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The Purpose of Art

By Thomas M. Miovas, Jr.



In The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand shows that the purpose of art is to concretize an abstraction – to make an idea real in material form. * This is necessitated by man’s means of cognition, that ideas can be vague and uncertain, unless one has a very clear grasp of the facts organized in the right way (according to objective principles). Even an idea that is close to the perceptually self-evident – like the concept “apple” – can be difficult to keep in mind without a specific memory of a particular apple. What the artist does is to take his concept of the apple and puts it onto canvas by presenting the perceptual concretes that make it possible to identify the object as an apple (i.e. a red skin and a roundish shape, and reflective highlights, etc.). By doing this, he makes the idea real on canvas.

The better the artist the better the skill at rendering ideas onto canvas; and one of my favorite paintings is “Pygmalion and Galatea” by Gerome. In this one painting, he captures the story of Pygmalion, who rejected women in favor of his work, until he created a statue of the perfect woman and fell in love with it. According to legend, Aphrodite saw the statue, greatly admired its beauty, and made it into a real woman for Pygmalion to love and to admire. Gerome captures all of this in his painting, making the event real in terms of specific concretes presented on canvas.

I think the theme of Gerome’s painting is an artist falling in love with the perfect woman whom he helped to create; and this is the general theme of several plays and movies based on the original idea of the Greek legend.


* But to have objective art -- art based on the nature of existence and on man's nature and on observations about existence and man's place in it -- the meaning must be rather clear on the perceptually self-evident level; and it must be explicit to qualify as good art. This doesn't mean that there cannot be hidden or implied meanings in a work of art, but the meaning must conveyed by the components of the art. The whole point of art, according to "Art and Cognition" in The Romantic Manifesto is a concretization of an abstraction -- of having a means of reducing an idea to the perceptually self-evident, since observation is our means of grasping existence. "Reducing" here is taken from Dr. Leonard Peikoff's courses on Objectivism, and means tracing the conceptual roots of an idea through its hierarchy and getting down to the perceptually grasped base of the idea -- what it is founded upon in reality. Good art is a means of doing this; and that is its purpose.

Regarding the objective criteria of the arts that Ayn Rand presents, the term "objective" has its roots in the term object -- a thing or an entity, that which we are aware of when we observe existence (entities, their attributes, and their actions). And since man is aware of existence in terms of objects, objectivity must also be in terms of objects to be reduced to the perceptually self-evident (factual evidence). For the visual arts (painting, plays, movies, poetry, literature, etc.) and tactual arts (primarily sculpture and possibly architecture in terms of shape and texture), Ayn Rand was quite clear that the art form / rendition must be in terms of objects to present an idea on the perceptually self-evident level.


Note: In a certain sense, I would say that Ayn Rand's two most famous novels -- "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged" -- are Pygmalion and Galatea stories, in that Howard Roark was specifically an artist who had to be very patient with Dominique as she transitioned from a malevolent sense of life to a more positive one under his influence; and John Galt had to wait until Dagny caught up with him philosophically (after hearing his famous speech) before he could fully permit himself to be in love with her. It's not so much that these primary male characters "made their women" (they were both self-made women), but rather that under their influence and guidance they became more rational and consistent value pursuers overall, and hence more worthy of their heroic men.


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