Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Introduction II: Lessons Learned

July 1979. The boy had been making marks on the paper, concentrating intently. The mother wondered at the shapes and complexity. Pretty elaborate for a three-year-old, she thought. “Gavin, what are you drawing?” she asked.

“Honesty,” he answered.

I was blown away. He didn't explain and I didn't pursue it. But I was impressed enough to save the drawing and note the date and conversation.

Is this art?  

There is no doubt that “honesty” is fundamental, worthy of artistic endeavor. There is also no doubt that honesty can be found in the world, although not in a visible, concrete form (devoid of narrative). Is the child to be faulted for lack of skill or for trying to conceive of honesty as something tangible, as something which could be made visibly real?  If an adult had done this so-called art, would we condemn it out of hand, not by saying it is bad art, but by claiming it is non-art, that the adult should “know better” what the child does not?  How could the definition of art depend on who made the work, or whether we understand it, so that for one we say, “That is a child’s art” and for the other we say, “That is not art at all?”

To most Objectivists (those who agree with the philosophy of Ayn Rand), Rand’s definition of art makes sense and is perfectly fine. Rand stands alone among philosophers for the depth, breadth, precision and originality of her thinking. Her commitment to reality as an absolute and reason as the human method of survival are without equal. Her essays on the role of art in cognition and the importance of art to the human psyche are landmarks.

I read Rand’s major work, Atlas Shrugged in 1966. The book changed my life, and I agreed with her ideas with one, significant exception – her definition of art. As an artist, it doesn’t work for me. It has taken me from 1966 until now to figure out why, and to have the courage to offer an alternative.

 In 2000, two independent art researchers revised Rand’s definition slightly.  Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s fundamental values.”[1]  This is an improvement, as most adults can understand the words “fundamental values” where only the readers of other of Rand’s writings would know what is meant by “metaphysical value judgments.”

Back to “Honesty”—I showed the image to my son, now thirty-four. He didn’t remember the drawing or the conversation. However, his immediate reaction offered a clue. “It looks like fingers,” he remarked. 

It’s funny how the mind works. After a night’s sleep, the mother in me woke up understanding the narrative precisely. There it is, for all to see: a child’s conception of two people’s hands, one of them illustrating a common expression, “He doesn’t have an honest bone in his body.”


[1] Torres, Louis and Michelle Marder Kamhi. What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand. Open Court Press. 2000. p. 108.

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