MonoRealism Philosophy Site

Arts and Minds

Part C: Romance & Reality

Romantic Realism

Since art is such a powerful medium of communication, to be pro-life it must show in an effective manner what is pro-life and why it is pro-life. For reasons such as this, Ayn Rand identified Romantic Realism as the best kind of art. That doesn't mean Barbara Cartland novels. The defining characteristic of Romanticism is not mindless emotionalism or shallow sentimentality, but art based on the principle that man is volitional being: therefore, it is art whose primary concern is with values and the gaining of values: with life, achievement and heroism. Which has this benefit:

It is not abstract principles that a child learns from Romantic art, but ... the emotional experience of admiration for man's highest potential, the experience of looking up to a hero – a view of life motivated and dominated by values, a life in which man's choices are practicable, effective and crucially important – that is, a moral sense of life. (Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto)

Why is that important? Life and happiness depend on achieving values: which depends on an understanding of what values are, the knowledge of what it takes to achieve values, and the confidence that you are capable of setting, seeking and achieving them. Romantic art shows that in action, and it is a crucial lesson. To a child, the world is a great adventure, full of vast but unknown potential: and too easily, their view of the world and of their own potential can be distorted or crushed by the ugly, the arbitrary and the cruel. To an adult, too easily can a positive view of the world and Man be buried under the sediment of day-to-day minutiae and the all too frequent irrationality, injustice and lack of integrity of those they encounter. Art which can inspire with a view of the heroic and of things worth reaching; art which shows that, whatever particular specimens one may meet, the essence of Man is not the incompetent, the irrational and the base, but the efficacious, rational and pure: can inspire people to achieve that essence in their own souls, and provide the emotional fuel needed for the effort. As that essence is what produces life and happiness, by inspiring and motivating such a view, art can help people live their own life to the full. Art is the inspiration to aspiration.

The Realism part of "Romantic Realism" refers to art set in our time and addressing our circumstances: not as an unselective, naturalistic catalogue of details, but as the most relevant and identifiable particulars of timeless abstractions. That is more valuable than, say, historical or fantasy settings, which are more removed from the events of our own lives (not that there is anything necessarily wrong with such other settings, of course: they are merely less directly connected to our own lives and concerns).

Rand summed up the meaning of Romantic Realism in this way:

This last is the premise of the Romantic school of writing, which deals, above all, with human values and, therefore, with the essential and the universal in human actions, not with the statistical and the accidental. The Naturalist school records the choices which men happened to have made; the Romantic school projects the choices which men can and ought to make. I am a Romantic Realist – distinguished from the Romantic tradition in that the values I deal with pertain to this earth and to the basic problems of this era. (Foreword to her novel, We the Living)


What of abstract (non-representational) art? Can such art show and promote values, or is it inherently inferior?

Given Rand's basic view of art as a selective re-creation of reality, it is not surprising that she discounted abstract art:

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

An apparent exception to this is instrumental (as contrasted to vocal) music, which is a progression of sounds that have no direct referent to objects in reality. How could one show a summer's day with music?

Music, however, is a unique case. Music speaks more directly to our emotions than visual arts: it sings directly to our souls, as it were. The sequence of sounds can portray and induce joy, sorrow, anger, fear, love, hope, struggle, despair and triumph, in a way that other forms of art do not. What qualities give music this power? It has a complex combination and progression of sounds forming melody, counterpoint, rhythm, harmony and contrast, involving an intricate interplay of tones, chords, speed and volume. This play of sound over time seems to resonate directly with emotional centres of our brains in some way. Whatever the physiological cause, it is a structure and response which has no real counterpart in other forms of art. Rand observed that the experience of music was opposite to other arts: "The pattern [in other arts] is: from perception [of a concrete object of art] – to conceptual understanding – to appraisal – to emotion. The pattern of the process involved in music is: from perception – to emotion – to appraisal – to conceptual understanding." (The Romantic Manifesto)

While some abstract art can represent such things as struggle, contrast or harmony through patterns and colour, it achieves nowhere near the level achievable by music – or representational painting – because the visual arts cannot affect our emotions as directly. The truth of this is illustrated by cinema, which, with all the visual techniques and tricks at its disposal over a long period of play, still uses music extensively to set the emotional scene and orchestrate the feelings of the audience.

Thus instrumental music is not truly abstract. It has its own language and a high degree of universality in the emotional responses people have to that language (one finds few if any cases where one person would classify a piece as "peaceful" while another would call it "violent", for example). In a sense it could be said to re-create an emotional reality, or to re-create reality in the language of emotion. Truly abstract music that corresponded to abstract painting or sculpture would be a cacophony of noise, or pretty but meaningless tinkling. Whereas the music that people like the most is that which moves them the most.

Music might not be able to show a summer's day: but it can show how someone feels on a summer's day.

At its best, abstract art can be striking and beautiful: though in keeping with the artistic times it is usually ugly, pointless and without visible talent. But in terms of the best that art is capable of, it literally doesn't have what it takes. At best it is glorified decoration, and at worst it expresses a perverse view of the world. Abstract art can be beautiful: but it cannot show "life as it can and ought to be", because that requires the showing of identifiable concretes – unless what it wishes to show is merely that reality is unintelligible, or that art (and life) requires no talent, rhyme or reason (which has, in fact, been the stated aim of certain artists, such as some surrealists).

A Sense of Style

The artistic process is one of selectivity in abstracting and condensing myriad details into timeless universals, and one of focus on what is important rather than what is incidental or accidental. Thus the artistic process is analogous to the abstraction, condensation and focus that is necessary for our lives (for both our knowledge and the identification and pursuit of our values). Just as science is a refinement of our basic means of learning – observation, reason and experiment – so art is a refinement of our basic means of concept-formation – abstraction and uncovering essentials.

As art does this in a dramatic way which speaks powerfully to our emotions, it is a peculiarly effective means of training our consciousness in these ways of looking at the world. This is true even of philosophically mixed or corrupt art, as it is inherent in the process of art independent of its meaning. Thus it gives well-crafted art a further value, in addition to or despite its moral value:

[We focus on] one aspect of the relationship between philosophy and art: how art conditions or stylises man's consciousness ... Ayn Rand's idea that "art teaches man how to use his consciousness ... by conveying to him a certain way of looking at existence." Painting trains you to focus on the important attributes in your visual experiences, while plot in literature trains you to focus on the important, essential events in your life. By stylising your consciousness, art teaches you how to gain greater joy from everyday life, and is crucial to the maintenance of a benevolent universe premise. (Gary Hull, course description for Art as Indispensable to Philosophy)

All through our lives, we are unconsciously trained by example and imitation, as in when we pick up a foreign accent by living overseas, or acquire the mannerisms of our friends. By distilling the essence of the mental processes essential for the life of a rational being, the experience of good art can enhance our own mental functioning – and bad art, art that is random and unfocussed, can have the opposite effect.