Arts and Minds

Philosophical Reflections XXI

Part A: Essences

So far we have looked at four of the major branches of philosophy: metaphysics – the nature of reality; epistemology – how knowledge is acquired; ethics – how people should live; and politics – how living together in society should be organised. That brings us to the fifth and final major branch, Aesthetics: the nature and purpose of art.

Art’s Foundation

Life is the link between what is and what ought to be: between reality and ethics, fact and value. Your life is your fundamental value, from which all other values derive: thus what is good for the life of human beings is the standard by which everything must be evaluated.

It follows that the proper general purpose of art, as of all human endeavours, is the benefit of human life.

But what unites the diverse array of activities that comprise art – painting, sculpture, architecture, music, dance, drama, poetry, fiction writing – and distinguishes them from other human activities such as history, science, engineering or farming?

Art exists for its own sake: not for any utilitarian purpose, not (fundamentally) to discover new knowledge or to get food to eat, but for some intrinsic value in art itself. Architecture is a partial exception, but an instructive one. Although architecture is utilitarian in the obvious sense of creating buildings in which we live and work, it is also art because “architecture”, as opposed to plain building, has always had that extra dimension which is the province of art. All that a building really “requires” is four walls with appropriate holes, a roof and a floor; optionally with certain other amenities depending on its function. But great architecture is more than that. The soaring lines of a Gothic cathedral were not required for any strictly functional reason; indeed, they added hugely to the complexity and expense of building. Their reason was purely their emotional effect and spiritual significance: they were not for the sake of the building, but for the sake of what its builders held sacred.

That points to the defining quality of art. Art is an activity whose primary purpose is to engage human emotions, to inspire, to show a view of life, to celebrate the important and essential. Aristotle said that poetry is superior to history, because history merely tells us what has been, whereas poetry shows us what could and ought to be. And that is its essence. That is also what distinguishes art from procedurally related activities such as crafts and decoration: it is not done just to look pretty or to make some useful object look nice, but to engage deeper emotions by touching profound values. You might choose household items for their aesthetically pleasing designs, but nobody I know spends much time in contemplation on the spiritual significance of their wallpaper.

Could & Ought

Art is concerned with what could and ought to be by the nature of the artistic process. Unlike utilitarian activities like growing wheat or building bridges, a work of art is not primarily constrained by external reality.

Art obviously uses certain “raw materials” which are part of external reality. These include the physical materials used, whose qualities determine many things – from what is physically possible to various aspects of the final appearance (such as the different appearances of oils and watercolours, or the types of sound different musical instruments produce); personal skill, which determines the final quality of what you do – and what you can attempt to do at all; and personal style and aesthetics, which determine numerous details of the type of work and its final appearance. By personal style and aesthetics, I mean things like the kind of brushstrokes a painter uses, the choice of subjects (e.g., landscapes, still lives or action scenes), the preferred treatment of the subject matter (e.g., photo-realistic, distorted, murky, luminous or dramatic), and such things as the artist’s sense of balance and what they consider to be beautiful or ugly.

Note that all of those are at least somewhat under the artist’s control. He or she chooses which materials to use. Skill especially is partially under your control over the long term (I have included it under “external reality” as it is all you have to work with at any particular time on any particularwork). And personal style and aesthetics are to at least some degree formed and informed by conscious knowledge, attitudes and decisions (but again, they are what you have to work with at the time).

These things are the base in which art is rooted, but beyond them are no limits imposed by external reality. Beyond them, art is constrained solely by the imagination and aims of the artist.

But a work of art can’t show the whole world in all its infinite details: it is limited to a small subset of particulars. Thus, the artist is continually faced with choices of what to stress, include or ignore, all the way from the basic theme of the work to the smallest detail of plot, background, mood or texture. Therefore, the artist must be highly selective. Thus, he or she must have criteria for selection.

Like all other voluntary choices, those criteria are the artist’s philosophy of life, whether it is explicit or just an implicit sense of life (your sense of life is the sum of your basic subconscious assessments of reality and yourself). But because in art those criteria are practically the solecriteria, they are not merely a backdrop to something else, but are its heart and soul. (While the artist’s personal style and aesthetics are important, they and how they are used are themselves at least partly determined by the artist’s philosophy.)

So when an artist creates a work of art, what he or she is saying is “Look! This is what is important! Here is the essence of man, of nature, or of the world. Ignoring all the myriad unessential details, this is what the world and/or man is, or could be, or should (or shouldn’t) be.”

Even when an artist is not explicitly illustrating his view of what should be, he is focussing on the important in what is. And that focus implies a could and an ought: to identify something as important, is to identify it as a thing worth pursuing, an aspect of reality worth contemplating, or a state worth reaching. That is, to identify the important is to identify the important to you, which is to identify values. And even if he is showing his view of nature with no explicit view of man, it is not nature that can see and respond to art: so again, he is focussing on what human beings should value in the world, because it is human beings to whom he displays his art and in whom he seeks a response.

This principle is true even of “random” art: art that is a meaningless jumble of noises, splashes or slashes, leading nowhere and conveying nothing. For whatever the artist chooses to show, be it a beautiful world, human heroism, pretty but meaningless patterns and colours, random ugliness, or anything else: the fact that he has chosen to show it implies a reason for his choice. What lies in a mind that makes art that is ugly and pointless, or that shows man as ugly and depraved, or which exploits the lowest common denominator to get a quick dollar, you can deduce for yourself.

As examples of artistic focus, Michelangelo’s David shows a view of Man as a purposeful, able and beautiful being, which is how the Renaissance in general viewed humanity; the Impressionist painters saw the world as a play of light, beautiful but a show of evanescent sensations rather than a world of discrete objects; the Surrealists celebrated the subjective, the dreamlike, the irrational and the mad – yet their most talented members such as Dali could create out of this a bizarre beauty; paintings such as Pollock’s Blue Poles care for nothing except the meaningless and the random. One occasionally hears an art critic raving about the wondrous variety of types of splatter in Pollock’s work, but when all is said and done, a splatter is a splatter is a splatter.

Or compare the views of Man and his relation to the world in literature. Victor Hugo’s heroes tend to be towering figures who fight great odds with power and passion to achieve their values, briefly succeed despite all, yet in the end fail due to their own nobility and the corruption of the world. In the contemporary fantasy and science fiction novels of Stephen Donaldson, we tend to see heroes engaged in epic battles, who more or less win against vast hostile forces despite being crippled by their own weakness, the piecemeal selling of their souls, or the evil corrupting their character. While in the novels of Ayn Rand, we have man as a heroic being living in a world where success is possible, who can, if he so chooses, be rational, moral, efficacious and happy. All three produce works of gripping drama and passion – while serving different philosophies of life and showing different images of man and the world he lives in.

Part B: Stimulus & Response

Soul Traders

As a person’s philosophy can be good or bad, consistent or confused, so can the art that proceeds from it. Of all human endeavours, art is the one that most openly displays the soul of its creator. As noted in Part A, functional activities are more or less constrained by reality (they have to work!), but art doesn’t “do” anything in that sense, so it can be whatever the artist wishes.

As philosophy determines art, so it determines the response to art. If the artist displays his soul in the art he makes, so you display yours in your response to it. If art touches you, what it is touching is your philosophy and/or sense of life as it relates to the artist’s (as well as how his style and aesthetics appeal to yours). Since the “practical” purpose of art is that emotional response in the audience, what the artist normally wants is for his work of art to generate the emotional response that he wants: he wants to audience to love what he loves or hate what he hates, and to experience that via his work.

Thus, a “successful” work of art is one that generates in the audience the kinds of emotion that the artist wants them to feel, for the reasons that he wants them to feel them. Clearly, this is not merely up to the artist. It requires an audience that matches the art.

Even then, different people will respond differently to the same work of art. Your response to art is as uniquely yours as the core of your being, which is what does the responding. Even when the general values we choose are the same, the particulars will differ (as a non-art example, most people want a partner, but their specific choices of partner differ). In addition, our life experiences differ, so our value-associations and the feelings evoked by particular sensations and symbols vary accordingly.

Criticism & Quality

That philosophy determines art and the response to it, is reflected in the sad state of modern art and its criticism. As the dominant feature of modern philosophy is subjectivism and all its derivatives, such as existentialism and nihilism, it is not surprising that the art world is dominated by meaningless praise of meaningless, ugly and talentless art. Examples may be seen in any gallery displaying contemporary art. The precept that rules today is the mindless subjectivism, self-indulgence and licence expressed by the words of one of the Dada artists, “whatever the artist spits is art.”

But like all values, art is objective, not subjective. So what would be the basis of valid art appreciation and criticism? It would have to address the multiple facets of a work of art. There is execution – the technical proficiency of the work; what it is about – the plot of a novel, the subject of a painting, etc; what the artist is trying to say through that plot etc – and whether it is worth saying; and how well the artist succeeds in saying it, and in generating in the audience the kind of response(s) he wants.

A great work of art is one that is brilliantly executed and whose execution matches its theme: one whose height of quality matches its depth of meaning. Art which is beautiful, masterful but meaningless is a waste of talent, when one considers what the artist could have done with his ability had he had something to say. Art with a great theme but poor execution is a failure. In art as in life, the means must be worthy of the end: and the end must be worth reaching.

The final aspect of art criticism is the deepest: is what the artist is saying valid? Is it life-affirming, or life-denying? Does it inspire with the feeling that things are worth achieving and you can achieve them, or does it paint man as hopeless, life as futile and reality as malevolent and/or incomprehensible? This is what determines whether the art is good or bad in the philosophical/moral sense (the criterion being, as always, whether it promotes human life). What art should and can express and achieve is illustrated in this passage from Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged:

Not since childhood had she felt that sense of exhilaration after witnessing the performance of a play – the sense that life held things worth reaching, not the sense of having studied some aspect of a sewer there had been no reason to see.

Compare that type of art with, for example, the movie Seven (about a self-justifying serial killer who destroys the “hero”).

Thus, a great work of art is not necessarily a good one. Art can be great in terms of how the artist says what he says, yet philosophically mixed or corrupt in what he is saying. For example, Victor Hugo’s “Toilers of the Sea” is a great novel, but its underlying philosophy is mixed. On the one hand, it celebrates man’s will, his pursuit of values and his ability to achieve them despite great hardships and difficulties. Yet in the end the hero is doomed to fail due to an unthinking betrayal by the very value he seeks, and due to his own nobility of spirit (in Hugo’s terms). But that flaw is minor compared to Dostoevsky, for whom, in the words of philosopher Andrew Bernstein, “man without God is a loathsome creature doomed in every conceivable form.” A view of man which Dostoevsky paints very dramatically and well – but which is not worth painting.

Indeed, you can make an analogy between food and art – where art is in a sense food for the soul. The best food is both a delight to the senses and nutritious. Beautiful but meaningless art is like candy: sweet, not very nutritious, and leaving less room for better sustenance. And art which is brilliant in execution but corrupt in its message is candy laced with arsenic.

(Note that these considerations apply to art for the sake of art. Things such as decoration, which is done explicitly for its pleasing appearance with no pretensions of going beyond that, or art whose primary purpose is some practical one such as advertising or scientific illustration, must be judged in the context of their primary purpose.)

Given the above, it is remarkable and sad that some artists don’t even know themselves what they are trying to say. For example, once when accepting an award, the pop singer Seal announced that often even he didn’t know what his songs meant. A similar attitude is seen in artists who claim their work means nothing but what it means in the minds of their audience. Contrast this attitude with that expressed by a fictional music composer in Atlas Shrugged:

I do not care to be admired causelessly, emotionally, intuitively, instinctively – or blindly. I do not care for blindness in any form, I have too much to show – or for deafness, I have too much to say.

You only have no idea or care of what you are saying if you have nothing to say.

Show and Tell

As noted before, art is meant to engage the emotions, to show rather than to explain, and is by its nature selective and value-oriented. Such considerations led Ayn Rand – who was both artist and philosopher – to define art as “a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” To quote her further:

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 concretised representations of the philosophy of their respective cultures.

Art is a concretisation 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. (The Romantic Manifesto)

That is the sense in which art can teach. Art cannot discover new knowledge (to be “knowledge” it must be validated by evidence, and that is not the province of art – though the artist might and should engage in it, of course). But through art, the artist can express what he thinks, feels, believes or knows: and show that to other people, not as a philosophical exposition in words, but as directly perceived concretes – such as the images in a painting, the form and composition of a piece of sculpture, or the imaginary world created in a novel or play.

That is the power of art: that it shows rather than argues, that you perceive it directly as a given thing in reality, rather than having to follow an abstract chain of reasoning whose concepts are many steps removed from direct perception. One might laugh at people who felt like giving up pork after seeing the talking-pig movie Babe – but that illustrates the point well. It is the role of philosophy to look at the world and develop a system of thought comprising the broadest and finest abstractions. But the broader and finer the abstraction, the longer the chain of reasoning from directly perceivable facts. It is the artist who can concretise such abstractions into the directly perceived: and by doing so an artist can do more to bring a philosophy to mankind than any number of professors – for good or for ill.

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.

Part D: Variations & Theme

Art Classes

Although all forms of art share certain qualities, the actual forms are so diverse that obviously there are different emphases, and their full appreciation requires an understanding of each particular form. Such understanding is vital for the artist who wants to create life-affirming art, and for anyone who wants to get the most out of art – and as we’ve seen, good art has a lot to offer.

The principles that apply to each individual form of art derive from the essential nature of that form. This gives it its strengths and weaknesses, defines what it does best and what it is inappropriate for. Let us briefly examine how this principle might be applied to the various forms of art.


As the most utilitarian of the arts, architecture is most influenced by external factors. All buildings have a function and are built on a particular site out of particular materials. Thus the basic principle of good architecture is that form should follow function, site and material: function being primary, with the site and materials at least partly determined with reference to function.

The design of the building should allow the most efficient and pleasant accomplishment of its function by the people who use it – after all, buildings are for people, not vice versa. Its form should reflect its function, both in order to achieve its utilitarian purpose and for aesthetic reasons: the use of space and the interpenetration of space and structure, light, the lines of the structure and its ornamentation, all contribute to the emotional sum felt by the people entering it, and that emotional sum should be appropriate to life in general and the building’s purpose (be it temple, museum, office or home) in particular.

The building should match its site. One does not put the same structure on a cliff overlooking the sea as on a bend in a river or on a flat plain. The building should complement and complete its site: not ignore it or clash with it.

Finally, buildings are made of something, and they should be made accordingly. That is, the particular qualities of the materials should determine structure: one does not build the same structure out of steel, concrete and glass as one builds out of stone or wood.

Like all art, architecture should have integrity. Good architecture has a unifying theme based on the interplay between its function, site and materials, which is unique for each building. All the details of the building should serve and reinforce this theme.


As the only three-dimensional form other than architecture, thus the only one that is both three-dimensional and unconstrained by functional needs, sculpture should take advantage of its dimensionality and solidity. The form, from all angles and while moving around it; the sense of movement, aspiration or other implied elements imparted by the way the structure makes the eye follow its lines; its structure in relation to space; the play of light on its surface and the feel of that surface (ideally, sculpture should be a tactile as well as a visual experience); and how effectively and appropriately it uses the qualities of its materials; are all important elements.

Sometimes colour can be used to good effect: either different materials, or even painted elements. However, in general I think the best sculpture restricts itself mainly to three-dimensional effects, using texture more than colour, and only subtle colour differences for accentuation where that truly enhances its effectiveness. That is, a sculpture normally should stand on its own without needing further surface decoration.


Painting is primarily visual and two-dimensional. As such, both the basic elements of composition, colour, texture, shape and overall structure, and derived elements such as the sense of light or darkness and dramatic themes, are central to its effectiveness. Integrity of art in a painting unites all these elements to serve the theme of the painting, whether that is an imaginary or historical scene of human actions, a portrait, a landscape, a still life, or whatever other reality or idea the artist wishes to express.

Substantially more freedom of expression is possible in painting than in sculpture, as complex scenes are obviously more feasible to paint with a few brushstrokes than to actually construct out of solid materials. One can easily generate effects in painting that are impossible in sculpture. Thus painting is capable of greater detail, scope and subtlety, and should exploit this.

As a two-dimensional visual object, painting is seen all at once, and thus is the most immediately apprehendable form of art. As Alexandra York has written (“Art as Spiritual Experience”, ART Ideas 1998), “The visual arts … may be the most accessible of all art forms because (unlike music or fiction, for example, which are “played out” over a period of time) they deliver the sum of their aesthetics and their content all at once, which has the power to elicit an immediate reaction on the part of the viewer.” Yet a good painting will also have levels of detail that reward closer inspection as well.


Of all the arts, prose (short stories and novels) offers the greatest scope for showing what could and ought to be. Nothing else can match the breadth and subtlety of meaning enabled by language, and unlike poetry and drama, the use of language in prose is unconstrained by special structural requirements.

Whereas architecture is limited by function, and painting and sculpture can show only snapshots, a whole world can be created in words, a world of effectively unlimited breadth and sweep, that can span worlds in space and centuries in time. Clearly, the scope of that vision depends on the form: a short story can do much less than a full novel.

The tools of the writer are words, and with words he or she can express anything that can be known: as all that we know is known via concepts, and words are what express concepts. The theme and plot of written fiction is both the skeleton and soul of the work: the skeleton, as they are what hold it together and give it structure; the soul, as they are its meaning and purpose. All the rest of the power of language for description, characterisation, mood and even the poetry of its sound and rhythm, serve these.


Being word-based, drama has much of the power of prose noted above, but is limited in length and scope by what gives it its own special power: that it is acted out. Modernised forms of drama such as cinematography have much greater ability to use scenery and action as an integral part of the work, but the essential power of drama is in the power of the actors to bring the words to life, to demonstrate what is being shown in the most powerful way there is: the visible actions of other people with whom you can identify, who you can love or hate, admire or despise. For example, a movie such as The Last of the Mohicans might have arresting scenery and dramatic action, but it is the character of its protagonists, the souls and interactions of its heroes and villains, which drives it. Hence, characterisation is probably the most important thing in drama: the character of the protagonists and their interrelationships. Of course, as in prose, the power of language is also a critical factor in the emotive power of the scenes.


While the sound of language can be used in prose to make it more beautiful and in drama to enhance its emotive force, this is distilled in poetry to be its central and defining essence. Hence poetry is far more structured, and uses devices such as rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, metre and syllabic structure. “Poetry” that is merely prose divided into lines is just an attempt to copy the appearance of poetry on the written page without having to bother to actually create a poem: much like a cargo cult hoping that an imitation of the external form of something will somehow invoke its true substance.


As noted in the earlier discussion of instrumental music and abstract art, the defining quality of music is the use of sequences of sound to speak directly to our emotions: in which it is unique among the arts. Its devices for achieving this include such things as the melody, which is the spine of the structure; use of harmony and discord; key and changes of key; and thematic development.

Vocal music is interesting as it is a combination of music, poetry and even elements of drama (in the performance of the singer). As such it can be an extremely powerful and effective art form, combining the direct power of music with the beauty and lyrical power of well-chosen words and the emotive power of non-verbal communication. Even an atheist can feel inspired by Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus!


Dance spans a whole spectrum of forms, from the simple pleasure of motion in social dancing, to technical virtuosity in such forms as tap dancing, to dramatic dance such as ballet. Of course,the best dances can combine all these elements.

For showing things as they can and ought to be, I’d say that dramatic dance is the most powerful form of dance, combining the drama of human action with the direct emotional power of music. A good example of the power of dance can be seen in some of the performances (both tap and ballet) in the movie White Nights, especially from the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Heart and Soul

The role of art is to show the world and people as they could and ought to be. To do that, its method is selectivity – choosing the elements that the artist wants to show or stress; its heart is integrity – by which those choices are made according to the artist’s own value-judgments and own soul, speaking not what the artist thinks other people want to hear, but what the artist wants to say; and its purpose is life – the expression of the best in life, and the promoting of human life and happiness by its emotional effect on the audience (including the artist himself): emotions in response to a depiction of values worth reaching.

Art has to be judged by its technical merit, and different art forms have different means of expression determined by their special natures. But the primary importance of art, and the fundamental moral criterion by which to judge it, is whether it promotes life. “Materialists” often scoff at art, as at any “spiritual” pursuit. But their error is fundamentally the same as that of those who believe in subjectivism in art, who believe that there are no objective criteria in art. That error is to ignore Duality, to forget that we are beings both of matter and consciousness: neither hunks of meat without mind nor spirits unconstrained by reality. That we are integrated beings of mind and body, that we need nourishment of the spirit as well as the body, is what makes art necessary. And what it is necessary for is this:

Romantic art is the fuel and the spark plug of a man’s soul; its task is to set a soul on fire and never let it go out. (Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto)

Further Reading

This has been just a brief overview and sampler of the philosophy of art. For those interested in greater depth, the best place to start is The Romantic Manifesto by Ayn Rand. As both a great philosopher and a great artist, her thoughts on the subject should not be ignored by any serious student of Aesthetics.

Web sites for viewing and/or purchasing life-affirming art can be found via the Links page.

© 1999 Robin Craig: first published (in four parts) in TableAus.