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Torres and Kamhi point out that even Rand's official "intellectual heir" and literary executor, the philosopher Leonard Peikoff, has acknowledged that "one 'can respond to tragedy without having a tragic sense of life,' one 'can have a tragic sense of life without being in any way immoral, corrupt, or evil,' and one 'can have a tragic sense of life and still be one hundred percent honest, rational, and moral.'"
In short, a person's taste in art may tell us something about his life. But it's just as likely that it doesn't. Until we have a far greater understanding of how people use art, and unless we know a great deal about the particulars of the person's life, we are wise to draw no conclusions about his mental or moral state.
The realization that different people value art for different reasons and in different contexts raises another question relevant to this discussion: Do we really need an airtight, objective definition of art? Why argue over how to distinguish art from non-art? If you like it, and it moves you, shouldn't that be the end of the definitional debate, even as conversations about the merits and meanings of a given work continue? Torres and Kamhi argue that the definition of art has ramifications beyond aesthetics, linguistics, or philosophy. But their attempts to show why the definition of art is important has disturbing implications for free expression.
In a chapter on "Public Implications," Torres and Kamhi point out that the government has played a large role, both directly and indirectly, in promoting the rise of what they consider "non-art." They note that Rand opposed any government funding of art, but the thrust of their argument is that government funding of what they would consider "real" art is less objectionable than funding of non-art passed off as the legitimate thing.
Things don't improve much in their discussion of laws that protect works of art from mutilation or alteration, even by their owners. Such laws, which are common in Europe, have been used to prevent new owners of buildings from removing murals that they didn't commission or sculpture that tenants complain about. Torres and Kamhi's argument against these laws is based not on an owner's property rights, as Rand would have it, but on the laws' overbroad definition of art. They imply that a building owner's property rights should be infringed to protect what they consider real representational works.
The authors' policy prescriptions go most off the rails in their treatment of obscenity. Current law protects films, books, and music from obscenity charges if they are determined to have some serious artistic value. Given Rand's definition of art, much modern art, especially if it deals with sexual matters, would likely fail this test. Indeed, in their discussion of the controversy over the exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs at the Arts Center of Cincinnati in 1990, Torres and Kamhi argue that the photographs were in fact obscene. And since Rand holds that photographs can never be art, they seem to believe the jury erred in refusing to convict Arts Center Director Dennis Barrie. The authors seem genuinely disturbed that Barrie wasn't forced to spend some time behind bars.
Despite such problems, Torres and Kamhi make a provocative case for Rand's concept of art. They do so by jettisoning some of her more ill-conceived and rash pronouncements. In the end, however, we are still left with a philosophy that doesn't just criticize much modern art but seems to open it up to censorship. The moral judgments that Rand places on aesthetic decisions shift too quickly to legal ones in the hands of Torres and Kamhi. In the face of such slippage, the benefits of an "objective" theory of art, never self-evident to begin with, are even less clear. Better to say that art is purely subjective. That's not the same as forsaking standards of art. After all, each of us knows it when we see it. It's just that none of us sees things exactly like someone else.