Modern Art

As a re-creation of reality, a work of art has to be representational; its freedom of stylization is limited by the requirement of intelligibility; if it does not present an intelligible subject, it ceases to be art.

Decomposition is the postscript to the death of a human body; disintegration is the preface to the death of a human mind. Disintegration is the keynote and goal of modern art—the disintegration of man’s conceptual faculty, and the retrogression of an adult mind to the state of a mewling infant.

To reduce man’s consciousness to the level of sensations, with no capacity to integrate them, is the intention behind the reducing of language to grunts, of literature to “moods,” of painting to smears, of sculpture to slabs, of music to noise.

But there is a philosophically and psychopathologically instructive element in the spectacle of that gutter. It demonstrates—by the negative means of an absence—the relationships of art to philosophy, of reason to man’s survival, of hatred for reason to hatred for existence. After centuries of the philosophers’ war against reason, they have succeeded—by the method of vivisection—in producing exponents of what man is like when deprived of his rational faculty, and these in turn are giving us images of what existence is like to a being with an empty skull.

While the alleged advocates of reason oppose “system-building” and haggle apologetically over concrete-bound words or mystically floating abstractions, its enemies seem to know that integration is the psycho-epistemological key to reason, that art is man’s psycho-epistemological conditioner, and that if reason is to be destroyed, it is man’s integrating capacity that has to be destroyed.

It is highly doubtful that the practitioners and admirers of modern art have the intellectual capacity to understand its philosophical meaning; all they need to do is indulge the worst of their subconscious premises. But their leaders do understand the issue consciously: the father of modern art is Immanuel Kant (see his Critique of Judgment).

I do not know which is worse: to practice modern art as a colossal fraud or to do it sincerely.

Those who do not wish to be the passive, silent victims of frauds of this kind, can learn from modern art the practical importance of philosophy, and the consequences of philosophical default. Specifically, it is the destruction of logic that disarmed the victims, and, more specifically, the destruction of definitions. Definitions are the guardians of rationality, the first line of defense against the chaos of mental disintegration.

Works of art—like everything else in the universe—are entities of a specific nature: the concept requires a definition by their essential characteristics, which distinguish them from all other existing entities. The genus of art works is: man-made objects which present a selective recreation of reality according to the artist’s metaphysical value-judgments, by means of a specific material medium. The species are the works of the various branches of art, defined by the particular media which they employ and which indicate their relation to the various elements of man’s cognitive faculty.

Man’s need of precise definitions rests on the Law of Identity: A is A, a thing is itself. A work of art is a specific entity which possesses a specific nature. If it does not, it is not a work of art. If it is merely a material object, it belongs to some category of material objects—and if it does not belong to any particular category, it belongs to the one reserved for such phenomena: junk.

“Something made by an artist” is not a definition of art. A beard and a vacant stare are not the defining characteristics of an artist.

“Something in a frame hung on a wall” is not a definition of painting.

“Something with a number of pages in a binding” is not a definition of literature.

“Something piled together” is not a definition of sculpture.

“Something made of sounds produced by anything” is not a definition of music.

“Something glued on a flat surface” is not a definition of any art.There is no art that uses glue as a medium. Blades of grass glued on a sheet of paper to represent grass might be good occupational therapy for retarded children—though I doubt it—but it is not art.

“Because I felt like it” is not a definition or validation of anything.

There is no place for whim in any human activity—if it is to be regarded as human. There is no place for the unknowable, the unintelligible, the undefinable, the non-objective in any human product. This side of an insane asylum, the actions of a human being are motivated by a conscious purpose; when they are not, they are of no interest to anyone outside a psychotherapist’s office. And when the practitioners of modern art declare that they don’t know what they are doing or what makes them do it, we should take their word for it and give them no further consideration.

As an example of an entire field of activity based on nothing but the Argument from Intimidation, I give you modern art—where, in order to prove that they do possess the special insight possessed only by the mystic “elite,” the populace are trying to surpass one another in loud exclamations on the splendor of some bare (but smudged) piece of canvas.

Just as modern philosophy is dominated by the attempt to destroy the conceptual level of man’s consciousness and even the perceptual level, reducing man’s awareness to mere sensations—so modern art and literature are dominated by the attempt to disintegrate man’s consciousness and reduce it to mere sensations, to the “enjoyment” of meaningless colors, noises and moods.

The art of any given period or culture is a faithful mirror of that culture’s philosophy. If you see obscene, dismembered monstrosities leering at you from today’s esthetic mirrors—the aborted creations of mediocrity, irrationality and panic—you are seeing the embodied, concretized reality of the philosophical premises that dominate today’s culture. Only in this sense can those manifestations be called “art”—not by the intention or accomplishment of their perpetrators.

The composite picture of man that emerges from the art of our time is the gigantic figure of an aborted embryo whose limbs suggest a vaguely anthropoid shape, who twists his upper extremity in a frantic quest for a light that cannot penetrate its empty sockets, who emits inarticulate sounds resembling snarls and moans, who crawls through a bloody muck, red froth dripping from his jaws, and struggles to throw the froth at his own non-existent face, who pauses periodically and, lifting the stumps of his arms, screams in abysmal terror at the universe at large.

Engendered by generations of anti-rational philosophy, three emotions dominate the sense of life of modern man: fear, guilt and pity (more precisely, self-pity). Fear, as the appropriate emotion of a creature deprived of his means of survival, his mind; guilt, as the appropriate emotion of a creature devoid of moral values; pity, as the means of escape from these two, as the only response such a creature could beg for. A sensitive, discriminating man, who has absorbed that sense of life, but retained some vestige of self-esteem, will avoid so revealing a profession as art. But this does not stop the others.

Fear, guilt and the quest for pity combine to set the trend of art in the same direction, in order to express, justify and rationalize the artists’ own feelings. To justify a chronic fear, one has to portray existence as evil; to escape from guilt and arouse pity, one has to portray man as impotent and innately loathsome. Hence the competition among modern artists to find ever lower levels of depravity and ever higher degrees of mawkishness—a competition to shock the public out of its wits and jerk its tears. Hence the frantic search for misery, the descent from compassionate studies of alcoholism and sexual perversion to dope, incest, psychosis, murder, cannibalism.

Copyright © 1986 by Harry Binswanger. Introduction copyright © 1986 by Leonard Peikoff. All rights reserved. For information address New American Library.


Excerpts from The Ominous Parallels, by Leonard Peikoff. Copyright © 1982 by Leonard Peikoff. Reprinted with permission of Stein and Day Publishers. Excerpts from The Romantic Manifesto, by Ayn Rand. Copyright © 1971, by The Objectivist. Reprinted with permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. Excerpts from Atlas Shrugged, copyright © 1957 by Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, copyright © 1943 by Ayn Rand, and For the New Intellectual, copyright © 1961 by Ayn Rand. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Ayn Rand. Excerpts from Philosophy: Who Needs It, by Ayn Rand. Copyright © 1982 by Leonard Peikoff, Executor, Estate of Ayn Rand. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Ayn Rand. Excerpts from “The Philosophy of Objectivism” lecture series. Copyright © 1976 by Leonard Peikoff. Reprinted by permission. Excerpts from Alvin Toffler’s interview with Ayn Rand, which first appeared in Playboy magazine. Copyright © 1964. Reprinted by permission of Alvin Toffler. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.