Reactor

Ayn Rand’s Theory of Art

by Jillian Steinhauer on September 19, 2012

Did you know that Ayn Rand had a theory of art? No? Neither did I! But I discovered it recently, thanks to a tip from painter Abigail Markov. It’s encapsulated in the hefty 539-page treatise What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand, written and compiled by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi. And while I didn’t buy the book — no, I couldn’t quite bring myself to do that — I did have a chance to read excerpted bits from the book as well as chapter summaries online. I’d like to share with you, dear reader, some of the key takeaways.

Let’s start where the book starts, with the most basic question of all: what is art? This is actually the hardest one to answer without the full text in front of us, but the website does provide some clues: Rand sees the primary purpose of art as “nonutilitarian and psychological in nature” and says that its cognitive function is “to bring man’s fundamental concepts and values ‘to the perceptual level of his consciousness’ and allow him ‘to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts.’” OK, fair enough. I can get with that.

But the fun really begins when you flip the question and ask what isn’t art. According to Rand, the answer is: almost everything! Rand is horrified by the the art establishment’s assertion that anything can be art if the artist (or a critic) says so, and she offers a “groundbreaking alternative view,” which, from what I can surmise, basically asserts that representational painting, drawing, and sculpture are about the only acceptable forms of visual art there are.

Here are some things that Rand says are not art (from all artistic fields, not just visual):

  • Any and all abstract art
  • Photography
  • American Indian artifacts and other examples of “craft”
  • Anything by John Cage, who has “schizoid tendencies reflected in his work”
  • Anything by Merce Cunningham
  • The fiction of James Joyce, with its “elaborately contrived inaccessibility”
  • Anything by Samuel Beckett
  • “The inscrutable postmodernist ‘poetry’ of John Ashbery”

Jackson Pollock’s “Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)” is abstract and therefore not art (image via National Gallery of Art)

Oh and let’s not forget Chapter 14: Postmodernism and the “Visual Arts” (all scare quotes theirs, not mine) which includes

a critique of spurious postmodernist genres (from “pop art,” “conceptual art,” and “performance art” to “installation art” and “video art”) and acclaimed postmodernist “artists,” including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Cindy Sherman, and Bruce Nauman, Nam June Paik, Chuck Close, and Matthew Barney

Whew! Glad we got those postmodern “artists” out of the way. The appendices also offer a few more helpful distinctions for ruling out vast swaths of creative output from, I don’t know, anytime after 1900. From Appendix A: New Forms of Art:

As a rule, if the term “art” is preceded by qualifiers such as “conceptual,” “incendiary,” or “Pop,” one can be reasonably certain that the work in question is not art by the standards outlined in this book.

Don’t worry, guys, “Web art” is definitely on this list.

Ayn Rand stamp

Ayn Rand was once on a stamp. It’s unclear if she would consider this art. (image via communities.washingtontimes.com)

And from Appendix B: Artworld Buzzwords:

What follows are examples of some of the more common buzzwords and critical clichés of the artworld. One can safely infer that whenever these words or phrases are used in arts criticism, the work in question is not art by any objective standard.

The buzzwords on Part I of that list include such innocuous verbs and adjectives as “challenge,” “confront,” “explore,” and “quirky.” BUT WAIT. Part II has more! Among them: “the artist” (yes, really; I did not make that up), “emerging artist,” “contemporary,” “gallerist,” “make,” “new,” “object,” and “visual culture.”

In other words, Any Rand says: Watch out for those quirky, abstract political web installations made by emerging artists and shown by a handful of new gallerists that explore our society’s visual culture and challenge our notions of objecthood.

At this point it might be relevant to mention Romney’s comments about axing the National Endowment for the Arts if elected (in the book, Rand calls the NEA “a dubious model” for arts support) or the influence of Rand on vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan … but I just can’t do it. I can’t take Ayn Rand’s “esthetic theory” seriously enough for that.

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  • http://twitter.com/annabergin Anna

    Ayn Rand didn’t actually write this she died in 1982. I guess I’m missing the point? Is this a joke, I don’t get it

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      The book is about her theories of art so she did not write this book, but she has written extensively about art.

      • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

        The first four chapters are essays she wrote; the rest draw on her other writings to put forth her theories.

        • http://twitter.com/annabergin Anna

          I just think its uncomfortable to state her feelings on web based art even if they are trying to translate her theories. If she were alive for another 20+ yrs her opinions may have changed. I’ll take some time to actually read her essays

        • http://twitter.com/michaelcaution Michael Caution

          The first four chapters are not written by Rand they are discussions of essays she wrote of the same title.

  • toothychum

    I am NO fan of Ayn Rand, but this article is misleading. Given that Rand was dead in 1982, she could not possibly form an opinion on the art of Matthew Barney.

    • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

      For what it’s worth, I didn’t make any of this up—it’s all in the book, which is presented as her theories of art. So perhaps you should take issue with the authors?

      • toothychum

        I’m not suggesting you made anything up, and I found the article interesting. It’s just that I didn’t notice you mention that this book was a secondary source. So when I came to the quotation mentioning Matthew Barney, I was confused.

        • toothychum

          Let me rephrase,…you mention it as a secondary source. I just assumed the quotations were Rand’s, not the authors, given that it mentions scare quotes, etc.

          • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

            Gotcha. I see your point.

  • http://www.facebook.com/romanmilisic Roman Milisic

    This is easily the most vapid article I’ve ever read on Hyperallergic. Jiilian, your big zinger about Rand’s dismissiveness is entirely undercut by your _own_ dismissiveness. I know, I know, who has time to read the book one is reviewing–especially one that is 539 printed(!) pages.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      First of all, your comment doesn’t correspond with our blog commenting policy — or do you not read those things? (here’s a link: http://hyperallergic.com/comment-policy/ ) — second, it’s not a review, it’s a reaction to the book (hence it’s in the reactor category). Thanks for winning the abusive comment contest!

      • http://twitter.com/sweetdog2 Victoria

        It would appear that you are the only one in this blog that has been insulting and sarcastic to people who are sharing their views in a respectful way.

        • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

          Just because you think that’s true doesn’t make it true. Spoken like a true Randian.

    • http://www.facebook.com/acundiff Alison Cundiff

      We don’t read books here. We react to them.

      I just want to make sure whether we are reacting to the material that the books are made of, the publisher’s logo, or the body font? I don’t want to come at this from the wrong angle. Last week I reacted to some thing in the Times that was written in Arial and I got blocked from the site.

      • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

        I never realized Hyperallergic has soo many Ayn Rand fans … HILARIOUS!

        • http://twitter.com/annabergin Anna

          I actually wouldn’t classify myself as an Ayn Rand fan at all. I do however believe that people are jumping on a bandwagon of hating everything about her just because Paul Ryan and others have mentioned her name and ideas. They are easily forgetting that she was once a Jewish immigrant from communist Russia. She believed in a woman’s right to her own body, and was an absolute Atheist. I do like strong women, loners, and people with their own opinions. Must we like everything that a writer believes in or does in his/her life? She was absolutely an interesting person with some nutty ideas but not with out merit. It’s easy to write “here she is being crazy again”… but all artists are

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            I’ve actually disliked Ayn Rand for almost two decades. I know her history but I think she was also irrational in her hatred of socialism, which is understandable considering her history, but obviously blind considering the realities of socialist ideas and their success in other locales (Scandinavia, Canada, etc.). I’m fine with disagreeing but I also have a problem with people pretending this is a book review when it obviously isn’t and isn’t presented that way.

            She was also a hypocrite in that she decried gov’t programs and then lived off social security in her old age and possibly even Medicare. I find her a tragic figure but even in tragic people there are things we can learn, but it doesn’t appear like art is one of those things IMHO.

          • http://twitter.com/annabergin Anna

            @Hrag I agree what you have written, and I see your point on not wanting people to think it was a book review. I just feel like people are also going to take these excerpts as facts when it has been stated that people are INSANE about her and misinterpret her ideas. I think she was a little more complex then people on facebook calling her a nazi, that is a bit aggravating. (I hope I’m not the troll?) maybe i am, whoops! I wasn’t trying to be.

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            LOL … you should see some of the comments that aren’t here. Some were pure nasty. Then again, I dont’ represent Jillian’s views, that’s her business. But there are some people who are lightning rods for “fans” and Ayn Rand is one of them. I apologize if I mischaracterized you as one.

          • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

            Anna, like Hrag, I’ve actually disliked Rand for a while. I find her ideas false and naive, and I sort of take issue with the statement that she firmly believed in a woman’s right to own her body, given the really gross rape scenes in her novels. I think you’re right that maybe we don’t need to write her off completely, but as I said above, the aesthetic theories presented in this book are just ridiculous. Now the question still stands as to how closely the authors of the book have interpreted her theories, but since they are much closer to being Rand scholars than I, I’ve been giving them the benefit of the doubt on this one. Then again, they could also be exploiting her legacy…

          • http://twitter.com/annabergin Anna

            Hi Jillian, I am sure you have disliked her for some time it is easy to do, but I am sure a lot of this recent hostility by others has spawned from Ryan’s comments. My women’s body comment was geared toward her views on abortion and how a lot of these issues would have separated her from them. It is hard for me to judge or dislike her based on how she wrote about sex and rape. How many books written by men have rape scenes? Because her writing was effectively disgusting I should discount it? Anyway, I’m getting off point and I don’t even like her books! I agree with you that you have to take these guys as Rand scholars, I guess we can be satisfied that seeing today’s art makes her turn over in her grave. The best question now is who’s work will make her squirm and cringe the most!!

          • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

            You make a good point, Anna—I should read about her views on abortion separately. But I find that scene in “The Fountainhead” hugely problematic, no matter her professed views about women’s bodies.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kim-Matthews/586667086 Kim Matthews

            Speaking of bandwagons, thanks for jumping on the “all artists are crazy” bandwagon.

        • David Dorsey

          I know, right? But the antipathy toward Ayn Rand is something people are jumping on because they hate Republicans. I hate politics. It’s just contact sports with a final score transposed into an arena people think matters. Welcome to the new boss same as the old boss. That’s politics. I’ll stick with football. So I’m not a fan or a hater of anything being said here. What’s interesting in this explication of Rand’s reaction to 20th century art is that it points up the real problem: how does art get back to the way it connected with common people before Modernism emerged, not to mention Postmodernism. Not necessarily “how do we get back to two-dimensional representation” but “how can art actually convey human values that matter, in ways that common people recognize and understand and feel.” Art’s discontents, Hyper’s peeps, harbor a lot of Rand’s skepticism about what’s happened in the past 150 years to visual art, even as we love so much of it, maybe despite the reality that something essential in visual art long ago exhausted itself. In days of yore, the conservative Tom Wolfe had a similar reaction in The Painted Word, condemning most of what had happened in the Fifties and Sixties and then heralding photo-realism as a return to sanity. Not exactly the answer, is it. Not that there’s anything wrong with photo-realism! Personally, I’m steeped in it. Wolfe and Rand’s response are simplistic ways of escaping the issue. How can art feel fresh and authentic and surprising and yet do it in a way that doesn’t require a priesthood of insiders to bless/condemn and then interpret to the masses. How can art be something that’s full of life and connects immediately with people who don’t happen to be schooled in art history. How? It can’t be taught. It cannot be outlined in some commentary like Rand’s. It’s in the work or it isn’t. Mostly it isn’t. Your current cartoon by Lauren Purje which ends with her desire to draw primates is in the same spirit: contemporary art sucks . . . but how to make it not suck? Lauren’s response is to throw up her hands and do what she loves doing: be honest, not snarky and ironic and condescending, and the deeper values will be there, subconsciously, in the work. Doing a representational drawing of an ape is her personal response, and she does it well, but it isn’t meant to be a global answer to the problem of the general suckitude of contemporary art. (This is a blog for art’s discontents, right? So I assume the suckitude is a given.) It’s just her way of wrestling with the problem Rand was wrestling with. Purje is meditating on this central problem as if it mattered (as was Rand). And her answer is–”represent”–in her own way, as it was for Rand. Nothing wrong with that. But that doesn’t mean it’s the answer for all artists.

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            Thank you for a very thoughtful answer, David. And yes, we don’t propose answers for all … and we love the flashpoints of art … but I think Purje’s cartoon IMHO was also about the return to nature as source. I think it’s a good attitude to have, but you’re right that it’s not a panacea. I have the same distaste for anyone who tries to import theories wholesale from the past … marxism, capitalism … instead of responding to today using the tools of the past to adapt and forge ahead.

            Make art suck less? Heresy! #LOL

      • http://profiles.google.com/oliver1953 Janet Oliver

        LOL!

    • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

      As Hrag said, this is meant to be a reactor, not a review. But you know what, you’re right: I AM dismissive of any theory of art that dismisses pretty much everything done after 1900. I’m ok with that.

  • jayemel

    Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged Part 2 will be in theaters October 12th, 2012.

  • http://www.facebook.com/acundiff Alison Cundiff

    Is this a book review of a book you didn’t actually read?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000908045776 Brandon Theodore

    This is just offensive to me. Perhaps I’m biased but I think for any author to try and translate her theories on art to artists and genres beyond her time is ridiculous. By her very definition if you boil it down to Rand seeing the primary purpose of art as “nonutilitarian and psychological in nature” and says that its cognitive function is “to bring man’s fundamental concepts and values ‘to the perceptual level of his consciousness’ and allow him ‘to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts.’” That’s entirely a based personal experience and relies on the author’s own experience rather than Rand’s to define what is and isn’t art.

  • http://twitter.com/michaelcaution Michael Caution

    I’ve read this book which attempts to analyze Rand’s aesthetics a while back and have serious objections to it. A lot of the book is just the authors’ attempt to apply Rand’s theory to more contemporary artists with very little detail. And the points of disagreement they have with Rand stem from contradictory premises than what Rand actually stated. So they get a lot wrong about Rand that should make one question how firm a grasp they have of her ideas. Plus a full third of the book is endnotes that provide little to no furtherance of the discussion but seem to merely make mention of themselves.

    If you really want to understand Rand’s aesthetics then read her actual writings. Her theory is laid out in The Romantic Manifesto. Further elucidation can be found in The Art of Fiction by Tore Boeckmann or Leonard Peikoff’s chapter in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR).

    • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

      Thanks for weighing in, Michael.

  • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

    You’re calling yourself Howard Roark and you expect people to take you seriously regarding Ayn Rand?

  • http://twitter.com/stealthgranger Jeremy Granger

    And you call yourselves artists? You take excerpts and then opine. Did you read the original work? Have you immersed yourself in the philosophy? As the band Billy Goat says, “Go F*** yourselves. Your vision is derivative.” You’re all Peter Keatings. But you don’t know what that means…..BECAUSE YOU DON’T READ THE ORIGINAL!

    • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

      Actually I know who Peter Keating is, because I have read the original! (And I don’t call myself an artist, because I’m not one.)

  • http://twitter.com/rustik Julie Takacs

    Well I have to admit I have not read Ayn Rand, but I guess it’s high time I did, according to the passion and non-passion on this thread.

  • Apelles1

    Too bad Ann Rand (I won’t use Ayn when her name is Ann) dismissed photography, I think Leni Riefenstahl would be one of he favorites. As it stands by Rand’s aesthetic precepts, we are left with the Social Realisism of Stalin and Hitler.

    Whittaker Chambers in his review of Atlas Shrugged, Titled “Big Sister is watching you ” in the December 28th, 1957 issue of The National Review famously said ” From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard from painful necessity, commanding ; “To a gas chamber -go! ‘

    I can’t believe I’m quoting Whittaker Chambers whose “Pumpkin Papers” were used successfully to indict Alger Hiss, a Foreign Service Officer working with the United Nations by The House Committee on UN-American Activities of being a Communist spy in 1950.

    As an interesting coda, Ann Rand refused to be in the same room with Wm F Buckley jr. after Chambers’s review of Atlas Shrugged in 1957, she died in 1982

    • http://www.texjernigan.com/ Tex

      Ayn rhymes with wine, buddy.

  • http://profiles.google.com/oliver1953 Janet Oliver

    Thank you.

  • http://profiles.google.com/oliver1953 Janet Oliver

    Rand’s definition was: “Art is a selective recreation of reality according to the artist’s metaphysical value judgments…By a selective re-creation, art isolates and integrates those aspects of
    reality which represent man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. Out
    of the countless number of concretes—of single, disorganized and (seemingly)
    contradictory attributes, actions and entities—an artist isolates the things
    which he regards as metaphysically essential and integrates them into a single
    new concrete that represents an embodied abstraction… It tells man, in effect, which aspects of his experience are to
    be regarded as essential, significant, important. In this sense, art teaches
    man how to use his consciousness. It conditions or stylizes man’s
    consciousness by conveying to him a certain way of looking at existence.” By this pretty inclusive definition, most of the things mentioned by the “reactor” would be considered art by Rand. But possibly not very good art.

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