Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi
What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand
Open Court, 2000
ISBN 0-8126-9373-6
Reviewed by Gary McGath
Copyright 2000 by Gary McGath

When Lou Torres and Michelle Kamhi announced that they were going to publish in book form the essays on "Ayn Rand's Theory of Art," which first appeared in Aristos in 1991 and 1992, I was very excited. I suggested to them, though, that the material would have to be expanded in order to make a satisfactory book. The book is now out, and it is significantly expanded from those essays; but I find myself regretting my own advice.

Part I of the book, which bears the same title as the essays, is enough to justify the book. It gives the most thorough critical (but sympathetic) treatment of Rand's esthetics that I have seen.

Unfortunately, it is followed by a longer section, which is titled "Extension and Application of Rand's Theory," but could have been titled "What Art Isn't." The criticism of modern pseudo-art is certainly on the mark, but it makes very depressing reading without providing much additional understanding of Rand's theories. This material does help to elucidate Rand's generally offhand dismissals of modernist art, but extending and applying her theory almost exclusively in negatives doesn't give a very full view of that theory. The treatment of "performance art," abstract painting, serialist music, and the like could have been given in a quarter as much space, leaving room for more inspiring topics. Personally, I would have liked to see a study of the Romantic movement and how it compared with Rand's concept of Romanticism. Lou and Michelle could have done a fine job on that subject.

Part II is not bad -- it's a thorough indictment of modernist "art" -- just out of balance in view of the book's stated purpose. And Part I is of great value. The authors go into detail about the key concepts of "sense of life," "re-creation of reality," and "metaphysical value-judgments." They dissect the fallacies in the various forms of the assertion that "art is what artists do," or "art is what the artworld says is art," in the process providing support for Rand's definition by essentials. Being oriented mostly toward the visual arts and dance, they provide a counterbalance to Rand's mostly literary focus on art, and they note where her treatment does not apply to non-literary arts.

In an interview in Full Context, Michelle mentions that three chapters were cut out of the book because of its length. One of these, on "Critical Neglect of Ayn Rand's Theory of Art," will be appearing in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies in the fall of 2000. If this chapter had been included and something else left out, the focus on Rand's work might have been stronger. She also mentions that "I had also wanted to include a lengthy discussion of the concept of beauty ... but ... it would have been too much of a digression from the main thrust of our argument."

Music as Art

My own primary esthetic orientation lies in still another field, music. Music has generally been one of the hardest arts to fit into an esthetic theory, so I read the discussion of the subject with special interest. The authors point out the problems in Rand's discussion of music (the weakest part of her treatment of the arts), but I don't think they hit the mark precisely.

Rand made the error of supposing that musical tones are "pure sensations," rather than percepts. Lou and Michelle attribute this to "an insufficiently critical reading of Helmholtz," who used the word "sensation" in a different way from Rand. (1) To Rand, a sensation is a simple, atomic unit of sensory information. Musical tones in fact have considerable content, including attack, tone color (overtones), and changing volume. Tones, the authors state, "should be regarded as percepts." Partly because she failed to place tones on the appropriate cognitive level, Rand thought that music concretizes an epistemological, not metaphysical, abstraction, and that the pleasure obtained from music is largely that of integrating sensations (tones) into percepts.

The key question in relating music to Rand's theory of art is whether and how it constitutes a "selective re-creation of reality." Rand says little on this, except that it "evokes emotions." The authors note that with vocal music or music intended to be choreographed, this isn't a problem; the words or the dance make it clear what is being re-created. The difficulty applies to purely instrumental music. Lou and Michelle state that

the two main aspects of experience from which music derives its vital meaning -- and which it "selectively re-creates" -- are vocal expression and the sonic effects of emotionally charged movement.

Instrumental music makes use of

the nonverbal, or prosodic, aspects of vocal expression [which] retain their pre-eminence in the communication of emotion.

I think this still misses, though. The emulation of vocal expression and movement are the means, not the subject, of a piece of music. The first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is agitated music, but it isn't a depiction of movement charged with agitation.

The difficulty is that a piece of instrumental music (except for the few pieces that engage in literal imitation of ordinary sounds) does not re-create a single subject unambiguously; but how do we allow this without opening up the Pandora's Box of "abstract art"? To answer this, we have to consider the difference between hearing and the other senses.

Hearing is our primary sense of meaning and communication. All peoples developed language first as sound, and only later created written language as a visual encoding of spoken sounds. We can communicate our feelings with inarticulate sounds, and a leader can stir followers to a frenzy with his voice. Visual means alone cannot do nearly as much; and most of what they can do is tied to expressions of the face and movements of the body.

Thus, music does re-create reality in an abstract way -- it creates a "microcosm," to apply the apt term used by Leonard Peikoff, Roger Bissell, and others. It does this because it is capable of doing so meaningfully. Beethoven's Fifth creates an image of agitation, calming answers, and periods of falling back followed by redoubled fury, all without referring to any specific events.

If the visual arts could do the same without portraying physical objects, abstract painting or sculpture would be a legitimate phenomenon. Because of the way our senses relate to our mind, though, they can achieve "abstraction" only by portraying stylized or simplified, but recognizable, physical entities. What is usually called "abstract art" isn't abstraction at all, but meaningless shapes and markings.

Lou and Michelle correctly state that "[m]usic is abstract, but in the true sense of the word, which implies an objective basis in reality." But they miss the actual object of the abstraction, which is a (hopefully) coherent progression of mental-emotional states, identified with the melodies or themes and their changing treatment. The "meaningful aspects of our aural experience" which they cite are the means, just as the experience of color and form in a painting are the means to seeing what is portrayed.

The Politics of Art

I would also like to comment briefly on the chapters on "Public Implications" and "Art and the Law." Here Lou and Michelle discuss the problems caused when the government uses an improper definition of art. Unfortunately, they choose to restrain themselves from discussing political issues as such and consider only how implementing a proper definition of art would affect public policy under existing laws. When they did this in Aristos, they made the right choice; letting a journal of esthetics wander off into political debates would have weakened its focus and made enemies without doing much good. But in a book written under their own names, I think they should have been more forthright.

The fundamental problem with the National Endowment for the Arts, for example, is not just that it subsidizes non-art which it calls art. That is just the symptom. The real reason the NEA is dangerous to art is that by having such an agency, the government inevitably must decide what works count as art, and which are more worthy of subsidy than others. The existence, not the policies, of the NEA should have been their main focus. The same applies to the discussion of whether being qualified as "art" protects a work from obscenity laws. As Rand noted in "Censorship, Local and Express," the very fact of using "artistic merit" as a legal criterion in obscenity cases gives the courts a lever for censorship. Indeed, it might be argued that the existence of the "artistic merit" defense has been a spur to overbroadening the definition of art.

The core of What Art Is -- Part I on "Ayn Rand's Theory of Art" -- is an important work on art and an important contribution to the literature on Objectivism. I only wish I could be as enthusiastic about the book as a whole.

(1) In an E-mail, Roger Bissell has written: "please note that T&K got their analysis of Rand's error in re Helmholtz from me -- I'd appreciate the recognition for that piece of work, which was done long before they started on their own project."

This review last revised on August 19, 2000

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