Painting, movies, literature, sculpture, music, architecture ... all have the ability to make us cry, to make us laugh, and -- just occasionally -- to make us feel ten feet tall. Why is great art so powerful? -- why does it have this profound ability to affect us? Simply, because it speaks personally to each of us. It is our shortcut to our very souls. When we experience art that truly touches us, we don’t just feel, “I like this;” if we have souls we feel “This is Me!”
Great art has enormous scope: it subsumes an enormous range of experience and thought and emotion, and integrates these three into a mental unit that our particularly human consciousness is able to grasp. It might be a painting, a sculpture, or a play or a building, but if it is well done we can all look at it or walk through it and almost immediately know -- without even being able to put it completely into words -- how the artists see the world around them. By experiencing the art they’ve produced, we should have a pretty fair idea of what they see as important in the world, and whether or not we too see the world in the same way.
Think, for instance, of the lightning-like evaluation you make when you see this painting. Or this one. Or this collection of buildings. Or these. See what I mean? The integration involved in a good work of art subsumes all the experience, thought and emotion that goes into our own view of the world and, if we identify with it, allows us to point and say: “That’s Me!” or “That’s Not Me!” (So on that score, ask yourself about your reactions to those linked pieces, and what it tells you about the way you see the world.)
The point here is that art isn’t just a way to kick back after a difficult week -- which is one reason elevator music and abstract painting are so execrable. Art is a shortcut to our very philosophy; a way to see and to experience our deepest values, and also to celebrate them.
Art -- good art -- shows us our way of seeing the world, while celebrating that that is the way we do see the world; more particularly, it celebrates our own individual way of seeing the world, and affirms it.
Why do we need art to see the world when we’ve already got eyes and ears and fingers and hands with which to experience it ourselves, and a brain with which to organise those experiences? Answer: We need art precisely because of the nature of that brain, and because of the way it organises the experiences.
Look at the way our knowledge of the world is acquired and held: our knowledge of the world around us begins with our senses, which provide us with material that is then organised by our brain into concepts; those concepts in turn are then integrated into propositions and theories. We start with sensations, derived from particular experiences, and these form the basis for all our higher abstractions: all our ideas, from ideas of love, of justice, of rights, of value ... all high-order abstractions; all derived from earlier concretes which are subsumed into concepts, and then subsumed into even wider concepts, and so on.
This process of abstraction leading to further abstraction creates both the enormous power of the human mind, and its great weakness: its power to think in vast abstractions, and its inability to see these abstractions as one unit. That’s what art does for us: it gives us each the power to see all of our important abstractions as a single unit.
To ‘fix’ each particular abstraction, as Ayn Rand points out in her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, we integrate the concept into a single mental unit: a word. Each word acts as a unit that integrates the constituent units of that particular concept, which brings together and holds for us in our minds the vast material referred to by the particular concept which that word is used to delineate.
But as we integrate these high-end abstractions into even wider abstractions, we run into a problem: the scope becomes too vast and too amorphous to grasp as a whole. For that, we need art. Think for example of the Statues of Justice and of Liberty, and of Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People.” These don’t just sum up the concepts of liberty and justice; they offer an evaluation of them to boot.
The relative position of our higher abstractions works of art is analogous to the position of a poem to a word; or that of a book to its chapter; or that of a piece of furniture to a building: the greater work orders, makes understandable and gives context to all the units subsumed, and brings into existence a new mental unit integrating them all. In making a work of art, we are offering a new mental unit that is at once a higher abstraction than those it subsumes, and a more concrete one. In making our abstractions concrete, it takes us back to the concretes from whence they came, but in a much more powerful form.
Art allows us to see the totality of our worldview. If we follow Leonard Peikoff’s idea that philosophy is like a skyscraper, we can see that it is a rather oddly-shaped one. Peikoff's skyscraper begins at the lower levels with metaphysics, the nature of existence. It continues upwards with a few floors dedicated to epistemology, how we know what we know. On top of these lower floors and dependent on them are floors describing the nature of human beings and how we should live in the world as it is, i.e. ethics, and then how we should live together, i.e., the field of politics.
Now, if we understand the true nature of art we can see that art does fit on top of the other floors, since it requires all the other floors below to give it support. But in an important sense, the upper floors of art actually lead directly back to the basement, rather like one of those strange buildings in a science fiction story in which we keep going up, yet we end up in the basement instead of the penthouse. Good art is both penthouse -- in the sense that it is a glorious summation and culmination of all that is below it -- and it is also basement, because it is both fundamentally necessary to human survival (witness the cave scratchings of even primitive men, who sought to find meaning in his world) and also intensely explicative of our own deepest metaphysical value judgments. Deep art really does go deep: right down to the bottom floor.
Why, then, is art so intensely personal? If it’s just a higher form of abstraction, why do we so readily get up in arms over it? Again, it is because of the nature of the human mind. We are endowed not just with a cognitive mechanism, but also with an emotional mechanism. “It is man’s cognitive faculty … that determines the content of both.” The premises and abstractions we form and accept are the programming for our subconscious: based on this ‘subconscious programming,’ our emotional faculty provides us inexorably with lightning-like evaluations of the things we see and experience around us -- the extent of our emotion at these experiences is the extent of the import and resonance they have for us.
As Ayn Rand said when identifying the nature of our emotions, they offer a lightning-like evaluation of the things around us. But our emotions do not spring from nowhere; they themselves are “an effect, not a cause.” Every single thing we see or experience is value-laden. It is our previous thinking (or lack thereof) that determines the nature of the evaluation.
If one has finished a hard day’s work and sees a beer, one might feel a fierce thirst and a yearning to sit down and enjoy it; if one’s a poor student and sees an exam paper, one might feel nausea and a desire to escape the classroom; but if one is a human being with a healthy soul, and one hears Beethoven’s Ninth or sees Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, then one feels exalted. The difference in the feelings is determined by what it is we experience. The intensity of feeling is the measure of the extent of the intellectual and emotional abstractions subsumed.
Why does great art move us? Because it speaks to the whole of us, and to everything we know and stand for.
Who needs great art? You do.