More on Aesthetics: Nietzsche, Postmodernism, Dewey, and Ayn Rand

A few brief conversations on aesthetics with Anoop Verma: Nietzsche on the idea of “giving style to one’s character“; postmodern art and postmodern philosophy; and Dewey’s philosophy of aesthetics.

Though my promises obviously mean nothing, I’m hoping to post a series of critical reflections here on Ayn Rand’s aesthetics. Of course, having put that hope in print, it’s now likely that I’ll end up reneging or backsliding on my quasi-commitment, and say nothing at all on the subject. But having re-read Rand’s Romantic Manifesto for the first time in several years, I’m struck by how frankly awful a book I find it–much worse than I did on my last reading in 2014, when my marginal notes, though highly critical of Rand’s claims, were not as dismissive of them as I now feel. Right now, I’m having a hard time understanding how anyone could take the book seriously.

So if you think it should be taken seriously, feel free to convince me when the time comes. I’d like to think that there’s more there than meets the eye, but right now, I’m not seeing it. At the moment, The Romantic Manifesto strikes me as one of the worst books of its kind (of any kind) that I’ve ever read.

4 thoughts on “More on Aesthetics: Nietzsche, Postmodernism, Dewey, and Ayn Rand

  1. Sometimes, the best places to look with regard to the value of a book is in the secondary literature done on that book. The key problem with “The Romantic Manifesto”, in my view, is that Rand intertwines so much of the theory of aesthetics with her own observations on the value (or disvalue) of certain kinds of art. I think much can be learned of value by separating these aspects of the book, and on that count, let me say that the secondary literature has been far better at noting those kernels of truth in Rand’s view of art and its role in human life. Among that literature, let me recommend Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi’s book, “What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand,” Kamhi’s book, “Who Says That’s Art: A Commensense View of the Visual Arts,” all of the essays that appeared in a symposium that “The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies” ran on aesthetics, called “The Aesthetics Symposium” ( http://www.aynrandstudies.com/Symp_Aesthetics.html ), including replies by the authors in later issues; several major essays by Roger E. Bissell that have appeared in JARS, including “Music and Perceptual Cognition,” “Art as Microcosm: The Real Meaning of the Objectivist Concept of Art,” “Langer and Camus: Unexpected Post-Kantian Affinities with Rand’s Aesthetics,” and essays by Barry Vacker (who takes a very unorthodox view of Rand’s aesthetics), recent work published in JARS by Kyle Barrowman using Randian aesthetics as a springboard toward aesthetic criticism, and, of course, chapter 8 of my own book, “Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical,” entitled: “Art, Philosophy, and Efficacy,” which was actually republished in whole in a section on Ayn Rand in “Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism,” edited by Kathy D. Darrow (Detroit: Gale, Cengage Learning, 2012, Volume 261).

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    • I’ve deliberately avoided reading secondary literature until I get a thoroughly first-hand mastery of Rand on her own terms–which includes reading or encountering some of the literature or art work she mentions that I haven’t read or encountered. Of the items you mention, I read the first Torres-Kamhi book back in 2004, and read the art chapter of the first edition of your book a very long time ago, possibly when the book first came out. I guess I’ve also read Peikoff, along with some ARI-influenced scholarship, etc.

      Torres-Kamhi is the most sustained discussion of the ones I’ve read, but I found it very unsatisfying. They spend dozens of pages attacking the art they don’t like, or the supposed art that they don’t regard as genuine art, but they don’t–to my mind–either explicate or really deal with the deepest issues that Rand herself raises.

      Even on the most charitable reading both of Rand and of Torres-Kamhi, it would be a stretch to say that Rand has an aesthetic theory, and what theorizing she (Rand) engages in seems to me to raise more questions than answers. I agree that there are a handful of deep and interesting insights there, but the irony is that the best insights in the book have little to do with aesthetics per se, and much more to do with Rand’s equivalent of psychodynamics–her account of the relationship between conscious and subconscious processes, or in her terms, between “volitional consciousness” and “sense of life.”

      The criticism you make of Romantic Manifesto is valid but understated. The problem with the book is not just how many bad arguments or underargued assertions it contains, but that it systematically commits the two fallacies that Rand herself repeatedly excoriates: psychologizing and arguments from intimidation. Unless you already agree with what she has to say, you can’t read the book without feeling verbally assaulted and morally blackmailed. Everything other defect would be excusable if not for those.

      That said, I haven’t read any of the JARS articles you list, and will have to put them on my “must read” list.

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      • First, I want to emphasize that I thoroughly agree with you that Rand’s aesthetic choices are almost manipulative in their capacity to make her most ardent followers feel guilty should they veer even slightly from her aesthetic judgment of certain works. I had many people write to me with regard to my work in both Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical and even The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies symposium on “Rand, Rush, and Progressive Rock,” thanking me for liberating them to like everything from rock music to horror films and not to feel guilty about it! This is the kind of behavior that was rampant in the early Objectivist movement and that is contrary to the spirit of Rand’s individualistic view that sense of life responses are filtered through a very complex, personal context and that it is incorrect to make sweeping generalizations about a person’s psychology based on what they may like or dislike. But then again, this is a woman who said homosexuality was “disgusting”—sending a generation of gay and lesbian admirers of her work into a tizzy over her rejection of their sexual orientation (and yes, I address the sociology of the movement, and the damage done to so many gays and lesbians during the early days especially, in my monograph, Ayn Rand, Homosexuality, and Human Liberation).

        Second, the material that I believe to be of utmost value in Rand’s RM is precisely those areas you point to. It’s the stuff on what Hayek, Ryle, and Polanyi would call the “tacit” elements of consciousness (for Rand, “sense of life,” “psycho-epistemology,” the interaction of the conscious and subconscious mind, etc.). That said, I do think there are important areas that she identifies with regard to art and its role in human life, and the differences between aesthetic response and aesthetic appreciation (she could be “objective” enough to recognize greatness from a stylistic perspective even when thoroughly rejecting the artwork itself). But you are right: this work, which was billed as a “philosophy of literature,” doesn’t add up to a full aesthetic theory.

        Nevertheless, I discuss her insights from her writings on aesthetics right in the middle of my book—as a bridge between a discussion of “knowing”, “reason and emotion” on one side, and “ethics” on the other. It’s a kind of fulcrum that enables us to see that the woman talked more about those “tacit” elements than some of her acolytes or her critics recognize, and to that extent, I think it makes for a much more nuanced view of her understanding of the different levels of consciousness and mindfulness. To this extent, it doesn’t marginalize her aesthetics in the way most presentations of Objectivism do (as an after-thought, once one goes through metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics); rather, it draws from those things I find valuable as a bridge between her epistemology and her ethics.

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        • Yet another irony: my very first introduction to Ayn Rand came via my Rush fandom. I first encountered the name “Ayn Rand” after seeing the acknowledgement to her on Rush’s “2112” album when I was maybe 14 years old. I went out and read Anthem, but it made no particular impression on me, so I forgot all about it and went on to read Hemingway and Hermann Hesse (my literary obsessions back then). A high school English teacher pestered me for years to read The Fountainhead, but recoiling from the length of the book, I did my best to avoid it. I didn’t return to Rand until my freshman year of college, when a friend recommended The New Left, which was the first book of hers that I read besides Anthem. But the original impetus to Objectivism was Rush.

          By the time I read Romantic Manifesto as a college junior or senior, I was confident enough in my own artistic tastes not to be overly guilt-tripped by Rand. I probably succumbed to some internalized guilt or aesthetic-emotional neurosis at the margins, but I’m happy to say that my aesthetic judgments were probably the one thing least influenced by Objectivism, even when I was pretty rabidly Objectivist.

          Let me reserve comment on the more theoretical parts of your comment until after I post my own substantive comments on Rand’s aesthetics–which will come after the seminar I’m doing this weekend with Fred Seddon and Glenn Fletcher in Lewisburg, PA, the fifth seminar of its kind that we’ve done since 2013.

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