Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"What Art Is" Two by Matthew Scherfenberg

Ayn Rand, the author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead and the subject of two recent biographies, was both a literary artist and a philosopher. Defining art as "a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments," she was a champion of a heroic view of man and a keen critic of nihilism, obscurantism and the dilapidated edifice of modern art. She wrote a collection of essays on aesthetics, The Romantic Manifesto as well as producing lectures on writing which also deal with aesthetics and cognition which were edited and published posthumously as The Art of Fiction and The Art of Non-Fiction. These three works provide a unique look into the nature of art, mind and communication. There is also a valuable in depth and critical collection of essays on Rand's aesthetic ideas entitled What Art Is by Louis Torres & Michelle Marder Kamhi.

Rand explained that "Man’s profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. It tells man, in effect, which aspects of his experience are to be regarded as essential, significant, important. In this sense, art teaches man how to use his consciousness. It conditions or stylizes man’s consciousness by conveying to him a certain way of looking at existence." (“Art and Cognition,” The Romantic Manifesto, p 45)

Rand considered painting, literature, dance, music and architecture to be high art, but she excluded photography. Her inclusion of architecture as high art has been controversial since, except perhaps for monument building, it is inherently utilitarian. Her exclusion of photography has been challenged as ignoring the fact that it is not at all limited only to utilitarian, rather than strictly contemplative. She writes:

"A certain type of confusion about the relationship between scientific discoveries and art, leads to a frequently asked question: Is photography an art? The answer is: No. It is a technical, not a creative, skill. Art requires a selective re-creation. A camera cannot perform the basic task of painting: a visual conceptualization, i.e., the creation of a concrete in terms of abstract essentials. The selection of camera angles, lighting or lenses is merely a selection of the means to reproduce various aspects of the given, i.e., of an existing concrete. There is an artistic element in some photographs, which is the result of such selectivity as the photographer can exercise, and some of them can be very beautiful—but the same artistic element (purposeful selectivity) is present in many utilitarian products: in the better kinds of furniture, dress design, automobiles, packaging, etc. 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." (“Art and Cognition,” The Romantic Manifesto, p 74.)

While I do understand Rand's point, it seems just a bit too much of a reach to exclude all photography from consideration as high art. You may be familiar with the black and white nature photography of Ansel Adams or the work of the photographer husband of Virginia O'Keefe, Alfred Stieglitz. (In the middle of the page is his "Snapshhot: Paris.") I think looking at the two modern color photographs reproduced here by the photographer Matthew Scherfenberg say more about the selective and non-utilitarian nature of art photography that any thousand words can.

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