What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand

What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand


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What is art? The arts establishment has a simple answer: anything is art if a reputed artist or expert says it is. Though many people are skeptical about the alleged new art forms that have proliferated since the early twentieth century, today's critics claim that all such work, however incomprehensible, is art.

A groundbreaking alternative to this view is provided by philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand (1905 1982). Best known as the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, Rand also created an original and illuminating theory of art, which confirms the widespread view that much of today's purported art is really not art at all.

In What Art Is, Torres and Kamhi present a lucid introduction to Rand's esthetic theory, contrasting her ideas with those of other thinkers. They conclude that, in its basic principles, her account is compelling, and is corroborated by evidence from anthropology, neurology, cognitive science, and psychology.

The authors apply Rand's theory to a debunking of the work of prominent modernists and postmodernists from Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, and Samuel Beckett to John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and other highly regarded postmodernist figures. Finally, they explore the implications of Rand's ideas for the issues of government and corporate support of the arts, art law, and arts education.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812693720
Publisher: Open Court Publishing Company
Publication date: 06/01/2000
Pages: 539
Product dimensions: 6.33(w) x 9.27(h) x 1.32(d)

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Early in the twentieth century, for the first time in history, works purporting to be art were created that were not, in fact, art at all bearing little or no resemblance to the painting, sculpture, literature, music, or dance that had come before. Whereas art had always integrated and made sense of human experience, this new work was invariably fragmented, disorienting, and unintelligible, often intentionally so. In many respects, it was more akin to madness, or to fraud, than to art.

Such work did not lack its critics. In a remarkably short time, however, new forms such as abstract painting and sculpture, and experimental work in the other arts, gained virtually complete acceptance among members of the arts establishment. By the end of the century, most critics and scholars had come to regard the legitimacy of every conceivable new form of art as beyond question, while traditional contemporary work was relegated to nearly total neglect a trend that has continued unabated into the new millennium.

As increasingly bizarre alleged art forms have proliferated at a dizzying rate, so has a body of impenetrable critical and scholarly literature professing to explain and justify them. Nonetheless, a substantial segment of the public, even among those repeatedly exposed to this work and to the arguments on its behalf, have failed to embrace it. While some merely express confusion and frustration, others are skeptical that there is anything in it to be understood or appreciated, and still others reject it outright, considering it beyond the pale of art. In the controversy that has ensued between experts and the public on this issue, we maintain that the ordinary person's view, based as it is largely on common sense, is the correct one. A principal goal of this book is to provide that common-sense view with the theoretical justification it warrants. . . .

While Ayn Rand retains the traditional classification of art as well as the idea that the arts are essentially mimetic in nature she rejects the traditional view that the primary purpose of art is to afford pleasure and convey value through the creation of beauty, which she does not regard as a defining attribute. In her view, the primary purpose of art is much broader: it is the meaningful objectification of whatever is metaphysically important to man. For Rand, every art work whether of painting, sculpture, literature, music, or dance is a selective re-creation of reality' that serves to objectify, in an integrated form, significant aspects of its creator's basic sense of life.'

Further, Rand holds that the distinctive character of each of the major branches of art derives from is determined by a specific mode of human perception and cognition. As a consequence, she argues that, technological innovations notwithstanding, no truly new categories of art are possible, only recombinations and variants of the primary forms which have existed since prehistory.

According to Rand, art serves a vital psychological need that is at once cognitive and emotional. Only through art, in her view, can man summon his values into full conscious focus, with the clarity and emotional immediacy of direct perception. For Rand, then, art is a unique means of integrating the physical and psychological aspects of human existence. Thus she not only identifies what art is, in terms of essential characteristics, she also provides an enriched appreciation of the importance of art in human life. Moreover, in so doing, she makes clear why much of what the artworld has promoted as the art of the past hundred years is, by objective standards, a perversion of the very concept.

Table of Contents

Traditional Meanings of the Term "Art"
What the Ordinary Person Thinks
The Cartoonists
The Journalists
Prime-Time Television
The Ubiquitous Question: "But Is It Art?"
The Experts Speak
The Art Historians
The Critics
Need for a Valid Theory and Definition of Art
The Default of Philosophy
Ayn Rand's Theory of Art
The Status of Rand Studies
Overview of the Present Study

Chapter 1: "The Psycho-Epistemology of Art"
The Purpose of Art
Metaphysical Value-Judgments
Rand's Definition of Art
The Cognitive Function of Art
The Creative Process
Art, Religion, and Philosophy
Art and Ethics
Romanticism and Naturalism
"Efficacy of Consciousness"
Chapter 2: "Philosophy and Sense of Life"
Emotional Abstraction
Philosophy and Sense of Life
Sense of Life and Character
Sense of Life in Love and Art
Chapter 3: "Art and Sense of Life"
Emotion and "Expression" in Art
"Communication" in Art
The Significance of Artistic Selectivity
The Response to Art
Subject and Meaning in Art
Style and "Efficacy of Consciousness"
Esthetic Judgment
Chapter 4: "Art and Cognition"
Painting and Sculpture
The Performing Arts
The Role of the Director
The Art of Film
The Arts and Cognition
"Modern Art"
Chapter 5: Music and Cognition
Music and Emotion
Music and Sense of Life
Rand's Mistaken Hypothesis
The Importance of Melody
The Composer's Viewpoint
Music as a "Re-Creation of Reality"
The Symphony Orchestra
Avant-Garde "Music"
Chapter 6: The Definition of Art
Anti-Essentialism in Contemporary Philosophy
The "Institutional" Definition of Art
The "Appeal to Authority"
The Rules of Definition
Rand's Definition of Art
Chapter 7: Scientific Support for Rand's Theory
Human Evolution and Prehistoric Art
The Fundamentality of Mimesis
Anthropological Perspectives
The Cognitive Psychology of Music
The Integrative Nature of Perception
The Psychology and Physiology of Emotion
Neurological Case Studies
The Modular Mind and the Diversity of the Arts
Clinical Psychology--Madness and Modernism

Chapter 8: The Myth of "Abstract Art"
Pioneers: Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian
Mind Divorced from Matter: The "Primacy of Consciousness"
Collective Aspirations: The "Universal" vs. the "Individual"
Absolute Subjectivism
"Decoration" vs. Art
Utopian Aspirations
A Flawed View of Human Perception and Cognition
"Intuition" in Place of Reason and Objectivity
Counterfeit Elitism and "The Emperor's New Clothes"
Freedom, Spontaneity, and "Cognitive Slippage"
Theoretical Revisionism
Meyer Schapiro
Clement Greenberg
Abstract Expressionism
Mark Rothko
Jackson Pollock
Barnett Newman
Abstract Sculpture
Polling the People
Art in the Home
Killing the Messenger
Chapter 9: Photography: An Invented "Art"
Rand's Argument
What Photography Is
Historical Considerations
Contemporary Critical Views
Postmodern Photography
Chapter 10: Architecture: "Art" or "Design"?
Rand's Theoretical Position
Batteux's Classification
D'Alembert's Error
The Nature of Architecture
Utilitarian Function
Architecture and Values
Architecture and Abstract Sculpture
Architecture as Design
Chapter 11: Decorative Art and Craft
Rand's View
Historical Influences
American Indian Artifacts
Quilts and Feminist Art History
The Arts and Artifacts of Africa
Contemporary Crafts as "Art"
Chapter 12: Avant-Garde Music and Dance
Avant-Garde Trends in Music
John Cage
Avant-Garde Dance: Merce Cunningham
Dance: The "Silent Partner of Music"
Cunningham's Progeny
If It Moves, It Must Be Dance
Constrained Movement as Dance
"Discussing the Undiscussable"
Ice Dancing
Chapter 13: The Literary Arts and Film
James Joyce
Samuel Beckett
John Ashbery
The Art of Film
Harrow Alley
Chapter 14: Postmodernism in the "Visual Arts"
]The Long Shadow of Duchamp
Pop Art
Conceptual Art
Assemblage Art and Installation Art
Performance Art
Video Art
Postmodernism and Photography
The Future: Art and Technology
Chapter 15: Public Implications
Government Subsidy of the Arts
Corporate Support
Art and the Law
Teaching the Arts to Children
Discipline-Based Art Education
Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Cautionary Tale
The "Core-Knowledge" Program
"The Educated Child"
A Radical Alternative

Appendix A -- New Forms of Art. A glossary of purported new art forms invented in the twentieth-century.
Appendix B -- Artworld Buzz Words. A sampler of the meaningless jargon of the arts establishment, employed in discussions of work that is not, in fact, art.
Appendix C -- The New York Times--"The Arts." Headlines and quotations from reviews, reflecting promiscuous use of the term "arts."
Selected Bibliography

What People are Saying About This

Randall R. Dipert

This is one of the most interesting, provocative, and well-written books on aesthetics that I know. While fully accessible to the general reader, What Art Is should be of great interest to specialists as well. Ayn Rand's largely unknown writings on art especially as interpreted, released from dogma, and smoothed out by Torres and Kamhi are remarkably refined. Moreover, her ideas are positively therapeutic after a century of artistic floundering and aesthetic quibbling. Anyone interested in aesthetics, in the purpose of art, or in the troubling issues posed by modernism and postmodernism should read this book.
—(Peirce Professor of American Philosophy, SUNY Buffalo, and author of Artifacts, Art Works, and Agency)

Jacques Barzun

At last I have found enough uninterrupted time to read What Art Is from end to end, and I report my enthusiastic appreciation and enjoyment. You have done a splendid piece of work—research, reflection, and writing are worthy of all praise. . . . Your scholarly treatment of modern art, your Appendices, your Notes are full of facts, comparisons, and judgments that come to grips suggestively with the elusive double topic, Art and the arts. . . . My hearty congratulations on an admirable book.
—(Cultural Historian, author of From Dawn to Decadence)

Stephen Cox

Rand's aesthetic theory merits careful study and thoughtful criticism, which Torres and Kamhi provide. Their scholarship is sound, their presentation is clear, and their judgment is refreshingly free from the biases that Rand's supporters and detractors alike tend to bring to considerations of her work.
—(Professor of Literature and Director of the Humanities Program, University of California, San Diego)

Chris Matthew Sciabarra

Torres and Kamhi effectively situate Rand's long-neglected esthetic theory in the wider history of ideas. They not only illuminate her significant contribution to an understanding of the nature of art; they also apply her ideas to a trenchant critique of the twentieth century's advanced art.' Their exposure of the invalidity of abstract art is itself worth the price of admission.
—(author of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical)


[The following is adapted from the Introduction to What Art Is.]

As a thinker, Ayn Rand has occupied a remarkably polarized status in American culture. Her novels and collections of nonfiction essays have for decades attracted a large popular readership, worldwide, and her ideas have generated a multifaceted philosophic movement, with a discernible influence on political and economic thought in the culture at large. Yet she is still regarded with a mixture of suspicion and contempt by many intellectuals, including most academics. In truth, such negative feelings were, in large measure, mutual during her lifetime, for she began her career as a popular author and, like Tolstoy and other well-known Russian writers, she deliberately pursued her literary and philosophic goals as an academic outsider.

Although Rand was a frequent speaker on college campuses in the 1960s (usually under student rather than faculty auspices), her status as an outsider never altered, for she was relentlessly and severely critical of the leftist tendencies of mainstream academic and intellectual thought. As a result, political bias often distorted assessments of her work. Nevertheless, aspects of her philosophy were debated in scholarly journals even during her lifetime. And since her death in 1982, her ideas have been included in philosophy anthologies widely used in college classrooms.

In the past five years, Rand studies have accelerated, with important university press titles and the foundation of the peer-reviewed Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. Feature articles on recent Rand scholarship have appeared in Lingua Franca ("The Heirs of Ayn Rand," September 1999) and the Chronicle of Higher Education ("Ayn Rand Has Finally Caught the Attention of Scholars," April 9, 1999).

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