This essay was originally published in the March 1966 issue of The Objectivist and later anthologized in The Romantic Manifesto (1969 and 1971).
If one saw, in real life, a beautiful woman wearing an exquisite evening gown, with a cold sore on her lips, the blemish would mean nothing but a minor affliction, and one would ignore it.
But a painting of such a woman would be a corrupt, obscenely vicious attack on man, on beauty, on all values — and one would experience a feeling of immense disgust and indignation at the artist. (There are also those who would feel something like approval and who would belong to the same moral category as the artist.)
The emotional response to that painting would be instantaneous, much faster than the viewer’s mind could identify all the reasons involved. The psychological mechanism which produces that response (and which produced the painting) is a man’s sense of life.
(A sense of life is a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence.)
It is the artist’s sense of life that controls and integrates his work, directing the innumerable choices he has to make, from the choice of subject to the subtlest details of style. It is the viewer’s or reader’s sense of life that responds to a work of art by a complex, yet automatic reaction of acceptance and approval, or rejection and condemnation.
This does not mean that a sense of life is a valid criterion of esthetic merit, either for the artist or the viewer. A sense of life is not infallible. But a sense of life is the source of art, the psychological mechanism which enables man to create a realm such as art.
The emotion involved in art is not an emotion in the ordinary meaning of the term. It is experienced more as a “sense” or a “feel,” but it has two characteristics pertaining to emotions: it is automatically immediate and it has an intense, profoundly personal (yet undefined) value-meaning to the individual experiencing it. The value involved is life, and the words naming the emotion are: “This is what life means to me.”
Regardless of the nature or content of an artist’s metaphysical views, what an art work expresses, fundamentally, under all of its lesser aspects is: “This is life as I see it.” The essential meaning of a viewer’s or reader’s response, under all of its lesser elements, is: “This is (or is not) life as I see it.”
The psycho-epistemological process of communication between an artist and a viewer or reader goes as follows: the artist starts with a broad abstraction which he has to concretize, to bring into reality by means of the appropriate particulars; the viewer perceives the particulars, integrates them and grasps the abstraction from which they came, thus completing the circle. Speaking metaphorically, the creative process resembles a process of deduction; the viewing process resembles a process of induction.
This does not mean that communication is the primary purpose of an artist: his primary purpose is to bring his view of man and of existence into reality; but to be brought into reality, it has to be translated into objective (therefore, communicable) terms.
In [“The Psycho-Epistemology of Art”], I discussed why man needs art — why, as a being guided by conceptual knowledge, he needs the power to summon the long chain and complex total of his metaphysical concepts into his immediate conscious awareness. “He needs a comprehensive view of existence to integrate his values, to choose his goals, to plan his future, to maintain the unity and coherence of his life.” Man’s sense of life provides him with the integrated sum of his metaphysical abstractions; art concretizes them and allows him to perceive — to experience — their immediate reality.
The function of psychological integrations is to make certain connections automatic, so that they work as a unit and do not require a conscious process of thought every time they are evoked. (All learning consists of automatizing one’s knowledge in order to leave one’s mind free to pursue further knowledge.) There are many special or “cross-filed” chains of abstractions (of interconnected concepts) in man’s mind. Cognitive abstractions are the fundamental chain, on which all the others depend. Such chains are mental integrations, serving a special purpose and formed accordingly by a special criterion.
Cognitive abstractions are formed by the criterion of: what is essential? (epistemologically essential to distinguish one class of existents from all others). Normative abstractions are formed by the criterion of: what is good? Esthetic abstractions are formed by the criterion of: what is important?
An artist does not fake reality — he stylizes it. He selects those aspects of existence which he regards as metaphysically significant — and by isolating and stressing them, by omitting the insignificant and accidental, he presents his view of existence. His concepts are not divorced from the facts of reality — they are concepts which integrate the facts and his metaphysical evaluation of the facts. His selection constitutes his evaluation: everything included in a work of art — from theme to subject to brushstroke or adjective — acquires metaphysical significance by the mere fact of being included, of being important enough to include.
An artist (as, for instance, the sculptors of Ancient Greece) who presents man as a god-like figure is aware of the fact that men may be crippled or diseased or helpless; but he regards these conditions as accidental, as irrelevant to the essential nature of man — and he presents a figure embodying strength, beauty, intelligence, self-confidence, as man’s proper, natural state.
An artist (as, for instance, the sculptors of the Middle Ages) who presents man as a deformed monstrosity is aware of the fact that there are men who are healthy, happy or confident; but he regards these conditions as accidental or illusory, as irrelevant to man’s essential nature — and he presents a tortured figure embodying pain, ugliness, terror, as man’s proper, natural state.
Now consider the painting described at the start of this discussion. The cold sore on the lips of a beautiful woman, which would be insignificant in real life, acquires a monstrous metaphysical significance by virtue of being included in a painting. It declares that a woman’s beauty and her efforts to achieve glamor (the beautiful evening gown) are a futile illusion undercut by a seed of corruption which can mar and destroy them at any moment — that this is reality’s mockery of man — that all of man’s values and efforts are impotent against the power, not even of some great cataclysm, but of a miserable little physical infection.
The Naturalistic type of argument — to the effect that, in real life, a beautiful woman might get a cold sore — is irrelevant esthetically. Art is not concerned with actual occurrences or events as such, but with their metaphysical significance to man.
An indication of the metaphysical slant of art can be seen in the popular notion that a reader of fiction “identifies himself with” some character or characters of the story. “To identify with” is a colloquial designation for a process of abstraction: it means to observe a common element between the character and oneself, to draw an abstraction from the character’s problems and apply it to one’s own life. Subconsciously, without any knowledge of esthetic theory, but by virtue of the implicit nature of art, this is the way in which most people react to fiction and to all other forms of art.
This illustrates one important aspect of the difference between a real-life news story and a fiction story: a news story is a concrete from which one may or may not draw an abstraction, which one may or may not find relevant to one’s own life; a fiction story is an abstraction that claims universality, i.e., application to every human life, including one’s own. Hence one may be impersonal and indifferent in regard to a news story, even though it is real; and one feels an intensely personal emotion about a fiction story, even though it is invented. This emotion may be positive, when one finds the abstraction applicable to oneself — or resentfully negative, when one finds it inapplicable and inimical.
It is not journalistic information or scientific education or moral guidance that man seeks from a work of art (though these may be involved as secondary consequences), but the fulfillment of a more profound need: a confirmation of his view of existence — a confirmation, not in the sense of resolving cognitive doubts, but in the sense of permitting him to contemplate his abstractions outside his own mind, in the form of existential concretes.
Since man lives by reshaping his physical background to serve his purpose, since he must first define and then create his values — a rational man needs a concretized projection of these values, an image in whose likeness he will re-shape the world and himself. Art gives him that image; it gives him the experience of seeing the full, immediate, concrete reality of his distant goals.
Since a rational man’s ambition is unlimited, since his pursuit and achievement of values is a lifelong process — and the higher the values, the harder the struggle — he needs a moment, an hour or some period of time in which he can experience the sense of his completed task, the sense of living in a universe where his values have been successfully achieved. It is like a moment of rest, a moment to gain fuel to move farther. Art gives him that fuel; the pleasure of contemplating the objectified reality of one’s own sense of life is the pleasure of feeling what it would be like to live in one’s ideal world.
“The importance of that experience is not in what man learns from it, but in that he experiences it. The fuel is not a theoretical principle, not a didactic ‘message,’ but the life-giving fact of experiencing a moment of metaphysical joy — a moment of love for existence.” (See [“The Goal of My Writing”].)
The same principle applies to an irrational man, though in different terms, according to his different views and responses. For an irrational man, the concretized projection of his malevolent sense of life serves, not as fuel, and inspiration to move forward, but as permission to stand still: it declares that values are unattainable, that the struggle is futile, that fear, guilt, pain and failure are mankind’s predestined end — and that he couldn’t help it. Or, on a lower level of irrationality, the concretized projection of a malignant sense of life provides a man with an image of triumphant malice, of hatred for existence, of vengeance against life’s best exponents, of the defeat and destruction of all human values; his kind of art gives him a moment’s illusion that he is right — that evil is metaphysically potent.
Art is man’s metaphysical mirror; what a rational man seeks to see in that mirror is a salute; what an irrational man seeks to see is a justification — even if only a justification of his depravity, as a last convulsion of his betrayed self-esteem.
Between these two extremes, there lies the immense continuum of men of mixed premises — whose sense of life holds unresolved, precariously balanced or openly contradictory elements of reason and unreason — and works of art that reflect these mixtures. Since art is the product of philosophy (and mankind’s philosophy is tragically mixed), most of the world’s art, including some of its greatest examples, falls into this category.
The truth or falsehood of a given artist’s philosophy as such, is not an esthetic matter; it may affect a given viewer’s enjoyment of his work, but it does not negate its esthetic merit. Some sort of philosophical meaning, however, some implicit view of life, is a necessary element of a work of art. The absence of any metaphysical values whatever, i.e., a gray, uncommitted, passively indeterminate sense of life, results in a soul without fuel, motor or voice, and renders a man impotent in the field of art. Bad art is, predominantly, the product of imitation, of secondhand copying, not of creative expression.
Two distinct, but interrelated, elements of a work of art are the crucial means of projecting its sense of life: the subject and the style — what an artist chooses to present and how he presents it.
The subject of an art work expresses a view of man’s existence, while the style expresses a view of man’s consciousness. The subject reveals an artist’s metaphysics, the style reveals his psycho-epistemology.
The choice of subject declares what aspects of existence the artist regards as important — as worthy of being re-created and contemplated. He may choose to present heroic figures, as exponents of man’s nature — or he may choose statistical composites of the average, the undistinguished, the mediocre — he may choose crawling specimens of depravity. He may present the triumph of heroes, in fact or in spirit (Victor Hugo), or their struggle (Michelangelo), or their defeat (Shakespeare). He may present the folks next door: next door to palaces (Tolstoy), or to drugstores (Sinclair Lewis), or to kitchens (Vermeer), or to sewers (Zola). He may present monsters as objects of moral denunciation (Dostoevsky), or as objects of terror (Goya) — or he may demand sympathy for his monsters, and thus crawl outside the limits of the realm of values, including esthetic ones.
Whatever the case may be, it is the subject (qualified by the theme) that projects an art work’s view of man’s place in the universe.
The theme of an art work is the link uniting its subject and its style. “Style” is a particular, distinctive or characteristic mode of execution. An artist’s style is the product of his own psycho-epistemology — and, by implication, a projection of his view of man’s consciousness, of its efficacy or impotence, of its proper method and level of functioning.
Predominantly (though not exclusively), a man whose normal mental state is a state of full focus, will create and respond to a style of radiant clarity and ruthless precision — a style that projects sharp outlines, cleanliness, purpose, an intransigent commitment to full awareness and clear-cut identity — a level of awareness appropriate to a universe where A is A, where everything is open to man’s consciousness and demands its constant functioning.
A man who is moved by the fog of his feelings and spends most of his time out of focus will create and respond to a style of blurred, “mysterious” murk, where outlines dissolve and entities flow into one another, where words connote anything and denote nothing, where colors float without objects, and objects float without weight — a level of awareness appropriate to a universe where A can be any non-A one chooses, where nothing can be known with certainty and nothing much is demanded of one’s consciousness.
Style is the most complex element of art, the most revealing and, often, the most baffling psychologically. The terrible inner conflicts from which artists suffer as much as (or, perhaps, more than) other men are magnified in their work. As an example: Salvador Dali, whose style projects the luminous clarity of a rational psycho-epistemology, while most (though not all) of his subjects project an irrational and revoltingly evil metaphysics. A similar, but less offensive, conflict may be seen in the paintings of Vermeer, who combines a brilliant clarity of style with the bleak metaphysics of Naturalism. At the other extreme of the stylistic continuum, observe the deliberate blurring and visual distortions of the so-called “painterly” school, from Rembrandt on down — down to the rebellion against consciousness, expressed by a phenomenon such as Cubism which seeks specifically to disintegrate man’s consciousness by painting objects as man does not perceive them (from several perspectives at once).
A writer’s style may project a blend of reason and passionate emotion (Victor Hugo) — or a chaos of floating abstractions, of emotions cut off from reality (Thomas Wolfe) — or the dry, bare, concrete-bound, humor-tinged raucousness of an intelligent reporter (Sinclair Lewis) — or the disciplined, perceptive, lucid, yet muted understatement of a represser (John O’Hara) — or the carefully superficial, over-detailed precision of an amoralist (Flaubert) — or the mannered artificiality of a second-hander (several moderns not worthy of mention).
Style conveys what may be called a “psycho-epistemological sense of life,” i.e., an expression of that level of mental functioning on which the artist feels most at home. This is the reason why style is crucially important in art — both to the artist and to the reader or viewer — and why its importance is experienced as a profoundly personal matter. To the artist, it is an expression, to the reader or viewer a confirmation of his own consciousness — which means: of his efficacy — which means: of his self-esteem (or pseudo-self-esteem).
Now a word of warning about the criteria of esthetic judgment. A sense of life is the source of art, but it is not the sole qualification of an artist or of an esthetician, and it is not a criterion of esthetic judgment. Emotions are not tools of cognition. Esthetics is a branch of philosophy — and just as a philosopher does not approach any other branch of his science with his feelings or emotions as his criterion of judgment, so he cannot do it in the field of esthetics. A sense of life is not sufficient professional equipment. An esthetician — as well as any man who attempts to evaluate art works — must be guided by more than an emotion.
The fact that one agrees or disagrees with an artist’s philosophy is irrelevant to an esthetic appraisal of his work qua art. One does not have to agree with an artist (nor even to enjoy him) in order to evaluate his work. In essence, an objective evaluation requires that one identify the artist’s theme, the abstract meaning of his work (exclusively by identifying the evidence contained in the work and allowing no other, outside considerations), then evaluate the means by which he conveys it — i.e., taking his theme as criterion, evaluate the purely esthetic elements of the work, the technical mastery (or lack of it) with which he projects (or fails to project) his view of life.
(The esthetic principles which apply to all art, regardless of an individual artist’s philosophy, and which must guide an objective evaluation, are outside the scope of this discussion. I will mention only that such principles are defined by the science of esthetics — a task at which modern philosophy has failed dismally.)
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, “ — provided one defines the exact meaning of that statement: the first part refers to a purely esthetic appraisal, the second to a deeper philosophical level which includes more than esthetic values.
Even in the realm of personal choices, there are many different aspects from which one may enjoy a work of art — other than sense-of-life affinity. One’s sense of life is fully involved only when one feels a profoundly personal emotion about a work of art. But there are many other levels or degrees of liking; the differences are similar to the difference between romantic love and affection or friendship.
For instance: I love the work of Victor Hugo, in a deeper sense than admiration for his superlative literary genius, and I find many similarities between his sense of life and mine, although I disagree with virtually all of his explicit philosophy — I like Dostoevsky, for his superb mastery of plot structure and for his merciless dissection of the psychology of evil, even though his philosophy and his sense of life are almost diametrically opposed to mine — I like the early novels of Mickey Spillane, for his plot ingenuity and moralistic style, even though his sense of life clashes with mine, and no explicit philosophical element is involved in his work — I cannot stand Tolstoy, and reading him was the most boring literary duty I ever had to perform, his philosophy and his sense of life are not merely mistaken, but evil, and yet, from a purely literary viewpoint, on his own terms, I have to evaluate him as a good writer.
Now, to demonstrate the difference between an intellectual approach and a sense of life, I will restate the preceding paragraph in sense-of-life terms: Hugo gives me the feeling of entering a cathedral — Dostoevsky gives me the feeling of entering a chamber of horrors, but with a powerful guide — Spillane gives me the feeling of hearing a military band in a public park — Tolstoy gives me the feeling of an unsanitary backyard which I do not care to enter.
When one learns to translate the meaning of an art work into objective terms, one discovers that nothing is as potent as art in exposing the essence of a man’s character. An artist reveals his naked soul in his work — and so, gentle reader, do you when you respond to it.