Objectivists on Art

On an otherwise lovely Saturday afternoon last week, I joined six members of the University of Chicago’s Objectivist Club at the Art Institute, where they lamented the collection’s repeated failure to live up to their reductive definition of art. For the uninitiated, Objectivists are followers of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, which in terribly abridged summary begins from the premise that reality exists and concludes “one’s own happiness [is] the moral purpose of life” and “productive achievement [is its] noblest activity.” More importantly for the outing, Objectivists believe objective truths exist regarding every domain of human experience, including morality and aesthetic judgments.

We met up in the European Art Before 1900 galleries, where their affable president, George Saad, was unimpressed by a realistic kitchen table still life by Édouard Manet–“Why this is in a museum, I have no idea.” Art, he explained, is the “selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value judgments.” Though technically competent, he found the painting’s values unclear, its aesthetic and emotional qualities irrelevant, and art it was deemed not. Speaking generally later, he clarified, telling me “art by its nature has to embody values,” and “good art concretizes the philosophy behind it.” A few rooms down, Jules Breton’s “The Song of the Lark,” depicting a farm girl in twilight holding a sickle and singing, received the group’s approval for its comprehensibly concretized values, though Saad mostly talked about Willa Cather’s eponymous novel.

In Monica Bonvicini’s Modern Wing installation “Light Me Black,” a bundle of fluorescent lights hung over a plaster floor broken by a viewers’ steps. Saad explained, “In a few words, this is what we’re against.” Down the hall, Francis Bacon’s “Figure with Meat,” a tormented painting of Pope Innocent X, was informed by “vicious values.” For the Objectivists, a seated bronze of Abraham Lincoln brought partial relief while sparking a debate over the morality of the Civil War between Saad and first-year Alex Foster, who argued that Lincoln was a nationalist and not a defender of individual liberties. Saad retorted with something about the need to colonize the West, while graduate student Alex Moya explained why he liked both the statue and “The Song of the Lark”: “They symbolize what man can and ought to be. They show humans as heroic beings.”

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