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Sense of Life

The Passion of Ayn Rand Criticism
by Joseph C. Maurone

A recent discussion on the validity of the merits of biography in art criticism presented a similar theme to the one of the importance of Rand's biography as it relates to Objectivism. I would like to offer a discussion of Objectivist esthetics to present another view of Rand scholarship.

Chris Sciabarra, who places much importance on Rand's Russian education on her philosophy, writes: "The study of philosophy cannot be reduced to exploring his or that philosopher's idiosyncrasies. That would be psychologism at its worst. One should not judge Schopenhauer's philosophy by sleeping with loaded pistols or Nietzsche's by the fact that he died insane. Similarly, one should not judge Rand's philosophy by her intolerance for dissenters, her penchant for moralizing, her style of polemical exposition..."

Fellow SOLO member and artist Michael Newberry is inclined to agree: "For me that is irrelevant for art criticism though it is essential for placing the artist in history. To use stronger language, when faced with the artwork, donít give a shit about the artist or what they thought; just look at the work and find out what it is telling you. I share this attitude with Rand, that an evaluation of an artwork is based on what is in the work allowing no other outside considerations ... I think what is cool about that approach is that it doesnít allow for much speculation ... if you canít confirm it in the work it doesnít hold up."

To judge the technical merits, the theme, etc., it may be distracting to know the artist's reasons.(I would argue that the issue of style is a trickier subject, even for Rand, because it does involve the issues of psychology and subjectivity, and is probably the least objective element in art.) Rand's opinion on the subject was that "A sense of life is the source of art, but it is not the sole qualification of an artist ... and it is not a criterion of esthetic judgement." One could say the same thing about non-artistic creations, for example, an automobile. A car owner does not need to know the life story of the assembly-line workers, or even of Henry Ford himself, to appreciate the design of a sports car, or how many miles to the gallon it can go. To an anthropologist, or a psychologist, knowing about such things could be invaluable. Why did cars come about? Why the need for such extreme transportation? Where were the drivers going? Why the need to travel so far?

But she also ended this same essay with the controversial sentence, "When one learns to translate the meaning of an art work into objective terms, one discovers that nothing is as potent as art in exposing the essence of a man's character. An artist reveals his naked soul in his work-and so, gentle reader, do you when you respond to it."

This statement suggests to me the difficulty in the idea of separating the ideas from the thinker, and why, "earthquakes in Valhalla" aside, there will always be interest in Rand's philosophy as realized in her personal life. She invited the comparison.

The emphasis on "psychologizing" in Sciabarra's quote conflicts, for me, with my own interest in psychology; one does need to be aware of the dangers similar to the substitution of being "rational" with "rationalizing." But I don't think there needs to be a dichotomy between art and psychology. The process of creation can be therapeutic, and as therapy, the point is less aesthetic than psychological. (Jung would urge his patients not to worry about whether their drawings were art, and refused any suggestions that his own paintings were art. Rand may have been inclined to agree with him. She comments in The Romantic Manifesto that horror stories represent "the metaphysical projection of a singe human emotion: blind, stark, primitive terror. Those who live in such terror seem to find a momentary sense of relief or control in the process of reproducing that which they fear ... Strictly speaking, this is not a metaphysical, but a purely psychological projection ... In its basic motivation, this school belongs to psychopathology more than to esthetics."

But does this mean that there is a dichotomy? Rand's other comments seem to say "no." She does write that "A sense of life is a preconceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence. It is in the terms of his own fundamental emotions-i.e., the emotions produced by his own metaphysical value-judgements-that man responds to music." But wouldn't that appraisal involve psychological projections as well as value-judgements? Rand suggests this when she writes that when music conveys emotions such as serenity, defiance, or exaltation, it is up to the listener to supply the specifics for such feelings. She validates Jung's theory of projection when she writes that "music communicates emotions, which one grasps, but does not actually feel; what one feels is a suggestion, a kind of distant, dissociated, depersonalized emotion-until and unless it unites with one's own 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."

These comments suggest to me that while it may be desirable at times to separate the ideas from the thinker, it is at best, a way to break down artistic and philosophic issues into easy-to-digest bites, and at worst, an attempt to hide something. To hide behind claims of objectivity in art appreciation, which limits speculation, can suggest that there is something to hide, either from the artist's or the critic's point of view, which is possibly why Rand's note to her "gentle readers" scares some critics. But a thinker such as Rand, who proclaimed that her characters were not simply abstractions, but did exist in the flesh-and-blood persons of Frank O'Connor and Nathaniel Branden, was opening the door to her personal context, as in her declaration, "And I mean it." The Romantic Manifesto was her welcome mat.


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