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FAQ: What does Objectivism Consider to be Art (Aesthetics)

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FAQ: What does Objectivism Consider to be Art (Aesthetics)

(Note from MSK in May 2017: The link to The Objectivist Center in this post is no longer valid as the organization has been renamed The Atlas Society. And it seems like William Thomas might no longer be at TAS. However, for historical reasons, we are leaving the post as is. To get the current TAS information on Objectivism, please go to Objectivism 101.)

by William Thomas - The Objectivist Center

Quote
Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value judgments. Man's profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man's fundamental view of himself and of existence. It tells man, in effect, which aspects of his experience are to be regarded as essential, significant, important.  

         — Ayn Rand, "Art and Cognition" The Romantic Manifesto, p. 45

Just as language is distinctively human, so is art. Every human society has imagined and recreated its world in stories and music, in pictures and sculpture, and in derivative forms of art such as theater and dance.

Many people think art is an indescribable, almost mystical aspect of human existence, that it is a self-contained realm, indefinable except in terms of itself. This has given license to those who want to turn making art into play, who say that art is anything one wants it to be and reject objective standards for the arts. This view is standard fare among art promoters, philosophers of art, and many self-proclaimed artists. The result is that today the average person does not know what is art and what isn't, and believes that the only basis for aesthetic preferences are subjective opinion and personal taste.

In fact, art is a distinctively human institution because it fulfills a vital need of human consciousness. And aesthetic issues can be analyzed objectively, like any aspect of reality.

The Objectivist epistemology teaches that humans are conceptual beings. We are aware of the world directly and immediately through sense-perception, but we do much of our thinking at the conceptual level, using abstractions, language, and logic. Our concepts and theories have meaning only insofar as they are grounded in reality, but one cannot see a theory or feel an idea, nor can one perceive, in a single glance, all the facts of reality that validate a theory or idea. The wider and more fundamental the abstraction, the harder it is to experience it as having the reality of the concrete things we can see and can feel in perception.

The unique and vital function of art is to present, in concrete form, what is essentially an abstraction. We can use artistic techniques like pictorial representation or metaphor to show what an idea looks like: this is what a graph of economic growth does, for example. Art as such performs this function for the most fundamental abstractions: the elements of a world- view. And because a person's world-view, his deepest values, are experienced most clearly in the emotional form of a sense of life, [see FAQ: What is Philosophy"] a work of art can touch the deepest places in us, feelings we often have trouble defining and making explicit.

The different forms of art do this by re-creating reality, selectively representing things, sounds, or events either directly to the senses (as do pictures, sculpture, theater and cinema, music, and dance), or through the vividness of directed imagination (as with literature). The artist does the selecting, stylizing the scene or the world and presenting it in a certain light, with some things emphasized and others taken away. Journalistic and historical narratives, audiovisual recordings of an event, and museum displays are, like artworks, representations, but they are representations that attempt, in so far as possible, to convey the actual facts of a matter. The artist's function, by contrast, is specifically to interpret the world and present it as he re-envisions it, using particular concrete elements to capture a deeper, more universal truth.

An artwork must therefore be accessible to comprehension at the level of perception. It must be recognizably representative of something. A painting that presents a figure or scene is art. Paint splotches are not. A composition of recognizable tones is music. Random noise is not. A fictional narrative of sufficient length is a novel. A collection of sentences with no narrative structure is not. So it goes for every form of art: it must present something accessible to the senses, in the ways appropriate to connecting with those senses as forms of awareness.

Saying that something is not art, does not mean it is not a pleasant decoration, nor does it mean it is worthless. It simply means that it cannot be used for the function of concretizing our deepest values and experiencing directly the equivalent of a sense of life. For instance, because architecture has significant structural and functional obligations (a house must have a roof, bathrooms, kitchen, and so on), Ayn Rand concluded that it was not a pure form of art. Yet anyone who has read The Fountainhead knows how passionately she cared about the artistic dimension of architecture and what worth she attached to it.

Part of what makes art "good" is the artist's skill at capturing his world view and essential concerns in his art. This has many aspects. It includes making an engaging and clear presentation, which requires drawing skill in the visual arts, for example, and talent with plot, character, and dialogue in drama and the novel. It also requires skill in organizing and integrating ideas. This is vital to choosing thematic elements of a work and for making it rich in symbolism and inner structure.

Some of these are skills that make for good decoration and design. In this sense works of design, such as a fine Persian carpet, can be lovely and well-made, even though they are not art. Many conventional accounts of aesthetics confuse decoration with art because they center aesthetics on the question of "what is beauty?" Objectivism regards this as a secondary issue, and because one's idea of beauty is inevitably informed and affected by one's sense of values, it is an issue that, like art in general, depends for its explanation on man's dependence on philosophical principles.

In addition to the artist's skill, art can be judged in terms of its meaning. One may find a piece of work to be skillfully realized, yet be repulsed by what it says at the level of values and sense of life. This was Ayn Rand's reaction to Tolstoy's novels. Similarly, one may be greatly pleased by an artist's sense of life while not being entirely enamored of his skill in conveying it. This appears to have been Rand's reaction to the detective novelist Mickey Spillane, for example.

Ayn Rand envisioned a school of art called "Romantic Realism." Romantic realist artists would, like Rand, combine a commitment to presenting believable scenes set in something like the real world with the ideals of a new romanticism, one that shaped scenes, melodies, and stories to present the essentially heroic character of man. In her own novels, Rand developed a style of "slanted realism" that wrapped rich characters around plots centered on key principles and ideas. Thus the world of her novels is not merely a report of the world as it is, but as it "might and could be."

© Copyright 2005 - The Objectivist Center, reprinted with permission

http://www.objectivistcenter.org

The Atlas Society (formerly The Objectivist Center)

A very special thank you to our friends at The Objectivist Center for allowing us to reprint their summaries on Objectivist philosophy.

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Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value judgments. Man's profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man's fundamental view of himself and of existence. It tells man, in effect, which aspects of his experience are to be regarded as essential, significant, important.

— Ayn Rand, "Art and Cognition" The Romantic Manifesto, p. 45

How is art a recreation of reality (i.e. the world external to will and consciousness)? I would say art is representation of the reality, not recreation.

As to value judgments is is surely the case that an artists selects those aspects of the world that he/she wishes to represent, so there is either an overt or implicit value judgment as to what is important (to the artist) and what is not.

How can an portrait artist (for example) working in a four dimensional space-time manifold literally recreate in two dimensions what exists in four? At best the artist can put down a two dimensional cross-section of a three dimensional scene. This is not recreation. Too much is lost in the process. A two dimensional construct cannot be a recreation of reality unless somehow we could live in Flatland.

Bob Kolker

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Ayn Rand envisioned a school of art called "Romantic Realism." Romantic realist artists would, like Rand, combine a commitment to presenting believable scenes set in something like the real world with the ideals of a new romanticism, one that shaped scenes, melodies, and stories to present the essentially heroic character of man. In her own novels, Rand developed a style of "slanted realism" that wrapped rich characters around plots centered on key principles and ideas. Thus the world of her novels is not merely a report of the world as it is, but as it "might and could be."

© Copyright 2005 - The Objectivist Center, reprinted with permission

http://www.objectivistcenter.org

A very special thank you to our friends at The Objectivist Center for allowing us to reprint their summaries on Objectivist philosophy.

This is a continuation of a very old literary tradition -- the Eutopian or Utopian mode. One imagines a perfected world and contrasts it to the world that is. Thomas More did that long before Ayn Rand. In modern times we also have Alternate History or What-If. What-If the Union had lost the battle at Gettysburg. What consequences might flow from that? Etc. etc. Also Science Fiction (so-called) is a variant and may be Eutopian or Dystopian. Thus we have post apocalypse stories; the world after a Big War and how it might be. Counter-factual fiction is also a platform for satire. Jonathan Swift and -Gulliver's Travels- come to mind.

Ayn Rand was not the first to write an alternate history of the United States (-Atlas Shrugged-) nor will she be the last.

A Eutopian/Dystopian fiction is really a kind of gedanken experiment. It is a way of deriving -possible- situations and consequences from a counter-factual premise.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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How is art a recreation of reality (i.e. the world external to will and consciousness)? I would say art is representation of the reality, not recreation.

As to value judgments is is surely the case that an artists selects those aspects of the world that he/she wishes to represent, so there is either an overt or implicit value judgment as to what is important (to the artist) and what is not.

How can an portrait artist (for example) working in a four dimensional space-time manifold literally recreate in two dimensions what exists in four? At best the artist can put down a two dimensional cross-section of a three dimensional scene. This is not recreation. Too much is lost in the process. A two dimensional construct cannot be a recreation of reality unless somehow we could live in Flatland.

Bob,

You should read Roger Bissell’s ‘Art as Microcosm.’ He argues that art is fundamentally a microcosm. It is a sort of “little reality” (if that is an accurate abridgment). The re-creation—this microcosm--is the creation of a fresh (and necessarily finite, stylized, partial, limited, selective) structure of the actual reality we live in, the microcosmic figure by the very selectivity of what is included (or not) communicates an abstract view of the world. So it does not literally mean “the creation of the universe.” This form, to be intelligible, must have a coherent subject: it must present coherent objects or (as in music) melodic patterns. However, those objects or patterns are there not to replicate or copy something from the real world. As Rand said, they serve as the means of "expressing a view of man's existence" As a visual artist, I am a strong advocate of the importance of “selectivity” (the over all idea of it) in art and the bridging of abstract themes to concretes. And that’s what is mean by a “selective re-creation of reality.”

-Victor

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The artist's function, by contrast, is specifically to interpret the world and present it as he re-envisions it, using particular concrete elements to capture a deeper, more universal truth.

An artwork must therefore be accessible to comprehension at the level of perception. It must be recognizably representative of something. A painting that presents a figure or scene is art. Paint splotches are not.

If art is representative of the artists "re-envisioning" of the world around him, paint splotches should be able to be art in that they can representatively convey meaning.

This is vital to choosing thematic elements of a work and for making it rich in symbolism and inner structure.

If it's rich in symbolism, cannot those same paint splotches be used as symbols? Red representing anger or passion perhaps? I think it would be short-sighted to say that we've never looked at an abstract painting and gotten a "mood" out of it. A bunch of pointy black and red lines scrawled on a canvas conveys an entirely different mood than a group of pastel circles. Regardless of what YOU think of it, the artist may have been conveying anger over the death of a loved one in the former and a sense of peace and reconciliation after a divorce in the latter. The symbols used as splotches of paint may well be representative of real-world events. By relegating them to "decoration" you view them SUBJECTIVELY. Just because you may not understand an artist's reasoning for picking the medium and style that he did, doesn't mean that it was picked randomly. There may be a direct symbolic representation there of which you are simply not privy. The artist owes an explanation of his art to no one. Hence the usually subjective nature of art observation.

Ayn Rand envisioned a school of art called "Romantic Realism." Romantic realist artists would, like Rand, combine a commitment to presenting believable scenes set in something like the real world with the ideals of a new romanticism, one that shaped scenes, melodies, and stories to present the essentially heroic character of man. Thus the world of her novels is not merely a report of the world as it is, but as it "might and could be."

It's perfectly understandable why she envisioned this school of art and why she liked the art that she did. However a fundamental question remains for me: Why is art "positive"? If you don't view man as essentially heroic (and unfortunately there's plenty of examples of that), than art as representative of the world around you or your value judgements may be dark, lugubrious, or unsettling. It seems naive to me to say that all men everywhere strive to become something greater. Many do not. Many strive to undermine the world around them, to pull others down in their self-hatred, to ruin that which others produce. This type of thinking, while morally questionable, is no less "valid" than idealistic Romantic thinking. It's the opposite side of the same coin.

Edited by shadesofgrey

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An artwork must therefore be accessible to comprehension at the level of perception. It must be recognizably representative of something. A painting that presents a figure or scene is art. Paint splotches are not.

If art is representative of the artists "re-envisioning" of the world around him, paint splotches should be able to be art in that they can representatively convey meaning.

Exactly.

In the essay that Kat posted above, Will Thomas (like many other Objectivists) alternates at whim between different standards when claiming that abstract visual art is not art but that abstract aural art is art. Abstract paintings are said to not be art because arrangements of visual tones don't qualify as being "recognizable," but then, when discussing music, a completely different standard is suddenly applied in order to allow arrangements of aural tones to qualify as being "recognizable."

J

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Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value judgments. Man's profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man's fundamental view of himself and of existence. It tells man, in effect, which aspects of his experience are to be regarded as essential, significant, important.

— Ayn Rand, "Art and Cognition" The Romantic Manifesto, p. 45

How is art a recreation of reality (i.e. the world external to will and consciousness)? I would say art is representation of the reality, not recreation.

As to value judgments is is surely the case that an artists selects those aspects of the world that he/she wishes to represent, so there is either an overt or implicit value judgment as to what is important (to the artist) and what is not.

How can an portrait artist (for example) working in a four dimensional space-time manifold literally recreate in two dimensions what exists in four? At best the artist can put down a two dimensional cross-section of a three dimensional scene. This is not recreation. Too much is lost in the process. A two dimensional construct cannot be a recreation of reality unless somehow we could live in Flatland.

Bob Kolker

A better term than 'recreation' would be 're-presentation', which more readily crystallizes the intent...

[besides, 're-creation' implies, whether intended or not, a first creation, from which is a redoing]

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An artwork must therefore be accessible to comprehension at the level of perception. It must be recognizably representative of something. A painting that presents a figure or scene is art. Paint splotches are not.

If art is representative of the artists "re-envisioning" of the world around him, paint splotches should be able to be art in that they can representatively convey meaning.

Exactly.

In the essay that Kat posted above, Will Thomas (like many other Objectivists) alternates at whim between different standards when claiming that abstract visual art is not art but that abstract aural art is art. Abstract paintings are said to not be art because arrangements of visual tones don't qualify as being "recognizable," but then, when discussing music, a completely different standard is suddenly applied in order to allow arrangements of aural tones to qualify as being "recognizable."

J

Once again, there is a lacking of context, especially when most needed... the abstraction involved in the visual, from a cognitive stance, requires concrete recognition of objects, the perceptual concretes - whereas the abstraction involved in the aural, requires concrete recognition in terms of the aural, not the visual... and the perceptual concretes of the aural are attuned more directly to emotional responses [an outgrowth of how sound affected survivability in many aspects]...

Edited by anonrobt

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Once again, there is a lacking of context, especially when most needed... the abstraction involved in the visual, from a cognitive stance, requires concrete recognition of objects, the perceptual concretes - whereas the abstraction involved in the aural, requires concrete recognition in terms of the aural, not the visual... and the perceptual concretes of the aural are attuned more directly to emotional responses [an outgrowth of how sound affected survivability in many aspects]...

The requirement of "concrete recognition of objects" in visual art may be true of you, Robert, and of others, like Will Thomas, who share your visual-spatial limitations, but it is not true of all, or even of most, people. Millions of people are capable of getting as much or more out of abstract visual art as you are of getting out of music and the other arts.

The fact that you personally happen to feel emotions when listening to music but not when viewing abstract art is not an objective basis upon which to determine which things are or are not art. You have to remember that your lack of emotional response to certain types of art is probably nothing more than an indication of your aesthetic or emotional ineptitude, or of other personal limitations that you have in comparison to others.

You're like a blind man telling the sighted that they can't see because he can't see.

J

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