Rebirth of Reason

Post to this threadMark all messages in this thread as readMark all messages in this thread as unread

Post 0

Wednesday, June 23, 2004 - 1:33pmSanction this postReply
This is my first post to the forum.

This morning, I was thinking about Rand's denunciation of abstract art.  I would like to think I understand her position, but in fact this aspect of her philosophy has always confused me.  That is so at least partially because I've always liked some modern music (the works of Bartok in particular) and certain abstract paintings (especially some of those by Kandinsky).  It may also be due partly to the fact that I work for engineers and think of them as artists too--when Rand described her heroes in Atlas Shrugged as majors in both physics and philosophy, I said to myself, "they're engineers, they are." Engineering is art made from "the-way-things-are-and-should-be," the product of "imagination times reality."  But now I'm way off the point.

Please consider a painting like Kandinsky's work Several Circles http://www.abcgallery.com/K/kandinsky/kandinsky36.html.

This painting is not representative of anything.  Or is it?  Circles do exist.  We know what to draw when someone says, "draw a circle."  They are not just the attribute "circularity." Does the painting signify anything?  Well, I take great pleasure in the restful, dynamic juxtaposition of colors and distances.  It satisfies the part of me that appreciates the simple elegance of music and math.  It appeals to the thing in me that has always liked chemistry, in which atoms and molecules fit together and do things just like so many perfect machines.  I'm sure it matters on some level whether Kandinsky meant it to depict a child blowing bubbles, a blasted battlefield, his left toe, or nothing at all but a bunch of colored circles.  But I'm having a hard time understanding why that matters to me, especially if I see the painting for the first time, just a new experience that I either like or don't.

It occurred to me to think, why did I enjoy being a typesetter?  What makes me prefer one typeface over another? Why shouldn't I choose Verdana from the menu at the right? (I do like Verdana, as a matter of fact.)  But a typeface does not depict anything but a letter of the alphabet (dingbats aside). Formatting a document is a matter of deciding what balance of white space and text, what spacing, what font, how many columns, best fit the meaning of the text and its intended effect.  Is the sense of life of a typographer relevant in any way to a discussion of artistic merit?

What is representative about music?  Could we tell what a given piece of music is intended to depict if it does not perfectly mimic a sound we hear in the world (contrast Beethoven's 6th, in which it is possible to tell what birdsongs are being imitated)?  Does that make music abstract?

Maybe I am just being childish, in the same way a toddler absorbed in balancing a third block on top of a stack of two blocks with great concentration and enjoyment is being childish. 

What do you think?

Post 1

Wednesday, June 23, 2004 - 3:35pmSanction this postReply
First of all, welcome!

I myself am now too busy to deal with your questions and give my opinions. But concerning music I have a special interest. Please see my web page. You are correct that music is an undeniable exception to Rand's general characterization of art as a selective recreation of reality. I think this may have implications for extending her theory of art a bit. (You might also look at my Profile page.)

One of my articles on SOLOHQ is also about music; see here.

(Edited by Rodney Rawlings on 6/23, 3:44pm)

Post 2

Wednesday, June 23, 2004 - 7:03pmSanction this postReply
S. Albertini writes,
ďWhat is representative about music? Could we tell what a given piece of music is intended to depict if it does not perfectly mimic a sound we hear in the world (contrast Beethoven's 6th, in which it is possible to tell what birdsongs are being imitated)? Does that make music abstract?Ē

Roger Bissell has some interesting things to say about the nature of art and music on his website (http://members.aol.com/REBissell/indexmmm.html), and apparently has more to say in the current issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (my copy hasnít yet made it to my mailbox).

And if you havenít yet read Kandinsky, heís worth a look. He was trying to answer some of the same questions youíre asking.

Btw, my favorite Kandinsky:


Abstract art isnít my favorite genre, but regarding this image, Iíd be tempted to say that if you canít feel it, you must be dead.


Post 3

Wednesday, June 23, 2004 - 11:36pmSanction this postReply
Mr. Albertini,

Personally, I feel two different ways on abstract art...

On one hand, I think that Rand did have a point... I have seen too many "artists" who were too lazy to really develop an objective eye and hand for rendering natural entities like humans and animals, which should, of course, be the most important thing to human artists, being that they are human.   The argument goes that they became abstract "artists" because they couldn't do anything else, or bother to learn.

But on the other hand, many of Picasso's pre-abstract artworks were naturalistic renderings of people, and they were very accurate.  For him, abstract art became a kind of simultaneous multi-perspectivism... He was interested in the earliest primitivism and minimalization of forms.  For him, it was a philosophical experimentation.

For Kandinsky, it was much the same thing, I think.  You could say that he was either being enormously lazy and untalented, or that he was analyzing the most basic and primitive of shapes, such as the circle, and what can be built out of those most basic shapes.

Actually, I'm kind of surprised that Rand would have such a problem with abstract art, considering that it seems to me to be little else than a two-dimensionalizing of the same sort of architecture that Howard Roark was creating, with oversimplified shapes and clean, bold lines.

Oh well.

Post 4

Thursday, June 24, 2004 - 7:40amSanction this postReply
S Albertini,

I know O'ists get tied up in knots as to what is and is not art. While this is helpful conceptually, I don't think it's particularly helpful for an "art" observer. A good friend of mine once made the following point: It's not so important whether we're observing art, but whether from us it ellicits an artistic response.

Clearly Rand did not like abstract art, and she might even have been correct in arguing that it's not art (although I'd argue otherwise). But the bottom line is: If a Kandinsky does it for you, who cares what people call it? We shouldn't turn our backs on artistic experience.


P.S. Rodney, we should talk music sometime, as I have a bit of a history in the field.

Post 5

Friday, June 25, 2004 - 10:17amSanction this postReply
Orion, I think Rand disliked abstract art despite its similarity to Roark's vision of modern architecture because while a building has to serve a purpose other than its own existence, a work of art is supposed to be an end in itself; it's supposed to represent something. The contexts are different. In architecture the ideal form is one that conforms perfectly with the building's intended function while using shapes and proportions that are pleasing to the human mind. But visual art is supposed to be a representation of reality as viewed by the artist.

Post 6

Friday, June 25, 2004 - 8:42pmSanction this postReply

Okay, that makes sense.  Thanks.

Post 7

Saturday, June 26, 2004 - 7:32amSanction this postReply
You're welcome.

Post 8

Saturday, June 26, 2004 - 2:18pmSanction this postReply
Yes, sure, Jordan.

Post 9

Saturday, June 26, 2004 - 4:45pmSanction this postReply
Orion, you said:

"Actually, I'm kind of surprised that Rand would have such a problem with abstract art, considering that it seems to me to be little else than a two-dimensionalizing of the same sort of architecture that Howard Roark was creating, with oversimplified shapes and clean, bold lines."

Alas, poor architecture! So much misunderstanding! :-)

Architecture, Orion, is not an example of abstract art. (In fact, so-called abstract art is not actually art - but that's not my point here.) To help you dispel your apparent misconceptions about the subject of architecture, might I perhaps recommend my own article on SOLO explaining the nature of architecture, and explaining why it is a form of art.


On this particular point, I argue in part:

"Architecture is not sculpture

"Since the nature of architecture is unclear to so many it has often been wrongly equated with non-objective or non-representational sculpture: the all too predictable effect has been to raise the stature of non-objective sculpture - which can never be low enough - while simultaneously lowering the standing of architecture.

"Architecture is not sculpture. To be sure, Ayn Rand was herself confused on this point; in a passage I've long had difficulty with she describes "architecture, qua art, [as] close to sculpture: its field is three-dimensional ... but transposed to a grand spatial scale." Now I hasten to say that good architecture is often sculpturally exciting, but the excitement comes from a clear and vigorous expression of the building's purpose, and a clear and vigorous purpose to express..."

Post 10

Sunday, June 27, 2004 - 8:01amSanction this postReply
Hi Albertini,

I enjoyed your post. Especially your response to shapes, balance, play. Even your analogy to the child playing with blocks.

One of the most exciting, powerful, and rewarding experience in painting is arranging the shapes of things; playing with balance, rhythm, and positive and negative spaces.

Many abstract artists have limited themselves to this aspect of art, Kline, Rothko, and Kandinsky. And have contributed a great deal to our understanding of the importance of negative spaces in composing a painting.

Many contemporary representational painters have adapted this knowledge and have brought new ways of composing representational art. This will be one of points in my upcoming lecture on innovation in art that I am giving next week in Vancouver at TOC's Summer Conference.

One of the distinguishing conflicts between abstract and representation art is: paint representing its self vs. paint as a means to an end.  There are many people that, who know little about art, think that such concepts are an intellectual game but the experience of actually painting and dealing with this issue has profound and personal consequences. Notably painters like Rembrandt and the French Impressionist stress the properties of the paint and use it as a means to an end; masterfully matching the end and the means. Conversely, abstract art cannot do this--the means are the ends.

The possibilities in painting (and I am sure Peter can enlighten us on the vast possibilities of architecture) are amazingly broad and are not limited to the following:









Eye movement,



Technical/method theme,


and Subject.


Great representational painters have integrated all the above while pure abstract artists specialize in an area(s) and sacrifice other aspects. For example, Pollock, has no form, light, anatomy, perspective, or subject matter (I base the last on the logical argument that your means, paint, cannot also be your subject matter).

Rand is completely consistent in her focus on the pursuit of the possibilities of art and not artificially limiting its nature.

Michael Newberry

Post 11

Monday, June 28, 2004 - 8:29amSanction this postReply
I would sum up Rand's problem (and mine) with nonrepresentational visual art as the fact that it exhibits no connection with man's moral/philosophical existence. There is no way for it to "say" anything (in a non-subjective sense) that speaks to our widest questions about, and sense of, life on Earth. However, it is presented as art and thus, by implication, makes a certain statement anyway, a destructive one.

I'll add that music does have a way, though we do not know much about how it works.

(Edited by Rodney Rawlings on 6/28, 11:44am)

Post 12

Monday, June 28, 2004 - 9:03amSanction this postReply
You have to ask yourself, Albertini, where intelligibility begins and ends, and at what point any given method of interpretation becomes its own odd brand of deconstruction. Eavesdrop at a few galleries and discover the depth of meaning that some people can accurately perceive in an abstract painting, then compare it to how difficult it can be for others to accurately perceive meaning in what you think are very realistic, bluntly obvious works of art. And if you ever have the opportunity, I'd strongly suggest that you discuss art works with the artists who created them. A good ice-breaker is, "I've heard that your work represents the idea that mankind is either impotent or exempt from the rules of reality."


Sanction: 18, No Sanction: 0
Sanction: 18, No Sanction: 0
Sanction: 18, No Sanction: 0
Post 13

Sunday, September 12, 2004 - 9:12pmSanction this postReply
Greetings, all.

By now, I hope, at least some of you have seen my essay in JARS 5/2 (spring 2004), entitied "Art as Microcosm." If so, then you know that I defend architecture against the charge (by Torres and Kamhi and others) that it is not a form of art (as defined by Rand as being a "re-creation of reality"). I also take issue with the speculation that Rand recanted her view that architecture is art (as supposedly evidenced by the absence of an entry for "architecture" in Binswanger's Ayn Rand Lexicon. I won't say any more about architecture here. (Read the essay!)

Also, that I defend music against the charge (by Hospers and others, including some on this list) that it is not a re-creation of reality (and thus not art by Rand's definition).

In brief, I regard "absolute music" (music without accompanying lyrics, libretto, program notes, descriptive title, etc.) as being a form of abstract or metaphorical representationalism. In melodic-harmonic music (the vast majority of music written between 1600 and 1900, and much music since then), the melodic themes function as "virtual" characters engaged in "virtual" goal-directed action, the progressions of musical events thus serving as a "virtual" plot for the music. This points to an extensive literary-musical analogy, which I discuss at length in my JARS essay.

While this essay is the best source of my views and arguments about art, architecture, music, etc., you can also get a good deal of detail and insight by referring to my posts on Fred Seddon's current thread "The Three Stooges Meet Bissell." (I have truly arrived, to be included in a title with Moe, Larry, and Curly! :-)

Best to all,
Roger Bissell

Post to this thread

User ID Password or create a free account.