Friday, February 20, 2009

Riggenbach on Rand and Rand on Romanticism

In his contribution to the Rand/Art Symposium in The JournaI of Ayn Rand Studies, Jeff Riggenbach takes to task those who over-emphasize Rand's emphasis on Romanticism in art. Wha? Is this even possible? I mean, didn't Rand emphasize Romanticism above aII else? Let's see...

In his review of What Art Is, "What Art Is: What's Not to Like?", Riggenbach starts out with an anecdote about his time in an Ayn Rand campus club in the screamin' sixties. This anecdote is relevant to this site for two reasons, as a case study for the "Objectivist/Music" debates.Riggenbach tells how he fell, under the influence of Rand, he fell into the study of aesthetics, to which the reaction from his friends was: "You want to tell people what to like?"
It emerged, over the course of the ensuing conversation, that, in Howard's mind, the only meaningful question one could ask about a particular work of art was: "Do you like it?" The only meaningful question one could ask about art in general was "What kind(s) do you like?" Esthetics and art criticism...was, to speak plainly, either pure bunkum, pure wind in the rafters, or else an effort by some individuals (the critics and aestheticians) to "tell other people what to like."
Riggenbach goes on to tell about how others in his circle were underwhelmed with the publication of Rand's The Romantic Manifesto, except for the parts where she wrote about what kind of art Rand herself liked. And, of course, that was "Romantic" art. As he explains,
As far as [they] were concerned, Rand's only significant contribution to aesthetic theory-the only significant contribution anyone could make to aesthetic theory, really-was her proof that the best art was romantic art.
That was the sixties, of course, the days of "the Collective." Surely, Objectivists have evolved since then, right? Not only have they stopped relying on a guru to tell them what to like, but they've delved into the topic in order to learn from themselves...right?
Riggenbach goes on to write:
This absurd notion persists to this day, of course, and it persists widely. One might even go so far as to say that the typicaI Objectivist of the newly turned twenty-first century is, just Iike the typical "student of Objectivism" of the 1960's, firm in the belief that aesthetics is the least important part of Rand's philosophy, resolute in the determination to remain ignorant of her writings on art (perhaps lest they confound or contradict one's dismissive attitude towards them?), and smugly confidant that these writings "prove" the superiority of "romantic" art.
Riggenbach doesn't hesitate to name names, either. Can we guess who?
Listen to Lindsay Perigo...increasingly popular editor of The Free Radical: "Ayn Rand formulated the philosophy of Objectivism, dedicated to reason in epistemology,freedom/individualism in politics/ethics, capitalism in economics and romanticism in ethics." This absurdity is all the more painfuI to contemplate because it is a double absurdity, an absurdity absurdly compounded.
Well, Riggenbach wrote this about Perigo in 2001. Surely, now, in 2009, Mr. Perigo has become more mature in his approach to esthetics...right?
Romantic Music is Objectively Superior (and anyone who doesn't get it is a moron).
Oh yeah, I forgot. Well, if one doubts the depictions of Rand by her detractors, there's always Perigo to give truth to the lie...

So the problems that Riggenbach writes of, that of looking to a guru to "tell them what to like" (and the eagerness for some to step up to the guru plate!) and the upholding of Romanticism as "superior", as according to Rand, still exists. The first one is a no-brainer, but the second? It does seem to be that Rand did uphold the superiority of Romanticism, doesn't it? Well, Riggenbach's claims deserve their own piece, especially his support of Torres and Kamhi's claim that "Rand's conception of 'romanticism' is inapplicable to any of the non-narrative arts." All three authors claim that there are "two Rands" at work in The Romantic Manifesto, the "philosopher" and the "polemicist." Riggenbach says that "[a]t times, she certainly does seem to be advocating the view so often and so confidently ascribed to her by her less well-educated followers, namely that 'romantic' art is not only the 'best' art, but also the only art consonant withObjectivism."

Is this true? (And if Romanticism simply means "volition," is that such a bad thing in itself? I, like Rand, capitalize it, while Riggenbach prefers not to.) But I do agree that Rand the polemicist can be pretty overpowering. But let's look at Rand's own words. Rand did not say that "romantic" music is "Objectively superior." But even more important, Rand never said all Romantic literature was superior. In "What is Romanticism?" she wrote of the flaws of the early Romantics, who were more "Byronic" than "Aristotelian." But she also noted that there were degrees of talent and skill within the Romantic movement, breaking down the movement into first and second ranks, and down further still. She even goes as far to claim that a third-rate Naturalist may still have some perceptive observations to offer; a third-rate Romanticist has nothing." (This is because the standards of Romanticism, according to Rand, are that much more demanding.)
Rand is not done, though. She claims that the "major flaw that runs through the history of Romantic literature is the failure to present a convincing hero; i.e., a convincing image of a virtuous man." I think it is clear, at this point, that Rand believed Romanticism in the arts as an ideal to be achieved, in the sense of holding up volition as a virtue, and not using "Romanticism" as a bromide.

As an added bonus, in the recently released Objectively Speaking: Ayn Rand Interviewed, Rand answers a question about the necessity of art in an ideal society where "what is an could be" has been achieved. She answers:
Incidentally, I do not mean that in such a society there would be nothing but Romantic art. There might be many schools of art, but the dominant trend would favor Romanticism. People would enjoy it much more than Naturalistic studies, and certainly more than studies of human depravity. But there would be no laws prescribing what art or literature should be. It would be up to each individual to decide for himself, and you would have a wider variety of viewpoints in such a society than in any other.
So, is what Riggenbach claims true? Well, Rand does believe that Romanticism, meaning volition in art, IS the ideal choice. But she did NOT say that is was always the best, or the only art consistent with Objectivism. She herself liked non-Romantic works of art, and in her own words, she said "think for yourself." This should be painfully obvious to any Objectivist; if Rand did not believe in collectivism, why would she allow tribalism in art? At any rate, because of the personal nature of art, the clear message is to not allow a guru to decide what is best for you. Certainly Rand wouldn't want it that way (even if Perigo would). Why surrender your judgement? Look beyond the labels, look beyond the personalities, what do YOU think?

Roger Bissell, the Muse-Seeker

Roger BisseII, is a musician, student of psychology, and self-proclaimed "muse-seeker" who has authored several articles on Ayn Rand and her theory of music. His work is now available for your perusal at rogerbissell. com. Perhaps his most notable work is "Art and Microcosm: The Real Meaning of the Objectivist Concept of Art," in which he defends Rand's theory while making his case that both music and architecture both fit comfortably under the aegis of her definition. Other articles of interest regarding Rand and music abound on his site, including:

A Critical Examination of the Notions of Art as "Imitation of Nature" and "Re-Creation of Reality" (1974 paper, unpublished)

The Essence of Art (Objectivity, vol. 2, no. 5, December 1997, special material in the notes added April 2000)

Thoughts on Musical Characterization and Plot: the Symbolic and Emotional Power of Dramatic Music (ART Ideas, 1998)

Kamhi and Torres on Meaning in Ayn Rand's Esthetics (Reason Papers#23, 1998)

Music and Perceptual Cognition (Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, Fall 1999, special material in the notes added April 2000)

Rockin’ with Rand: Sailing the Turbulent Seas of the Objectivist Aesthetics(Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, Fall 2000)

Critical Misinterpretations and Missed Opportunities: Errors and Omissions by Kamhi and Torres (Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, Spring 2001)

A Neglected Source for Rand’s Aesthetics (Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, Fall 2002)

Art as Microcosm: the Real Meaning of the Objectivist Concept of Art (Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, vol. 5, no. 2, Spring 2004)

Langer and Camus: Unexpected Post-Kantian Affinities with Rand’s Aesthetics (Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, vol. 7, no. 1, Fall 2005)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Torres and Kamhi Respond to Merrill on Rand and Art

Previously I addressed Ronald Merrill's redefining Rand's theory of art, partly to make room for her theory of music. I mentioned that it was my first exposure to a critical to response on the subject of music, but it certainly was not the last.

Before the symposium, and after the publication of What Art Is, the authors published an essay called "The Critical Neglect of Ayn Rand's Theory of Art." In it, they address Merrill's alteration of Rand's definition of art. Rand claimed that art was “a selective re-creation of reality according to an
artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” Merrill however, says that
...the correct definition of art is: A man-made object or process the function of which is to induce a sense of life in the observer. Though this definition does not immediately lead to an esthetics of music, it at least does not make the problem more difficult, as Rand's does.

The authors take him to task on this. They point to Merrill's claim that Rand's definition was flawed because her definition violated the principle that "every man-made entity is properly defined in terms of its function." But they respond that "artifacts need not always be defined according to their function, however, and there are good reasons for not so defining art."
The bulk of their criticism revolves around the distinction between sense-of-life and emotion. Merrill claims that "what we seek from a work of art is to be induced to feel an emotion–specifically a sense of life." But the authors counter that
...a sense of life, as defined by Rand, is not an emotion, however; it is "an emotional...appraisal of man and of existence" (Rand 1975,25). Nor can it be "induced," properly speaking-though it may be evoked, as it were, by being summoned forth to full consciousness through art. To imply that one's sense of life could be altered merely by the experience of a work of art is to misunderstand completely Rand's concept of sense of life and the role it plays in governing one's response to art.
(Incidentally, I make the same claim in my own essay"Beyond Emotion: The Cognitive Theory of Art"):
The mind is not simply reacting passively to stimuli in abehavioralist fashion. Even Rand muses that “music is experienced as if it had the power to reach man’s emotion’s directly.” But that would presuppose a part of the brain that housed emotions, and the idea that one merely need trigger a brain spot to create an emotion (as opposed to creating a bodily somatic effect).

With that criticism stated, the authors claim that Merrill"disregards one of Rand's major insights":
...the primary function of art, for both artist and responder, is to concretize fundamental values or a view of life so that they can be grasped directly, "as if they were percepts."
How does this relate to music? Well, all this is necessary to understand why the authors take issue with Merrill's redefining of art to make way for music:

Questioning whether her definition of art as “a selective re-creation of reality” can apply to music, for example, he merely asserts that music does not re-create, or represent, reality and then mistakenly concludes that “non-representational” (abstract) painting and sculpture, like music, also “challenge the Objectivist esthetics,” because they, too, are art—since they “can convey a sense

of life.” Thus, he ignores Rand’s argument that such work tends to reduce perception to meaningless sensory experience, and is therefore not art. Merrill’s subsequent suggestion that abstract painting be classified as “decoration,” rather than as “important art,” further implies that he rejects Rand’s valuable distinction between art (even “unimportant” art) and decoration. He certainly misses Rand’s basis for that distinction: the difference between the sort of conceptual meaning conveyed by the major (“fine”) arts and the primarily “sensory” character of “decorative art.” And he wrongly infers that Rand “seems to regard [the decorative arts] as a ‘borderline case.’" She offers no basis whatever for such an inference.

It may be counter-intuitive to say that the purpose ofmusic is not to evoke emotions, but a sense-of-life. But that's not to diminish the role of emotions in music. Even if Rand has her composer character, Richard Halley, exclaim "emotions be damned," he also says "Feelings? Oh, yes, we do feel, he, you and I-we are, in fact, the only people capable of feeling-and we know where our feelings come from." I think Torres and Kamhi have inadvertently explained the meaning of this sentence. The point is that sense-of-life is not simply a "sensation" in the sense of pleasure-pain, but a "higher" kind of emotion, one that stems from a conceptual consciousness.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A look at "What Art Is" and the "Ayn Rand and Art Symposium"

What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand, by Torres and Kamhi promised to be the first major analysis of Rand's theory of art, and that book inspired a whole symposium in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, offering more analysis than one could have ever hoped for all at once (so much so that I still haven't made my way through all of it.) Of course, this back and forth consisted of a lot of "I'm right-no, I'm right-No, you're both wrong and I'm right!" debate. If one hoped (like I did) for a definitive conclusion to the problems of music and Objectivism, well, it's nice to dream. :D

But I'm going to start looking at these arguments in depth, and hopefully contribute a few original things, if I can. But because of the breadth and depth, it's gonna be a long process (and I'm not being paid for this, so I'll take my sweet time, thank you! :P Though I wish I could spend all my time on this.) I'm going to do it in small, bite-size chunks, which may or may not follow a linear path; one could take these articles and find all sorts of connections that could spin out of control...but the main idea behind this is to present a "clearinghouse" of the essentials of these arguments, by focusing solely on the musical arguments as much as possible, cutting out the personal and political unless it needs to be discussed. Wish me luck...or good premises...either/or...

Though they may be hard to track down, anyone interested in this topic should read the full articles for their full context. Whether one agrees with the authors, or the standing of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, it is nonetheless satisfying to see Rand's ideas on art being taken seriously, and the editors should be commended for the effort to host such a symposium. Hopefully, these debates will create a better understanding. By isolating the musical aspects of these arguments, I hope to make it easy to reference where the discussion of Rand's theory of music has gone. So here is a bibliography of the relevant articles and symposium, with links to the online versions, where applicable:

-Critical Neglect of Ayn Rand's Theory of Art by Michelle Marder Kamhi and Louis Torres

-Authors' Preliminary Response to Symposium: Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (Spring 2001) by Torres and Kamhi

-What Art Does by Lester Hunt

-What Art Is: What's Not to Like? by Jeff Riggenbach
-Nordau's Degeneration and Tolstoy's What is Art?? Still Live by -Gene H. Bell-Villada

-Rand's Aesthetics: A Personal View by John Hospers

-Reasoning About Art by David Kelly

-Art: What a Concept by John Enright

-Guggenheims and Grand Canyons by Barry Vacker

-The Puzzle of Music and Emotions in Rand's Aesthetics byRandall R. Dipert

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ronald Merrill on Rand and Music

Ronald MerriII's The Ideas of Ayn Rand was (at least, as far as I can remember) my first exposure to an in-depth critical look at Rand's ideas on esthetics, and my first exposure to the claim that her theory was ill-equipped to deal with the phenomenon of music. His claim is that Rand attempted to do for esthetics what she did for ethics: put the field on a firm logical foundation, and make it possible to make esthetic judgments on the basis of objective standards. In this task she was only partly successful.
His criticism targets Rand's definition as being flawed, her definition of art as "a selective re-creation of reality according to the artist's metaphysical value-judgments":
Ayn Rand's views on the esthetics of music are symptomatic of serious confusion. Anyone who can assert that Beethoven had a "malevolent sense of life", or that Wagner "destroyed melody" clearly cannot be relied on as a guide to musical evaluation. To be fair, Rand herself never claimed (at least in print) that she possessed an esthetic theory for music, and indeed explicitly conceded that she was unable to present such a theory.
MerriII's claim above is being echoed throughout the internet to this day! So what of it? MerriII is not surprised that Rand could not present such a theory because "if one accepts Rand's definition of art, it is not clear how music can qualify. It scarcely seems to be a 'representation of reality' in the sense that the definition is used for literature or the visual arts."

Perhaps inspired by Fantasia, MerriII goes on to compare music to abstract art, and challenges the Objectivist rejection of such:
Many people...would say that non-representational paintings are not important art, that they might better be classed as decoration. Even so, they can convey a sense of life, albeit only in a mild and very generalized form.
If one is tempted to argue away the case for abstract art, he also goes after a dance comparison, since Rand did consider dance a "performing" art:
Rand interprets dance as a "re-creation" of human body movements, capturing the grace and fluidity by omitting the unessential. This is perhaps acceptable when discussing, say, ballet; but when we consider Rand's favorite variety-tap dancing-it is rather less satisfactory.
So now we get to Merrill's defense of why he thinks Rand's definition of art is flawed. He claims that "these problems arise because Rand's definition of art is fundamentally flawed. It violates an important principle of epistemology: Every man-made entity is properly defined in terms of its function." With this said, he attempts to modify Rand's definition:
To begin with, it is certainly true that all art is man-made; a painting of a landscape may be art, but not the landscape itself. There is our genus. What is the function of art? Note that when we speak of function, we mean the purpose from the point of view of the user. For what purpose do we use art? What we seek from a work of art is to be induced to feel an emotion-specifically, a sense of life. There is our differentia. Thus the correct definition of art is: A man-made object or process the function of which is to induce a sense of life in the observer. Though this definition does not immediately lead to an esthetics of music, it at least does not make the problem more difficult, as Rand's does.
I want to agree with Merrill, because his tweaking does seem to simplify the problem. Commentators such as Torres and Kamhi, in their book What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand, make it hard to do so, however, with their rebuttals. (Sadly, Merrill is no longer with us, though there was some discussion of the matter between him and his critics that was cut short.) But I am indebted to Merrill for at least bringing the problems of Rand's approach to music to my attention. Although I don't know if I should thank him or curse him for it...;)