Beyond Taste

The perils of defining art.


What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand, by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi, Chicago: Open Court, 523 pages, $21.95

OK, so she said that Mickey Spillane and Ian Fleming were the great Romantic writers of her day, the rightful heirs to Walter Scott and Alexander Dumas. She dismissed Shakespeare—William Shakespeare—because he didn't believe in free will. And Ludwig von Beethoven's music was lousy, she proclaimed, because it was shot through with a malevolent sense of life.

But are these facts sufficient reason to dismiss Ayn Rand's ideas on art? By their silence, most critics have answered an emphatic (and understandable) yes. Now, nearly two decades after her death, critics who aren't necessarily worshipful acolytes are beginning to address, and sometimes trying to correct or expand, Rand's thinking. Rand's aesthetics, presented most fully in her essay collection The Romantic Manifesto (1969), are explained and critiqued in What Art Is by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi. Torres and Kamhi are editors of the journal Aristos, which skews decidedly to the culturally conservative end of the arts spectrum. (Historian Jacques Barzun and novelist Mark Helprin are among its contributors.)

Torres and Kamhi treat Rand's aesthetics with respect, though not with slavish devotion. They don't hesitate to correct her when they think she is wrong, or where she substitutes simple personal preference for ostensibly rational theory. One great irony suffuses What Art Is: Though Rand as a political philosopher advocated mostly untrammeled liberty, Torres and Kamhi's book hints that defending her "objective" standard of art may provide support for censorship.

Before explaining their own views on art, Torres and Kamhi address the most typical extant definition of art. Art, say many, is that which artists produce—a perfectly circular definition. What is an artist? Someone who produces art. So what is art? You get the picture. A similar problem faces a related set of questions: Art is what hangs in museums or galleries. What are galleries or museums? Places that display art. Following Rand, Torres and Kamhi seek to avoid such tautologies and fashion a proper definition of art by asking what purpose it serves.

"Art brings man's concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts," wrote Rand. While man is a conceptual thinker, she argued, it brings us special pleasure and insight to turn concepts into more readily grasped percepts. In this reading, art is (or should be) a selective recreation of reality according to its creator's metaphysical value judgments. An artist isolates those aspects of reality he deems fundamental and integrates them into something concrete, allowing others the pleasure of contemplating them. Torres and Kamhi conclude that utilitarian objects that don't recreate reality—such as baskets and quilts—can't be art. And though Rand disagreed, they conclude that architecture isn't art for the same reason.

But art is plainly more than just the recreation of reality. It is the recreation of reality "as perceived by a conceptual consciousness," to quote Rand. The ramifications of this requirement are most obvious in visual arts such as painting and sculpture. We don't see mere shapes or color. We see objects, and we see them in the context of our knowledge. Hence, as I write this, I'm not looking at some square object with a flat glass face. I'm looking at a computer monitor.

"Rand…implies that so-called abstract art is not art at all, since it reduces the visual field to 'mere sense data,' in effect by eliminating the representation of objects or entities," Torres and Kamhi write. They agree with Rand on this point and go on to provide a fascinating critique of the muddled thinking of most modern artists and critics, and of the work those artists produce. Piet Mondrian, for instance, famously argued that physical objects "must be banished" from art, which must represent only "pure relationships." Of course, Mondrian wasn't too clear about how relationships could be portrayed without showing the things that were related.

In fact, following psychologist LouisSass, Torres and Kamhi argue that much modern art embodies the worldview of the extreme psychotic. They cite neurologist Oliver Sacks' 1990 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat to illustrate their point. Sacks tells of a man who suffered from a neurological disorder that left him increasingly unable to identify visual objects. The man was a gifted amateur painter whose early work was extremely realistic and finely detailed. But as his condition worsened, his paintings became more abstract and chaotic. When Sacks commented on this visual record of the man's deterioration to the patient's wife, she chastised him for being unable to appreciate her husband's growth as an artist.

While they defend Rand's theory of art, Torres and Kamhi admit that she often simply privileged her own particular tastes in art without sound logic. "Art is man's metaphysical mirror," Rand asserted. Hence she believed that by looking at what sort of concepts a man enjoys seeing concretized, you can accurately judge the state of his soul. Rand herself wanted to see the concept of "man as hero" projected. She thought art should present "the values man is to seek" and "the concretized vision of the life he is to achieve" (her italics). She thought art should be emotional fuel, helping man contemplate and momentarily live in a world where values are achieved and virtues rewarded. (Whether the vision of civilization collapsing in misery that makes up most of her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged meets this definition is another question.)

Rand was notorious for pronouncing harsh moral judgments on those whose tastes differed from hers. She called those whose tastes differed from her own "irrational," and she declared that "what an irrational man seeks to see is a justification…of his own depravity, as a last convulsion of his betrayed self-esteem."

Torres and Kamhi find Rand's view much too simplistic. For them, Rand's quickness to link a personal response to art with moral depravity goes too far. Rand thought a person's "sense of life" determines his response to art. This sense of life, Rand said, is "an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and existence." It is determined very early in life and is hard to change later. Torres and Kamhi argue that a person's sense of life influences his personality, but not necessarily his character, which is formed more by his conscious ideas and by the absorption of social norms. In other words, a person with a negative sense of life may or may not be a gloomy sort who loves sad music, but that doesn't mean that he is dishonest or irrational.

In fact, if one were so inclined, one could point out that Rand, who preferred stories of heroic supermen, often seemed to believe that the actual world she lived in was filled with little but depravity. Could we gauge anything about her morality, or even her "sense of life," by her taste in art?

Torres and Kamhi argue that Rand's aesthetics neglected her own argument that something has value only to an individual, and individuals value things only in a specific context. This implies, though Torres and Kamhi don't say so explicitly, that individuals have different needs for art and make different uses of it depending on circumstances. For instance, we may want to see how the world looks through different eyes, even if we disagree with a particular artist's assessment of the world. Rand seemed to acknowledge as much when she named Fyodor Dostoevsky as one of her favorite writers, even though both his sense of life and his conscious philosophy differed greatly from hers. No one will confuse Raskolnikov with Howard Roark.

Rand hemmed in her aesthetics with "shoulds." An emotionally healthy human being, in Rand's view, ought to like certain kinds of art. She thought most 20th century art styles were "dominated by the attempt to disintegrate man's consciousness and reduce it to mere sensations, to the 'enjoyment' of meaningless colors, noises and moods"; this preference, she argued with characteristic hyperbole, was not simply in bad taste but downright evil. But individuals could have many contextual reasons for valuing or enjoying a given work or style of art that extend beyond Rand's very limited personal vision of what art was for and what it should do.

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.