Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Throw Out Everything But the Kitschin' Sink

For what it's worth, Ayn Rand was a better philosopher than novelist. Rather than dress up her ideas in literary drag, her essays allowed her to drop the pretense of telling a story and instead tell the reader exactly what to think, no John Galt Potemkin middleman necessary. The Romantic Manifesto, a collection of essays laying out Rand's views on art and aesthetics, is perhaps her most interesting non-fiction writing, dealing as it does with these very distinctions (and thus highlighting her comical failure to adhere to them). It is of little use for evaluating art in general, but tremendously useful in evaluating Rand's art, a very particular breed indeed.

The first couple essays are devoted to the question of what art is. Rand defines it as "a selective recreation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments." It is man's way of making concrete abstract concepts that could not be fully articulated in words alone. For instance, The Fountainhead's Howard Roark communicates more clearly Rand's ideals than any discursive treatise could hope to. Art is a product of one's "psycho-epistemology," one of Rand's obnoxious coinages, which has to do with the interaction of conscious thought and unconscious, automatic functions. Art to Rand is a deliberate expression of an artist's "sense of life," his view of man's place in the universe. Thus, an ancient Greek sculptor depicts man as a god, while a medievalist depicts him as a deformed monster (never mind that Greek gods were merely anthropomorphic and far from virtuous, and their human heroes were racked with tragic flaws--these elisions are Rand's, not mine).

Rand hastens to add that while art is an expression and culmination of values, it is "not the means to any didactic end," which is pretty rich coming from the author who shoehorned into her magnum opus a 60-page speech describing in detail her unified theory of existence. Still, Rand's definition in itself is superficially agreeable. Most people consider their writing and art to be self-expression, and while few would call it a concretized abstraction in so many words, I'll grant it a fitting shoe.

But in Objectivist aesthetics, this general classification is not nearly enough. For there are meanings and implications, good and "malevolent," that derive from the various "senses of life," and woe unto those whose interests fall outside of Rand's acceptable and narrow artistic parameters. For her, art must be representative, uplifting, deliberate. Any departures are more or less morally treasonous. This is not an exaggeration:
If one saw, in real life, a beautiful woman wearing an exquisite evening gown, with a cold sore on her lips, the blemish would mean nothing but a minor affliction, and one would ignore it. 
But a painting of such a woman would be a corrupt, obscenely vicious attack on man, on beauty, on all values--and one would experience a feeling of immense disgust and indignation at the artist. (There are also those would feel something like approval and who would belong to the same moral category of the artist.)
The great dichotomy in Rand's aesthetics is Romanticism versus Naturalism, which she takes to be "the world as it should be" versus "the world as it is." The latter she considers mere journalism, and a concession to mediocrity and the belief of a "malevolent universe," as opposed with her own conception of man as a rational being in total command of and responsibility for his destiny. (She attacks the real Romantics of the 19th century for having ceded reason to the classicists they reacted against and looking to emotion for their celebration of man).

A very black-and-white conception it is, with austere limits on what qualifies as art, let alone good art. She is willing to concede some talent to a handful of Naturalists, such as Sinclair Lewis and John O'Hara, but otherwise most art and literature after Dostoevsky and Hugo is a wasteland. Anna Karenina is "the most evil book in serious literature." The "dots and dashes" Impressionists were silly barbarians who "attempted to disintegrate perception into sense data." Modernism is completely alien to her conception of art, and so she dismisses it as so much noise and scribbling. She blames it all on Immanuel Kant and his Critique of Judgment.

Rand hates easy, and much of the rest of the The Romantic Manifesto, including an introduction she wrote for Victor Hugo's Ninety-Three, functions as a screed against nearly all the art of her day. This includes the "Hindu dance"--which, she notes with unreconstructed racist scorn, "presents a man of flesh without skeleton...distort[ing] man's body, imparting to it the motions of a reptile"--and also includes collage: "Blades of grass glued on a sheet of paper to represent grass might be good occupational therapy for retarded children--though I doubt it--but it is not art."

Tell us how you really feel, Ayn:
The composite picture of man that emerges from the art of our time is the gigantic figure of an aborted embryo whose limbs suggest a vaguely anthropoid shape, who twists his upper extremity in a frantic quest for a light that cannot penetrate its empty sockets, who emits inarticulate sounds resembling snarls and moans, who crawls through a bloody muck, red froth dripping from his jaws, and struggles to throw the froth at his own non-existent face, who pauses periodically and, lifting the stumps of his arms, screams in abysmal terror at the universe at large.
It's worth pausing to note that this isn't an entirely inaccurate representation of certain specimens of modern art. Consider Francis Bacon's Painting:

It's certainly not beautiful or exalted, but neither was Britain in 1946. Art should engage the world, which was a very different place than it had been in the 19th century; to pretend otherwise would be grotesquery of an entirely worse and different sort. (Again, you see, the clashing emphases on "is" and "ought.") Rand never uses the phrase "degenerate art," but it's hard to imagine her disagreeing with the National Socialists' attacks on the modernists.

But I digress: if Romanticism is dead and everything is terrible, what is good? Among Rand's eclectic list of acceptable artists and works are Fritz Lang's Siegfried, Mickey Spillane novels, and Buck Rogers. Tap-dancing is her favorite style of dance, for its pure joyousness and absence of tragic gloom.

She also enjoys the TV show The Avengers, as detailed in the most revealing of the Manifesto's chapters, "Bootleg Romanticism." The essay seethes with indignation at the creators of the show, who intended it as a "tongue-in-cheek" spy thriller whose joke the audience didn't get. For Rand, this is intellectual malpractice. Thrillers are to her a kind of modern, commercial Romanticism that presents heroes who are willing to fight against an evil antagonist for a set of pre-determined values. They are to be inspirational--everybody wants to be James Bond, while nobody wants to be (say) Willy Loman. So when humor, a means of ridicule, is aimed at one's values, it is to make them ridiculous. To make James Bond self-deprecating would be "to destroy him" (it is for this reason she considers Dr. No to be superior to From Russia With Love).

The obvious point is that James Bond is simple escapism, but Rand has a rebuttal for that too. Romanticism and thrillers, she says, are escapes from the merely humdrum matters of "real-life," while Naturalism, in its 'surrender' to mediocrity and depravity, is the real escape, "from choice, from values, from responsibility."

Put aside for now the ugliness of Rand's anti-social value system--it is by now well-known and as such is less interesting than the scare quotes she throws around 'real-life.' She downplays to the point of irrelevance material issues like holding down a job, taking care of a family, or dealing with an illness in favor of abstract concerns like upholding values and principles. These are vital matters--people are rightly judged when they abdicate moral responsibility because it's the easy thing to do, such as Joe Paterno's tacit acceptance and shielding of Jerry Sandusky's child rape--but they are not the only concerns. Indeed, it's because practical matters are a person's first concern that moral dilemmas and compromise arise at all. Were we all purely ethical beings, there would be no dilemma, and no heroism.

More than anything, this is why Rand's prose rings so wooden and false. Because she sees humans as solely driven by their ideas and premises, even when they are abandoning them, she drains them of personality and attachment to material needs, and so they end up as speakers in a bland philosophical dialogue.

This she actually demonstrates at the end of the book with a short story, "The Simplest Thing in the World." It deals with a writer, Henry Dorn, who sits down with the intention of writing what he knows will be a crap commercial novel for the sole purpose of making money. Every scenario he tries out eventually spins itself off into something meaningful, and of course he can't have that. Eventually he puts his writing aside and opens up the Classifieds.

The artist selling his talent to the highest bidder is a familiar scenario to any pop culture observer, yet in Rand's hands it doesn't read plausibly at all:
Just be stupid, he said to himself. That's all. Just relax and be as stupid as you can be. Easy, isn't it? What are you scared of, you damn fool? You don't think you can be stupid, is that it? You're conceited, he said to himself angrily. That's the whole trouble with you. You're conceited as hell. So you can't be stupid, can you? You're just being stupid right now. You've been stupid about this thing all your life. Why can't you be stupid on order?
(The only way this doesn't sound stilted is if one imagines it being declaimed in a black-and-white movie, perhaps by an announcer or a New York gangster.)

The story is essentially Dorn trying to convince himself to write dreck, which gets things exactly backward. Hacks don't choose to be hacks--Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer are convinced of their own talent as much as Ayn Rand was--and those who do have talent to squander do so with considerations, usually financial, that trump artistic preciousness. Think of Nicholas Cage, who's acted in shitshows for over a decade to maintain his $30 million a year lifestyle, or Michael Caine, who famously said of Jaws: The Revenge, "I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.” Artists compromise their talent as a consequence of their (crappy) commercial work, not as a means to it. A slight distinction, 'tis, but a crucial one.

Actions determine values at least as much as values determine actions. Rand makes Dorn's situation implausible first by putting all weight on the ethical side of this divide and making Dorn a paragon of absolute integrity, and then doubly implausible by having him try to imitate the conscious sellouts that don't actually exist. It's a parody of a caricature. (The story dates back to 1940, but this criticism is characteristic of most of her work; it's why the characters, especially the villains, of The Fountainhead and, most especially, Atlas Shrugged, are such cartoonish monstrosities.)

There is a term for this frankly neurotic compulsion to see the world in such stark terms and to banish all unpleasantry and paradox: kitsch. Here it is, as famously defined by Milan Kundera:
The objection to shit is a metaphysical one. The daily defecation session is daily proof of the unacceptability of Creation. Either/or: either shit is acceptable (in which case don’t lock yourself in the bathroom) or we are created in an unacceptable manner.
It follows, then, that the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch… Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable to human existence.

Kundera was reacting to Communist Czechoslovakia. Hence his formulation that "The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a basis of kitsch." Replace "brotherhood" with "individuality" and you have Objectivist aesthetics in a nutshell. Soviet Communism shaped Ayn Rand to such a degree that she would be unrecognizable without it, so it should it is only logical that her artistic aesthetic should follow a similar track. The Soviets' manifesto memorably opened with the declaration that the spectre of Communism was haunting Europe. The Romantic Manifesto makes clear that Rand, too, was unable to give up the ghost.

No comments:

Post a Comment