In their Journal of Ayn Rand Studies
essay, “Critical Neglect of Ayn Rand’s Theory of Art” (Fall 2000),
Michelle Marder Kamhi and Louis Torres say that Ayn Rand’s “distinctive and
substantial” philosophy of art has been misinterpreted, underappreciated, and neglected,
and they seek to analyze these shortcomings in the writings of Rand’s critics and supporters. Although Kamhi and Torres’s own substantial body
of writings merits the same kind of attention, this essay will limit itself to an examination
of several of the more significant flaws and gaps in their most recent offering.
Neglect By, or Of, Others?
and Torres criticize others for not taking account of their arguments, but this is neither
completely accurate, nor are they completely innocent of the charge themselves:
a. I considered their arguments in my commentary (1997) on their
Aristos piece of “Meaning in Art” (1997), in my essay (1998) on Rand’s
definition of “art,” and most recently in this journal (1999). I specifically
criticized their and Hospers’s (1967, 52) and Langer’s (1953, 46, 76) problematic,
concrete-focused interpretation of art as “imitation” and “re-creation”
of things from reality, and I urged adoption of an alternative perspective, fundamentally
opposed to theirs. My view holds that the fundamental re-creation in art is not of things from reality, but of reality itself, which is created anew in the form
of a “microcosm” or imaginary world. This view is not just my own personal
aberration, since it is also held by Peikoff (1991, 417), Gilbert and Kuhn (1953, 6) and
many others, including most notably the founder of aesthetics, Baumgarten (1967, 256).
Yet, not one of the above has been acknowledged as holding this view. Instead, Kamhi and Torres have erected a large edifice of analysis and criticism
on the shaky grounds of the very model of art as re-creation (viz., of things from
reality) that its most insightful critics have soundly refuted.
b. Although Kamhi and Torres properly mention my revisionist views
on perception and music, they say nothing else about my views or my writings (except for
my comment that Objectivism champions Romantic art ). As a matter of fact,  I began
work in 1971 on a manuscript, “Esthetics, Objectively,” which was finished
in 1991. A copy of this manuscript was sent to Kamhi and Torres for their comments. They subsequently sent me an extensive list of notes, among
them the suggestion to extract and seek publication of essays on my interpretation and
validation of Rand’s definition of “art” and my critique of Rand’s
views on perception and music. These essays (Bissell 1997; 1999) contained, respectively,
a lengthy exploration and a briefer mention of the fundamental difference between the view
they uphold and my view of Rand’s definition of “art.” Yet, Kamhi and Torres have mentioned neither this basic point of contention, nor the
earlier, lengthy essay in which I exhaustively make my case.
By, or Of, Others?
Kamhi and Torres criticize others for misrepresenting
Rand’s views, even while they, at times, engage in misleading, selective quoting of those with competing interpretations:
They describe my view (1999, 60) as an overreaction to Rand’s exaggeration of the
dissimilarities between music and the other arts, and an example of the widespread attempt
to overemphasize their similarities, while “blur[ring] their diversity” (Kamhi
and Torres 2000, 32). In particular, they say that I “[go] much too far” in
“equating” the progression of events in dramatic music with those in Romantic
literature, and that “the analogy between melodic movement in music and plot in literature should not be pressed too far” (32).
in stressing the analogy between musical events and progressions and those in dramatic
and literary art, I do not “equate” anything. To the contrary, I expressly
warn against taking the analogy too far:
flip side of the seldom realized deep commonalities between music and the other arts is
the more familiar fact that, in the final analysis, music is also, to a large degree, sui generis. Despite its
significant commonalities with the other dramatic arts, it is also a realm of human expression
with a considerable amount of autonomy. (Bissell 1999, 76)
Second, the elements of the analogies I suggest are laid askew in Kamhi
and Torres’s remarks: the parallels I draw are, on the more concrete level, between
melodic movement and actions of characters, and, on the more abstract level, between melodic-harmonic
progression and plot. Their claim that musical progressions are “much more like an organic evolution” than a goal-directed movement, “which implies
anticipation by the composer (and, potentially, by the ordinary listener) of a particular
end from the outset of the piece” is simply a false alternative (Kamhi and Torres
2000, 32). Every well-made literary plot is an “organic evolution” of events,
and every organic evolution of events is end-oriented. A well-designed literary progression is no more “anticipat[ed] . . . from the outset” than is a musical
progression, notwithstanding the many predictable works turned out by hacks in each art
b. At the same time, Kamhi and Torres claim that I “[seem]
to echo Rand’s mistaken notion that music differs essentially from the other arts in that its value lies primarily in the process of cognitive integration
it affords, rather than in the product of that integration” (32). There could hardly
be a more telling misinterpretation of either Rand’s or my position on this issue.
First, Rand clearly indicates that although the degree of complexity and ease of integration
is the basic factor in determining musical preference, the re-creation of reality as a microcosm is all-important in determining what one will enjoy (and, necessarily,
Within the general category of music of equal complexity,
it is the emotional element that represents the metaphysical aspect
controlling one’s enjoyment. . . . The nature of the music represents the concretized
abstraction of existence—i.e, a world in which one feels joyous or sad or
triumphant or resigned. (Rand 1971, 61; former emphasis in original;
latter emphasis added)
Although Rand did not recognize
it or explicitly connect it to her comments on music, the same aspects function in literary
and dramatic preferences. There is a deeply important element of complexity and ease of integration that determines whether one will prefer
light fiction or heavy literature. But within either category, and any gradations in between,
it is the kind of world, the kind of microcosm, the kind of re-creation of reality
presented that determines one’s values and thus enjoyment of literature. It is a
simple inductive conclusion from empirical observation that this is one important
way that value operates in all the temporal, dramatic arts.
reformulation of Rand’s assertion about musical value is not a symptom of my inconsistently
overemphasizing (with Rand) the differences between music and the other arts, but an attempt
to clarify what it is that is being enjoyably (or unenjoyably) integrated in musical perception. Rand thought it was integration of sensations into
percepts, while I argue (and Kamhi and Torres acknowledge) that it is percepts (tones)
into higher-level percepts (musical patterns). What is unique about music is not that
it affords different levels of complexity and ease of integration (which all the
temporal, dramatic arts do), but that it does so in the field of perception (rather
than in concepts and language, as does literary drama).
c. Kamhi and Torres say that I “[confuse] Rand’s philosophy of art
with her literary aesthetic when [I state] that ‘Objectivism champions . . . romantic
art’” (Kamhi and Torres 2000, 35 n. 13; citing Bissell 1996, 82; emphasis
theirs). Well, Rand does champion romantic art, in her sense of the term. Furthermore,
despite Rand’s apparent failure to realize it, a great deal of her analysis of literature
applies more broadly to all dramatic, temporal art, which includes, specifically, a great deal of the music written during the past 400 years or
more. Kamhi and Torres question whether Rand’s ideas about the nature of
literature are properly a part of the philosophy of art. They claim repeatedly that Rand
equates her personal aesthetic preferences with aesthetics in general. Such
a view grossly underestimates the depth of Rand’s intuition and insight. She was
onto something, but she didn’t take it far enough. Rand is not saying that all temporal
art, in order to be valuable in a deeply philosophical way, must be plotted and thus Romantic. She is saying that having a plot is a very important way
in which some art is (or can be) better than other art that does not heavily employ
this element. Using the volition (i.e., plot) premise as a criterion for classifying art
as Romantic or Naturalistic is thus just one way to sort the arts. And note that
this premise is based on an aspect of the human conceptual faculty.Another
aspect (one of others, no doubt) with great potential utility for classifying art is the
fact that the contents of our consciousness are hierarchical, i.e., structured
in interconnected layers, with contents of narrower extent or scope being subsumed by broader
contents. Not only are our learned concepts organized in this way, but
so are our perception and experience of many temporal processes. And there can be relatively
deep (many-layered) or relatively flat (few-layered) hierarchies—not to mention hierarchies
on which a great deal too much has been heaped! Literature and music both exemplify this
attribute to one degree or another. Setting aside the question of whether
music and the other temporal arts exemplify volitionality and goal-directedness, then,
here is another highly important issue: the hierarchical structuring of the temporal arts
The common thread running through both ways of looking
at artworks and genres is that they are based on one of the main features of human consciousness. A well-structured story or musical piece—apart
from (or in addition to) whatever it may convey about human volitional mental
functioning—certainly does draw the reader or listener into a process that conveys
an important point about hierarchically ordered mental
functioning. There is a strong presumption, in other words, that Rand has laid the groundwork
for a Grand Unified Theory of Aesthetics. Someday, I suggest, a methodology derived from her work will allow theorists to legitimately classify artworks
and connoisseurs to legitimately evaluate artworks as to how and/or whether they enhance
one’s experience of the volitionality, hierarchical nature, etc., of one’s
consciousness. Far from viewing Rand’s well-argued personal preference for Romantic
literature as a mere idiosyncratic intrusion into philosophy of art, I think it is reasonable to see it instead as the preface to a much deeper analysis and
understanding of the nature and value of art.
d. Notwithstanding the
importance of clearly distinguishing between Rand’s more general aesthetic views
and her more specific views about literature and her emphatic championing of Romantic art,
she cannot reasonably be criticized for naming her book The
Romantic Manifesto (subtitled: “A Philosophy
of Literature”). She clearly states that this book is a statement of her objectives
and motives in regard to Romanticism, and that her opening theoretical essays “[identify]
the basis in reality” for that statement. This is directly parallel to her naming her ethics book The Virtue of Selfishness (subtitled: “A New Concept
of Egoism”), which consisted of one theoretical essay and numerous applications.
The whole point of these two books was not to present a fundamental thesis, but
to argue for her values, Romanticism and Egoism, which were, for Rand, the correct
applications of her fundamental aesthetic and ethical insights as expressed in her
initial theoretical essays. She wanted to enable people to make aesthetic and ethical judgments on the basis of objective standards—and to thereby live
a good and happy life. Just because such ability requires an explanation of what aesthetics
(and art) and ethics are and what role they play in human life, does not mean
that those explanations are the “primary purpose” of aesthetics and ethics.
Thus, Kamhi and Torres’s critique of Merrill’s perspective (Merrill 1991, 122–26)
on this issue is simply mistaken.
While Kamhi and Torres criticize others for being “a-historical,” I find it difficult to understand either their unawareness or nonmention of
the Founding Father of the science of aesthetics, German philosopher and aesthetician,
Alexander Baumgarten (1714–1762). Had they referred to Tonelli’s commentary
(1967, 256) in the same volume as Hospers’s essay, they would have found in these
comments the basis for resolving a number of controversies in the Objectivist
understanding of aesthetics.
a. Baumgarten viewed art as a microcosm,
as do twentieth century aesthetic historians Gilbert and Kuhn. Except for Peikoff and myself, virtually every other writer associated with the Objectivist movement
seems to get this wrong, including Kamhi and Torres, Hospers, Merrill, etc. But consider
Gilbert and Kuhn (1953, 6) who say: “the idea of the microcosm, the notion that the
structure of the universe can be reflected on a smaller scale in some particular phenomenon, has always been a favorite in the history of esthetics.” In
an even more pertinent comment, they explain that Renaissance painters studied anatomy,
psychology, etc., in order to be able to present “a total philosophical treatment
of nature which will enable the artist to compose a second nature” (177). Baumgarten
himself advocates this idea in a way that clearly resonates with Hospers and Kamhi and Torres. The latter say (in criticism of Kelley and Thomas’s
emphasis on a more cerebral slant on art): “one cannot meaningfully discuss why man
needs art without reference to the emotions” (Kamhi and Torres 2000, 19). Compare
this with Tonelli’s commentary on Baumgarten:
The artist is not an imitator of nature in the sense that he copies
it: he must add feeling to reality and thereby he imitates nature in the process of creating
a world or a whole. The whole is unified by the artist through a coherent “theme” which is the focus of the representation. (Tonelli 1967,
b. As Tonelli points out, Baumgarten viewed aesthetics
as being on the same level of abstraction with logic, both of them being branches
of epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, which he called “gnoseology” (256).
 Kamhi and Torres get this right (as against the relegation of aesthetics by Kelley
and Thomas to a position derivative from ethics), but they could have made their case more solidly and historically grounded by reference to Baumgarten.
Kamhi and Torres quote Rasmussen’s observation (1988, 6) about the tragedy of the
falling-out between Hospers and Rand, in terms of the detailed probing and integrated worldview
that could have resulted from a sustained collaboration. A deeper tragedy results from the failure of Hospers and Kamhi and Torres to grasp the fundamental
insight of Baumgarten, Rand, and others into the nature of art as microcosm. Such a grasp
could have led the way not only to a resolution of the long misunderstanding between Hospers
and Rand, but further to a powerful synthesis (with or without Rand’s cooperation) of their views. Hospers’s illuminating discussions (1946, 3–9;
1969, 3–4; 1982, 335–63) of the “aesthetic experience” and the “aesthetic
attitude” identify the precise psychological correlates of the microcosm in the artwork
that one perceives in such an experience and by means of such an attitude. The Objectivist
aesthetics has been set back decades by the failure to identify and exploit this fertile
avenue for development and synthesis, and Kamhi and Torres have thus
far missed a golden opportunity to set things on the right track.
Kamhi and Torres raise the issue of Hospers’s
mysterious reference to the “art–as–re-creation” view in his Encyclopedia of Philosophy article
(1967, 52), but they fail to note a second mysterious use of the term in his 1982 book,
Understanding the Arts. Regarding the latter work, they claim that while Hospers
does discuss Rand’s concept of “sense of life” in the latter work,
nowhere did he mention the “re-creation” theory. However, in chapter 3, Hospers
(1982, 177) cryptically states: “Music is not the recreation of anything—music is an act of pure creation, of combinations of sound that
are unlike anything that existed in the world before those sounds were created by the composer.”
This statement comes totally out of the blue, both in terms of the concept of “re-creation”
not being attributed to any specified theorist and in terms of its not being introduced in the discussion leading up to it. Apparently, Hospers intended
“re-creation” to be taken as synonymous with “representation” or
“imitation,” which he does discuss previously in this chapter. If
so, this is merely further indication of Hospers’s long-standing misconception of
and opposition to the view of art as re-creation of reality, taking it to mean re-creation
of things from reality. Hospers has told me in personal correspondence that his
1967 article was actually written in the 1950s, long before he met Rand (in 1960). This,
he said, is why he did not mention her in his 1967 article; and, moreover, the idea of art as re-creation was too widespread to require any other specific
attribution. However that may be, Hospers has provided neither (1) documented evidence
of even a single theorist who did hold the re-creation view prior to Rand,
nor (2) an explanation for his omission of her (or anyone’s) name when he refers
in his 1982 book to music as not re-creating reality.
and Torres (2000, 35 n. 10) also refer to “The Esthetic Vacuum of Our Age”
(originally published in The Objectivist Newsletter [November
1962] and included in The Romantic Manifesto) as an essay “on popular culture.”
What they do not mention is the fact that the latter was labeled as
being excerpts from the address Rand made in 1961 to the Cultural Arts Festival
in Michigan, and is undoubtedly closely related to her 1960 Columbia University radio talk,
“Our Esthetic Vacuum.” In fact, those excerpts are lifted nearly word for word from a much longer taped lecture that is very likely a full-bodied replica
of the 1960 radio talk manuscript. While the excerpted print version runs to about 2,500
words, the full taped version totals over 7,800 words, and it contains much more
than comments on popular culture and the Romanticism-Naturalism debate. It discusses Rand’s definition of “art” and the function of concepts, the nature of sense of life, and the relation of reason to aesthetics; it is an eloquent, powerful
example of Rand’s writing at its best. Truly, it is the Ur document for the Objectivist
aesthetics, and it should have been published as the lead essay of The Romantic Manifesto.
Its general obscurity is yet another result of the Objectivist movement’s reprehensible tendency toward an oral tradition. Nonetheless, had Kamhi
and Torres exercised their usual scholarly thoroughness, they would have known about this
source. One hopes that this oversight will be redressed in their future writings.
and (except where otherwise noted) all subsequent quotes and references to Kamhi and Torres
pertain to their “Critical Neglect" essay (Kamhi and Torres 2000).
2. This was part of a brief remark I made in a non-aesthetics essay (Bissell 1996). See also below.
3. This 200-page manuscript
was briefly mentioned in their book (Torres and Kamhi 2000), but not at all in their essay
(Kamhi and Torres 2000).
4. The structural hierarchies within which
the goal-directedness in Baroque music works itself out are relatively “flat”
(i.e., having fewer levels) compared to those in the music of later composers. In this
respect, the Romanticism (in Rand’s sense of goal-directedness) in early music is
more subtle and restrained. It took a great deal of “pushing the envelope”
of stylistic boundaries before composers at last broke through into the obvious, lush Romanticism
that we most often associate with the term. However, while Bach et al. were far from
being full-blown Romantics, it is also the case that there is no Great Divide between the
music of the 1600s and 1700s on the one hand and the music of the 1800s and 1900s on the
other. Instead, there is a demonstrable continuum of gradually increasing amounts
of goal-directedness in music during the Common Practice Era (also known as the Age of
5. And thus, one might add, committing the “fallacy
of the frozen abstraction,” about which she wrote so cogently in “Collectivized
Ethics” (Rand 1964, 94). Also see Bissell 1973.
As does architecture, which is included among the fine arts by Rand, but not by Kamhi and
7. In contrast to Kamhi and Torres’s claim that “Peikoff
does little to clarify Rand’s theory” (Kamhi and Torres 2000, 22), I think
he makes a very important clarification in stating that art is a microcosm. This emphatically
and unequivocally distinguishes Rand’s view from those who, like Kamhi and Torres,
regard the re-creation of reality as operating primarily on the concrete-bound level of
replicating or portraying specific things from reality. Rather than being an “amendment” to Rand’s philosophy, this is fully consistent with her view of art as
conveying a sense of an imaginary world.
In defense of Kelley and Thomas, as well as Peikoff, there is a legitimate sense in which
art as “re-creation of reality” presents something like a philosophical view
of life. Kamhi and Torres (2000, 20) are correct when they say: “[A] painting of
a mother and child might concretize, for instance . . . the concept of maternal love and
tenderness, not an entire ‘philosophy’.” It does so, however, by re-creating reality,
by creating an imaginary world in which the relationship between mother and child is one
(at least partly) of tenderness. It presents a view of the world which, if not a full-blown
philosophy (and neither are most philosophies full blown!), is certainly very
analogous to what philosophy does.
9. Tonelli (1967, 256)
notes that Baumgarten was extraordinarily influential in German universities during the
latter 1700s and was regarded by Kant as one of the greatest metaphysicians of his time.
10. A personal confession: Kamhi and Torres chide Rasmussen and Den Uyl for not including aesthetics in their 1984 book, citing also Hospers’s regretted inability to supply an essay. No one regrets this omission more than I. When work was
begun on the book in 1977, I was approached to do a chapter on Rand’s aesthetics,
and I demurred. I thought the time was not yet right, and that I was not as well versed
academically or close enough to the “Inner Circle” to expect acceptance as
having accurately represented Rand’s views. Hospers eloquently expressed my own sentiments
about this when he said: “I felt that, if I wrote on her aesthetics, and made one
small misrepresentation or misunderstanding, or got something that was (in their opinion)
wrong, I would be flayed alive by her ardent supporters . . .” (quoted in Kamhi and
Torres 2000, 37 n. 25). In retrospect, it may well have been better to take my lumps in
order to get my interpretation of Rand’s definition of “art” and my critique
of her view of music on the record fifteen years ago. The debate would be much further
advanced from the point that it is now, and Kamhi and Torres might have long ago realized
the distortion of Rand’s views that their present position represents.
11. As Kamhi and Torres note, Hospers enthusiastically supported this idea of Rand’s as early as 1962.
is in marked contrast to Hospers’s careful attribution of the art as “imitation”
view to Plato and Aristotle. In fairness, even Langer (1953, 77), another careful scholar
and vociferous opponent of the re-creation view, mentioned only one person who
held such a view: Dewitt Parker (1926, 51). It is interesting to note that Parker appears
to hold not only the “things from reality” variant of the re-creation theory,
but also (implicitly) the microcosm variant. While he says “the physical object is
inert, but as re-created in the imagination, it may be alive with the most volatile or
momentary movement” (85), he also says: “Building up in the imagination a
little world that shall satisfy his wishes, and embodying it in a medium over which,
as expert technician, he [the artist] is master” (30, emphasis added).
Tape AR25C, available from Second Renaissance Books at www.RationalMind.com.RationalMind.com.
14. This has been
transcribed by the present author and offered to Second Renaissance Books for publication.
Roger E. 1973. On the thawing out frozen abstractions: An essay in mental economics. Equitas
1: 6–9 (March–July). Also posted on the Internet at <http://www.rogerbissell.com/id11bbbb.html>.
___. 1991. Esthetics, Objectively. Unpublished manuscript.
___. 1996. Dialectical Objectivism?: A review of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical,
by Chris M. Sciabarra. Reason Papers, no. 21 (Fall): 82–87. Also posted
on the Internet at <http://www.rogerbissell.com/id11cccc.html>.
___. 1997. The essence of art. Objectivity 2, no. 5: 33–65. Also posted on the Internet at <http://www.rogerbissell.com/id11h.html>.
1998. Kamhi and Torres on meaning in Ayn Rand’s esthetics. Reason Papers, no.
23 (Fall): 101–8. Also posted on the Internet at <http://www.rogerbissell.com/id11j.html>.
___. 1999. Music and perceptual cognition. The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 1,
no. 1 (Fall): 61–86. Also posted on the Internet at <http://www.rogerbissell.com/id11k.html>.
Branden, Nathaniel. 1962. The
literary method of Ayn Rand. In Who Is Ayn Rand? New York: Random House.
Den Uyl, Douglas J., and Douglas B. Rasmussen, eds.  1986. The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand.
Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Edwards, Paul, ed.  1972.
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Macmillan.
Katherine E. and Helmut Kuhn. 1953. A History of Esthetics. 2nd ed. New York:
Hospers, John. 1946. Meaning and Truth in the Arts.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.
___. 1967. Aesthetics, problems of. In Edwards 1967, I.
ed. 1969. Introductory Readings in Esthetics. New York: Free Press.
1982. Understanding the Arts. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
Michelle Marder and Louis Torres. 2000. Critical neglect of Ayn Rand’s theory of
art. The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, 2, no. 1 (Fall): 1–46.
Susanne K. 1953. Feeling and Form. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Ronald E. 1991. The Ideas of Ayn Rand. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court.
Dewitt H. 1926. The Analysis of Art. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.
Peikoff, Leonard. 1991. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York:
Rand, Ayn. 1961. The Objectivist ethics. In Rand 1964.
___. 1963. Collectivized ethics. In Rand 1964.
1964. The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism. New York: New American
___. 1969. What is Romanticism? In Rand  1975.
___.  1975. The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature. 2nd
revised edition. New York: New American Library.
1971. Art and cognition. In Rand  1975.
Rasmussen, Douglas B.
1988. John Hospers and the activity of philosophy. In The Free
and Noble Spirit: A Festschrift for John Hospers. Reason Papers, no. 13 (Spring): 3–7.
Tonelli, Giorgio. 1967. Baumgarten,
Alexander Gottlieb. In Edwards 1967, I.
Torres, Louis, and Michelle
Marder Kamhi. 1997. Meaning in art. Aristos 6: 6 (September): 4.
___. 2000. What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand. Chicago: Open Court.