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Beyond Romanticism... or why form matters

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Korthor
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As someone who has done a great deal of reading literature and aesthetic theory, I’ve always found Rand’s definition of aesthetics lacking…. Not wrong per se, but definitely inadequate. In particular, I think she neglects the issue of “form.”

I think that this is partially due to her literary upbringing: her experience of Western literature seems confined to the nineteenth century… which is not at all unusual for someone growing up in Soviet Russia in the early twentieth century. She injects herself into a great nineteenth century debate between realism (for purposes of this thread, I’ll treat naturalism as an extreme form of realism, even though “naturalism” was Rand’s preferred term) and romanticism. Her arguments for the moral superiority of romanticism over realism are cogent, but what about the twentieth century? What about modernism? Some Objectivists might dismiss modernism as a degenerative naturalism, but I hardly think that’s fair. For example, take the greatest writer of the twentieth century, James Joyce. His quarrel with realism was that it was not realistic enough… it had a tendency to artificially truncate the range of human experience. Thus, he felt the need to create a novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man which creates both

A) a rebellion against the realist conventions of narrative and storytelling: it begins with

“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named tuckoo…”

:lol: a “romantic” hero named Stephen Dedalus who declares “Non Servium” when faced with the intellectual tyranny of the Catholic Church (thus recapitulating the rebellion of the great romantic poets Blake and Byron).

A few years later Joyce writes Ulysses, a novel that pushes realism to its extremes by including scenes of defecation, masturbation, adultery, and perverse sexual fantasy. And yet no Objectivist could justly label it with the scarlet letter of naturalism: it is a novel that values the freedom, heroism, vibrancy, and generosity of the human spirit above all else—precisely by telling the story of a cuckolded bourgeois Jew walking through the streets of Dublin.

I believe that the kernel of these contradictions lie in the issue of “form,” a word you won’t find in Rand’s vocabulary even though she was writing during the hayday of American “New Criticism,” a critical movement that would be later characterized, celebrated, and dismissed for its profound formalism.

Interestingly, the greatest insights into the issue of form came from a collection of writers called Russian Formalists, a group rising immediately after the Bolshevik revolution who were later suppressed by the Communists in favor of “socialist realism.” The thrust of their arguments were anything but collectivist: they were primarily concerned with the capacity of art to regenerate individualist insight by invoking the “rebellion” of experience itself against the norms society seeks to impose upon it. We become accustomed to the everyday-ness of things; just as we don’t intensely scrutinize the streets signs on the way home from the office, so “Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war” (Shklovsky). The solution for Shklovsky is “defamiliarization,” the power of art to make familiar things strange again by reworking experience in literary form. If we turn the pages of a novel too quickly, that is perhaps an indicator that it is only confirming our view of how language or the world works. Good art is hard art, precisely because it reworks the meaning of experience rather than taking it as a given. In a strange way, this process combines and surpasses (a… gasp… Hegelian… would say sublimates) the aesthetic impulses of realism and romanticism.

A) Art should represent what humans experience. (Realism)

B) Art should make humans experience more than they normally experience, given that “normal” experience involves a tendency to conformity due to socialization: art must rebel against the status quo. (Romanticism)

Thus, Joyce appeals to the power of human experience precisely by his refusal to let it be limited by the literary forms the circumscribed that experience in his day.

In a way, my emphasis on “form” is a demand that aesthetics take some cognizance of its derivation from epistemology, rather than simply morality (although of course morality is dependent on epistemology). After all, the Greek etymology of aesthetics goes back to perception/sensation.

And yet formalism constitutes an inadequate yardstick for art. There are “great” modernist novels, such as Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, which use the excellence of their literary form to portray a completely depraved human experience. Thus, judgment of art must require an evaluation of both its epistemological (i.e., formalist) and moral (i.e., Romantic) components.

Otherwise, one would be led to the conclusion that Terry Goodkind (a contemporary Objectivist fantasy writer who self-consciously follows a Romanticist literary agenda) is greater than James Joyce (a writer who also celebrates the human spirit, but in a more conflicted and complicated manner). If the moral is practical, then the aesthetic must be artistic… Although I like the Romantic fantasy genre (in particular, Goodkind’s novels), to claim that they are greater than Joyce is to commit oneself to an indefensible absurdity.

Coda: In an ironic twist worthy of Kafka, Rand’s doctrine of “Romanticism=art” parrots the Stalinist ideology of “socialist realism.” According to the Communists, art should be valued according to its ability in to portray individuals embodying socialist ideals: it wanted heroes… but heroes for the Revolution. This stifling doctrine (which required banning most of the great art of the twentieth century) parallels Rand’s demand that art portray individual heroism. The fact that she praises Victor Hugo (a socialist) leads one to suspect that she would have praised “socialist realism” for its elevated portrayal of the human spirit (albeit for Socialist ideology). I’m not suggesting that Rand was a Stalinist at heart, but rather that on-face her doctrine provides not way of distinguishing derivative Soviet kitsch from great Western art. This in turn leads to a provocative question:

Art involves metaphysics, epistemology, morality, and politics: why is morality the only yardstick we must use?

The purpose of this post is neither to induce artistic relativism, nor to dismiss the importance of morality. Rather, I’m suggesting we just need more tools to evaluate artistic worth than those with which Rand provides us. Just because Rand had a great mind for philosophy does not mean that she adequately worked out all of its implications.

P.S. I wish to reiterate the demand inspiring this essay: if the moral is the practical, then the aesthetic must be the artistic. Great art must possess great formal qualities.

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Rand supports "Romantic Realism" so your entire critique is flawed from the start. Although you explicitly state that art relies on epistemology you dismiss psycho-epistemology as if she never wrote about it. Did you get your info on her aesthetics from wikipedia? I suggest you re-read The Romantic Manifesto, and although it doesn't "seek to re-invent how you experience," i.e. it speaks to you in plain english, try to go slow and read ALL of it, CAREFULLY.

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The "Romantic Manifesto" has been suggested. The other book one might read is "The Art of Fiction".

You are misrepresenting Rand's view of art. If you do have either of those books, it would be nice if you could present some references, so that others can show you what aspect you've misunderstood.

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I have read those works, although they aren't in front of me right now. If her discussion of "psych-epistemology" elucidates literary form, I'm willing to stand corrected. Would you explain or direct me to a particular reference.

Finally, the point of my post wasn't to "disprove" Rand, but to supplement her, so please don't insult me. Yes she talks about "Romantic realism," but she doesn't mean "realism" in the sense of the divide of realism v. naturalism in nineteenth century literature. Realists WERE explicitly writing AGAINST romanticists: just read the essays of Henry James or Mark Twain's "Cooper's Literary Offenses" precisely for the reasons Rand saw a distinction between naturalism and romanticism... the realists though the need to emphasize the heroic nature of man did not represent him as he really was (they also had other objections to the "unrealistic" nature of romanticism). I think my argument that thet "naturalism" is an offshot of the realist literary movement is a sound one (it could even be backed up by a quick cruise to wikipedia... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naturalism_%28literature%29), although really it was an introductory remark to get to the issues of modernism and form.

More imporanantly, neither of your posts addresses my central point: we must make room for "form" in a comprehensive aesthetics. I'm willing to admis that Ms. Rand has already done so if someone can point me to an a propos quote.

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You're right that she uses the word "form" (my off-hand remark wasn't literally true), but not in these sense that I am calling for, and her discussion of "style" in "The Art of Fiction" could do with some be supplemented with the insights of "formalism." If someone would give me a passage that confirms, refutes, of interacts with my argument in someway, I would find it thrilling: please don't just tell me take two Rand books and call me in the morning.

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(Although I hate speaking for other people) she meant "realism" in the formal sense, with romantic as the qualifier. Realism as it pertains to how certain aspects of reality are re-created, and romanticism as to how those aspects are selectively chosen in order to portray the artist's sense of life.

You fail to realize that including scenes of defecation and masturbation does say something "morally." Just as including a cold sore on the painting of the face of a figure representing beauty has moral connotations.

As to this:

"Good art is hard art, precisely because it reworks the meaning of experience rather than taking it as a given."

"they were primarily concerned with the capacity of art to regenerate individualist insight by invoking the “rebellion” of experience itself against the norms society seeks to impose upon it."

Societal norms are man-made, the nature of human consciousness and how it perceives is metaphysically given. Being an individual does not mean attempting to do away with the identity of your consciousness.

Good art will work along with the way man percieves, bad art will try to flout it.

{edit} I do not mean to imply any moral evaluation of defecation or masturbation per se.

Edited by IAmMetaphysical
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Kothor,

Forgive me as this is a very brief reply and I don't have a lot of time to go into details. I must hasten to add that these thought are my own and I do not consider them to be derived from Objectivism. I speak soley as an artist.

Form is very important to an artist as he creates his artwork, but I think in emphasizing formalism you are confusing the means with the ends. Form is important but only as a means to the esthetic end. In other words, the form expresses the 'what'. In literature, the what is the theme as it integrates with the plot. The nature of both the theme and the plot determine the best literary form in which to integrate and present the plot-theme. In music, the composer is trying to convey specific emotions. (Please don't bother me about atonal, pantonal, serialism, minimalism, or aleatory forms of composition as I don't consider those to be valid genres of music.) In order to do exactly that, he must identify the fundamental theme(s) that can capture what he wants to express. The form of his piece is determined by the principle theme(s) itself. This ranges from the number of movements all the way down to phrase structure. Everything is determined by the development of the principle idea. Thus form is subserveant to function in well constructed art.

If you have read The Fountainhead, you will find that Howard Roark fights a great deal against the prevailing classicism that was prevalent in architecture during the first half of the 20th century (when the book's events take place.) Classicism by it's very nature emphasises form over function. Roark's buildings represent form integrated with function. Even the novel itself is a good example of this principle. The theme of the novel (individualism) is thoroughly expressed through the progression of the events in the book as represented in Roark's struggle against the prevailing standards of his profession, in Peter Keating's inevitable downfall as he tries to be everything to everyone, and Toohey's failure to form and rule a collective mob.

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Thank you IamMetaphysical and Pianoman83 for your thoughtful responses. IamMetaphysical says

“You fail to realize that including scenes of defecation and masturbation does say something "morally." Just as including a cold sore on the painting of the face of a figure representing beauty has moral connotations.”

I agree that author who wrote in the “realist” fashion “Leopold Bloom took a shit” would be as ugly as a cold sore on the mouth of David. However, I would argue that this is NOT because defecation is ugly, but because his deliberate vulgarity confirmed our experience that defecation is ugly. It would be indulging an objectionable moral impulse because of the way it seemed to imply that “Man is at heart reducible to his ugliest bodily function.”

Why is defecation ugly? Can a painter integrate a cold sore into his portrayal in such a way that it becomes beautiful? Although taking a quick passage out of “Ulysses” is risking charges of incomprehensibility, I will nevertheless give you an example of a “beautiful” portrayal of defecation

“Asquat on the cuckstool he folded out his paper, turning its pages over on his bared knees. Something new an easy. No great hurry. Keep it a bit. Our prize titbit: Matcham’s Masterstroke. Written by Mr Phlip Beaufoy, Playgoer’s Club, London. Payment at the rate of one guinea a column has been made to the writer. Three and a half. Three pounds three. Three pounds, thirteen and six.

Quietly he read, restraining himself, the first column and, yielding but resisting, began the second. Midway, his last resistance yielding, he allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly as he read, reading still patiently that slight constipation of yesterday quite gone. Hope it’s not too big bring on piles again. No, just right. So Ah! Costive. One tabloid of cascara sagrada. Life must be so. It did not move or touch him but it was something quick and neat. Print anything now. Silly season. He read, seated calm above his own rising smell. Neat certainly. Matcham often think of the masterstroke by which he won the laughing witch who now. Begins and ends morally. Hand in hand. Smart. He glanced back through what he had read and, while feeling his water flow quietly, he envied kindly Mr Beaufoy who had written it and received payment of three pounds, thirteen and six.” (Ulysses 4: 500-517)

Joyce’s “moral” message is NOT “Man is at heart reducible to his ugliest bodily function.” It is the opposite one: “Human experience is beautiful, even during it ugliest bodily function.” The very fact that you say, “I do not mean to imply any moral evaluation of defecation or masturbation per se” validates my argument: one cannot make a “moral evaluation of defecation of masturbation per se”: one can only make a moral evaluation of the way the artist treats his subject matter, which requires an evaluation of form.

Additionally IamMetaphysical says: “Societal norms are man-made, the nature of human consciousness and how it perceives is metaphysically given. Being an individual does not mean attempting to do away with the identity of your consciousness.

Good art will work along with the way man percieves, bad art will try to flout it.”

This passage strikes at the heart of the matter. Should art “flout” the “metaphysically given” way we perceive the world? Imagine two people.

First a busy advertising executive (such as the protagonist of North by Northwest). He is rushing through downtown New York, intent on his schedule and not on the beauty of the city around him.

Second, imagine a twelve year old from Iowa on his first trip to Manhattan: he is awestruck by the beauty of the city around him.

Whose experience would you rather have? Neither one is “metaphysically given”: they just reflect different conditioning. But since humans are volitional, we’ve created this wonderful thing called “art” which might allow us to recapture the wonder of the 12 year old by making the familiar strange to us again. If the words on a page are like the streets of New York to the advertising exec, then art is not doing all it can do. Skyscrapers are beautiful... so is human language… art should remind us of this fact.

To Pianoman83, I think you’re right to suggest that a pure formalism would confuse the means and ends of art. I am trying to work out the “how” of the “means” of great art. Why is Shakespeare beautiful? I don’t think a moral evaluation of the message behind the work provides all of the answer, although it might be part of the answer.

Why is Classicism ugly in “The Fountainhead”? It is NOT because Classic forms are ugly. Was the Parthenon ugly? Was Venus de Milo ugly? No, it is because Classicism refuses to allow Roark to innovate on the level of form. It turns form into a repetitive function as boring as a slab of concrete. Great art must make things strange again. When looking at Roark’s building, one is moved to say: “Wow! I didn’t realize we could make a building that way!”: that requires an excellence of form.

Thanks for the debate! I value the thoughtful conversation available on this forum. Forgive the barrage of posts… I’m just excited about this debate.

.

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Rand did not suggest using morality as the means to evaluate art. She specifically criticized propaganda-pieces. An unconvincing novel where the hero said all the right things and acted morally would be bad art by Rand's terms.

It's a common misconception that Rand demanded that art portray heroism. She wrote of heroes, and that's what she wanted to do: she gave herself the mission of portraying the ideal man. However, when she defined her type of art as "Romanticism", she did not define it as art that portrays man as being heroic. In fact, she included Dostoevsky in the category. She considered that sub-type to be inadequate (we have another thread here where that is discussed), but Romantic nevertheless.

Further, Rand did consider Naturalism to be art.

Rand also wrote at length about style and what makes for good and poor style. She thought that style was extremely important.

As for why art should attempt to jar people out of the customary blurring of everyday things, I don't see any explanation in your posts. Do you mean that the reader should be left with the feeling of "oh! how wonderful my everday life really is!" or something like that?

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Art should make humans experience more than they normally experience... art must rebel against the status quo.
You said a lot of things I'd take issue with, but this is probably the most contentious. I don't think the purpose of art is necessarily to show us something unexperienced, but rather to show us something ideal. Big, big, big difference.

To claim that [Romantic fantasy authors] are greater than Joyce is to commit oneself to an indefensible absurdity.
Not unlike claiming Joyce to be the greatest writer of the 20th century?

Although taking a quick passage out of “Ulysses” is risking charges of incomprehensibility, I will nevertheless give you an example of a “beautiful” portrayal of defecation...
I'm afraid that passage only reaffirmed our disagreement on the purpose of art (and my disdain for Joyce). Before reading that I'd certainly never experienced a day in the beautiful life of a turd. The passage indeed rebels against the status quo. But doesn't the excerpt come across to you as rather pointless?
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First, I would like to clarify that the goal of my posts in not to prove that Rand was wrong: I would be intrigued if someone were to point me to a passage that anticipated the arguments that I’m making. Rather, I’m trying to discuss why “form” should have a more prominent role in a comprehensive aesthetic system.

Yes Rand wrote about “style,” so why bring up “form”? Why this nifty new word? Primarily, I did so to highlight the insights of Russian Formalism.

The word “style” is often understood in an instrumental fashion... as a means to achieving other literary values. In particular, this notion of style emphasizes the need for it to convey compelling characterization, a well-developed narrative, or a well-integrated work. Rand valued this kind of style, and it is a particularly good standard for evaluating the strength of a nineteenth century novel (e.g., Romantic Realism). I’m not saying that this notion of style is unimportant… just that it’s not all that there is. “Style” can be more than a road to get you to the Shang Ri La of good story-telling… for some writers (e.g., Chaucer, Shakespeare, Blake) it can also be the palace.

Good art inspires admiration and awe…but how does it do so? I suggested the Russian Formalist notion of “defamiliarization” can provide one way of talking about this process. The idea isn’t to make the “everyday life” seem wonderful (to answer SoftwareNerd’s question), but rather to allow the reader to experience the “world” (e.g., language, morality, human character, Schlovsky’s “fear of war,” or indeed even “everyday life”) differently. Good art stays in your head, sometimes even screws with your head.

I emphasized the distinction between epistemology and morality in an earlier post because I want to describe art as an epistemological process—i.e., about a transformation of perception/sensation. I find discussion of aesthetics among some Objectivists frustrating because they tend to pull out a Romanticism-o-meter when evaluating art. Is this art Romantic Realism or naturalism? Well, let’s look at the moral values reflected in the work and find out… The problem with this approach is that it that it is a crude instrument for evaluating artistic worth. In particular, it attempts to jump straight to questions of morality, while I would argue that aesthetics is primarily an epistemological discipline (although the epistemological transformation achieve has definite moral implications… i.e., it creates value).

I think this distinction comes out in hunterrose’s comment “I don't think the purpose of art is necessarily to show us something unexperienced, but rather to show us something ideal. Big, big, big difference.”

Is there? Showing the “unexperienced” and showing the “ideal” are hardly mutually exclusive (especially since seeing the “ideal” is a departure from normal experience… I don’t have my ceiling painted like the Sistine Chapel). More importantly, I would say that the demand that art show the ideal puts the cart before the horse. How do we know the “ideal”? It is easy to see why David is beautiful, but how do we evaluate the “ideal” in a novel? We can’t just look and see if it portrays the “ideal”… this leads to the fallacy of the Romanticism-o-meter. Rather, we must asks ourselves whether or not the work resonating with the ideals inside of us. I’m suggesting that the sense of (epistemological) wonder produced by “defamiliarization” is one way of evaluating whether or not art creates that (moral) resonance.

P.S. I think the question of whether Joyce has artistic merit would deserve its own thread, and I certainly didn’t think that one quick passage would convince any skeptics. I brought him up because I thought he was a case where the concept of “defamiliarization” can be shown to have value. Rand had a preference for “clear” writing… hence the “realism” in Romantic Realism. In Romantic Realism, the formal strengths lie in characterization (e.g., Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights), plot (e.g., the complexity of the revenge scheme in The Count of Monte Cristo), or theme (the morally tortured souls of Dostoevsky’s protagonists). But those aren’t the only kinds of formal excellence… I find others in some modernist novels as well, even if hunterrose and Rand don’t.

Why read an intentionally difficult novel? You could ask hunters why they spend days stalking and killing animals when they could just run to the supermarket for their meat. Why put together a jigsaw together when you can already see what the picture looks like on the box? The discipline required by hard art makes the aesthetic value one gets out of it all the more rewarding.

Thanks for reading and responding!

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I find discussion of aesthetics among some Objectivists frustrating because they tend to pull out a Romanticism-o-meter when evaluating art.
Fair observation. There are good reasons why people fall into such an error. Also, many a time the view is being presented as personal taste, not as aesthetic judgement. Going into more would require it's own thread. For our purposes, when we're referring to Objectivist aesthetics, we should base it on published Objectivist material. To that end, here's a quote from Rand:
Since art is a philosophical composite, it is not a contradiction to say: "This is a great work of art, but I don't like it, "

The word “style” is often understood in an instrumental fashion... as a means to achieving other literary values. In particular, this notion of style emphasizes the need for it to convey compelling characterization, a well-developed narrative, or a well-integrated work.
Style is more than a mere vehicle. In her "Art of Fiction" lectures, Rand spoke of two major aspects to style. One is the selection of words. This appears to be the type of style you're thinking of. The second aspect she spoke of was the selection of content. This second appears to be closer to the "form" of which you speak.

Good art inspires admiration and awe…but how does it do so? I suggested the Russian Formalist notion of “defamiliarization” can provide one way of talking about this process. The idea isn’t to make the “everyday life” seem wonderful (to answer SoftwareNerd’s question), but rather to allow the reader to experience the “world” (e.g., language, morality, human character, Schlovsky’s “fear of war,” or indeed even “everyday life”) differently. Good art stays in your head, sometimes even screws with your head. (emphasis added)
Why, though? I can understand it if you say that you like art of that type, but you do not explain why that should be a universal by which others should evaluate the aesthetics of a work.
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  • 1 year later...
In music, the composer is trying to convey specific emotions.

In composing his "Art of the Fugue", I seriously doubt Bach's primary (or secondary or tertiary) concern was conveying specific emotions. The same can be said for numerous other works by him and other masters of Western art music.

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*If anyone is interested in continuing this discussion on music, we should start a new thread since this is off topic.

arete1952, You are right about Bach's concern of not conveying specific emotions. Throughout his life he served as church organist and choir director in Leipzig (and other places), as well as a private instructor to his own children. Thus, most of his compositions were written for religious or instructional purposes. Composers generally did not begin thinking of themselves as artists until the end of the Classical period when the traditional systems of patronage ended. Beethoven was one of the first artists to break free from the patronage system (in addition to beginning Romanticism in music).

However, that is irrelevant as I was speaking about myself as a composer. I thought the first few lines of my post made it clear that I was speaking solely as an artist. I don't speak for Bach or any other composer.

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Great art must possess great formal qualities.

Exactly.

Thanks for your posts Korthor, and your concern for what is arguably the most important facet of art: FORM...it is a facet that seems to be almost ignored in the various art/music/literature threads on this site.

Speaking of the one art which I know best, Western art music, it can be argued that its greatest achievement has been the development of large-scale forms...a more important facet than music's emotional "wallop" which seems to be of primary interest in these parts.

To quote Richard Halley:

"This is the payment I demand. Not many can afford it. I don't mean your enjoyment, I don't mean your emotion--emotions be damned!--I mean your understanding and the fact that your enjoyment was the same nature as mine, that it came from the same source: from your intelligence, from the conscious judgment of a mind able to judge my work by the standard of the same values went to write it--I mean, not the fact that you felt, but that you felt what I wished you to feel, not the fact that you admire my work, but that you admire it for the things I wished to be admired."

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