Sunday, 30 September 2012

Romantic Capitalism

The Romantic Manifesto
Ayn Rand
Signet (Penguin Group)

Review by Rory A.A. Hinton

The Romantic Manifesto

de Kooning: "I don't think painters have particularly bright ideas."
de Antonio: "What do they have?"
de Kooning: "I guess they are talented at painting things."

Art criticism assumes a philosophy of art. And a philosophy of art assumes a philosophy. Every critic has one. Since people are the product of their philosophical premises, and since art critics are people (Barnett Newman's comments about "aesthetes" to the contrary), then art critics (and ipso facto the critical reviews that they write) are the product of their philosophical premises. Art and philosophy live within the same province, if not the same provenance.
     The Romantic Manifesto demonstrates this by accomplishing in 180 pages what philosophers in the modern period failed to do: create the philosophical basis for a rational aesthetics. Granted, 'rational' is a loaded term. But it is not as if Ayn Rand failed to define and defend what she meant by it. Introduction To Objectivist Epistemology alone provides a cognitive basis for her neo-Aristotelian rational philosophy, not to mention her extended apologia for it in Philosophy: Who Needs It. Who does? Everyone (art critics included).
     Read Rand's rationally redacted raison d'être: "In order to live, man must act; in order to act, he must make choices; in order to make choices, he must define a code of values; in order to define a code of values, he must know what he is and where he is - i.e., he must know his own nature (including his means of knowledge) and the nature of the universe in which he acts ... he needs metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, which means: philosophy."
     This sentence from The Romantic Manifesto is an example of how Rand is able to distill her loaded work in philosophy into a sense bite for the purpose of promoting her aesthetic theory. She explains how philosophy provides a realistic view of the universe (metaphysics), a rational means to know that universe (epistemology), a reason to live in that universe (ethics), and a robust basis for selectively re-creating that universe (aesthetics). In fact, the chapter entitled "What Is Romanticism?" (which sets out Rand's definition of art and her criterion to determine its quality) can rightly be said to distill the book's distillation. This is the reason why I focus most of my review on it.
     The book also considerately presents a caveat lector to potential readers since Rand did not like to load unwanted words upon the unintended: "Those who feel that art is outside the province of reason," Rand writes, "would be well advised to leave this book alone: it is not for them." In other words: those whose postmodern tastes in art and its criticism are more Heideggerian than Aristotelian won't have much use for this book, nor for this review.
     Speaking of postmortem tastes, contemporary art publications are prone to publish art-speak jargon containing more vacuous adjectives than veritable nouns. ARTFORUM magazine is a case in point. Many of its articles over the past fifty years read like they were written by the art critic equivalent of "the jerky contortions of self-inducedly brainless bodies with empty eye sockets, who perform, in stinking basements, the immemorial rituals of staving off terror" (John Coplans' insightful remark that Warhol's 32 Campbell soup cans painting is "the greatest breakthrough in art since the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp half a century earlier" is a notable exception).
     Rand wrote those words about a certain class of artists in 1969 in the introduction to her Manifesto. Whether she was referring to the New York School artists (including the more-light-than-bright Willem de Kooning) is anyone's (educated) guess. If so, then that explains why there was apparently no conceptual love loss between her and Clement Greenberg, unlike the consentual love found between him and Helen Frankenthaler (his one-time lover), the "absolute doyenne" of post-painterly color field painting. After Frankenthaler saw the first Jackson Pollock exhibit at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1950 she is reported to have said: "It was all there. I wanted to live in this land. I had to live there, and master the language." Dominique Francon she was not.
     With this postmortem reference in mind you can easily characterize these jargon-laced articles as what you would get if you contortedly used something like Pixmaven's The Instant Art Critique Phrase Generator to create a "critical response to the art product" (or CRAP, for short). For example, I typed in '66666' into the generator and received the following sentence: "The iconicity of the Egyptian motifs visually and conceptually activates the essentially transitional quality." Compare this with the following randomly selected sentence written by Annette Michelson in her 1971 ARTFORUM review of Michael Snow's 1967 film Wavelength: "The film is the projection of a grand reduction; its 'plot' is the tracing of spatio-temporal données, its 'action' the movement of the camera as the movement of consciousness." Since Amy Taubin described Michelson's review as a "brilliant essay," I will leave it up to her to determine the essentially transitional quality of these two critically responsive sentences.
     (There is a point to this seemingly self-indulgent digression: art criticism is only as clear as the philosophy which generates it. It is therefore a sad conceptual commentary for Whitehead to correctly point out that all philosophy (of art or otherwise) is but footnotes to Plato (the great art negator), and not to Aristotle. Consider Aristotle's definition of truth: "To say of what is that it is, and to say of what is not that it is not, is true; whereas to say of what is that it is not, and to say of what is not that it is, is false." This footnote nicely serves as a philosophical metaphor for Rand's approach to art. When it comes to 85% of contemporary art criticism (and the actual art which is its sufficient condition), there is no accounting for Platonic waste).
     Rand did not waste words, let alone time. In this sense she shared Robert Rauschenberg's antipathy toward abstract expressionist artists: "I was never interested," Rauschenberg states, "in their pessimism or editorializing. You have to have time to feel sorry for yourself if you are going to be a good abstract expressionist. And I think I always considered that a waste." Time waits for no art critic. This is why Rand wastes no time in the chapter "What Is Romanticism?" to objectively define her subject matter: "Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments." Fourteen words is all it takes. That there is a measured economy to the words she chooses and uses is indicative of the moral ideal within which she writes (but more on the economy later).
     Rand argues that a person gains a knowledge of the perceivable world through conceptual abstractions. This knowledge is summarized by metaphysics (the study of "being qua being" to use Aristotelean jargon). The only way for a person to bring these summarized abstractions into perceptual awareness is through art. Art therefore serves a philosophical function. It does this by not only making a person's conceptual view of themselves physically explicit through the means of artistic media (painting, sculpture, literature, etc), but by also teaching a person how to stylize their conscious awareness of the world they perceive and conceive. "An artist does not fake reality," Rand writes, "he stylizes it. He selects those aspects of existence which he regards as metaphysically significant - and by isolating and stressing them, by omitting the insignificant and accidental, he presents his view of existence. His concepts are not divorced from the facts of reality - they are concepts which integrate the facts and his metaphysical evaluation of the facts."
     What makes Rand's aesthetics romantic? For her Romanticism is a category of art based on the fact that a person possesses the freedom to choose. Despite historically emotive connotations to the contrary, a 'romantic' aesthetics is a rational one: it has less to do with the familiarity of one's emotion and more to do with one's faculty of volition. An artist selectively re-creates through artistic media those aspects of physical reality that represent their sense of life. This re-creative process forces the artist to confirm "whether man possesses the faculty of volition - because one's conclusions and evaluations in regard to all the characteristics, requirements and actions of man depend on the answer." If you affirm that a person has the faculty to determine their own destiny, then you are a volitional romantic and will re-create accordingly. If not, then you are a non-volitional naturalist.
    To be a naturalistic artist is to be a person whose work reflects an "anti-value" orientation. Naturalism reflects the idea that a person's efforts to change their existential lot are futile since their fate is ultimately determined by forces beyond their conscious control: lets meet, think, and be weary, for tomorrow we lie. For Rand, to be a romantic artist, in turn, is to be a person whose work does not merely record or photograph, but rather creates and projects a concern not with things as they are, but with things as they might and ought to be (the romantic significance of photography was unfortunately lost on her - but fortunately for us we have found Evan Perry). To be a romantic artist is to philosophically glorify our existence and to psychologically desire a more interesting, because more noble, life. Art inspires nobility. This is its potential cash value.
     For example, on this reading the New York School of abstract expressionism is a naturalistic movement. It is based on a philosophy that is fatalistically emotive. Hence Rand's Rauschenbergean sentiment. This is especially true in the case of Pollock who is dismissed as a "pathologically abusive and self-destructive individual." The destructiveness that characterized his life came from somewhere. It was the product of his philosophical premises, and they were anything but romantic ("empty eye sockets" indeed).

Untitled 1930-1933
Basalt Head
Jackson Pollock


     You might disagree with Pollock's premises, but that does not mean that you must deny him artistic merit. You might dismiss Pollock's art as an example of work based on a style that is a "blurred, "mysterious" murk," only admired by a person "who is moved by the fog of his feelings and spends most of his time out of focus" (as Rand describes it), but that does not mean Pollock could not paint, nor sculpt for that matter (consider his recently disclosed Basalt Head "death mask"). There is, therefore, an important distinction to be made here between aesthetic matter and aesthetic merit. An artist can be dismissed as naturalistic, but that does not mean that they lack natural talent. It is the fact of the matter that matters. And when it comes to Rand's rational aesthetics, it is concepts over concretes that matter most.
     I am not concerned with applying Rand's rational aesthetics to particular artistic instances. Initial work has already been done in this area. What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory Of Ayn Rand is a good introductory attempt to critically apply Rand's rational aesthetics (duly interpreted) to artistic matter. Those interested can read Torres' and Kamhi's work and decide whether they are doing objective justice to contemporary art. Rather, I am concerned with briefly commenting upon a relatively uncharted but not unrelated area of Rand's aesthetics: its relation to the "moral ideal" of capitalism.
     Rumor has it that Andy Warhol (business artist extraordinaire) did not respect Rand's philosophy of art, and that Rand denounced him as a result. If this is more than mere rumor, then this reality should not distract us from the ideality that Warhol should have respected it, and that Rand should not have denounced him in turn. Whether this denunciation was the result of her personality getting the best of her principles is open to debate. (I am sure Nathaniel Branden would have something interesting to say about this issue). What ideally unites Ayn as an artistic philosopher and Andy as a philosophical artist is their common concern with capital. The artistic significance of this mutual concern has been strangely neglected. 
     What makes capitalism an "unknown" ideal for Rand relates directly to its moral function (a notion strangely neglected in modern economics). In her essay "What Is Capitalism?" (a nice economic companion piece to her essay "What Is Romanticism?") Rand writes: "The economic value of a man's work is determined, on a free market, by a single principle: by the voluntary consent of those who are willing to trade him their work or products in return. This is the moral meaning of the law of supply and demand." Romanticism and capitalism turn on the moral importance of volitional consent. What makes capitalism a "moral ideal" for Rand, rather than just an economic system, is the context it creates for the free creation and dissemination of products. It makes volition possible.
     We are mass producers and mass consumers en mass. The freedom that the moral ideal of capitalism creates provides the possibility for us to turn this reality into something noble. This is why Warhol matters, despite Randian commentary to the contrary. For example, while Stephen Hicks is right to claim that when Warhol smirkingly said "Art? - Oh, that's a man's name" Warhol was announcing the end of art, Hicks is wrong to link Warhol's remark with the idea that art itself had reached a dead end and had become nothing. Hicks thinks that Pop Art was nothing more than a reductio ad absurdum of modernism, and that Warhol was cynically clever enough to acknowledge it with a smirking whimper (while bringing home as much bacon as possible while there was still time - celebrity portraits as cash cow wallpaper).
     Art is always something. The question is not whether art ended with Warhol, but rather what conception of art ended. With a bang Warhol introduced a new conception of art, one that nicely fit into a capitalist context: good art is good business.  

Andy Silk-Screens Ayn 


        Hicks disparagingly asks: "When has art in the twentieth century said anything encouraging about human relations, about mankind's potential for dignity, and courage, about the sheer positive passion of being in the world?" I decidingly answer that Warhol did precisely that by making the artist's life an aesthetically repetitive product. This is an issue that artists and their critics need to confront now, especially those critics and dealers who are, as Hicks rightly says, "capable of recognizing the original artist's achievement and who have the entrepreneurial courage to promote that work." Not only is Warhol's work still worth promoting, but also a philosophy of art that provides the rational basis for the reason why. Rand's rational aesthetics does precisely that, and Warhol's art is as rational as it gets.
     The evidence seems to suggest that Warhol's use of the term 'man' was said in the same way that Rand used it when she made the distinction between 'men' and 'man' and claimed that she was less interested in the former and completely interested in the latter. She was interested in the concept of man, the "ideal man" as she puts it (Roark as role model). In this sense Rand is a conceptual artist who used literature to selectively re-create reality according to her metaphysical value-judgements. To therefore speak of 'Art' as a man's name is a way for Andy to make a conceptual claim about the artistic significance of a man's life. Wayne Koestenbaum notes an entry from one of Andy's notebooks from the late 1960s in which he entertained the idea of "GALLERY LIVE PEOPLE" - "an exhibition in which people were the art." Real people as ideal products. This is in line with what Rand meant when she wrote: "I am a Romantic in the sense that I present men as they ought to be. I am Realistic in the sense that I place them here and now and on this earth." 
     Great art, in short, embodies a tension between the real and the ideal. It is an instance of serious generosityA great work of art is generous enough (realistic enough) to remind you that it is a masterful re-creation of the only reality we know of, but serious enough (romantic enough) to demand something of you. The demand is a volitional one: will you choose a noble life or a naturalistic one in light of the art that creatively confronts you (for the artist, the critic, and the consumer alike)? Romantic Realism presents the ideal without sacrificing the real.
     It is easy, within this interpretive context, to conceive of Andy's work as the worst form of naturalistic art imaginable (Hicks certainly does). All he accomplished was to remind us of our naturalistic surroundings, thereby fating us to our own consumptive compulsions. We are nothing but the product of our products. This interpretation is based upon a misconception. The misconception is to miss the conception behind Andy's work. His work conceptually clears away any and all naturalistic constraints by giving us the freedom to realize that all of us can be artistic in any way that we choose. That is the upshot of conceiving of commercial art as fine art. In fact, even this interpretation of Warhol's work is a product of the freedom that his work produces through his own selective re-creation of reality. Nobility is artistically open to anyone who acts upon the moral ideal which capitalism produces: "The moral justification of capitalism lies in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man's rational nature, that it protects man's survival qua man, and that its ruling principle is: justice."
     What I am suggesting here is that the best philosophy of art for those engaged in the the best kind of art (business) is found within the pages of The Romantic Manifesto. The art world would be better served if art critics not only adopted this rational philosophy as the basis for their aesthetic work, but further investigated the systematic connections between art and its commerce. We do ourselves a disservice by leaving artistic analysis up to the irrationality of emotion (and the inevitable art-speak jargon that results). The best that can be said of publications like ARTFORUM, therefore, is they they are an excuse for words to sell a product (Thornton is right).
     Where does this leave the art critic? It turns the critic into an artist. Romantic art criticism is a volitional art form in its own right, especially when it rightly draws lines connecting the artist and the industrialist. To speak of the "art of the deal" (as Horowitz does) is to acknowledge the capitalist context that makes "bringing home the bacon" a Baconian concern (Koestenbaum's "commonism" over communism within the creative commons). Capitalism's monied deal is the only moral ideal because it provides the freedom for veritable volition to take place. By uniting capitalism and art together in the way that Warhol did, and the way that Rand wrote about, art criticism is best understood and practiced as a form of commodity PRomotion. Promoting art is dealing art. And dealing art is as commercially fine as it gets (consider Leo Castelli). Rand wore a $ broach. Warhol painted $ signs. Andy Silk-Screens Ayn? This too is a commercial for the moral ideal of Romantic Capitalism.
ARTFORUM International Magazine. New York, N.Y. September, 2012.
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