Daniel Ust
Daniel Ust

Romanticism -- Beyond Rand

Ayn Rand's philosophy of art, like much of her thought, is full of insights garbed in a polemical robe. It's hard to imagine her contemplating anything without drawing up battle lines. She often saw the importance of taking sides and about as often over-emphasised this importance. This is at once her strength and her weakness.

Reason, Freedom — And Art by Michael Koziarski is an instance of this approach. (I'm guilty of this too.) He not only takes sides, but adapts a typical radical three-step approach to history : the past was good, the present is evil, the future may go either way dependent on our returning to the good past or forsaking it for the evil present. The result of the former will be a new Jerusalem; the latter, our destruction like Sodom and Gomorra. This does not mean he is wrong, but it should be a warning sign.

The Romantic Period in the arts which too many Objectivists laud set the foundations for what came after. It is the Romantic breaking with tradition which led to more experimentation and, eventually, experimentation for experimentation's sake.

Surely, we need not accept every aspect of any movement, but the experimental aspect of Romanticism was not a side issue. By attacking tradition, Romanticism paved the way for its downfall in much the way that free markets do not establish final resting points. Instead, they make for an ever changing series of producers and consumers, of products and services.

Also, Romanticism arose out of earlier movements in a way that is often ignored by Objectivists. Largely, it was a reaction to Classicism, but not of Classicism as such but instead of Classicism as a tired, worn out mechanical shell. (For a different view of Classicism, see Kenyon Cox's The Classic Point of View and my Interesting Parallels: Kenyon Cox and Ayn Rand on Art in Full Context, January 1995.)

Even more strangely, Romanticism owes much to the Gothic movement in literature. Gothicism influenced Romantic literature directly and other arts during that same period indirectly. Poets like Coleridge (e.g., Christobel) and Blake show a direct link to Gothicism, as do fiction writers like E.T.A. Hoffman. In painting, we can see the same. How many Romantic paintings (e.g., those of Friedrich) are of old ruins — the places where most Gothic tales take place? The influence on music reveals itself directly in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique both in its inspiration and its use of dissonance to yield up to eerie themes. Not all Romantic music owes a debt to Radcliffe, Walpole (author of The Castle of Otranto, claimed by many to be the first Gothic novel), and the like, but enough does to make us pause.

Nor should music be reduced literature. Care should be taken when making analogies between heroic themes in literature and in music. It should also be taken when good art is reduced to heroic art. Much good art, as others have pointed out, is not heroic. A lot of it is tangential to the whole issue of heroism in art.

For example, Wordsworth's poem The Daffodils is not heroic by any sense of the word. It's subject is about the author recalling how jolly daffodils looked in the wind. Is this, since it lacks a reference to heroes and human choices, evil or inferior?

Much of the art that the Nazis supported and some of them created was heroic. Witness Leni Riefenstahl's films. They also adopted wholesale much of Romantic art, e.g., Wagner's operas. This should not be surprising given that nationalism and irrationalism were both important threads in Romanticism. Romanticism did not, sad to say, have the political influence Koziarski wants it to have. The democratic and classical liberal revolutions started and find their fount in the preceding century — whose art was Classic not Romantic. (The US capitol was modelled on Greco-Roman architecture — not Gothic revival or Medieval ruins.) At best, what can be said is that Romanticism sprung up with the democratic and social revolutions preceding and during the 19th century.

Returning to music, to equate good music with Romanticism is to dismiss most good music, from Bach to Impressionism to Jazz to Rock. It also ignores those who cross genres, such as Faure, whose piano work has elements of Romanticism, Classicism, and Impressionism. Or Arvo Part, who has reintroduced tonality into modern music. This applies to others arts as well.

A problem here is that while good art gets produced much of it gets ignored for several reasons. One is that such art is not always as sensational as the more experimental and often bad works that have high shock value. Another is the cliche about famous artists being dead ones. Look at Vincent van Gogh. Likewise, what is now thought by many to be great work will probably be forgotten in a decade. How many people remember what was considered the best song or the best film for 1989?

Still another is that most approach art with an axe to grind. Sadly, many Objectivists wield their axes and don't use their eyes and ears to spot the good stuff being made now. I've whined elsewhere about the tendency toward negativism (i.e., what is is bad) and nostalgia (i.e., the good is what was) in the Objectivist movement. This is not healthy and leads to the movement being ingrown and backward looking. (Need I mention that too many Objectivists tend to be conservative in dress, voting practices, and, heck, overall lifestyle?)

Finally, there is the astounding creativity of modern civilisation. This century brought about the bloodiest wars and the most brutal dictatorships, but it has also outdone all previous centuries in the amount of almost everything else, especially art. Even with the growing — if more slowly now — welfare states, the shackles have been thrown off. To be sure, plenty of this art is garbage, but the difference between now and a century ago (which produced its garbage) is that we have access to so much of it, garbage or no, and it's much easier to add to that abundance of works, whether in music, poetry, film, etc. The focus should be, then, not on crying about the sad state of the culture, but in seeking out the good stuff — and producing more of it (if you have such talents coupled with the yearning to do so). The future belongs to those who build it.

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