Chapter 1: The Psycho-Epistemology of Art
Art is the selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.
By the selective re-creation, art isolates and integrates those aspects of reality which represent man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. Out of the countless number of concretes – of single, disorganized and (seemingly) contradictory attributes, actions and entities – an artist isolates the things which he regards as metaphysically essential and integrates them into a single new concrete that represents an embodied abstraction.
For instance, consider two statues of man: one as a Greek god, the other as a deformed medieval monstrosity. Both are metaphysical estimates of man: both are projections of the artist’s view of man’s nature; both are concretized representations of the philosophy of their respective cultures.
Art is a concretization of metaphysics. Art brings man’s concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts.
This is the psycho-epistemological function of art and the reason of its importance in man’s life (and the crux of the Objectivist esthetics).
Just as language converts abstractions into the psycho-epistemological equivalent of concretes, into a manageable number of specific units – so art converts man’s metaphysical abstractions into the equivalent of concretes, into specific entities open to man’s direct perception. The claim that “art is a universal language” is not an empty metaphor, it is literally true – in the sense of the psycho-epistemological function performed by art.
Observe that in mankind’s history, art began as an adjunct (and, often, a monopoly) of religion. Religion was the primitive form of philosophy: it provided man with a comprehensive view of existence. Observe that the art of those primitive cultures was a concretization of their religion’s metaphysical and ethical abstractions.
The best illustration of the psycho-epistemological process involved in art can be given by one aspect of one particular art: by characterization in literature. Human character – with all of its innumerable potentialities, virtues, vices, inconsistencies, contradictions – is so complex that man is his own bewildering enigma. It is very difficult to isolate and integrate human traits even into purely cognitive abstractions and to bear them all in mind when seeking to understand the men one meets.
Now consider the figure of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt**. He is the concretization of an abstraction that covers an incalculable sum of observations and evaluations of an incalculable number of characteristics possessed by an incalculable number of men of a certain type. Lewis has isolated their essential traits and has integrated them into the concrete form of a single character – and when you say of someone, “He’s a Babbitt,” your appraisal includes, in a single judgment, the enormous total conveyed by that figure.
When we come to normative abstractions – to the task of defining moral principles and projecting what man ought to be – the psycho-epistemological process required is still harder. The task demands years of study – and the results are almost impossible to communicate without the assistance of art. An exhaustive philosophical treatise defining moral values, with a long list of virtues to be practiced, will not do it; it will not convey what an ideal man would be like and how he would act: no mind can deal with so immense a sum of abstractions. When I say “deal with” I mean retranslate all the abstractions into the perceptual concretes for which they stand – i.e., reconnect them to reality – and hold it all in the focus of one’s conscious awareness. There is no way to integrate such a sum without projecting an actual human figure – an integrated concretization that illuminates the theory and makes it intelligible.
Hence the sterile, uninspiring futility of a great many theoretical discussion of ethics, and the resentment which many people feel toward such discussions: moral principles remain in their minds as floating abstractions, offering them a goal they cannot grasp and demanding that they reshape their souls in its image, thus leaving them with a burden of undefinable moral guilt. Art is the indispensable medium for the communication of a moral ideal.
Observe that every religion has a mythology – a dramatized concretization of its moral code embodied in the figures of men who are its ultimate product. (The fact that some of these figures are more convincing than others depends on the comparative rationality or irrationality of the moral theory they exemplify.)
This does not mean that art is a substitute for philosophical thought: without a conceptual theory of ethics, an artist would not be able successfully to concretize an image of the ideal. But without the assistance of art, ethics remains in the position of theoretical engineering: art is the model-builder.
Many readers of The Fountainhead have told me that the character of Howard Roark*** helped them to make a decision when they faced a moral dilemma. They asked themselves: “What would Roark do in the situation?” – and, faster than their mind could identify the proper application of all the complex principles involved, the image of Roark gave them the answer. They sensed, almost instantly, what he would or would not do – and this helped them to isolate and to identify the reasons, the moral principles that would have guided him. Such is the psycho-epistemological function of a personified (concretized) human ideal.
It is important to stress, however, that even though moral values are inextricably involved in art, they are involved only as a consequence, not as a causal determinant: the primary focus of art is metaphysical, not ethical. Art is not the “handmaiden” of morality, its basic purpose is not to educate, to reform or to advocate anything. The concretization of a moral ideal is not a textbook on how to become one. The basic purpose of art is not to teach, but to show – to hold up to man a concretized image of his nature and his place in the universe.
Any metaphysical issue will necessarily have an enormous influence on man’s conduct and, therefore, on his ethics; and, since every art work has a theme, it will necessarily convey some conclusion, some “message,” to its audience. But that influence and that “message,” are only secondary consequences. Art is not the means to any didactic end. This is the difference between a work of art and a morality play or a propaganda poster. The greater a work of art, the more profoundly universal its theme. Art is not the means of literal transcription. This is the difference between a work of art and a news story or a photograph.
The place of ethics in any given work of art depends on the metaphysical views of the artist. If, consciously or subconsciously, an artist holds the premise that man possesses the power of volition, it will lead his work to a value orientation (to Romanticism). If he holds the premise that man’s fate is determined by forces beyond his control, it will lead his work to an anti-value orientation (to Naturalism). The philosophical and esthetic contradictions of determinism are irrelevant in this context, just as the truth or falsehood of an artist’s metaphysical views is irrelevant to the nature of art as such. An art work may project the values man is to seek and hold up to him the concretized vision of the life he is to achieve. Or it may assert that man’s efforts are futile and hold up to him the concretized vision of defeat and despair as his ultimate fate. In either case, the esthetic means – the psycho-epistemological processes involved – remain the same.
The existential consequences, of course, will differ. Amidst the incalculable number and complexity of choices that confront a man in his day-by-day existence, with the frequently bewildering torrent of events, with the alternation of successes and failures, of joys that seem too rare and suffering that lasts too long – he is often in danger of losing his perspective and the reality of his own convictions. Remember that abstractions as such do not exist: they are merely man’s epistemological method of perceiving that which exists – and that which exists is concrete. To acquire the full, persuasive, irresistible power of reality, man’s metaphysical abstractions have to confront him in the form of concretes – i.e., in the form of art.
They don’t. I do.
Consider the difference it would make if – in his need of philosophical guidance or confirmation or inspiration – man turns to the art of Ancient Greece or to the art of the Middle Ages. Reaching his mind and emotions simultaneously, with the combined impact of abstract thought and of immediate reality, one type of art tells him that disasters are transient, that grandeur, beauty, strength, self-confidence are his proper, natural state. The other tells him that happiness is transient and evil, that he is a distorted, impotent, miserable little sinner, pursued by leering gargoyles, crawling in terror on the brink of an eternal hell.
The consequences of both experiences are obvious – and history is their practical demonstration. It is not art alone that was responsible for the greatness or the horror of those two eras, but art as the voice of philosophy – of the particular philosophy that dominated those cultures.
As to the role of emotions in art and the subconscious mechanism that serves as the integrating factor both in artistic creation and in man’s response to art, they involve a psychological phenomenon which we call a sense of life. A sense of life is a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence. But this is a different, though corollary, subject (which I discuss in Chapters 2 and 3). The present subject is only the psycho-epistemological role of art.
A question raised at the start of this discussion should now be clear. The reason why art has such a profoundly personal significance for men is that art confirms or denies the efficacy of a man’s consciousness, according to whether an art work supports or negates his own fundamental view of reality.
Such is the meaning and the power of a medium which, today, is predominantly in the hands of practitioners who boastfully offer, as their credentials, the fact that they do not know what they are doing.
Let us take them at their word: they don’t. We do.
**Instead of Babbitt, I prefer to think of, say, King Theoden before he is exorcised of Saruman’s spirit by Gandalf. I have not read Sinclair Lewis, nor hear anyone talk of Babbitt.
***I remember my father complaining about the meanness of the souls around him, about the ease with which they give up their values, and then he would laugh and tell me not to be like them, but to be like Roark. He would balance the time he spent complaining about others with the time saying, ‘Be like Roark. Be like Roark.’ all the while smiling happily.