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Bill Brown

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A Quick Look at Aesthetics

Throughout the ages, art has played a crucial role in life. Today, when you speak of culture, thoughts of expensive paintings, beautiful sculptures, and Italian operas spring to mind. While culture certainly comprises more than art, art has played a dominant part in culture. Why? Why is art so important? It is because art is powerful—it can convey so much information without using language. In fact, it transcends language and is truly universal, a point which I will come back to later. And, art is everywhere. From the houses we live in (architecture) to the movies we see (theater) to the books we read (literature), art is a part of our daily lives. Nearly everyone has got some piece of artwork in their homes, from paintings to sculptures to literature. Art even encompasses some of the things we hear (music).

Given the prevalence of art, it is surprising that we know so little about it. Ask an average person what art is and he will mumble out some generalities and, more likely, some specific pieces. Ask an average intellectual and he will disdain the very heart of the question—that there are things that are art and there are things that are not. Similarly, if you asked the average person about aesthetic judgment, he will have no problem with it. You show him a painting of, say, the Mona Lisa and he will say what a beautiful painting it is. Ask the intellectual and you get the same contemptuous answer as before: there are no standards for judgment!

But there are. It hinges on a proper understanding of the nature and function of art. Once you understand the objective nature of art and the profound necessity of it to the metaphysical requirements for man's survival, you will have such a proper understanding. And that is the focus of this essay, to ground art in reality—finally defending it as an objective need—and to show how modern (or postmodern) art does not fit this category and, ultimately, fails to fulfill the aforementioned crucial need of man. I will use specific examples from what I consider the most proper—that is, that which fulfills the objective requirements of man—school of art, Romanticism, and its antipode, Naturalism.

But first, what is art? The definition which I believe most closely reveals its essence was formulated by the late novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand thusly: Art is the selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments. This definition has many elements each of which would require an essay to explain fully, so I will touch briefly on them. It is also important to note that this definition is not synonymous with the multitude of characteristics that the concept art subsumes, but merely reflects the characteristic that distinguishes art from all other concepts—its essence.

This definition of art presupposes the existence of an objective reality and the notion of metaphysical value-judgments. Reality is objective because existence exists independently of and prior to consciousness. That is, wishing won't make it so. This assumption is self-evident and any validation of it consists of ostensively pointing to any corporeal object and saying: It is. This point is incontestable. The notion of metaphysical value-judgments is a little more difficult to understand. Metaphysical value-judgments, which Ayn Rand terms one's "sense of life," are pre-conceptual evaluations of the facts of reality. They typically take the form of evaluations of three key areas: self, others, and reality. For example, an evaluation in the realm of self would be: I am a good person or I am capable of dealing with reality. An evaluation in the realm of reality would be: reality is not chaotic or reality is not against me. These last two reality-evaluation statements Ayn Rand further defined as the benevolent-universe and the malevolent-universe premises, respectively. One's sense of life is automatized in the form of emotions. For example, if one thought that reality was against you, the emotion one would feel would be despair or depression. One's sense of life, being subconsciously integrated, determines one's character. It is basically the implicit view of life that is the counterpart of one's explicit view—philosophy. But it is philosophy's precursor. This does not make it right, as one can have a sense of life that is wrong—that is, anti-life and anti-reality. And one's sense of life can change as one matures.

The artist is the integrator of these two phenomena, sense of life and reality. He starts with objective reality and chooses what he regards as important, according to his metaphysical value-judgments. In doing so, he stylizes reality. He slashes out the non-essential aspects of existence. This slashing out of non-essentials is the crux of conceptualization (abstraction). If the artist believes that man is good and reason is inviolable, he might carve a statue of David, which represents the ideal Man. He acknowledges that men can be sick and depraved, but he does not regard these as metaphysically significant enough to be included. So, what the artists has done is formed an abstraction of his subject and concretized it in a medium of his choosing. When the viewer sees the statue, if it represents his view of reality, he sees his values made perceptual. It is important to note that the artist need not (and probably does not) choose his subject consciously. He merely sets about to create some art work and, in choosing a subject, necessarily chooses that which his subconscious metaphysical value-judgments deem important.

Art is essential to human survival because it provides guidance and support for the mechanism essential to survival: the mind. When a man sees a beautiful picture, hears a lovely symphony, or reads a fascinating novel that agrees with his sense of life, he has the feeling of inspiration. He feels like his values are achievable and within his reach. Conversely, when he sees a disjointed picture, a mélange of discordant sounds, or a tell-all exposé, he feels as if his values are in jeopardy or under siege. Art reaffirms one's values and being. Furthermore, art provides instruction in conceptualization. As I outlined earlier, art gives the viewer the ability to see concepts at a perceptual level. For example, Maxfield Parrish's Contentment presents the concept of friendship that eliminates what is not important and focuses on the mutual benevolence.

Art depicts what Aristotle described as "the way things ought to be." It shows men what their world should look like, if the sense of life of the artists matches their own, or what their world should most emphatically not be like, if the senses of life do not match up. For example, in Ecstasy, Maxfield Parrish has depicted a world in which joy is prevalent. He has made a statement about how life should be. I am sure he would not assert that life is rosy all of the time. However, he would say that it should be. On the flip side, Edvard Munch's The Scream presents the world as sheer terror. The subject can do nothing but utter a primal scream. This is reality as it ought not to be. These two paintings reinforce your view of the world, in either a positive or negative fashion.

Because art provides guidance and support for man's cognitive faculty, it must provide such guidance in a form required by that faculty. The mind operates according to its nature: reason and logic. The artist must present his message in an intelligible format, as it is useless otherwise. The writer obeys the rules of using concepts—grammar and the other conventions of language. The painter presents reality in a representational manner. The sculptor sculpts something, as opposed to nothing. Kurt Schwitters' Hair-Navel Picture depicts nothing and it does so unintelligibly. Picasso's sculpture, Head, presents nothing. Its form is such that no message can be abstracted from it. Art, to be intelligible, must be appreciable without the assistance of the artist, his acolytes, or guidebooks. If it cannot be, it is not art, it is anti-art. It obliterates the very nature of art. Instead of bringing the conceptual down to the level of percepts, it goes one step further and brings the perceptual down to the level of sensation. It is akin to Duchamp's toilet bowl: it spits in the face of the conventions which define art. De Goya's Execution... is not particularly good art, aesthetically, but at least its message is intelligible.

Good art, then, is art which is about something in reality. It presents its subject in a manner that is readily understandable without further aid or contemplation. It contains a message about the nature of some aspect of reality. It uplifts those who agree with its message and style. Bad art is still about something in reality and is still in a form that is discernible, but its quality is inferior or it is ugly. A third category, non-art, is beyond the purview of æsthetics. More often than not, it has no subject. Its style, if one can call it that, is unfathomable. As Ayn Rand said in her treatise on aesthetics, The Romantic Manifesto, non-art's intention "[is to reduce] language to grunts, … literature to 'moods,' … painting to smears, … sculpture to slabs, … music to noise." If the artist has any message at all to convey, it is incomprehensible and may only be speculated upon. The only byproduct of such "art" is nausea.

What about photography? Aren't the photographs by Ansel Adams art? Not as such. They are utilitarian. They do not represent reality, they are reality (or records of reality). They are selective, but not selective in the sense of total control of subject. There is no conceptual information presented that is not already present in reality and no message put forth on the universal human condition. Like journalism, it is an interesting and useful trade, but it is not useful in the sense that art is.

Now let's examine a few examples in order to classify them as good, bad, or non-art. First, Michelangelo's David. It is art, because it presents man as he ought to be and does so in a very stylized way. It is good art because the form looks alive, yet in stasis. Next, Claes Oldenburg's Falling Shoestring Potatoes. This is not art. One could not make a case of any sort that this subject represents something metaphysically significant. To say, as the artist did, that falling shoestring potatoes are relevant and universal to man's survival is to aid and abet a fraud; it is an attack on the whole notion of metaphysical significance as such. Donald Judd's Untitled is not art and belongs in a gallery of engineering projects, not an art museum. Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz's In Mourning and in Rage is also not art. It lacks any recognizable subject. It would best be described as a performance of a play, it it had a theme or a plot. If I had to classify it, I would call it a peaceful demonstration. Raphael's The School of Athens is good art. It has a recognizable subject and message. It brings a concept (philosophers) down to the perceptual level; this is what philosophers ideally would be like: discussing great ideas, teaching, and contemplating significant problems.

In conclusion, we can judge works of art and we can do it using objective standards. We judge works by the standard of our personal sense of life and we judge by a more universal evaluation of the aesthetic quality of a work. Further, we must judge works claiming to deserve the title "art." For far too long, we have been negligent as a culture to call a spade a spade or a toilet bowl trash.