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.

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