When discussing the theory of art in Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide, I cited only Ayn Rand’s esthetics. An early reader suggested I “balance” the presentation by mentioning other writers on esthetics.
But here’s the problem: no one surpasses or even equals Ayn Rand in the field of esthetics. Rand treats art with the same rigor she applies to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and politics. In The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature, she begins her discussion by stating what art is and what purpose it serves for human beings. Her definition, “a selective re-creation of reality based on an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments,” indicates that an artist chooses his subject and style based on what he considers important, and creates something recognizable so that others will see it and grasp his message: “THIS matters – pay attention to THIS.”
Rand lays out the fundamentals of the field of esthetics. Using her definition of art plus her theory of knowledge (see Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology: Expanded Second Edition), one can determine what is and is not art: driftwood, paint splattered on a canvas, the Parthenon frieze? One can determine the esthetic requirements for good art: Is a portrait by Rembrandt better than one by Picasso in his Cubist phase? One can even explain why people often react so violently to works of art: “It repulses me but I can’t turn away!”
I have read hundreds of books by art critics and historians, many of whom have an encyclopedic grasp of their subject and descriptive abilities that make me wildly jealous. Not one of them offers a proper definition of art. The widely used Janson’s History of Art, for example, says a work of art is “an esthetic object” and that “esthetic” means “that which concerns the beautiful.” The definition is, Janson promptly admits, unsatisfactory, but “will have to do for lack of a better one.”
When I’m visiting a gallery or reading a novel, I can and do revel in art without first subjecting it to rigorous esthetic analysis. I’ve found, though, that I can extend my enjoyment if I think about a particular work as well. For purposes of thinking about art and conveying my ideas to others, a proper definition is indispensable. In that respect, I have found Ayn Rand’s essays on esthetics in The Romantic Manifesto, The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers, The Art of Nonfiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers, and Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q & A (the esthetics section) invaluable and irreplaceable.
- For more on how I look at paintings, see How to Analyze and Appreciate Paintings. On sculpture, see Getting More Enjoyment from Art You Love.
This is a modified version of my Amazon review of The Romantic Manifesto.