What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand

by Louis Torres & Michelle Marder Kamhi

Response to Reason review

We appreciate that Charles Oliver credits us with making a "provocative case" for Ayn Rand's theory of art, and with providing a "fascinating critique of the muddled thinking of most modern artists and critics." But we question some important errors and omissions in his review of What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand--tellingly entitled "Beyond Taste: The Perils of Defining Art" (March 2001).

Most egregious is Oliver's assumption that, because we favor an objective definition of art, we would approve the acts of censorship (and abrogation of property rights) that might result from it under present law. Since our book, as we stressed, is a study "not in political philosophy but in the philosophy of art," we deliberately confined our analysis of the governmental and legal implications of Rand's theory to the points most relevant to the concept of art, within the existing body of law. Oliver's presumptions about what legal measures we would advocate, if any, are therefore ill-founded.

Regarding the 1990 obscenity trial in Cincinnati, for example, Oliver mistakenly infers that we faulted the jury for "refusing to convict" the Contemporary Arts Center's Director, Dennis Barrie. What disturbed us was not that "Barrie wasn't forced to spend some time behind bars" (as Oliver suggests) but rather that his defense was based on the false claim that the disputed photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe met the legal test of "serious artistic value" (we argue that, regardless of content, no photograph qualifies as a work of art if that term is precisely defined). Even more disturbing to us was the likelihood that such a claim had contributed to the dismissal of the far more grave (and justifiable) charge that two of the photographs consitituted child pornography. Nevertheless, we would not have advocated a jail sentence for Barrie.

To avoid undesirable legal consequences, Oliver favors a "purely subjective" theory of art. Such theories have held sway in the art world for decades, however, and have adversely affected far more than just those laws and government programs that libertarians would rightly abolish. They have corrupted the private and nonprofit sectors as well. In this regard, Oliver ignores our argument that recent corporate and foundation support has been as misguided as any government arts program. Spurious work by "avant-garde artists" is richly rewarded, while true art, especially painting and sculpture, is largely relegated to the margins of the cultural marketplace.

Oliver also omits any mention of other key portions of our book which lend further credence to the argument we make for an objective definition of art. These include entire chapters dealing with the nature of music, photography, and the decorative arts--as well as with dubious modernist and postmodernist innovations in dance, music, and literature, and with bogus postmodernist genres such as "performance art" and "installation art."

Finally, Oliver fails to consider what we regard as the most important public implication of Rand's theory in today's culture: that a destructive influence is being wrought on the young by the rampant irrationality and politically correct agenda of the contemporary arts establishment. In chillingly Orwellian fashion, school children are taught, among other falsehoods, that literally anything can be art--if a purported expert says it is. Surely this is one very real "peril" of not defining art, since free minds depend, above all, on cultivating the capacity for rational thought.

[This letter was published in the June 2001 issue of Reason.]

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