One of Ayn Rand’s Questions: What’s the Relationship of Art to Concepts?

Two novels-of-ideas by Ayn Rand (1905-1982)–The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957)–and the individualist and pro-capitalist positions that she laid out over the course of her lifetime under a philosophical system she created and designated “objectivism,” have had an outsized impact on the contemporary conservative movement in the United States. Alan Greenspan, Ronald Reagan’s appointee as Chairman of the Federal Reserve, is a Rand enthusiast, as is the libertarian Ron Paul, who named his son, Rand Paul–now a U.S. Senator from Kentucky–after her. Translated into many languages, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged constitute a global literary phenomenon, and continue to sell together in English about 300,000 copies every year.

Rand’s ideas concerning aesthetics can be found in her book, The Romantic Manifesto (1962), and are built on her understanding of concepts. From the time of Plato, Western intellectuals–be they in the classical, structuralist, or poststructuralist stream–have managed to agree on at least this one thing: words have some relationship to concepts. Rand, firmly associated with the classical stream–specifically via Aristotle–also shares this view, and explains the idea to her readers in the following manner:

With the exception of proper names, every word we use is a concept that stands for an unlimited number of concretes of a certain kind. A concept is like a mathematical series of specifically defined units, going off in both directions, open at both ends and including all units of that particular kind. For instance, the concept ‘man’ includes all men who live at present, who have ever lived or will ever live–a number of men so great that one would not be able to perceive them all visually, let alone to study them or discover anything about them.

Having established the way in which a single word like “man” functions as a concept, Rand then observes that sentences are also concepts, or rather conceptual integrations:

Consider the enormous conceptual integration involved in any statement, from the conversation of a child to the discourse of a scientist. Consider the long conceptual chain that starts from the simple, ostensive definitions and rises to higher and still higher concepts, forming a hierarchical structure of knowledge . . .

After establishing the conceptual nature of words and sentences, Rand then moves to the level of one’s metaphysics and ethics, noting that they too are conceptual integrations requiring their own summing together:

Is the universe intelligible to man, or unintelligible and unknowable? Can man find happiness on earth, or is he doomed to frustration and despair? Does man have the power of choice, the power to choose his goals and to achieve them, the power to direct the course of his life–or is he the helpless plaything of forces beyond his control, which determine his fate? Is man, by nature, to be valued as good, or to be despised as evil? These are metaphysical questions, but the answers to them determine the kind of ethics men will accept and practice; the answers are the link between metaphysics and ethics.

The sheer complexity of one’s conceptual integrations into a metaphysical-ethical worldview requires a final integration: art. So Rand defines art this way:

Art is a selective recreation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.

By a selective re-creation, art isolates and integrates those aspects of reality which represent man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. Out of the countless number of concretes–of single, disorganized and (seemingly) contradictory attributes, actions, and entitites–an artist isolates the things which he regards as metaphysically essential and integrates them into a single new concrete that represents an embodied abstraction.

For instance, consider two statues of man: one as a Greek god, the other as a deformed medieval monstrosity. Both are metaphysical estimates of man; both are projections of the artist’s view of man’s  nature; both are concretized representations of the philosophy of their respective cultures. . . .

Just as language converts abstractions into the psycho-epistemological equivelent of concretes, into a manageable number of specific units–so art converts man’s metaphysical abstractions into the equivelent of concretes, into specific entities open to man’s direct perception.

An art object, then, is an artist’s metaphysical-ethical summation of what deserves attention, emphasis, and representation; or, as Rand puts it:

An artist does not fake reality–he stylizes it. He selects those aspects of existence which he regards as metaphysically significant–and by isolating and stressing them, by omitting the insignificant and accidental, he presents his view of existence. His concepts are not divorced from the facts of reality–they are concepts which integrate the facts and his metaphysical evaluation of the facts. His selection constitutes his evaluation: everything included in a work of art–from theme to subject to brushstroke or adjective–acquires metaphysical significance by the mere fact of being included, of being important enough to include.

But what about emotion? What role does intuition and emotion play in art? Rand’s answer is her idea of “a sense of life,” which she defines as “a pre-conceptual equivelent of metaphysics, an emotional subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence” (34), and offers the following as an example:

If one saw, in real life, a beautiful woman wearing an exquisite evening gown, with a cold sore on her lips, the blemish would mean nothing but a minor affliction, and one would ignore it.

But a painting of such a woman would be a corrupt, obscenely viscious attack on man, on beauty, on all values–and one would experience a feeling of immense disgust and indignation at the artist. (There are also those who would feel something like approval and who would belong to the same moral category as the artist.)

The emotional response to that painting would be instantaneous, much faster than the viewer’s mind could identify all the reasons involved. The psychological mechanism which produces that response (and which produced the painting) is a man’s sense of life.

Does this mean that Rand could not appreciate art that did not match her sense of life? Here’s her response:

[T]here are many different aspects from which one may enjoy a work of art–other than sense-of-life affinity. . . .

I love the work of Victor Hugo, in a deeper sense than admiration for his superlative literary genius, and I find many similarities between his sense of life and mine, although I disagree with virtually all of his explicit philosophy–I like Dostoevsky, for his superb mastery of plot structure and for his merciless dissection of the psychology of evil, even though his philosophy and his sense of life are almost diametrically opposed to mine . . . I cannot stand Tolstoy, . . . his philosophy and his sense of life are not merely mistaken, but evil, and yet, from a purely literary viewpoint, on his own terms, I have to evaluate him as a good writer.

Resources:

  • Ayn Rand, Romantic Manifesto (Bantam 1962)
  • Anne C. Heller, Ayn Rand and the World She Made (Anchor 2009)

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to One of Ayn Rand’s Questions: What’s the Relationship of Art to Concepts?

  1. andrewclunn says:

    Rand noticed that (whether intended or not) most art is didactic in nature. She does fail to address that art which is entirely expressive in emotional terms though. For example, under Rand’s understanding of art if a song has lyrics, then the meaning of those lyrics are essential to understanding and evaluating the song. However she has little to offer in effectively evaluating an purely instrumental piece. She would require that there be some meta-information available to put the piece in context in order to evaluate it.

    In other words, her view of art is very useful when evaluating the didactic element of educational, ideological, or propagandist art. However it offers little for evaluating the quality of art forms that fall outside of language and concrete concepts. Then again, as such evaluation would have to be specific to each individual art form, I can’t imagine how one would present a universal means of doing so.

    One of the failings of Rand’s aesthetics is the lack of admiration for the new technique and technical aspect of it. The person who takes known methods and uses them to express an idea is Rand’s ideal artist (though she does not so as much plainly) rather than the innovator. This is quite contrary to other aspects of her philosophy and I feel that she was limited in scope by her literary focus to assume direct parallels for all other art forms.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Andrew,

      I think you’ve hit upon something. Rand used to write that it said something about a person whether they liked dinner parties or travel. In travel, you are out beyond habit in the midst of challenge; at a dinner party, you’re in the realm of small talk and the predictable. If you’re already married (not on the prowl, sexually), they’re not stimulating affairs.

      Rand’s aesthetic praise went to the equivalent of a dinner party.

      —Santi

      • andrewclunn says:

        Exactly. It’s like when a particular religious group finds a show, movie, book, etc… offensive. They are not commenting on the quality of the work from an artistic perspective, but of its quality in relation to their own lives, which are intrinsically tied up in their world view.

        Now, that’s not to say that evaluating something didactically is without merit. Educational material for example should be viewed this way. Also being wary of your children are exposed to has its clear advantages. This is however fails as a means of judging the artistic quality of the work. Perhaps this is partially why Ayn Rand was so good at expressing ideas, but has many shortcomings in the quality of her work (especially Atlas Shrugged where she eschewed an editor).

        Of course whatever her failings are, I do have two points of praise regarding her aesthetics:
        1) Though incomplete, her theories are applicable to all mediums of art.
        2) She never stooped to the religious level of taking popular songs and changing the lyrics to be “ideologically pure” (a cheap cop out for those who judge art didactically, but have no skill in the actual art form).

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