Reply to Ust
Letter written in response to Dan Ust's article in Issue 34.
I would like to comment on several points made by Dan Ust in his article, "Romanticism: Beyond Rand."
Mr. Ust is correct in pointing out that Romanticism emerged as a reaction to Classicism, which emphasized perfect order an aesthetic of "cold" reason as opposed to the passions. Much Classical art was essentially an exercise in aesthetic technique, without the crucial addition of intense passion, drama, or projection of what could be. The Romantics responded by reversing the hierarchy, making emotions and passion paramount. Thus, much Romantic art emphasizes unbridled nature, tumult and chaos, and the individual artist as conduit of near-divine powers. Both Classicism and Romanticism accepted a reason/emotion dichotomy, and this, I hold, is the reason for both period's limitations.
But Rand never claimed to be simply a Romantic and this is crucial to understanding her aesthetic theory. Rand took the best of both Classicism and Romanticism, the areas where the schools got it right, and, as was her way, transcended an apparent dichotomy. Understanding the importance of passion and the depiction of moral ideals, she took from Romanticism the importance of drama, human volition, and projection of what could and should be. However, she also understood that emotions are only valuable when based in reality, that the supremacy of reason is central to a moral ideal, and that happiness and fulfillment are to be found on this earth. Thus, she accepted the Classical celebration of reason and harmonious beauty. Rand proclaimed herself a Romantic Realist. She rejected irrational Romanticism per se as much as she rejected Naturalism, a modern offshoot of Classicism.
Rand was correct to advocate Romantic Realism, as there should be no dichotomy between reason and passion. As evidence, consider that most of the greatest works of art in history those that display high technical mastery also reach a broad audience, and have a quality (historically), that today's modern abstract "art" shall never achieve: popular appeal. The reason for this is not that such art is "easy" or appeals to the lowest common denominator, but that such art effectively communicates and the means of this communication is passion. Think of Beethoven, Puccini, Chopin, or Rachmaninoff. Think of Michelangelo, da Vinci, or Rodin. Consider also many of the best recent films, such as Braveheart, Schindler's List, or Dead Poet's Society. These works are great because they require the rationality of their audience. They succeed because they convey the passion most people are so thirsty for.
This is not to say that a work of art is great because it is popular, but that great art should be accessible, otherwise it is not communicating anything it is not doing its job as art.
In considering much art that is popular today, I disagree with Mr. Ust in condemning Objectivists for looking to the past for greatness. While great art is produced today, it is rare, and confined largely to the medium of film. Here, we have examples such as Braveheart, which the intellectual elite snub as being "commercial," i.e., popular the virtue of passion I describe above. However, consider the the mind-numbing minimalism of "serious" music today; the spatters, meaninglessness, and visual vomit of today's paintings; or the plotless anti-heroics of most "serious" literature. Objectivists look to the past because in this century, the culture has been in steep decline, and it is reflected in art.
Certainly, other periods had much bad art, but it was still art. The equivalent today is the art of popular culture, which is simplistic almost to the point of primitivism. By its nature, it will not last and it is not meant to. However, the so-called serious "art" produced in our time is qualitatively different from any other period. It is self-consciously meaningless and anti-conceptual, and thus, it is more than bad art it is anti-art.
Given this, most great art is to be found in the past, just as the society closest to true laissez-faire existed more than a century ago. This does not negate the great potential of the future. From time to time, an artist today produces a shining example of what art should be that which reflects the best in man. Of course, we should cherish these examples. Even more importantly, as Mr. Ust points out, the artists among us should be producing more of them. Otherwise, modern vomit wins by default.
If you enjoyed this, why not subscribe?