Nor Custom Stale Her Infinite Variety

Every time (or nearly every) that a new artistic style or movement emerges (in literature, think e.g. of romanticism or naturalism or modernism; in painting, think of impressionism or cubism or abstraction), it’s accompanied by two narratives.


One narrative comes from defenders of the Older Art. The burden of this narrative is that the Newer Art is not merely inferior, but pernicious – that it represents a betrayal of the very principles of art itself. Think of the hostile reviews of the first Impressionist Exhibition in Paris (such as “Wallpaper in its early stages is much more finished than that”); or the singers who refused to learn Wagner’s operas because they were “unsingable”; or the Vienna Musikverein’s initially rejecting Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht because it used “nonexistent” chords; or the literal violence that broke out in the theatre at the first production of Victor Hugo’s play Hernani for its violation of the rules of classicism.

picasso-ambroise-vollardThe first reviewer of D. H. Lawrence’s novel The Rainbow, today rightly regarded as a masterpiece of modernist literature, wrote: “There is no doubt that a book of this kind has no right to exist. It is a deliberate denial of the soul that leavens matter. These people are not human beings. They are creatures who are immeasurably lower than the lowest animal in the Zoo. There is no kindness in them, no tenderness, no softness, no sweetness. … Art is not anarchy. … The artist is not his own law-giver. He must bow before the will of the generations of men. … Life can be made very horrible and very hideous, but if literature aids and abets the business of making it horrible and hideous, then literature must perish.”

The other narrative comes from representatives of the Newer Art, the emergence of which is typically accompanied by pronouncements and manifestoes to the effect that either a) the Older Art was always worthless, stale, sterile – that art is coming into its own only now for the first time in human history, or else b) the Older Art may have been worthwhile for its own time, but changes in historical circumstances have made it no longer valuable for the modern era. (As an example of the latter, I’m thinking of the various art theorists who have claimed that the advent of photography renders representational art obsolete.)


(Ayn Rand, incidentally, ends up on both sides of this divide. In her sneering dismissals of most modern art, she sounds like the partisans of Older Art. But in her championing of the architectural theories of Sullivan and Wright against the then-prevailing neoclassical style, she sounds like the partisans of Newer Art. Her claim that Mozart belongs to the age of “pre-music” also makes her a particularly extreme Newer Art partisan. Correspondingly, many critics of her novels come across as either Older Art or Newer Art partisans (depending on the details), rejecting her novelistic style and construction because it does not match whatever sorts of novels the critics regard as paradigms of the genre.)

Against both forms of partisan narratives is the happy fact that, over time, the consensus of art critics tends to converge gradually on a sane recognition that the Older Art (generally speaking) was always good and still is, and that the Newer Art (generally speaking) is also good. The artistic prejudices of a particular era, mutually exacerbated by the clashes with rival prejudices, tend to fade as the passions that drove them are lost to the graveyards, thus removing the impediments to people’s ability to recognise and appreciate the objective value that was always there.

It has been said that science progresses one funeral at a time. I would add that art criticism recovers its equilibrium one funeral at a time.

6 thoughts on “Nor Custom Stale Her Infinite Variety

  1. [Rand’s] claim that Mozart belongs to the age of “pre-music” also makes her a particularly extreme Newer Art partisan.

    I’m not sure she really said that, or if she did, that she meant what people take her to mean.

    As for whether she said it, I’m skeptical; I think the source is somewhat weak.

    But suppose she did say it. I think it’s too over-the-top even for Ayn Rand to have been suggesting that Mozart’s compositions literally did not qualify as music. The more charitable way of interpreting her is to take her as saying that a certain type of music, X, was the apex of all musical history; X was qualitatively better than all of its predecessors, including Viennese classical music; Mozart, being “merely” the best of the Viennese classical composers, therefore belonged to the “pre-musical” period, i.e., to the period prior to the greatest, most paradigmatically musical, music ever made. He was, in other words, a composer of great talent hemmed in by the limits of his defective genre, whereas the X that came after him exemplified musical greatness to the highest degree.

    You could, in principle, say the same thing about Shakespeare. If you thought that the nineteenth century Romantic novel was inherently the greatest form of literature as such, there might be a sense in which Shakespeare, great as he was given the limits of his (very limited) genre, belonged to the period of “pre-literature.”

    I still find all that dumb and tedious, but it’s not as flat-out crazy as thinking that Mozart wasn’t music.


      • What’s your interpretation of it?

        Her official position on music, after all, is that “no objectively valid criterion of esthetic judgment is possible in the field of music.” So “Mozart is pre-music” amounts to unprovable nonsense however you slice it. As far as music is concerned, she doesn’t so much end up on both sides of a divide as in all-out skepticism.

        As a general interpretive principle, if something she said in her published works contradicts something she said somewhere else, I take the published version to override the unpublished one. So musically, I think of her as a skeptic, not as a critic of Viennese classical music.


        • One of the frustrating things about The Romantic Manifesto is that despite the accolades it showers on “romanticism,” Rand adopts so idiosyncratic a conception of romanticism, and has such idiosyncratic tastes generally (and says so little about specific composers or pieces), that there’s no way of inferring what she thinks about Romantic-era music in the conventional sense from what she says about “Romanticism.” There’s all this folklore out there about how she disliked Beethoven and loved Rachmaninoff, etc., but as far as the book is concerned, you’re left in the dark about her views of the standard works of the romantic repertory. Did she like Brahms? Mendelsohn? Schumann? Are good Randians supposed to like them? Is Debussy evil? There’s no way to know.

          I prefer it that way. It underscores the total indeterminacy of her views on esthetics. There’s much less there than meets the eyes or ears.


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