberately--often explicitly, in their theorizing--jettisoned the essential attributes of the basic art form in which they were presumably working. While most modernists, including the pioneers of "abstract art," merely dispensed with these attributes as allegedly expendable cultural conventions--to be replaced by something presumably newer and better--Duchamp and the postmodernists belligerently flouted them, in order (as Kimball notes) "to undermine the very idea of art." We insist that the resulting work, by its very intent, does not qualify as art, even "bad art."

What Rand argued, and recent research in fields such as cognitive science and neurophysiology tends to confirm, is that the basic attributes of the established art forms are not just "conventional" (as the avant-garde has claimed) but are deeply rooted in the requirements of human nature. Because her theory illuminates the psychological function of art in a manner consistent with knowledge from the human sciences, we regard it as objectively valid. (As Kimball observes, we did not specify what we meant by this term, but he correctly surmises that it presumed "a fairly high degree of rigor.")

Owing no doubt to his conviction that abstract art was a viable innovation, and to his acceptance of the modernist-postmodernist polarization that has misleadingly come to dominate recent thought about art, Kimball has missed the major thread of our argument. As we document in considerable detail, every avant-garde movement since the early twentieth century (not least abstract art) has been driven in large measure by mistaken ideas--about reality and human nature, or, increasingly, about the nature of art itself. Postmodernism, we argue, is but a continuation of that modernist tendency. This is no less true because it began as an explicit reaction, however perverse and misguided in its own way, against modernism, as epitomized by abstract expressionism, which had assumed an illegitimate sway in the art world.

Finally, it was thanks in large part to the influence of intellectuals such as Clement Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro that abstract art had been granted its high status in the culture. As Kimball notes, we are "severe" in our objections to their counterfeit elitism, as well as to that of contemporary critics such as Hilton Kramer and Kimball himself, who (as we argue) have continued to champion abstract work by arbitrary judgments--justified only by their own personal "taste," never by objective criteria that others might learn from and apply. As we demonstrate, despite their air of authority, the statements of such critics on the subject of abstract art are fraught with contradictions. Without an objective definition of what art is, such contradictions will continue to plague even the best of our critics, Kimball among them.

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