(Originally appeared in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Spring 2001, v2n2)

With the recent publication of What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand, Lou Torres and Michele Marder Kamhi (2000) bid to open wider critical discussions of  Rand’s distinctive theory of art.  Naturally, such discussions may involve, in turn, critiques of Torres and Kamhi’s well-articulated views.  To draw you into one such discussion, I place before you four objects:

     An engineering drawing of a blast furnace

     A sketch by Michelangelo

     A paperback copy of The Fountainhead

     A paperback copy of The Virtue Of Selfishness

I ask you the kindergarten classification question: which of these things goes with the other?  The obvious answer, that the two drawings go together, and the two books go together, is very obvious indeed.  There is a less obvious answer, and this is the answer I wish to explore.  This answer asserts the Michelangelo sketch and the Rand novel belong together because they are both artworks.

As this example shows, the concept of artwork can pull together some rather unlike things, borrowing them out of their normal neighborhoods for special attention and honor. This borrowing is not the sort of extraction that occurred when biologists figured out that whales were mammals, yanking them out of the fish file folder and plopping them into the mammal file folder.  That extraction was in the nature of a correction, and involved the permanent removal of whales from the fish folder.  But when we group Rand’s novel and Michelangelo’s sketch under the classification of artwork, we do not erase their original classifications as book and drawing.  Those remain in place.

Several related concepts sail under the name of “art,” but the one we are discussing here is the one Rand (1975) was aiming to nail down when she wrote that:  “Art is a selective recreation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value judgments” (19).[1]  Here she was using a concept of art which crystallized during the Enlightenment, a concept that pulls together a strikingly diverse field of passionate disciplines  (Kristeller 1990, 164-165).  She lists the major branches of art as literature, painting, sculpture, music and architecture.  This list follows an established view.  Tolstoy, for example, presented the same basic list as the ordinary man’s answer to the question “What is art?” ([1896] 1960,  16) [2]

Just to be clear and distinct, particularly because I am going to be talking about Rand’s theory of art, I want to mention two other common concepts that sail under the name of “art,” both of which were occasionally used by Rand.  When she described logic as the “art of non-contradictory identification” (1961, 154), she was using art in the broad sense of subtle skill.  When she described Vermeer as “the greatest of all artists” (1975, 48), she was using art in the restricted sense of drawing and painting.

The kind of art we are talking about is described by Rand as “art in the esthetic-philosophical meaning of the term” (1975, 75).  I have seen it stuffily referred to as “art proper,” (Collingwood) and jocularly referred to as art “with a capital A” (Kristeller 1990, 164).  In older usage it was often referred to as a plural grouping, “the fine arts,”[3] a translation of the French phrase “beaux arts.”  However, “fine arts” is often used to refer exclusively to what Rand termed the “visual arts,” i.e., painting, sculpture and architecture (1975, 47).

In this essay I will explore what belongs in our concept of art.  I will discuss what sort of definition is needed to include those things, and only those things.  I will look at the concept’s boundaries, which are typically gradual and occupied by borderline cases.  I will look at why these boundaries are fought over so fiercely, and whether anything can be done to stop the fighting.  Finally I will ask whether we actually need the concept of art.  I will not cover these topics exhaustively; rather I will be focusing for the most part on apparent inconsistencies within Rand’s account of the five main branches of art, following the principle that an honest thinker’s inconsistencies are opportunities for growth. Contradictions lead to premise checking, and premise checking leads to deeper understanding.  My methodology will be informed throughout by two related points of the Objectivist theory of concepts:  First, that concepts and their definitions exist to serve  our cognitive needs.  Second, that the mere existence of borderline cases does not refute the validity of a concept or its definition.

When we generalize about such a diverse class of items as artworks, we are prone to an annoying sort of imprecision.  We naturally take some members of the class to be more typical than others, and it is these more typical examples that we tend to keep in mind when we characterize the class as a whole.  So we say, “Birds lay eggs but mammals bear live young.”  When we say this, we have omitted consideration of the spiny ant-eaters and the duck-billed platypus, which are indeed egg-laying mammals.  When this omission is brought to our attention, we might correctly reply that the omission was a small one, since the strange creatures mentioned are the only exceptions to the rule, and since they are isolated in a special sub-class: the monotreme order of mammals. 

In Rand’s account of the arts, architecture plays the part of the ungainly beast that has trouble fitting in.  She asserts that one of art’s distinguishing characteristics is that it serves no material end, (16) and that utilitarian objects cannot be classified as works of art. (74)   She defines art as being a kind of selective re-creation of reality.  But she issues a special exemption: “Architecture is in a class by itself, because it combines art with a utilitarian purpose and does not re-create reality” (46).

This situation is a bit stickier than our imprecise assertion that mammals don’t lay eggs, because Rand’s account involves defining characteristics.  The question that arises is: if architecture does not possess all the essential features of art, how can it be included as one of the five major branches of art?

I would suggest there are at least three plausible answers: 

1)  Architecture is not an art.[4]  It is merely like art in certain ways. Designing a building, after all, is more like designing a car than it is like painting a picture.  It’s best to draw the line between the imitative arts, which create representations of reality, and the decorative arts, which enhance the appearance of practical objects.

2)  Architecture does in fact re-create reality, in a very literal way, by completely re-creating one’s surroundings on a grand scale.  Speaking in evolutionary terms, it re-creates our landscape. (Ust 1995)[5]  Rand over-generalized  when she declared that being non-utilitarian was a distinguishing feature of art.  But she wisely did not include this in her definition, so her definition still holds.

3)  The definition needs be changed.  The distinguishing characteristics need to be re-thought.  A well-designed building provide a compelling experience of the architect’s sense of life.  Art is a manmade work created to provide an experience of the creator’s sense of life.[6]  As for other utilitarian purposes, their presence is not, by itself, disqualifying.  After all, wasn’t The Fountainhead partly designed as a “propaganda” novel? (Rand, 5 August 1994, in Rand 1995, 157-159).

These answers pivot on two key issues which we will proceed to examine in turn: the role of re-creation in the arts, and the problem of utilitarian function in the arts.

It may seem puzzling that Rand’s aesthetics encounters such a sticky spot on the topic of architecture, since she had spent a large portion of her life immersed in researching and writing The Fountainhead, a novel set in the world of architecture.  The novel is very much concerned with proper principles of building, and contains eloquent descriptions of a building’s power to convey meaning and feeling.[7]  However, upon completing The Fountainhead, she mostly left architecture behind her.  Her subsequent novel, Atlas Shrugged, contains merely a few suggestive architectural descriptions.  Her non-fiction writing on aesthetics contains only sparse references to architecture.  Of her major article on aesthetics, it was only in the last, “Art and Cognition,” that she addressed the topic of architecture directly, and even then she suggested that the reader consult the pages of The Fountainhead to obtain her views.

Up until the publication of “Art and Cognition,” she had similarly skipped discussing music in her articles on aesthetics, despite the fact that a composer had been one of the minor heroes of Atlas Shrugged, and that a description of one of his compositions had been prominently featured in the novel.  The first edition of The Romantic Manifesto, published prior to the appearance of “Art and Cognition,” contains almost no references to music.  Her characteristic examples in her earlier essays had been drawn from literature, painting and sculpture, arts in which the role of re-creation can easily be illustrated.

Architecture and music, of course, are the “hard cases” for mimetic theories of art, theories holding that art, at root, is some sort of re-creation of reality.  Architecture and music are typical counterexamples put forward by exponents of expressive theories of art, theories holding that art, at root, is some sort of emotional expression of the artist.  Rand’s account of art in effect denies that these are mutually exclusive alternatives, since she includes both sorts of feature in her account.

Facing these two hard cases, she summarily grants that architecture is a special exception that does not fit the “re-creation” model of art.  She then goes on to examine in some detail the “unanswered question” of how music makes us experience emotions.  She develops her own hypothesis, according to which the emotions are a byproduct of the process of hearing notes and mentally integrating them into melodies.  So that, for example, if your mind can correctly perceive a complex musical composition, it feels good about itself.

While spelling out her hypothesis, Rand (1975) makes no attempt to account for music in terms of “re-creation of reality,” but neither does she explicitly declare that music is not re-creative (46).[8]  She sees music as creating something radically new in the world, which echoes our early experience of mastering sense perception.  Such echoing might be taken as a kind of “re-creation,” but it would be a somewhat loose sense of the term, not the strict sense of offering a representation of the sorts of entities and actions we might encounter in the real world.

It might appear that music is also in danger of falling outside of Rand’s definition of art.[9] Torres and Kamhi attempt to rescue music from this fate, writing that music selectively recreates “vocal expression and the sonic effects of emotionally charged movement” (89).  It is hard to say what this means in plain language, but it seems to mean that music re-creates natural behaviors that are like song and dance.[10]  This is certainly an attenuated form of “re-creation”, similar to the sort of “re-creation” of landscape which architecture may be said to provide.  This attenuated “re-creation” does not square easily with Rand’s statement that “[a]s a re-creation of reality, a work of art has to be representational...” (Rand 1975, 75).[11]

Such forms of “re-creation” may be based upon facets of reality to which we have strong emotional responses, but they do not directly represent such phenomena.  Consider, for example, the difference between a painting of a woodland waterfall, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house.  Both works play on our natural responses to landscape, but the means by which they stir our emotions are quite different.  The painting represents a waterfall, the house harmonizes with a waterfall.

Whatever music is, it is not representational in a literal sense.  The Greeks, of course, classed it as an imitative art, since they saw it as imitating emotions.  But the relation between music and emotions does not seem to be one of direct resemblance, the way a painting resembles a visual scene.  There are indeed a variety of long documented points of correspondence between emotional expression in music and emotional expression in our minds, voices and bodies.  For example, sad music is generally slow music, and when people are sad they tend to think, speak and move slowly.[12]  There are also evolutionary and neurological arguments that human musical abilities are based upon the development of our speech abilities (Enright, 1995).

But after all the points of correspondence are exhausted, it is clear that there is a huge formal component to music that is far removed from any natural correlate in speech.  The system of scaled notes, which is the basis of harmony and melody, exhibits striking mathematical relationships that don’t seem to come into play in normal human speech.  It is hardly surprising that Rand, who regarded melody as the essential feature of music, was drawn to a mental-mathematical model of musical enjoyment.

It is this huge formal component with mathematical underpinnings that has long invited comparisons of music to architecture, including Schelling’s  declaration that architecture is frozen music, (1859] 1989, §106, 165-166),[13] which Rand echoes in The Fountainhead when she describes architecture as “music in stone” ([1943] 1968, 529).[14]  Torres and Kamhi object that these  are “flawed figures of speech... which ignore that the essence of music is melodic movement” (2000, 418).  Such a complaint simply misses the point of the comparison.  The whole point of a literary metaphor is to make a striking comparison between apparently unlike things.

If music and architecture are on opposite sides of the moving / unmoving distinction, they are nonetheless together on the same side of the representational / nonrepresentational distinction.  If we imagine these distinctions as creating a grid of possible combinations, we will find that Rand’s five main art forms, as traditionally practiced, fill all four corners, as seen in Figure 1.



Figure 1:



                     Moving           Motionless


Representational     Literature  |    Painting

                                 |    Sculpture


Non-                             |                               

Representational     Music       |    Architecture





It is worth noting that the “moving” art forms are those which evolve out of our sense of hearing.  Music must normally be heard to be appreciated[15], and literature can be heard.  Indeed, the niceties of literary style depend upon imagining a passage in the “mind’s ear,” whether or not the words are in fact read silently.  The “motionless” art forms are precisely the visual arts, and they function as “unmoving movers,” since they move our hearts from a position of stillness.

Torres and Kamhi (2000) correctly observe that “Those who hold that architecture is an art claim that esthetically designed buildings produce the same kind of pleasure as works of art do” (196).  Sherri Tracinski (2000, 9), in this vein, observes:


nearly everyone has had an experience when they walk into a building and they are suddenly hit with an emotional response, the same sudden reaction one feels when seeing a great work of art.  Most people know that great architecture is ‘speaking’ to them - that it is sending a profound message about the nature of man’s life.


Jonathan Hale (1994) seems to speak of a similar emotional experience, but offers a different realm of comparison: “A great building can give us the same exhilaration we experience in a natural landscape.” (5)

Torres and Kamhi are committed to the contrarian view that architecture does not commonly provide such an experience.  They declare, for instance, that “[w]ith few exceptions (most notably Gothic cathedrals)... the building as a whole is rarely experienced as an integrated esthetic entity....” (2000,196).  This is a telling sentence, because it concedes that at least some buildings are experienced as integrated aesthetic entities.  If Torres and Kamhi are simply maintaining that such architectural integrity is rare, they would be in agreement with Rand.  Her fictional hero, Howard Roark, holds that “a house can have integrity, just like a person, and just as seldom” (Rand [1943] 1968, 132).  But Torres and Kamhi see nonintegrated  buildings as normal.  Rand sees nonintegrated buildings as abnormal.  For her the prevalence of compromised buildings is an indictment of their particular architects, never an indictment of architecture itself.

Repeatedly, Torres and Kamhi stake out theoretical positions about architecture which are opposed to Rand’s views as put forth in The Fountainhead.  Disconcertingly, they do not even mention most of these points of opposition, and it is not clear whether they are aware of them.  Perhaps in holding that “a fictional treatment cannot take the place of a philosophic analysis” (2000, 189), they have been inclined to disregard the philosophic principles that she spells out in her fiction. 

Torres and Kamhi argue that “the architect is far less autonomous than the composer, painter, poet, or sculptor.  Typically he builds for others, not for himself”[U1]  (195).   They do not mention that in response to this line of thought, Rand provides her hero with one of his better known lines: “I don’t intend to build in order to have clients.  I intend to have clients in order to build” (Rand [1943] 1968, 14).   His success in doing exactly this constitutes much of The Fountainhead’s story line.

 Torres and Kamhi express puzzlement over Rand’s claim that architecture expresses “man’s values.”   Remarkably, they seem unable to find clear examples of such expression in their brief review of Roark’s buildings as described in The Fountainhead.  Because they quote only fragmentary phrases of Rand’s descriptions, the power of those descriptions is not allowed to shine through their disdain.  As their one-paragraph tour of Roark’s buildings winds down, they turn a corner and finish with a flourish: “Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the Stoddard Temple, the most ‘spiritual’ of Roark’s building... depends for its meaning on the figurative sculpture at its center” (2000, 197).  Perhaps this would be significant, if it were true.  As it stands, this is a fascinating misreading of the novel, because there is nothing in the novel indicating that the building depends for its meaning on the statue.[16]  The textual evidence is to the contrary.  When Gail Wynand asks, “Was the building worth the statue?,” Dominique replies: “The statue was almost worthy of the building” (Rand [1943] 1968, 451).

Torres and Kamhi approvingly quote Roger Scruton, who characterizes architecture as a “public art”, and who holds that “The expressive features of architecture are not, and cannot be, of [a] private kind" (2000, 70).  What does such a claim mean?  Consider a secluded private residence, and compare it to a statue in a public square.  In any normal sense, the statue in this case is the more public piece of art.  But something else seems to be meant by Scruton, namely that it’s literally impossible for an architect to express his own personality in his work, because architecture is always spiritually anonymous, just the way Ellsworth Toohey liked it.[17]  Perhaps the best way to answer this is with a single counterexample, the real life architect on whom Roark’s fictional building style was modeled: Frank Lloyd Wright.  As Jonathan Hale (1994) admiringly writes:  “Other architects often feel overwhelmed in Wright’s presence: the talent is too superior, the style too personal.  And it makes no compromises” (190).

Why are Torres and Kamhi so bent on eradicating architecture from the canonical fine arts?  Perhaps they don’t respond much to architecture.  Some people don’t, just as some people don’t care much for poetry.  But clearly there is more to it than that.  Perhaps they see architecture as the proverbial camel’s nose in the tent of the fine arts.  If something so “abstract” is let inside, doesn’t it open the way for non-objective painting and sculpture to barge their way in as well?  If something so utilitarian is allowed to slip through, doesn’t it open the way for women’s quilts and miscellaneous household objects to follow after?  What were people thinking when they included architecture in the elevated concept of Art?

Indeed, what could Rand have had in mind when she declared that architecture expresses man’s values? Tracinski (1998), an architect herself, puts it succinctly: “Architecture conveys a view of man indirectly, not by projecting an image of man himself, but by projecting the proper environment for man to live in” (10-11). This is an “idealized world” (11) which people can actually enter, and which can provide for its inhabitants a day-in day-out “underscoring and reaffirmation of one’s highest values” (22).

If architecture does not “re-create” reality in the sense of depicting some aspect of it, it nonetheless “re-creates” reality in the far more literal sense of re-building it around us, to suit our needs and senses.  When a building surrounds us and holds us in its power, the aesthetic impact can be profound (O’Gorman 1997, 7).  For many people such an experience is more intense than any they receive by staring at a picture on a canvas.  We have deep visceral responses to our environment in both its natural and man-made forms, and it is upon these deep feelings that architecture builds its effects.

Tracinski (2000) breaks new ground by arguing that the architect’s handling of the building’s utilitarian function is itself expressive of the architect’s sense of life, by embodying a view of  human needs, which are key aspects of human nature.   The building’s aesthetic impact is thus an integrative sum of the building’s structure, function and ornament.  The building’s beauty is not a quality that is tacked on; rather, the beauty is built in.

At this point it is fair to ask, what differentiates architecture from lesser design arts?  If we are to honor architecture as a major branch of art, then why not do the same for automobile design and dress design?  I think the answer has partly to do with what Rand refers to as architecture’s “grand spatial scale” (1975, 46), and partly to do with the sheer range of expressive issues afforded by a human habitation. Beautifully designed dresses and cars do display aesthetic qualities and do make implied statements about what is appropriate to human beings, but they don’t deliver the overwhelming force that architecture can provide.  The line drawn between architecture and the lesser design arts is a bit like the line between blue and green: they shade into each other, but there is a perceived difference nonetheless.  Architecture is a design art, but is selected from among the design arts for elevation into the concept of high art.

Within the Objectivist aesthetics, the issue of utilitarian function invites reassessment.  On the one hand Rand says that one of the distinguishing marks of a work of art “is that it serves no practical, material end...”(16)  On the other hand she says that architecture “combines art with a utilitarian purpose (46).  Moreover, the logical difficulties extend beyond the issue of architecture.  Consider this sentence:

The commercial art work in ads (or posters or postage stamps) is frequently done by real artists and has greater esthetic value than many paintings, but utilitarian objects cannot be classified as works of art. (74) 


This raises the question: if a postage stamp can’t be classified as art, how can it possibly have more aesthetic value than a painting?  How can Rand describe non-art objects as having “esthetic value” when she defines aesthetics as “the study of art”? (1982, 4).

Curiously, while Rand asserts (off and on) that utilitarian function clashes with artistic import, she never presents an explicit argument in favor of this thesis, and generally treats it in a relatively off the cuff manner, as a given that seems to require strange qualifications.  I would suggest that it was an inherited premise for her, that she did not get around to thoroughly checking.  However, I believe there is a valid point underlying the premise.

In some authors the traditional version of the anti-utilitarian premise can sound like a version of the mind-body split.  Utilitarian functions are seen as bodily weight pulling down the free flight of the spirit that is art.  The element of truth here is that a painter who has the assignment of painting a postage stamp, is somewhat constrained as compared to a painter who can paint whatever he likes.  We might expect, and experience would confirm, that the unconstrained painter will be better able to express his own sense of life.  Nonetheless, there will be exceptions, of various kinds.

One exception from the strictures against utilitarian function has always been made for murals, such as Leonardo’s Last Supper.  No one seems to have doubted whether Michelangelo’s ceiling painting in the Sistine Chapel truly qualified as art, despite the fact that obvious external constraints, not really of the artist’s choosing, were present, and despite the fact that he was painting a ceiling.  Of course, walls and ceilings share in the grand spatial scale of architecture, which tends to make them rather more powerful than postage stamps.

It is instructive to consider Rand’s literary strictures concerning didacticism,  which may be seen as a kind of utilitarian function, albeit one devoted to ideological rather than material purposes.  Rand stresses that the intellectual enlightenment of her readers was not her primary concern.  The reason she has to stress this, of course, is the fact that her novels are remarkably heavy on explicit philosophizing, and readers understandably perceive her novels to be rather didactic.

Art is not the means to any didactic end” (1975, 22), she insists in italics.  But on the same page she writes that art’s “basic purpose is not to educate”, suggesting that it might at times be a serious secondary purpose, a formulation which has the advantage of better fitting her own literary practice.  Indeed this formulation better fits a great deal of literature, from Aeschylus to Dostoyevsky.  Her considered view seems to be that a didactic purpose, when present, needs to be subservient to the work’s overall goal of expressing its theme, with care taken not to overload the structure of the work with irrelevant discussions of ideas (162 , 84-85).

In sum, the positive and negative role of utilitarian function plays out very differently in various art forms.  In architecture, it’s an essential means.  In painting and sculpture, it’s mostly a hazard.  In literature, it can be either helpful or harmful.  In music, as in marches or social dance music, it’s simply a genre, somewhat limiting, but not usually seen as disqualifying.  In Rand’s theory of art, the experience of aesthetic exaltation is simultaneously seen as being of vital practical value, as providing psychological fuel for daily existence.  Unlike approaches that take the essence of art to be total freedom from all normal concerns, Rand’s approach is of this earth.  Such an approach has room for utilitarian function when it does not undermine the art form’s basic technique.

As regards the re-creation of reality, two senses need to be distinguished.  Literature, painting and sculpture are directly representative, describing or depicting entities and their actions or attributes.  We recognize the core content of these arts as portraying elements of external reality.  The same is not true for music and architecture, both of which present us with new objects of experience, which seem to work by means other than simulated portrayals of external reality.

Nonetheless, all of these arts provide us with the overwhelming experience of entering into a world created by the artist.  They all create an experiential microcosm based on the artist’s sense of life.  In this sense, as Roger Bissell has tirelessly argued, all of the major art forms truly re-create reality.[18]  Rand’s definition of art, then, continues to hold, particularly as a definition for the layman, who focuses on art as a recipient, and who attends primarily to the effects achieved by art.

It may be that from a technical point of view, from the perspective of the producer, who attends more to the means by which the arts achieve their effects, we would be better served by something along the lines of: a manmade work created to provide an experience of the creator’s sense of life.[19]  The difference might roughly correspond to the difference between Aristotle’s definition of man as rational animal (which Rand saw as a definition appropriate to the layman) as compared to contemporary biology’s definition of man as a certain kind of primate (which Rand saw as perfectly appropriate for biologists) (Rand 1990, 233-235).

If we remove “re-creation” from our definition of art, it might appear that we lose the ability to suppor the following argument of Rand;s (2000, 10):  “Take a nonobjective painter.  He creates some blobs of paint and proclaims that they are an expression of his subconscious….  What does his work have in common with real art, which by definition represents recognizable physical objects?  Only that it hangs on a wall.”  However, if we define painting suitably, we can still make much the same argument: “What does his work have in common with real painting, which by definition represents recognizable objects?”

Such dismissal by definition, of course, only carries weight when your listener is inclined to agree with the definition.  But what justifies such a definition?  It cannot be justified simply from the fact that it is soundly based on the traditional, pictorial, way of painting.  I think the answer is that nonobjective painting communicates about as much as “the decorative arts” communicate, and that they don’t communicate nearly as much as a pictorial painting.[20]  After all, as regards elements of communication, a picture contains the same elements of form that a design does, elements such composition, balance, color harmony, and so forth.  But the picture operates on the representational level as well, giving it that much more impact.[21]

Nonetheless, I think that abstract designs can resonate with a person’s sense of life.  Rand does not address this question directly, but she does address the related but more limited question of whether the design element of color can resonate with a person’s sense of life.  In fact, she touches on this question at least twice, with apparently conflicting results.

On the one hand she argues that color harmony  “conveys nothing beyond  the awareness of pleasant or unpleasant relationships,” explaining that such pleasantness is “a sensory experience and is determined primarily by physiological causes” (75).  But note her use of the word “primarily” which indicates she thinks there are other causes as well.  For, on the other hand, in describing how a person’s sense of life is formed, Rand maintains that a person of high self esteem will have a positive emotional response to “pure colors” whereas a person of low self esteem will feel emotionally at ease with “muddy colors” (27).

The apparent conflict may be resolved by granting that color elements do carry some sense-of-life associations, that these are minor compared to the impact which a painting can provide, but that they are real nonetheless.  Some observers are very sensitive to such abstract design elements.  Consider, for example, Richard Speer (1999), for example, who writes about the straight-line based designs and bright primary colors of Mondrian, praising them in Randian terms as signifying the psycho-epistemology of a logical mind.  My take is that Speer is very sensitive to abstract designs, as some people are, and that he does have a strong sense-of-life response to Mondrian.  After all, if you talk to people who make their living in graphic arts or industrial design, you find many who wax enthusiastic over the emotional impact of various designs.

The Objectivist aesthetics does not have a problem with abstract designs when they are simply offered as designs.  The problem arises when abstract designs are offered as equivalent to pictorial paintings, when it is contended that Mondrian’s abstract work is just another kind of “painting,” and that it should be classified as being basically the same sort of work as Michelangelo’s paintings.  What is deeply objectionable is precisely this putting forth of the lower as equivalent to the higher, this leveling of values, accompanied by a foggy array of justifications for why this represents progress. 

With the concept of art we isolate, for study and honor, the highest forms of human self-expression, the forms that best allow an individual to communicate a felt sense of what really matters in life.  The boundaries of the concept are well populated with borderline cases, namely all the forms that are somewhat less effective but which share various elements of expression with high art.  In honoring the highest, it is important that we not dishonor forms of expression that have their own valued place in human life.

Forms such as painting and music are sufficiently unlike each other that one might wonder whether it was a mistake to form this concept of art in the first place.  Should they have been left as a grouping, as the fine arts, rather than being consolidated into a single concept of art? 

Going back to our analogy of animal classification schemes, it can seem at times that the fine arts are yanked from their normal backgrounds in something like the way that the grouping of “flying animals” is yanked from their respective biological orders.  How much do flying insects, birds, bats and pterosaurs really have in common?  They have wings in common, but it is noteworthy that we don’t have a single word for all these winged things.  We get by with a descriptive phrase rather than a unified concept.  Do we really need a single word “art,” then, to refer to the fine arts?

I think we do.  The wings of dragonflies and the wings of robins evolved separately, in distinct forms of life.  But the fine arts sprung forth as the creation of a single species, namely ours, with an essential unity of purpose.  This underlying unity is what makes possible the “combination works” in which various art forms function together as one.  It is this unity that makes it possible for us to form the concept of art.  It is our critical and peculiar need of art that makes it important for us to form the concept, since knowing our needs is the first step to filling them.









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[1] This sentence appears verbatim on 19, 33, 45, 99.  Italicized on 19, which is chronologically first in the original publishing sequence of the chapters.  Cited by Peikoff (1991) as “Rand’s definition” (417).

[2] Tolstoy uses the term “poetry”, in one of its older senses, for which Rand uses the term “literature.”  Kristeller (1990) presents the same list as Tolstoy, with the comment: “These five constitute the irreducible nucleus of the modern system of the arts, on which all writers and thinkers seem to agree” (164-165).

[3] This is the preferred usage of Torres and Kamhi 2000.

[4] This view is put forward by Torres and Kamhi (1992b), who appear to have been the first to discuss this problem in print, while critiquing the views of architect John Gillis, as expressed in Reedstrom 1992.  Their view, that architecture was not a fine art and was not thought by Rand to be a fine art, was in turn critiqued by Gillis (1992).

[5] Also independently urged upon me in discussion by Marsha Enright.

[6] A definition somewhat along these lines was suggested to me in conversation by conductor and composer Douglas Wagoner, in July 1999, in connection with issues having to do with music.  His definition in turn was based on a revision proposed by Ronald Merrill (1990, 126).  Fred Stitt, of the San Francisco Institute of Architecture,  indicated in conversation in July 2000 that he usually modifies Rand’s definition by substituting “expression” rather than “recreation of reality” in order to make the definition better fit architecture.

[7] Rand’s  description of Stoddard Temple, is a good example ([1943] 1968, 343).

[8] After saying how literature, painting and sculpture re-create reality, and before saying that architecture does not, Rand declares that music employs sounds to evoke emotions.  She does not indicate whether this employment of sounds constitutes reality re-creation.

[9] As Merrill (1990, 125) puts it, “[I]f one accepts Ayn Rand’s

definition of art, it is not clear how music can qualify.”  The issue was also raised by Torres and Kamhi (1992a, 4).

[10]McGath (2000) provides a detailed discussion of problems with this claim: “The emulation of vocal expression and movement are the means, not the subject, of a piece of  music.  The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is agitated music, but it isn’t a depiction of movement charged with agitation.”

[11] She goes on to assert that representational elements such as “little human figures or landscapes or flowers”  are “a detriment in the decorative arts” (Rand 1975, 75).

[12] For early discussions of such points of correspondence, see Smith ([1795]1982, 197)  and Spencer (1857, 310-314).

[13]The assertion that architecture is frozen music is variously attributed to Schelling, Goethe, and Schlegel.  Torres and Kamhi refer it to Goethe.  Schelling seems to have the best claim for being first to say it, and putting it forth most systematically, in lectures of 1804-5, later published as Philosophy of Art ([1859] 1989).   For Goethe, see  Eckermann’s ([1836-8] 1930) entry for March 23, 1829.  Schlegel’s claim is based solely on Hegel’s citing him as the author of the remark, See Hegel [1838] 1975, v. 2, 662.

[14]Looking at the words leading up to this phrase helps to bring out Rand’s ([1943] 1968) perception of the link between the two arts:  “...he thought there was a common language of thought, sight and sound - was it mathematics? - the discipline of reason - music was mathematics - and architecture was music in stone...”  (Rand [1943] 1968, 529).

[15]Highly trained musicians can imaginatively appreciate a work of music simply by reading the score.  The classic example is Beethoven’s composing of the Ninth Symphony after he had gone deaf.

[16]They footnote their claim, but the note points to nothing in particular to suggest the building’s meaning depends on the statue’s.  Roark does say of the statue, “The place is built around it” (Rand [1943] 1968, 341), which is literally true, but one sentence later he tells the prospective sculptor “If you understand the building, you understand what the figure must be.”  Rand’s picture is clearly one of independently powerful works, harmoniously integrated.

[17] “He said that architecture was truly the greatest of the arts, because it was anonymous, as all greatness” (Rand, [1943] 1968, 9).  Toohey is of course the intellectual villain of the novel.

[18] See Bissell 1999, for some details of his long campaign in favor of the term “microcosm.”  He discusses non-Objectivist sources of his own usage (78).  Peikoff also refers to art as microcosm (1991, 417).

[19]The phrase “manmade work” may be taken as a colloquial equivalent to “artifact” in the sense put forward by Dipert 1993 which includes both objects and performances.  Aestheticians in the analytic tradition generally lean toward the term “artifact” as naming the basic sort of thing an artwork is (Davies, 1991, 120-121).

[20]Merrill (1991, 125) makes an argument somewhat along these lines.


[21]Rand (1975, 75) says something like this in regard to color harmonies.

  Abstract:  John Enright examines difficulties in Rand’s concept of art, particularly in light of fundamental issues raised about architecture by Torres and Kamhi in their book, What Art Is.  Neither architecture nor music presents a “re-creation” in the narrow sense of the term.  Rand insists at times that art cannot involve utilitarian function, but elsewhere sees such functions as compatible with aesthetic effect.  Enright argues for the aesthetic power of architecture.  In evaluating an alternative definition of art, he views the concept as invaluable to our understanding of a profound human need. 

Biography: John Enright, email:, a poet and computer consultant, has written and lectured on many aspects of the aesthetics of poetry.  His essays have appeared in Objectivity, Full Context, Objectively Speaking and Nomos.  He is the author of Starbound And Other Poems (Axton).