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?


  1. Thank you for this article. The 'my choice' you have expressed has resonated with me for many years.

    I am trying to decide something. I really like Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen). My first impression is that he is a 'romantic art' character, albeit a product of his time. Any thoughts on that?

  2. Thank you, and you're welcome. Unfortunately, Jane Austen is not to my literary taste (I'm a sci-fi guy), so I can offer no opinion on that. But there are similar questions put to Rand in the OBJECTIVELY SPEAKING book, and although the character in question is not Mr. Darcy (I believe it was about characters in Les Miserables, Anna Karenina, and Cyrano de Bergerac,), Rand's insight might help you answer your question.