Sing, Earthly Muse
Music in Ayn Rand's Aesthetics

Essay by
William H. Stoddard
August 2008


Ayn Rand defines art as the selective re-creation of reality in accordance with the artist's metaphysical value judgments. This is a fairly abstract definition, and one that sounds implausible to many people. Part of the problem is that Rand uses terms unfamiliar to most people, which thus don't convey a clear meaning to the reader unfamiliar with Rand's overall philosophy. When their meaning is understood, the result makes better sense.

When Rand talks of re-creation, she means something like what J. R. R. Tolkien meant by "sub-creation" (though without the theological implications Tolkien had in mind): the creation of a Secondary World as a modified image of the Primary World, the world we actually inhabit. The artist envisions a world that is like the real world, and captures that vision in a medium. This re-creation is selective: the Primary World is far too large and complex to be portrayed in complete detail, so the artist must choose what aspects of it to include and what to omit. The artist's principle of selection is the theme of the work, the abstract pattern with which all the work's content must be consistent. And this theme is determined, Rand says elsewhere, by the artist's "sense of life": that is, by his or her feeling of what is interesting and important, and by the subconscious value judgments that feeling grows out of and embodies. Rand says that a sense of life is a subconscious equivalent of metaphysics, and that it reflects a person's basic feelings about reality and about human life. So what Rand is saying is that a work of art expresses the artist's feeling about what is real and what reality means to human beings by choosing a theme that is consistent with that feeling, selecting elements from reality, and integrating them into a work that conveys a model or image of reality as the artist sees it.

In offering this account, I've added some points that Rand does not make explicitly. Her definition of art does not spell out the necessity for art to have a medium, though some of her aesthetic writings certainly discuss this. And her definition of "theme" is as the abstract meaning of a work. I view this as one aspect of theme, the face it shows to the audience trying to take in and understand a work; but for the artist creating the work, the theme has a different function, as a basis for choosing what to put in or leave out. And I take the creator's perspective on art to be more fundamental. Art doesn't just mysteriously appear for us to contemplate and enjoy; it's made by human creators to serve their own purposes. But I consider these points to be minor differences, amplifications of aspects of Rand's thought that she doesn't make explicit.

But another aspect of Rand's definition is more problematic. In referring to "re-creation of reality", Rand appears to be offering what standard criticism and aesthetic theory would call a mimetic account of art: one in which art represents something that actually exists, or something that might exist and that is similar to what actually exists.

A lot of art certainly is mimetic: representational painting, cinema, and prose fiction are notable examples. But mimesis is less important in other arts, such as lyric poetry and dance. And in some arts, such as nonobjective painting and instrumental music, it's hard to see any element of mimesis at all. Rand dismisses nonobjective painting as an aesthetic fraud, and she has almost nothing to say about lyric poetry, but there is one nonmimetic art that she often discusses and cares about deeply: music.

This question has been raised before. For example, Ronald E. Merrill's The Ideas of Ayn Rand says that "if one accepts Rand's definition of art, it is not clear how music can qualify. It scarcely seems to be a 'representation of reality' in the sense that the definition is used for literature or the visual arts." Rand herself described her own view of music as a tentative suggestion that would need systematic investigation to support it or replace it with something better.

In what sense, if any, can music be said to be mimetic? If music is a re-creation of reality, what is the reality that it re-creates?

One answer can be dismissed quickly: Music as the re-creation of actual sounds heard in the physical environment. Some musical compositions incorporate sounds such as typewriter keys or cannon fire, or imitate birdsongs, but that's a tiny fraction of all music, and one that musicologists consider trivial — no more than a stunt.

Rand offers, speculatively, a different answer:

Music communicates emotions, which one grasps, but does not actually feel; what one feels is a suggestion, a kind of distant, dissociated, depersonalized emotions — until and unless it unites with one's sense of life. But since the music's emotional content is not communicated conceptually or evoked existentially, one does feel it in some peculiar, subterranean way.
Ayn Rand
"Art and Cognition"
The Romantic Manifesto

But this is unsatisfactory. In the first place, musicologists seldom have much use for interpretations of music that emphasize the listener's emotional responses. Indeed, Rand herself puts much the same sentiment in the voice of one of her characters, the composer Richard Halley:

"I don't mean your enjoyment, I don't mean your emotion — emotions be damned! — I mean your understanding and the fact that your enjoyment was of the same nature as mine, that it came from the same source: from your intelligence ..."
Ayn Rand
"The Utopia of Greed"
Atlas Shrugged

Amplifying this point, what a composer is choosing is specific pitches, durations, and harmonic relationships, and these are what a musically sophisticated listener grasps and appreciates. In just the same way, a writer chooses words and grammatical relationships. The words or the musical tones may have or take on emotional qualities, and the writer or composer may take those into account in producing a work. But words have denotative meanings, as well as emotional values, and writers use those meanings to portray imagined events in an imagined world. What worlds, if any, are composers imagining? And how can musical sounds make up such a world, as, by Rand's definition, it seems that they must? Rand calls her philosophy "Objectivism": what are the objects in a musical work?

It appears that this emotivist account of musical content telescopes together two things that are normally separate in a work of art. In looking at a painting, or reading a novel, we grasp its content, and then we respond emotionally to the content and to the way it's portrayed — and different people can have different emotional responses to the same content; for example, different people have had responses to the content of Rand's novels ranging from excitement to disgust. If the content of music just is emotion, it would seem that every listener should have the same emotional responses to it; and that's clearly not true. It's perfectly possible for two people to listen to the same piece of music and feel quite different emotions.

Given that Rand's attempts at a mimetic account of music fall short in these ways, let's consider a different approach. What if music simply is not a mimetic art? Is there art that is not "a selective re-creation of reality"? What else is there to art besides mimesis?

One possibility, often contrasted to mimesis in classical aesthetic theory, is expression. All arts have an expressive aspect: painting in the painter's brushstrokes, prose fiction in the choice of words and the quality of the sentences when they are read aloud, drama in the actors facial expressions, gestures, and stances. The expressive aspect is dominant in such arts as lyric poetry and dance. In instrumental music, it's nearly the entirety of what the work presents to the audience.

Referring to "expression" may seem to take us back to the idea that the content of music is emotions once again. There's a natural association between the concepts of expression and emotion; consider, for example, that an expressive voice is one that readily conveys the speaker's emotional state. But even if we take it this way, we've at least eliminated one of the difficulties of Rand's definition: a concept of art that includes the expressive arts does not need to strain to define a way that music can portray an image or description of reality, or to identify an aspect of reality that music is an image or model of.

But "expression" applies more broadly than to emotions. It's possible to express a concept, or a belief, as in propositional speech. It's possible to express an intention, as in a clenching of one's fist or a reaching out of one's arms in an offered embrace. In fact, expression can be applied to any aspect of one's consciousness. And this suggests an alternative definition of art, one that applies to the expressive arts:

Art is the selective expression of consciousness in a perceptible medium in accordance with a theme based on the artist's metaphysical value judgments.

This suggests that the duality of mimetic and expressive arts can be linked to more fundamental aspects of Rand's thought. In her discussion of "axiomatic concepts" in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Rand says that both existence and consciousness are axioms, or inescapable fundamental assumptions. Existence, she says, is identity; consciousness is identification. She goes on to divide human concepts into concepts of existence, which refer to the perceivable world, and concepts of consciousness, which refer to the activity of perceiving it and to the initiation of action in response to one's perceptions. And in her discussion of literature, in particular, she refers to literary works that assert that human beings have volition in relation to external reality but not to their own minds, and works that assert the reverse. Perceivable reality already has a tangible form; the mimetic arts re-create that tangible form, usually in images or language. Consciousness does not have a tangible form, but it does give rise to action; the expressive arts present stylized actions.

This division makes sense in terms of the working of the human brain, the principal organ of human consciousness. The human cerebral cortex is divided into four pairs of lobes: the frontal, parietal, occipital, and temporal. The parietal lobes, beneath the top of the head, are organized as a "homunculus": a neural map of the human body, which receives information from the sense of touch, and therefore organizes it into tactile perception. The occipital lobes, at the back, do the same for vision, and the temporal lobes, at the sides, for hearing. But the frontal lobes have a different job. They also contain a homunculus, but one that sends neural signals out to the muscles, and therefore initiates voluntary action. In human beings, this includes a range of intentions from very abstract long-term plans to specific muscular movements. That is, part of the brain has the function of perceiving reality; another part, of initiating actions toward reality.

In a sense, then, all of the arts are an expression of consciousness. But the mimetic aspect of the arts has to do with expressing the content of perception, in a selective, stylized, or transformed form. The expressive aspect has to do not primarily with perception, but with volition, with emotion, and with movement.

Another of Rand's definitions says that man is a being of volitional consciousness. Perhaps the heart of music is its expression of volition as such. Music can inspire emotion, and it can stimulate movement; but its primary qualities are those of volitional action as such: tempo, intensity or quietness, mounting tension or final resolution. Listening to music may get us to stand up and dance, or tap our feet, or sing along, or feel emotionally moved; but even if we're completely quiet, it gets us to wish for the final resolving note or chord, and thus gives form to our own volition — a volition whose object is the music itself.

Other expressive arts give expression to volition in other ways. Dance is a stylized form of movement; lyric poetry is a stylized form of speech. And the mimetic arts also have expressive aspects: gestural and postural aspects in sculpture, movement and speech in drama or film, word choice in prose fiction, brushstrokes and the movement of the eye over the canvas in representational painting. We can even now make sense of nonobjective painting, as a visual art that aims to be purely expressive, without mimetic content — which can be a perfectly legitimate aim; consider the use of texture and the flow of the eye in a decorative art such as pottery.

In a certain sense, we might fit the expressive arts under Rand's definition of art. Rand often uses reality to mean external, perceptible reality, the object of which human consciousness is aware; but she also uses reality in a broader sense that includes human consciousness. (In distinguishing "concepts of existence" from "concepts of consciousness," she doesn't mean to say that consciousness is nonexistent!) So perhaps we could think of human consciousness as the reality that is selectively re-created by music or other expressive arts.

But this is an unusual extension of the term. It would be at least equally justifiable to take it the other way around: to take the expressive definition of art as fundamental, and then qualify it by saying that some arts give expression not to the active, emotional, or volitional aspect of consciousness, but to the perceptual or cognitive aspect. And that aspect can be expressed by creating a representation of what is perceived or thought of in some medium.

Finally, though, even though we can logically unify these two aspects of art under this definition, I think it's best to recognize these as two distinct modes of artistry, each with its own contribution to make to our lives.

It will not escape readers of Nietzsche that I've just managed to reinvent his contrast between the Apollonian and the Dionysian in art, with Apollo being responsible for mimesis and Dionysus for expression. This is probably ironic, given Rand's disavowal of Nietzsche and her special rejection of The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, where he proposed this duality — and in fact Nietzsche himself later rejected important aspects of this book. I certainly don't propose to endorse everything he said about Apollo and Dionysus. But I think the distinction between art that primarily portrays reality, and art that primarily expresses consciousness, is a valid one, and those Greek gods are good mythic symbols for them.


© 2008 William H. Stoddard

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