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In the midst of a wilderness of pickled sharks and meaningless doodles and spatters in today's art scene, I have experienced some moving and powerful pieces of modern art. They are not clearly representational in any "rational" sense and don't show, for example, skyscrapers, bridges, heroic builders etc.

The question I have is: would objectivists simply cast aside these pieces of art even if they have a strong emotional positive impact? A lot of strictly representational art is a little too "socialist realism" for me and I much prefer less structured art for the value it brings me. Reading the Romantic Manifesto, I got the sense that Ayn Rand defines art pretty narrowly. This is the one area where I think I see her opinions come out vs. objective facts (Beethoven = malevolent --that's a pretty strong accusation).

In other words, what happens if a Rothko makes you feel happy or if you love a Miro painting that makes your heart jump with joy ? Are you supposed to quickly catch yourself and tell yourself that unless it is a Dutch Master, it is verboten to enjoy ? This seems harsh and stilted. To me, this is the one corner of objectivist thought that seems dissonantly harsh, doctrinaire and robotic. I would appreciate your wisdom and comments.

asked Apr 20 '11 at 18:41

Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image


Regarding where the questioner got "Beethoven = Malevolent", Ayn Rand once said the following:

"He is a great composer, but I can't stand him. Music expresses a sense of life-an emotional response to metaphysical issues. Beethoven is great because he makes his message so clear by means of music; but his message is malevolent universe: man's heroic fight against destiny, and man's defeat. That's the opposite of my sense of life."

(Apr 27 '11 at 21:57) Shaun Shaun's gravatar image

The Ayn Rand quote provided by Shaun (Beethoven as a great composer expressing a "malevolent universe" sense of life) is interesting. Where and when did Ayn Rand say it? Is there a specific reference for it? I would like to look into the context of the quote a little further (in addition to confirming its authenticity). Shaun must have an actual printed or recorded lecture or discussion in order to quote it accurately and convincingly as to its authenticity. I would also like to compare the date of the quote to the date of Ayn Rand's written statements on music as lacking any criterion of objective esthetic judgment at present. She may only be saying that she personally finds his music malevolent -- unless the total context of where and when she said it indicates otherwise. I must also note that the quote expresses a distinction between the purely esthetic quality of art and the philosophical meaning of the sense of life which a work of art expresses. Those are different issues, as already noted in my original answer.

(Apr 28 '11 at 15:32) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Sorry for not posting a source (oops, not a good first post on my part!). The source for the Beethoven reference is a Q&A session following an audio lecture titled "Conservatism". I believe this quote also appears in the "Ayn Rand Answers" book. I would definitely be curious to hear your feedback, Ideas for Life.

I don't personally share her opinion of Beethoven. In fact, I keep a bronze bust of the maestro in my bedroom (seriously, haha). I think his sonatas are anything but malevolent. I find them to be inspiring and heroic, at least to my ear.

(Apr 28 '11 at 19:07) Shaun Shaun's gravatar image
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The question expresses a dichotomy between reason and emotion. Objectivism, however, upholds the harmonious integration of reason and emotion. The questioner asks:

[W]hat happens if a Rothko makes you feel happy or if you love a Miro painting that makes your heart jump with joy ? Are you supposed to quickly catch yourself and tell yourself that unless it is a Dutch Master, it is verboten to enjoy ?

No, this is not the Objectivist view of the relation between reason and emotion. For a succinct overview of the Objectivist perspective, refer to the topic of "Emotions" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon. Also be sure to check out the cross-referenced topics at the end of that section, especially the topic of "Introspection." If one resents the suggestion that emotions should be (or can be) examined by means of reason, one should ask oneself why one reacts that way, and then go on to re-evaluate one's reasons, using one's own faculty of reason. (It's not necessarily an easy process to perform when the emotions involved are coming from a deeply automatized sense of life.)

As for the Objectivist view of modern art, refer to the topic of "Art" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon. One excerpt in particular seems most applicable to the specific question that was asked:

As a re-creation of reality, a work of art has to be representational; its freedom of sylization is limited by the requirement of intelligibility; if it does not present an intelligible subject, it ceases to be art.

This excerpt is from "Art and Cognition" in RM. Additional discussion of modern art can also be found in "The Esthetic Vacuum of Our Age" and "Bootleg Romanticism" in RM.

For a succinct overview of the Objectivist position on music as an art form, refer to the topic of "Music" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon. All of the excerpts in that topic are from "Art and Cognition" in RM. One excerpt explains that we do not yet have a "conceptual vocabulary" for music. Consequently:

Until a conceptual vocabulary is discovered and defined, no objectively valid criterion of esthetic judgment is possible in the field of music....

No one, therefore, can claim the objective superiority of his choices over the choices of others. Where no objective proof is available, it's every man for himself -- and only for himself.


From the standpoint of psycho-epistemology, I can offer a hypothesis on the nature of man's response to music, but I urge the reader to remember that it is only a hypothesis....

Exactly where the questioner got the idea that "Beethoven = malevolent" is a total mystery. It's not indicative of the Objectivist view at all. In fact, where Beethoven is mentioned at all in the literature of Objectivism, the esthetic comments on his music are generally positive in relation to all the alternatives, though not as strongly positive as for certain other composers. (In The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand depicts Toohey as disliking and criticising Beethoven's music. In essence, he finds it too powerfully integrated; he prefers disintegration. Toohey, of course, is the arch villain in The Fountainhead.)

The question of whether abstract art can be life-affirming (objectively, within the work itself) depends on whether or not abstract art can be intelligible. From what I've seen, I don't see how. An "abstract" work doesn't necessarily have to be unintelligible; far from it. But modern art in its usual form is not abstract in any sense of being integrated with reality, but exactly the opposite: being deliberately disconnected from reality, from cognitive integration, and from selective artistic recreation of the evidence of reality.

There is also a highly informative chapter on "Art" at the end of OPAR. Dr. Peikoff writes:

Esthetics asks: what is art? what is its role in man's life? by what standards should an art work be judged?

The section on "Esthetic Value as Objective" explains, in part:

A false philosophy can be embodied in a great work of art; a true philosophy, in an inferior or worthless one. How then does one judge esthetic value?

The standard answer, which Objectivism rejects, is that one judges it by feeling.

OPAR goes on to explain these issues in detail.

Update regarding music

The original question cited "Beethoven = malevolent" as an instance where Ayn Rand may have overstepped the bounds of objectivity. Aided by information in the comments, I can now confirm that Ayn Rand once gave the following answer (orally) to the question, "What do you think of the work of Beethoven?"

He is a great composer, but I can't stand him. Music expresses a sense of life -- an emotional response to metaphysical issues. Beethoven is great because he makes his message so clear by means of music; but his message is malevolent universe: man's heroic fight against destiny, and man's defeat. That's the opposite of my sense of life.

This statement appears in the book, Ayn Rand Answers, p. 226. It was an extemporaneous answer in the Q&A session following Ayn Rand's 1981 talk on "The Age of Mediocrity" at the Ford Hall Forum in Boston.

How should one react to this kind of statement? Should Objectivists "simply cast aside [Beethoven's works] even if they have strong emotional positive impact? ... what happens if a [Beethoven sonata] makes you feel happy or if you love [that it] makes your heart jump with joy? Are you supposed to quickly catch yourself and tell yourself that unless it is a [favorite of Ayn Rand's], it is verboten to enjoy?"

Religions certainly might say so, and many might see Ayn Rand's style of expression as evangelical, like a new kind of "gospel." In terms of Lenoard Peikoff's DIM Hypothesis, that kind of reaction is a very typical example of 'D' trying to bait a perceived 'M' evangelist in order to discredit him and preserve a 'D' outlook. (DIM refers to the role of disintegration (D), misintegration (M), and integration (I) in the rise and fall of civilizations.) But Objectivism is not 'M'; it is 'I' (which 'D' advocates tend to assume is no different from 'M' at root). Remember the words of John Galt in Atlas Shrugged:

If I were to speak your kind of language, I would say that man's only moral commandment is: Thou shalt think. But a 'moral commandment' is a contradiction in terms. The moral is the chosen, not the forced; the understood, not the obeyed. The moral is the rational, and reason accepts no commandments.

What, then, is Ayn Rand actually saying in her answer about Beethoven? First, observe that she was asked for her own evaluation of him. That's the answer she gave. Was she speaking objectively? In one sense, yes. Music does evoke emotions, and emotions do relate to one's sense of life. Beethoven does, in fact, evoke certain emotions for Ayn Rand, which she identifies, objectively, as "malevolent universe." Observe that she explains very succinctly what she means by "malevolent universe." Does this mean that Beethoven's music necessarily evokes the same emotions for everyone? Ayn Rand doesn't say that in this statement. She also discusses this issue at length in her 1971 article, "Art and Cognition," republished in the Revised Edition of The Romantic Manifesto, pp. 50-64. Does Ayn Rand's statement mean that all of Beethoven's music expresses "malevolent universe"? If that is, in fact, the dominant trend of his music, could there nevertheless be occasional, individual exceptions in his compositions? I don't think Ayn Rand's brief statement can properly be taken as ruling it out.

Should one, then, suppress one's own emotions in order to demonstrate "allegiance" to Ayn Rand's "gospel"? Certainly not. Should one examine Beethoven's music for oneself, firsthand (if one is interested), and identify the emotions that one experiences from it, and then identify the nature and meaning of those emotions philosophically? I would say yes, definitely. "Independent rational judgment," which Objectivism strongly advocates, means looking at reality (including music) for oneself, firsthand, and thinking about it, logically and rationally.

Notice something else about Ayn Rand's evaluation of Beethoven: "heroic fight." If one listens to such music selectively, focusing on and responding to the "heroic fight," one may well find it exhilirating. But Ayn Rand goes further by asking what the fight is about. In Beethoven's music, she comprehends the feeling and idea of destiny, and the ultimate futility of trying to fight it, heroic though the struggle may be.

answered Apr 21 '11 at 11:46

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

edited Apr 29 '11 at 16:03

I really appreciate the well-thought out and quite clear answer. I think my "Beethoven = malevolent" comment was apparently based on tenuous sources who quoted AR as saying something to that effect. I like the clarity that Ideas for Life brings to this: to the extent that abstract art is intelligible vs gibberish then it yields to integrated thought and emotion. Nicely said !

(Apr 21 '11 at 11:57) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Dear Ideas for Life -- I have a question for you: what about things like color ? Ayn Rand famously loved blue-green. I love lime green. What is the relevance of these clear preferences? Are we to posit that Blue Green is "objectively/rationally better" than Red ? This is akin to your vocabulary observance above: I think much of this artistic stuff is devoid of a vocabulary. Saying that all good art is representational frankly troubles me: some art is like a layered puzzle -- unintelligible at first and then... BANG... beautifully integrated. Is it bad for having been hard to understand?

(Apr 21 '11 at 18:40) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

"Is it bad for having been hard to understand?"

If it presents an intelligent challenge, then not necessarily. But it must be actually possible to understand. If a work of art has an infinite number of equally plausible "meanings" then it means nothing at all, and it has failed in its purpose as art.

(Apr 21 '11 at 19:42) Andrew Dalton ♦ Andrew%20Dalton's gravatar image
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Asked: Apr 20 '11 at 18:41

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Last updated: Apr 29 '11 at 16:03