This essay was originally published in the April 1965 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter and later anthologized in The Romantic Manifesto (1969 and 1971).
The position of art in the scale of human knowledge is, perhaps, the most eloquent symptom of the gulf between man’s progress in the physical sciences and his stagnation (or, today, his retrogression) in the humanities.
The physical sciences are still ruled by some remnants of a rational epistemology (which is rapidly being destroyed), but the humanities have been virtually abandoned to the primitive epistemology of mysticism. While physics has reached the level where men are able to study subatomic particles and interplanetary space, a phenomenon such as art has remained a dark mystery, with little or nothing known about its nature, its function in human life or the cause of its tremendous psychological power. Yet art is of passionately intense importance and profoundly personal concern to most men — and it has existed in every known civilization, accompanying man’s steps from the early hours of his prehistorical dawn, earlier than the birth of written language.
While, in other fields of knowledge, men have outgrown the practice of seeking the guidance of mystic oracles whose qualification for the job was unintelligibility, in the field of esthetics this practice has remained in full force and is becoming more crudely obvious today. Just as savages took the phenomena of nature for granted, as an irreducible primary not to be questioned or analyzed, as the exclusive domain of unknowable demons — so today’s epistemological savages take art for granted, as an irreducible primary not to be questioned or analyzed, as the exclusive domain of a special kind of unknowable demons: their emotions. The only difference is that the prehistorical savages’ error was innocent.
One of the grimmest monuments to altruism is man’s culturally induced selflessness: his willingness to live with himself as with the unknown, to ignore, evade, repress the personal (the non-social) needs of his soul, to know least about the things that matter most, and thus to consign his deepest values to the impotent underground of subjectivity and his life to the dreary wasteland of chronic guilt.
The cognitive neglect of art has persisted precisely because the function of art is non-social. (This is one more instance of altruism’s inhumanity, of its brutal indifference to the deepest needs of man — of an actual, individual man. It is an instance of the inhumanity of any moral theory that regards moral values as a purely social matter.) Art belongs to a non-socializable aspect of reality, which is universal (i.e., applicable to all men) but non-collective: to the nature of man’s consciousness.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of a work of art (including literature) is that it serves no practical, material end, but is an end in itself; it serves no purpose other than contemplation — and the pleasure of that contemplation is so intense, so deeply personal that a man experiences it as a self-sufficient, self-justifying primary and, often, resists or resents any suggestion to analyze it: the suggestion, to him, has the quality of an attack on his identity, on his deepest, essential self.
No human emotion can be causeless, nor can so intense an emotion be causeless, irreducible and unrelated to the source of emotions (and of values): to the needs of a living entity’s survival. Art does have a purpose and does serve a human need; only it is not a material need, but a need of man’s consciousness. Art is inextricably tied to man’s survival — not to his physical survival, but to that on which his physical survival depends: to the preservation and survival of his consciousness.
The source of art lies in the fact that man’s cognitive faculty is conceptual — i.e., that man acquires knowledge and guides his actions, not by means of single, isolated percepts, but by means of abstractions.
To understand the nature and function of art, one must understand the nature and function of concepts.
A concept is a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated by a process of abstraction and united by a specific definition. By organizing his perceptual material into concepts, and his concepts into wider and still wider concepts, man is able to grasp and retain, to identify and integrate an unlimited amount of knowledge, a knowledge extending beyond the immediate concretes of any given, immediate moment.
In any given moment, concepts enable man to hold in the focus of his conscious awareness much more than his purely perceptual capacity would permit. The range of man’s perceptual awareness — the number of percepts he can deal with at any one time — is limited. He may be able to visualize four or five units — as, for instance, five trees. He cannot visualize a hundred trees or a distance of ten light-years. It is only his conceptual faculty that makes it possible for him to deal with knowledge of that kind.
Man retains his concepts by means of language. With the exception of proper names, every word we use is a concept that stands for an unlimited number of concretes of a certain kind. A concept is like a mathematical series of specifically defined units, going off in both directions, open at both ends and including all units of that particular kind. For instance, the concept “man” includes all men who live at present, who have ever lived or will ever live — a number of men so great that one would not be able to perceive them all visually, let alone to study them or discover anything about them.
Language is a code of visual-auditory symbols that serves the psycho-epistemological function of converting abstractions into concretes or, more precisely, into the psycho-epistemological equivalent of concretes, into a manageable number of specific units.
(Psycho-epistemology is the study of man’s cognitive processes from the aspect of the interaction between the conscious mind and the automatic functions of the subconscious.)
Consider the enormous conceptual integration involved in any statement, from the conversation of a child to the discourse of a scientist. Consider the long conceptual chain that starts from simple, ostensive definitions and rises to higher and still higher concepts, forming a hierarchical structure of knowledge so complex that no electronic computer could approach it. It is by means of such chains that man has to acquire and retain his knowledge of reality.
Yet this is the simpler part of his psycho-epistemological task. There is another part which is still more complex.
The other part consists of applying his knowledge — i.e., evaluating the facts of reality, choosing his goals and guiding his actions accordingly. To do that, man needs another chain of concepts, derived from and dependent on the first, yet separate and, in a sense, more complex: a chain of normative abstractions.
While cognitive abstractions identify the facts of reality, normative abstractions evaluate the facts, thus prescribing a choice of values and a course of action. Cognitive abstractions deal with that which is; normative abstractions deal with that which ought to be (in the realms open to man’s choice).
Ethics, the normative science, is based on two cognitive branches of philosophy: metaphysics and epistemology. To prescribe what man ought to do, one must first know what he is and where he is — i.e., what is his nature (including his means of cognition) and the nature of the universe in which he acts. (It is irrelevant, in this context, whether the metaphysical base of a given system of ethics is true or false; if it is false, the error will make the ethics impracticable. What concerns us here is only the dependence of ethics on metaphysics.)
Is the universe intelligible to man, or unintelligible and unknowable? Can man find happiness on earth, or is he doomed to frustration and despair? Does man have the power of choice, the power to choose his goals and to achieve them, the power to direct the course of his life — or is he the helpless plaything of forces beyond his control, which determine his fate? Is man, by nature, to be valued as good, or to be despised as evil? These are metaphysical questions, but the answers to them determine the kind of ethics men will accept and practice; the answers are the link between metaphysics and ethics. And although metaphysics as such is not a normative science, the answers to this category of questions assume, in man’s mind, the function of metaphysical value-judgments, since they form the foundation of all of his moral values.
Consciously or subconsciously, explicitly or implicitly, man knows that 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 — and that his metaphysical value-judgments are involved in every moment of his life, in his every choice, decision and action.
Metaphysics — the science that deals with the fundamental nature of reality — involves man’s widest abstractions. It includes every concrete he has ever perceived, it involves such a vast sum of knowledge and such a long chain of concepts that no man could hold it all in the focus of his immediate conscious awareness. Yet he needs that sum and that awareness to guide him — he needs the power to summon them into full, conscious focus.
That power is given to him by art.
Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.
By a selective re-creation, art isolates and integrates those aspects of reality which represent man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. Out of the countless number of concretes — of single, disorganized and (seemingly) contradictory attributes, actions and entities — an artist isolates the things which he regards as metaphysically essential and integrates them into a single new concrete that represents an embodied abstraction.
For instance, consider two statues of man: one as a Greek god, the other as a deformed medieval monstrosity. Both are metaphysical estimates of man; both are projections of the artist’s view of man’s nature; both are concretized representations of the philosophy of their respective cultures.
Art is a concretization of metaphysics. Art brings man’s concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts.
This is the psycho-epistemological function of art and the reason of its importance in man’s life (and the crux of the Objectivist esthetics).
Just as language converts abstractions into the psycho-epistemological equivalent of concretes, into a manageable number of specific units — so art converts man’s metaphysical abstractions into the equivalent of concretes, into specific entities open to man’s direct perception. The claim that “art is a universal language” is not an empty metaphor, it is literally true — in the sense of the psycho-epistemological function performed by art.
Observe that in mankind’s history, art began as an adjunct (and, often, a monopoly) of religion. Religion was the primitive form of philosophy: it provided man with a comprehensive view of existence. Observe that the art of those primitive cultures was a concretization of their religion’s metaphysical and ethical abstractions.
The best illustration of the psycho-epistemological process involved in art can be given by one aspect of one particular art: by characterization in literature. Human character — with all of its innumerable potentialities, virtues, vices, inconsistencies, contradictions — is so complex that man is his own most bewildering enigma. It is very difficult to isolate and integrate human traits even into purely cognitive abstractions and to bear them all in mind when seeking to understand the men one meets.
Now consider the figure of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. He is the concretization of an abstraction that covers an incalculable sum of observations and evaluations of an incalculable number of characteristics possessed by an incalculable number of men of a certain type. Lewis has isolated their essential traits and has integrated them into the concrete form of a single character — and when you say of someone, “He’s a Babbitt,” your appraisal includes, in a single judgment, the enormous total conveyed by that figure.
When we come to normative abstractions — to the task of defining moral principles and projecting what man ought to be — the psycho-epistemological process required is still harder. The task demands years of study — and the results are almost impossible to communicate without the assistance of art. An exhaustive philosophical treatise defining moral values, with a long list of virtues to be practiced, will not do it; it will not convey what an ideal man would be like and how he would act: no mind can deal with so immense a sum of abstractions. When I say “deal with” I mean retranslate all the abstractions into the perceptual concretes for which they stand — i.e., reconnect them to reality — and hold it all in the focus of one’s conscious awareness. There is no way to integrate such a sum without projecting an actual human figure — an integrated concretization that illuminates the theory and makes it intelligible.
Hence the sterile, uninspiring futility of a great many theoretical discussions of ethics, and the resentment which many people feel toward such discussions: moral principles remain in their minds as floating abstractions, offering them a goal they cannot grasp and demanding that they reshape their souls in its image, thus leaving them with a burden of undefinable moral guilt. Art is the indispensable medium for the communication of a moral ideal.
Observe that every religion has a mythology — a dramatized concretization of its moral code embodied in the figures of men who are its ultimate product. (The fact that some of these figures are more convincing than others depends on the comparative rationality or irrationality of the moral theory they exemplify.)
This does not mean that art is a substitute for philosophical thought: without a conceptual theory of ethics, an artist would not be able successfully to concretize an image of the ideal. But without the assistance of art, ethics remains in the position of theoretical engineering: art is the model-builder.
Many readers of The Fountainhead have told me that the character of Howard Roark helped them to make a decision when they faced a moral dilemma. They asked themselves: “What would Roark do in this situation?” — and, faster than their mind could identify the proper application of all the complex principles involved, the image of Roark gave them the answer. They sensed, almost instantly, what he would or would not do — and this helped them to isolate and to identify the reasons, the moral principles that would have guided him. Such is the psycho-epistemological function of a personified (concretized) human ideal.
It is important to stress, however, that even though moral values are inextricably involved in art, they are involved only as a consequence, not as a causal determinant: the primary focus of art is metaphysical, not ethical. Art is not the “handmaiden” of morality, its basic purpose is not to educate, to reform or to advocate anything. The concretization of a moral ideal is not a textbook on how to become one. The basic purpose of art is not to teach, but to show — to hold up to man a concretized image of his nature and his place in the universe.
Any metaphysical issue will necessarily have an enormous influence on man’s conduct and, therefore, on his ethics; and, since every art work has a theme, it will necessarily convey some conclusion, some “message,’’ to its audience. But that influence and that “message’’ are only secondary consequences. Art is not the means to any didactic end. This is the difference between a work of art and a morality play or a propaganda poster. The greater a work of art, the more profoundly universal its theme. Art is not the means of literal transcription. This is the difference between a work of art and a news story or a photograph.
The place of ethics in any given work of art depends on the metaphysical views of the artist. If, consciously or subconsciously, an artist holds the premise that man possesses the power of volition, it will lead his work to a value orientation (to Romanticism). If he holds the premise that man’s fate is determined by forces beyond his control, it will lead his work to an anti-value orientation (to Naturalism). The philosophical and esthetic contradictions of determinism are irrelevant in this context, just as the truth or falsehood of an artist’s metaphysical views is irrelevant to the nature of art as such. An art work may project the values man is to seek and hold up to him the concretized vision of the life he is to achieve. Or it may assert that man’s efforts are futile and hold up to him the concretized vision of defeat and despair as his ultimate fate. In either case, the esthetic means — the psycho-epistemological processes involved — remain the same.
The existential consequences, of course, will differ. Amidst the incalculable number and complexity of choices that confront a man in his day-by-day existence, with the frequently bewildering torrent of events, with the alternation of successes and failures, of joys that seem too rare and suffering that lasts too long — he is often in danger of losing his perspective and the reality of his own convictions. Remember that abstractions as such do not exist: they are merely man’s epistemological method of perceiving that which exists — and that which exists is concrete. To acquire the full, persuasive, irresistible power of reality, man’s metaphysical abstractions have to confront him in the form of concretes — i.e., in the form of art.
Consider the difference it would make if — in his need of philosophical guidance or confirmation or inspiration — man turns to the art of Ancient Greece or to the art of the Middle Ages. Reaching his mind and emotions simultaneously, with the combined impact of abstract thought and of immediate reality, one type of art tells him that disasters are transient, that grandeur, beauty, strength, self-confidence are his proper, natural state. The other tells him that happiness is transient and evil, that he is a distorted, impotent, miserable little sinner, pursued by leering gargoyles, crawling in terror on the brink of an eternal hell.
The consequences of both experiences are obvious — and history is their practical demonstration. It is not art alone that was responsible for the greatness or the horror of those two eras, but art as the voice of philosophy — of the particular philosophy that dominated those cultures.
As to the role of emotions in art and the subconscious mechanism that serves as the integrating factor both in artistic creation and in man’s response to art, they involve a psychological phenomenon which we call a sense of life. A sense of life is a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence. But this is a different, though corollary, subject (which I discuss in [“Philosophy and Sense of Life” and “Art and Sense of Life”]). The present subject is only the psycho-epistemological role of art.
A question raised at the start of this discussion should now be clear. The reason why art has such a profoundly personal significance for men is that art confirms or denies the efficacy of a man’s consciousness, according to whether an art work supports or negates his own fundamental view of reality.
Such is the meaning and the power of a medium which, today, is predominantly in the hands of practitioners who boastfully offer, as their credentials, the fact that they do not know what they are doing.
Let us take them at their word: they don’t. We do.