What Art Is
The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand
by Louis Torres
& Michelle Marder Kamhi

Review by
William H. Stoddard

Open Court: Chicago, 2000
539 pages

March 2001
revised October 2011


Since her death, Ayn Rand has gained much more respectful attention from the scholarly community than she ever received in life. The first published discussions of Objectivism were harshly critical of it, and often showed that the critics had read Rand superficially, not attempting to follow, and perhaps not even noticing, the details of her arguments. Recent years have seen both careful assessments of her philosophy and attempts to restate and develop it. What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi is such an attempt, the first one to examine Rand's aesthetics.

Regrettably, some of these Objectivist-influenced works reflect only the worst aspects of Ayn Rand's thought. The conclusions of What Art Is are as relentlessly simplified as Rand at her most doctrinaire; the arguments develop no new insights from Rand's theories. The primary point of this book seems to be to show that, by Ayn Rand's definition of art, virtually none of the painting, sculpture, music, or literature of the 20th Century is art at all. Indeed, Torres and Kamhi seem to believe that 20th Century art was not even a mistaken attempt at art, but a deliberate fraud.

The comments that suggest this view don't recognize the intellectual content of various artists' statements; for example, they quote Samuel Beckett's "nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, [and] no desire to express" without noticing that he is paraphrasing Buddhist teachings. Their discussions of abstract art and serialist music never come to grips with the theoretical basis for these movements; much of the time they seem to say that painters' and composers' theoretical statements were simply attempts to cover up the emptiness of their work, in the manner of "The Emperor's New Clothes". I don't believe that this is at all true. Rather, the 20th Century has been dominated by a sustained effort to produce art that does not reflect human biases — such "biases" as diatonic harmony, or pictures as windows into a virtual space, or verse with scansion and recurrent form. I would certainly agree that this effort has mostly been counterproductive and that art can only profit from returning to the natural cognitive structure of the human mind as its basis; but a great many artists have taken their theories seriously and worked hard to create art in accord with them.

In addition, Torres and Kamhi share Rand's vice of turning her own tastes in art into philosophical universals. Particularly egregious in this respect is their discussion of rock and roll (p. 219), whose vices they catalog as

its predilection for mind-numbing loudness, its dependence on electronic instruments and synthesized sound, its simplistic approach to composition, and its penchant for repetitive patterns broken by abrupt shifts and endings.
Certainly, rock and roll doesn't have the grand architectural structure of much classical music, any more than a Shakespearean sonnet has the elaborate plot of Atlas Shrugged; but many of its songwriters have had a fine sense of melody and some of its performers have been brilliantly moving.

Elsewhere in the cultural spectrum, their dismissal of James Joyce's fiction seems overhasty; the same online literary poll in which Ayn Rand took first place among novelists also showed all of Joyce's novels, even Finnegans Wake, taking higher rank in the online poll than in the vote by literary critics, which does not seem to indicate the total inaccessibility to readers that they claim. Joyce in fact is a master of characterization, able to persuasively show the inner thoughts of a brilliant mind (I am thinking particularly of the third chapter of Ulysses); he is, along with Ayn Rand and J.R.R. Tolkien, one of the twentieth century's great Thomistic literary theorists; and he also is a writer who deserves more attention from libertarians, as his work is pervaded not merely with anarchism but with individualist anarchism — though only Robert Anton Wilson seems to have been influenced by him among well-known libertarian writers. (The influence can be traced through Dora Marsden, a one-time supporter of Benjamin R. Tucker, who published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a serial in her magazine The Egoist.)

These eccentricities, so exactly like Rand's, would be more pardonable if Torres and Kamhi succeeded in clarifying or advancing Rand's thought. But in fact they leave its muddles unresolved in What Art Is. Their treatment of film is a case in point. They share Rand's conviction that film is an essentially literary art, devoted to storytelling, and deny that a film can tell a story through pictures, whereas, they say, one can follow a film's story by listening to the sound track alone. Many years ago, after audiotaping many Star Trek episodes, a friend of mine tried taping an episode of The Avengers (a program Rand praised); it was utterly impossible to tell what was happening, so much was shown visually — whereas the original Star Trek would have worked quite well as a radio drama. So I am inclined to say that it is only in films that fail to make effective use of the medium that Rand's thesis is correct. Note that Rand's own favorite philosopher, Aristotle, named spectacle, an essentially visual element, as a vital attribute of drama. Torres and Kamhi cite Rand's quotation of Fritz Lang's slogan "nothing in this film is accidental", and emphasize Lang's use of visual art, not discussing how this can possibly be integrated with their literary view of film. Along the same line, in saying that photography cannot possibly be an art because the camera does not create but only records, they seem to contradict their own view of Fritz Lang as a visual artist, one who also used a camera; perhaps they rely on Lang's role in composing the scenes that he then filmed, but still photographers also do this in just the same way — or do they imagine that Robert Mapplethorpe, whom they mention unfavorably several times, just happened to be standing around with a bullwhip inserted into his rectum when his camera went off? (Rand certainly would have thought Mapplethorpe's content revoltingly evil, but his technique has exactly the same visual clarity for which she praises Dali's painting, whose content she found repulsive.) Where Rand offered an unclear view of film as an art that reflected her experience in the industry as a scriptwriter, Torres and Kamhi, to paraphrase Blake, have not stated one new truth and have repeated all of Rand's confusions.

There is certainly room for a better approach to art, one that goes back to basing art on the natural operations of the human mind. There is a need for a clearer philosophy of art to guide it. There are many valuable insights in Rand's writings that might help develop such a philosophy. But this is not the book to do the job.


Afterword: October 2011

In the years since I wrote this, I have in fact found Rand's aesthetic theories productive, as I discuss variously in Participatory Fiction and Sing, Earthly Muse. Even when I think she comes to mistaken conclusions, she finds good questions to ask. To quote William Blake again,

The errors of a wise man make your rule
Rather than the perfections of a fool.

© 2001, 2011 William H. Stoddard

Original version in Prometheus, March 2001
Libertarian Futurist Society

Louis Torres & Michelle Marder Kamhi's site

ArtWords at Troynovant
illustrated words, literate drawings;
cartoons, graphics, books about art

More by William H. Stoddard

Ayn Rand at Troynovant

See also W.H. Stoddard's essays:
Participatory Fiction
Sing, Earthly Muse
Music in Ayn Rand's Aesthetics


Troynovant, or Renewing Troy: New | Contents
  recurrent inspiration    Recent Updates

emergent layers of
untimely Reviews
& prismatic Essays


Books by Author:  A-B   C-F   G-L   M-R   S-Z
   Books by Title:  A-B   C-F   G-L   M-R   S-Z
Pamphlets by Title   Stories by Author   Stories by Title

Strata | Regions | Personae   

© 2001-2024 Franson Publications