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...;)

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