Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ayn Rand: The Arts and Metaphysical Value Judgments

I'd like to start this post with a simple statement of fact, one that raises many issues for me. The statement:

Recently, I have been reading Ayn Rand's The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature. 

The first issue it raises for me (and I suspect for many people reading this post) is reading Ayn Rand at all. What I know of Rand's philosophy, with its focus on a ferocious libertarian belief in capitalism and egotism, threatens to create air bubbles in my bloodstream. So on the level of broad philosophical orientation, Rand and I are not in agreement.

The second issue is one of style. When Rand moves from the description of general abstractions to specific illustrations, I find her style to be abrasive and arrogant. This is magnified by the fact that I often don't agree with her evaluations, so her slash-and-burn literary style is particularly irritating. I suspect I wouldn't have liked Rand in real life -- or at least, I wouldn't have liked her philosophical persona in real life.

For many people, this would be enough to prevent them from having picked up The Romantic Manfiesto in the first place, and if they did pick it up in error, it would be enough to make them peremptorily dismiss its ideas as unworthy of consideration. This is a particularly American phenomenon, the rejection or acceptance of a person's ideas based on their personal style -- in politics, it shows up in people voting for Bush over Gore in 2000 in response to the question "who would you most like to have a beer with?" In the blogosphere, it shows up in those people who refuse to consider certain ideas because the blogger's style of writing offends them in some way. To me, this emphasis on personal style to the exclusion of substance is a mistake, one that I fight in reading Rand.

At the level of substance, however, there is much to recommend in this particular book by Rand. She lays out a purpose to the arts that is both resonant and powerful, and that provides the reader with the tools to consider works of art and their meaning. While I don't think it worthwhile to lay her manifesto out in great detail, there are certain aspects of it that pertain to some of the questions currently being discussed throughout the 'sphere.

Rand carefully builds her arguments one block at a time. Man (and yes, she uses the male pronoun throughout to reflect all humankind -- she's writing this in the 1960s, and it seems to reflect her own personal preference for so-called "masculine" characteristics) experiences the world through his senses -- and the individual things he perceives are "percepts": sensory perceptions. In order to survive, however, man must generalize, and he does so by linking at least two percepts into a "concept" -- an abstraction that creates a class of things, of percepts. So the perception of a couple tall things with dry a cylinder base and a spreading canopy of green things becomes the concept "tree." Language itself converts percepts into concepts. Then multiple concepts are joined to create larger concepts -- say, "vegetation," which includes trees, bushes, plants, etc. And so on. The top of the heap of abstraction is philosophy, which is built on very important abstract concepts.

So our experience of life is first perceptual, then conceptual.

The problem is that as the concepts become more and more complex and multi-faceted, they become harder to experience efficiently and powerfully. This is where art comes in. "Art brings man's concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness," she writes, "and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts." In other words, art puts flesh and bones back on the abstractions, so that they can be experienced through senses again. Thus, "Art is a concretization of metaphysics" ("the science that deals with the fundamental nature of reality"). Art is "a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments."

Art reflects an artists metaphysics and epistemology -- what he is and where he is, in other words "what is his nature (including his means of cognition) and the nature of the universe in which he acts." These abstract questions she makes more concrete through a series of questions that form the basis of metaphysics and epistomology:

"Is the universe intelligible to man, or unintelligible and unknowable? Can man find happiness on earth, or is he doomed to frustration and despair? Does man have the power of choice, the power to choose his goals and to achieve them -- or is he a helpless plaything of forces beyond his control, which determines his fate? Is man, by nature, to be valued as good, or to be despised as evil?"

"These," she continues, are metaphysical questions, but the answers to them determine the kind of ethics men will accept and practice; the answers are the link between metaphysics and ethics.. And although metaphysics as such is not a mormative science, the answer to this category of questions assume, in man's mind, the function of metaphysical value-judgments, since they form the foundation of all his moral values."

An artist's subject matter and style reflects these metaphysical value judgments. His choice of subject matter reflects those things he thinks are important, those things that are important enough to receive his focus. The artist's style reflects how he sees these subjects. So, to reiterate: "Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments."

It seemed to me that Rand is answering the question asked in the title of a recent post by Isaac: "How Do We Put Our Values in Our Art?" The answer: we can't NOT put our values in our art. It is reflected in the subject matter and the style we choose. When, for instance, Neil Labute writes a play, we see his answers to the metaphysical questions writ large: "Is man, by nature, to be valued as good, or to be despised as evil?" Answer: evil. This orientation, which is also shared by most Judeo-Christian religions, especially those with a Puritan streak, is reflected in the way his characters interact and are motivated. And it is an orientation that is shared by many, many Modernist writers of the 20th century.

Even a play that is seen as "escapist" reflects such value judgments, as the playwright creates world in which his characters operate. The Lion King, for instance, has a very clear metaphysics: man (or lions) has the "power to choose his goals and to achieve them," the universe is intelligible (the circle of life), and it is populated with men who are basically good (and who can defeat those who are not). It is a heroic worldview, rather than a defeatist one. There are those who will reject that worldview as being "naive" or "a lie," and that is because they have answered those metaphysical questions differently.

Looked at in this way, every work of art, and every artist's approach to his career, says something about the world in which we live. If, as an artist, you see yourself as a "helpless plaything of forces beyond your control" (e.g., the market, the unions, American society), then you may be more likely to see others as controlling your fate and abrogate your power to choose goals and achieve them to an "unintelligible and unknowable" universe where the randomness of luck is the most powerful force (ala Don Hall's blackjack game). Other metaphysical value judgments may lead you in other directions. If you believe in a deterministic universe where everything is set and cannot be changed, then a suggestion that rejecting the status quo will be nonsensical to you. If you "sell your soul" in order to "succeed," then that also reflects certain beliefs about the universe (and, on a local level, the society that reflects that universe).

Can there be works of art that I would value aesthetically, but reject metaphysically? Absolutely. Does that mean those works shouldn't have been created? Not in the least. But at the same time, aesthetic success doesn't negate metaphysical questions. Simply because a work of art is "good," is "aesthetically effective," is "beautiful" doesn't mean it can't be rejected metaphysically. In fact, aesthetically powerful works that are morally repugnant are the locus point for some of our most violent controversies regarding censorship. One of the reasons Jesse Helms reacted so strongly against the Mapplethorpe photos (although he certainly wouldn't have recognized this consciously) is that images he found morally repugnant were presented in a way that was incredibly beautiful aesthetically. That was Mapplethorpe's most powerful rebellion: to make beautiful images of practices that were regarded as objectionable. Same with Piss Christ: it wouldn't have been half as objectionable if it wasn't so damned aesthetically pleasing.

For me, despite Rand's style, and despite some of her value judgments regarding specific works of art, I find Rand's basic understanding of the role of the arts persuasive, especially since it helps me understand some of the reasons why I am a proponent of a certain kind of art, a certain orientation regarding purpose, a certain understanding of the role and responsibilities of the artist in our society.

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Karl Miller said...

I'll confess to reading this book some years ago. I remember she had lots to say about James Bond and perhaps two paragraphs about Shakespeare. And this is her analysis of Literature.

Art is a purely conceptual exercise in Rand's aesthetic -- everything can be traced back to the axiomatic certitudes from which Rand's narrow consciousness begins. She establishes an order of rank from perception to conception, yes, but she also loudly enforces an order of rank between feeling and thinking. It all serves as manic reinforcement to her Law of Identity, the tautological OCD matra that "A=A" This is the primitive grinder that Rand takes to any subject she is evaluating. Which is why James Bond is more fulfilling to her than Shakespeare and why she savors Bond's signature line while quoting absolutely nothing from the Bard. Bond, James Bond. A = A. I am who I am and things are what they are.

Problem is, when things "are what they are" there is no "drama" -- at least not the kind of drama that can reveal us to ourselves. There is conceptual drama and surface drama and melodrama. But no existential drama. It's worth remembering that Rand originally wanted to call her philosophy "existentialism" until she found out that term was taken by some Frenchmen who believed the exact opposite. "Objectivism" is closer to the mark because it renders all phenomena ("percepts") as objects. That includes people and emotions, too.

Rand's a funny one. Thankfully, her own rules set up everything you need to dismantle and forget her. Go back and re-read her passage on how one should evaluate music! That's priceless.

Scott Walters said...

Karl -- I agree that there is a lot to find fault with in Rand. That said, I also don't feel that I have to either accept or reject the ideas in toto. I feel I can pick and choose the pieces that illuminate things for me without becoming a Rand acolyte. For me, these basic concepts, which are outlined in the first couple chapters, put into words something I've been trying to understand about my own ideas concerning the arts. However, there are large chunks with which I disagree, but I don't feel compelled to reject all of it because of that. You know?

Karl Miller said...

Totally. If I remember, she makes a distinction between art and entertainment that basically jives with what most of think w/r/t theatre.

Dan Freeman said...

Try reading "We the Living" and "Atlas Shrugged" I believe your basic ideas of Mrs. Rand are flawed. Her ideas of self and self expression are valid, and I think she is beautiful in terms of character and style.

Of course you know that she is considered by the library of congress to have written some of the most important books regarding capitalism, but let’s not have a knee jerk reaction to label her with a bad guy philosophy brush.

Lately people have been forgetting how oppressive communism is today and was in Ayn's time. Let me remind all how horrible Leninist Communism was for minorities and free thinkers. Today in China there is still not even a word for Homosexual and there is no place for them in society under the communist party.

I know how polarizing her assertions are about humanity, but I implore you to delve a bit deeper on this subject.

Rex Winsome said...

Scott, i'll check this out.

Reading Ayn Rand is a real bitch. I hated slogging through Atlas Shrugged, cuz it felt like a 2000 page straw man argument, with tons of ignorance and arrogance sprinked ontop.

The even worse part is, after finishing it i couldn't help noticing what i'd thought were straw men popping up all over in my community and in society.

Rand is definitely a pick and choose philosopher.