A Neglected Source for Rand's Aesthetics (2002)

Roger Bissell

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Following are the opening and closing portions of my essay "A Neglected Source for Rand's Aesthetics," which appeared in Vol. 4, No. 1 of Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. The balance of the essay was an analysis of Rand's taped lecture, which is considerably longer and richer than the published essay. It is posted online as a downloadable PDF file at:



Although it has been available in audiocassette form for quite some time[see note 1], “The Esthetic Vacuum of Our Age” has never appeared in print form in its entirety. Substantial portions of the essay were published in November of 1962 in The Objectivist Newsletter (Rand 1962–65) and reprinted with some minor alterations in The Romantic Manifesto (Rand [1969] 1975).

This edited version, labeled (Rand 1962b, 3) as excerpts from Rand’s 1961 address to the Cultural Arts Festival at the University of Michigan, was in turn closely related to her 1960 and 1962 radio talks. [see note 2] In fact, the shorter version is lifted nearly word for word from the much longer taped lecture that is very likely a full-bodied replica of the 1961 version. [see note 3]

While the print version runs to only 2,500 words or so, the full-length taped version totals nearly 7,800 words, and it contains much more than comments on “popular culture” and the Romanticism-Naturalism debate. [see note 4] The taped lecture discusses Rand’s definition of “art” and the function of concepts, the nature of sense of life, and the relation of reason to aesthetics, and is an eloquent, powerful example of Rand’s writing at its best. [see note 5]

Truly, the manuscript of this taped lecture is the “Ur-document” for the Objectivist aesthetics. Comprehensive and stirring in nature, it should have been the lead essay of The Romantic Manifesto, rather than being tucked away in abbreviated form in the middle. Its general obscurity is yet another consequence of the Objectivist movement’s reprehensible tendency toward an oral tradition. As a result, it continues to be difficult for scholars to trace the genesis and development of Rand’s thought and for people in general to obtain a clear, complete picture of how Rand arrived at her challenging ideas. [see note 6]

Someday, a full-length printed version of “The Esthetic Vacuum of Our Age” may take its rightful place among Rand’s other published works in aesthetics. [see note 7]



1. Currently marketed by the Ayn Rand Book Store (formerly Second Renaissance Books) at http://www.aynrandbookstore.com, as Tape AR25C, it is listed in the catalog as “Our Esthetic Vacuum.” The tape itself, however, is labeled “The Esthetic Vacuum of Our Age.” A similar confusion appears to exist in references to versions of this talk delivered on successive days in April of 1962. See note 3 below.

2. Apparently sometime early in 1960, as noted in a letter to John Hospers dated 17 April of that year, Rand (1995, 503) made a series of four radio broadcasts, possibly on Columbia University Station WKCR. She referred to having earlier kept a promise by sending Hospers copies of the scripts of those talks. In a subsequent letter to Hospers, dated 29 August 1960, she indicated that the third talk was entitled “The Esthetic Vacuum of Our Age” (507). She urged him to read it when he had time, for it “presents (also much too briefly) the essence of my theory of art, and will serve as my answer, if we disagree.” It is unlikely that this talk occurred much later than 1 April 1960, and there are no known extant copies of this radio script, which is the earliest known version of her esthetic vacuum talk.

A second and longer series of radio shows was broadcast on WKCR in early 1962. The overall format of the twelve-week series of radio programs was described in the “Objectivist Calendar” (Rand 1962–65a) as follows: “On alternate weeks, Miss Rand will give one of the lectures she has delivered at various universities. On the other six programs, Professor John Hospers of the Philosophy Department of Brooklyn College will discuss Objectivism and the lecture of the preceding week, with Ayn Rand, Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden.” Rand’s esthetic vacuum talk was the ninth program of the series and was broadcast on 26 April 1962 with the title “Our Esthetic Vacuum.” What was surely the same talk was delivered the previous day at Boston University and listed (Rand 1962–65b) as “The Esthetic Vacuum of Our Age.” Both talks were based, probably with little or no revision, upon her 1961 address to the Cultural Arts Festival at the University of Michigan.

3. In a previous essay (Bissell, 2001), it was erroneously stated that the taped lecture was probably a replica of Rand's 1960 radio address. This conjecture is rendered invalid by the presence of several 1961 citations in the lecture, including a quotation from Rand's essay "For the New Intellectual." There is some indication that the tape may have been recorded at a considerably later time, because Second Renaissance Books (now the Ayn Rand Bookstore) has labeled it with a 1968 copyright date. However, the plethora of references from 1961 sources and none from a later date, and the absence of audience noise makes it more likely taht the tape is a recording of Rand's 26 April 1962 program on Columbia University station WKCR, listed as "Our Esthetic Vacuum" (Rand 1962-65a). See also note 6 below.

4. As it is described in Kamhi and Torres 2000, 35 n. 10 and Torres and Kamhi 2000, 2. See also Bissell 2001, 307–8.

5. The Ayn Rand Bookstore also markets a companion tape (AR62C) labeled and referred to in their catalog as “The Esthetic Vacuum of Our Age, Q&A,” but referred to on the tape as “Our Esthetic Vacuum.” All the evidence suggests that it is a tape of the radio broadcast from 3 May 1962, referred to in the “Objectivist Calendar“ (Rand 1962–65a) as “Discussion by Prof. [John] Hospers, Ayn Rand and Barbara Branden.” It is worth noting that, although the radio programs were scheduled to run an hour in length (Tape AR25C, being 60 minutes in length, conforms to that plan), the Q&A tape is curiously shorter by a significant amount, being only 40 minutes long. Although Hospers’ name is not listed on the tape’s container or label, or mentioned on the tape itself, his voice is unmistakable, and he asks a number of questions to which Rand responds. Barbara Branden’s voice, however, is nowhere in evidence on the tape. The most plausible motive for the deletion of fully one-third of the Q&A broadcast would seem to be the consignment of Hospers and Branden, as punishment for their offenses against Rand, respectively, to anonymity (unnamed moderator status) and oblivion—or, in Objectivist terms, to non-Identity and non-Existence. A similar practice is employed in the edited tapes of Rand’s “Lectures on Fiction-Writing”: any time that Barbara Branden or Nathaniel Branden asks a question or reads an excerpt from a book, their voices are replaced by a voice-over speaker.

6. A related syndrome is the reprehensible practice of certain editors of Rand’s previously unpublished materials who have selectively omitted and/or rewritten her original words (see, for example, The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers, by Ayn Rand, in which editor Tore Boeckmann omits a great deal of material that later appeared in The Objectivist Newsletter, The Objectivist, and The Romantic Manifesto). The result is that scholars and new readers alike are deprived of the opportunity of seeing Rand’s earliest organized thoughts on the subject of aesthetics. An expensive twenty-one-tape set of the 1958 fiction lectures (edited down to 23 hours from about 48 hours of “raw tapes”) is still available for purchase through the Ayn Rand Bookstore. See LaValle 2000, 15; Sciabarra 1998a; 1998b. Scholars seeking a more comprehensive view of the development of Rand’s aesthetics must continue to make use of the oral tradition—even if it too is edited.

7. I made a transcription of this tape in early 2000 and offered it to Second Renaissance Books for publication. To date, despite two reiterations of this offer, no response has been received.


This lecture is not an obscure object of curiosity. It is the wellspring of Rand’s The Romantic Manifesto. Along with “The Objectivist Ethics,” it is stark, undeniable evidence of a major spurt of intellectual integration and creativity right at the beginning of Rand’s non-fiction writing career. Some of the best of this lecture was saved for the printed version as well as for later essays, including “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” “Philosophy and Sense of Life,” and “Art and Sense of Life.” But only some of it. The entire lecture deserves to take its place alongside the other published works of Rand’s canonical writings.

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