Award-Winning Critic Maligns Ayn Rand’s Theory of Art

Jillian Steinhauer, Critic

Jillian Steinhauer, Senior Editor of Hyperallergic.

Google “Ayn Rand’s theory of art,” and the second item you will find [as of this writing] is an article with that title in the online magazine Hyperallergic. Published in September 2012, the article—which prominently cites the book I co-authored on Rand’s theory—has been known to me for some time. But it is such a scurrilous hatchet job that I didn’t want to dignify it with a response.

What changed my mind? The recent discovery that the article’s author, Jillian Steinhauer (Hyperallergic’s senior editor), was honored by the U.S. chapter of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA-USA) with its Best Art Reporting award in 2014. “Prizing excellence in writing,” AICA-USA also designated Hyperallergic the Best Blog.

So it may be worth dissecting Steinhauer’s piece after all, to see what presumably passes for “excellence in writing” in today’s artworld.

To begin with, after being alerted by an abstract painter named Abigail Markov to “the hefty 539-page treatise” What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand, Steinhauer “couldn’t quite bring” herself to “buy the book”—or even, I would add, to consult a copy in the New York Public Library. Instead, she relies on “excerpted bits” and chapter summaries that were published online.

Starting, reasonably enough, with “the most basic question of all: what is art?” Steinhauer manages to come up with the following “key takeaway” from What Art Is Online. In her words:

Rand sees the primary purpose of art as “nonutilitarian and psychological in nature” and says that its cognitive function is “to bring man’s fundamental concepts and values ‘to the perceptual level of his consciousness’ and allow him ‘to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts.’”

To my amazement, Steinhauer actually concurs: “OK, fair enough. I can get with that.” The problem for her “begins when you flip the question and ask what isn’t art.” She simply can’t understand why “Rand is horrified by the art establishment’s assertion that anything can be art if the artist (or a critic) says so.” And she can’t abide Rand’s view that representational painting, drawing, and sculpture are the principal forms of visual art.

Steinhauer then proceeds to list some of the artworld luminaries and genres called into question by Rand’s theory (“things that Rand says are not art, from all artistic fields, not just visual”)—few of them directly excluded by Rand, in fact. Had Steinhauer deigned to read the book, she would have recognized that it was Louis Torres and I—not Rand herself—who had drawn such exclusions, based on Rand’s theory. In any case, like others challenged by our revisionist viewpoint, Steinhauer simply rejects our conclusions—our exclusions from the realm of “art”—without considering (much less rebutting) the evidence and arguments behind them.

Among the excluded genres noted by Steinhauer are “any and all abstract art.” By implication, she finds this absurd. But does she consider what “fundamental concepts and values” (a key part of Rand’s theory that she “can get with”) are communicated by abstract painting or sculpture? Hardly. Nor does she venture to reconcile “American Indian artifacts and other examples of ‘craft’”—another item on the list of exclusions—with Rand’s view of “the primary purpose of art as ‘nonutilitarian and psychological in nature’” (which she also says she agrees with).

Predictably, Steinhauer has nothing good to say about our “critique of spurious postmodernist genres (from ‘pop art,’ ‘conceptual art,’ and ‘performance art’ to ‘installation art’ and ‘video art’) and acclaimed postmodernist ‘artists,’ including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Cindy Sherman, and Bruce Nauman, Nam June Paik, Chuck Close, and Matthew Barney.” Yet she is again mum on the question of how she thinks these examples would fit Rand’s definition of art—which “she can get with.”

Finally, Steinhauer is dismissive of the book’s Appendixes—in particular, Appendix B: Artworld Buzzwords. As if nailing the ultimate absurdity of Rand’s theory, she cites our listing of “such innocuous verbs and adjectives” as “challenge,” “confront,” “explore,” and “quirky,” as well as “the artist,” “emerging artist,” “contemporary,” “gallerist,” “make,” “new,” “object,” and “visual culture.” But she fails to note our countless excerpts from recent arts coverage showing how those buzzwords are used to legitimize “cutting-edge” work that many reasonable people, including genuine art lovers, find beyond the pale of art.

Contra Rand, Steinhauer stands by the “quirky, abstract political web installations made by emerging artists and shown by a handful of new gallerists that explore our society’s visual culture and challenge our notions of objecthood.”

In her closing paragraph, the award-winning critic—whose specialty is the “intersection of art and politics”—can’t resist the following reference to the 2012 presidential campaign:

At this point it might be relevant to mention [Mitt] Romney’s comments about axing the National Endowment for the Arts if elected (in the book, Rand [no, Torres and Kamhi] calls the NEA “a dubious model” for arts support) or the influence of Rand on vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan . . . but I just can’t do it. I can’t take Ayn Rand’s “esthetic theory” seriously enough for that.

Hmm. . . . Could Steinhauer’s political animus explain why she couldn’t bring herself to read the book about Rand’s theory to begin with and discover what it actually says? If so, she’s surely not alone in today’s artworld—though better minds than hers [more] have found that theory well worth taking seriously.