There's a long-going thread about art, happening at the site Objectivist Living, under the title "Mess or Masterpiece?". The topic was about a particular style of abstract art, but a question from Michael Stuart Kelly arose that took the thread's title into a different, but related (and perhaps, ironically, more relevant), direction:
"And if art is spiritual fuel, I would still like to know what the spiritual residue is from using it. I harp on this because I believe the metaphor is only valid for a tiny portion of artistic experiences. Furthermore, I believe those experiences are not fundamental to man's need for art."
"Since you agree the need for art is innate (albeit with your byproduct hedge), how do you get from there to showing how and why a need for art-like "fuel" is innate to human consciousness? "
"What action is produced by burning this fuel?
"And what waste byproduct results from the fuel-burning process?"
Ok, I'll bite...This is an interesting question, one I don't think I've ever heard before regarding the Objectivist esthetics. (And having followed the art threads, there, I've come to appreciate the premise-checking of Rand's art theories that focus on the scope of those theories, that is, do her theories apply to all art, or just a small portion within the variety of art and art-forms?)
I have a theory on as to why this has never come up in the Objectivist discourse, a theory that involves the "clean energy" of Galt's motor, which, scientific feasibility aside, becomes a metaphor for Rand's ethics, in general, that evil is impotent, of moral cleanliness and perfection ("perfection" in the sense of "complete in itself". I also connect it to the idea of glamour (which I'll discuss further, in a bit). But regarding that feasibility of a clean motor giving off no exhaust, and an artistic fuel that burns with no waste: well, physics informs us that "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." And with that in mind, a wasteless art idea is at odds with something else in the Rand corpus, fictional and real... The closest thing that comes to my mind, regarding his question, is at the end of The Fountainhead:
"Mankind will never destroy itself, Mr. Wynand. Nor should it think of itself as destroyed. Not so long as it does things such as this."
"As the Wynand Building."
"That is up to you. Dead things — such as the Banner — are only the financial fertilizer that will make it possible. It is their proper function."
Here, the connection is made regarding fertilizer and creativity, sure, but this association is regarding the metaphor of the creative act growing from waste, whereas the question above is regarding the waste left behind after the creative act.
Back to the question at hand...it's been rattling around in the back of my mind, but it was brought to the forefront of my attention by something that came up while watching a BBC documentary series, The Secret of Drawing. In the episode entitled "Storylines", which focused heavily on satire in visual storytelling, the narrator, reflecting on the common theme in the art discussed in the show, concluded with this observation:
"I do think that there is a common thread running through it all, a certain dark attitude, a mood of satirical disaffection with the way things are…"
And that triggered in me the kernel of an answer, of three elements to be connected: satire, judgement, and depression.
This isn't an full answer, by any means, but I think any objectivish reader can guess why that line would grab my attention in relation to the question, given Rand's celebration of her Aristotelian idea of art being of greater importance than history for its ability to project "what might and ought to be". And though it's just a tangential point, to start, it's an easy jump to the idea of "what ought not to be".
From the art that is digested, what is seen is "nutritious" is kept for fuel, and what is bulk, or non-edible, is passed on as waste. The "what might and ought to be" becomes fuel for achievement, and "what is and should never be" becomes passed through as...satire. From there, an answer begins to suggest itself. Satire can be gentile, or it can be vicious and cruel...and more often than not, I find it tends towards the latter...
To support this, think about Rand's attitude towards humor. While she disapproved of self-mockery, or jokes at the expense of one's values, she was ok with humor that mocked or looked down upon the villainous or the ridiculous, and she employed her own brand of satire, from the portrayal of the avant-garde in The Fountainhead to the lumpy-sounding names she gave the villains of Atlas Shrugged, caricatures of what she considered evil and unimportant. Using her favorite art and literature, and her enemies, as the fuel for her art and philosophy, she created Dagny, Roark, and Galt, and, waste, spit out and shit out, Keating, Toohey, and Taggert.
Beyond the artistic input/output, though, the question of art's "byproduct" extends into the psychological non-fiction. Sprinkle in Rand's post-partum depression after the publication of Atlas Shrugged, said to be brought on from her return to reality after having "lived" in her Galt's Gulch, and another part of an answer begins to suggest itself, with implications for better and/or for worse for the Objectivist theory of art as fuel. The idea of weltschmerz, translated as "world-weariness", is described at Wikipedia as "a kind of feeling experienced by someone who understands that physical reality can never satisfy the demands of the mind." For the objectivish, that's a disconnect between "things as they are" and "things as they might or ought to be". Or, as Dr. Sheldon Cooper explains,
Now, is that to say that kind of conflict must arise? The objectivish might say, no, not if one's goals are consistent with reality; "nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed." But then, it's not so much the rules of nature, but the irrational elements and people of that society, that the idealist artist contends with. (See Rand, in The Art of Fiction, concerning stories of man against nature vs. man against man.) And, as the narrator of the documentary suggests, the satirist is at war with the object of his mockery precisely because they see a better or different way; else, there'd be no need for that type of art. Here, the objection might arise that only novels need present conflict; other forms of art can present a joyful, pain-free view of the world and be complete in itself. (See Rand's "tiddlywink" music). This would be what Virginia Postrel, in The Power of Glamour, defines as works of "glamour" (vs. works of "spectacle", which though similar, do present a suggestion of struggle, if not against man, against, and overcoming of, nature, in a celebratory manner). But the word "glamour" suggests illusion, and works of glamour are refined, having already separated the "wheat from the chaff", having already wiped away the inessential, the exhaust, the waste. It's a statue of a Greek god or goddess whose ass has already been wiped clean. In a poem or painting, it's a society that's been scrubbed and sterilized. No struggle, no hard-to-digest peasant pumpernickel bread, but Wonder Bread, bleached and fortified with the vitamins and nutrients added back in, and easy to pass, too.
Now, that carries with it both the good and the bad. The good is that the germs and disease are washed away. The bad, in that one might be washing away the good bacteria from the bad, the way an antibiotic wipes out the good gut flora in addition to the bad. (Here, I am reminded of the glamour of The Fountainhead's "Enright House", and the lamentation of one character that one couldn't feel at home, or cozy, or "sloppy" living in it.)
This, rightly or wrongly, but inevitably, leads to the idea, and the accusation towards the Objectivist theory of art, of "Aesthetic Fascism."
Dirt, it has been described by Lewis Hyde, in Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art, is "matter out of place". There is a strong idea of "sanitization" that runs throughout the Objectivist philosophy, that, rightly or wrongly, gets associated with Fascism. That argument is beyond the scope of this post, but a common theme that gets brought up between the two is judgement and repression. Judgment leads to the celebration of heroes, but also of satire and condemnation. Jane Jacobs, in her book Systems of Survival, discusses this in terms of the "Guardian" and "Trader" syndromes, and how they clash when they misintegrate or disintegrate. (See also a similar argument in Human Action by Ludwig von Mises.) Sometimes, this is right, and sometimes, if not handled correctly, gets out of hand; in the search for purity and beauty, no imperfections can be permitted, and the striving and creativity get sidetracked by policing and enforcing against any suggestion of imperfection (and, on many threads on various objectivish forums, lots of heated, vitriolic debates about art and music and "the filthy, headbanging caterwaulers who are filthing up the filthin' place with their filth-flarn-flith...") . But then, in the presence of an over-active auto-immune system, if things get too sterile, or too controlled, or too constrictive, it can fossilize.
And living, breathing things require, well...dirt.
And sometimes we need to "get our hands dirty" to create something new and innovative. A common theme throughout trickster mythology of different cultures, as tricksters are the ones to get things moving when a morality causes societal...uh...constipation. (I've previously discussed the connection between the Trickster and dirt, in relation to Objectivism, here...)
As I write this, now that I'm thinking about it, regarding the original question of fuel and waste in the metaphor of art, there is one other source I can think of that addresses the question, and it contains a strong amount of satire. This connection of artistic 'fascism", repression, and judgement, and "cleansing" is very strongly (and graphically, both figuratively and literally) in the song "The Trial" from the movie Pink Floyd: The Wall. After the fictional rock star "Pink" has had his turn as a artistic fascist, and unleashes his "marching hammers" to "weed out the weaklings", he finds that, in order to "tear down the wall" of his emotional repression, he needs to first put himself on trial. The arse-shaped "Judge" delivers his "verdict" in an act of elimination:
"In all my years of judging/
I have never heard before/
Of someone more deserving/
Of the full penalty of law/
The way you made them suffer,/
Your exquisite wife and mother,/
Fills me with the urge to defecate!
("Hey Judge! Shit on him!" )
"Since, my friend,
You have revealed your deepest fears/
I sentence you to be exposed before your peers/
Tear down the wall!"
The Judge then expells onto Pink all the anger, rage, and depression of the weltschmerz brought on from the depression between the rock star's disillusionment with things as they are versus the promise of fame, fortune and happiness he was told would make him happy. And then, the Fascist rock star, who once took in his art as fuel, only to develop artistic "diarrhea", finds himself, for lack of a less crude expression, "in the crapper" (as that's what his "wall" suddenly becomes...) And as the wall comes down, the cycle is broken, only to start again, with a new vision of what might and ought to be "outside the wall." The movie ends with the vision of children cleaning up the rubble, disgusted by the debris of what went in to creating the wall, to begin with. The album version, it should be noted, starts with the words "Isn't this where?" and ends with "We came in". Flip the record over, and, just like the process of digestion, fueling the body and expelling waste, the cycle starts again, toward a new ideal. Can it work, this time? To quote Gail Wynand, "Dead things...are the fertilizer that will make it possible. It is their proper function."
"Isn't this where..."