Sunday, May 19, 2013

Atlas Shrugged & How to Assess the Arts

Atlas Shrugged is a hugely successful and widely reviled novel by Ayn Rand. Many people subscribe to her philosophy, Objectivism, and even place Rand on an intellectual pedestal. Others vehemently hate the philosophy and the woman who created it. Rand's novel has received additional attention in of late with Tea Party politicians claiming her as inspiration and the trilogy of Atlas Shrugged movies rolling out. This post is not a review of Atlas Shrugged or the movies; it's more of a launch pad for something else (but I'll likely be providing a 'Zen Buddhist school of criticism' post on Objectivism before long).

Few novelists engender the intense emotional responses Ayn Rand does. Just check out reviews of any Ayn Rand book (especially Atlas Shrugged) on amazon.com and you will see a hotbed of vehement reactions from the celebratory to the acidic.  Of course, the quality of these comments varies substantially. I remember one reviewer admitted to having read less than a chapter of Atlas Shrugged before throwing the book aside and dismissing it, Ayn Rand, and Objectivism as evil. I don't maintain a specific 'Top 10' list for literature but, from a qualitative standpoint, I could probably rattle off fifteen to twenty works I would consider candidates for my 'Top 10' list. One of them is Atlas Shrugged.  When I share this opinion, I find I receive one of two reactions: 1) assuming I agree with her philosophy in total, and/or 2) a gasp of shock followed by all the reasons for disliking or disagreeing with Ayn Rand. 

The point I wanted to make with this post is that whether one agrees with or likes Ayn Rand or Objectivism is irrelevant to assessing Atlas Shrugged as a piece of literature. In fact, whether one agrees with or personally likes any piece of literature or painting or music is irrelevant to assessing its artistic merit. 

Now I'm not saying personal taste doesn't play an important role in reacting to and analyzing art. I actually find gut reactions a useful first step in doing so. However, the problem with gut reactions is that they are largely informed by what we have been exposed to and are comfortable with. As a result, anything innovative or 'outside the box' is very likely to create a negative gut reaction. So gut reactions are not valid as the primary basis  for assessing or rejecting anything. The key step, which I think many people don't bother with involves thinking about why we have the gut reaction we do. So while I feel we should embrace our initial, emotional reactions, we must be sure to analyze them so we know where they come from. Through this process, we can learn a lot and even recognize merit in  music, art, or literature that we fundamentally do not like.

Blue Poles, 1952
Jackson Pollock
oil on canvas, 2.10 m x 4.9 m
Here's a personal example. When I first saw a Jackson Pollock painting, I hated it. I found it meaningless, and I believe the artist would agree with that. My gut reaction to his work is annoyance that 'splatters' are heralded as art, and I am entitled to it. What I'm not entitled to - if I want to be intelligent - is to enshrine my knee-jerk reactions as considered opinions. The fact is that every innovative painter since Impressionism has been greeted with exactly the kind of knee-jerk reaction I had when I first saw a Pollock painting, yet no one today would deny that Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse, or Picasso are master artists. The fact they were innovative and new led people to react negatively and dismiss them.

When I dug deeper into my reaction to Pollock, I came to a very different appraisal of him. Does that mean I like him now? No. I still hate his paintings, and I see little chance of that ever changing. However, I do recognize him as a major figure of art. His point in creating these pieces was to assert that art did not have to objectively depict anything in order to be art and, even though I do not like his work, I respect his contribution and the balls it took for him to do it. My assessment of Pollock now to see him as a revolutionary, but one whose work may be less meaningful outside the revolution it led. While I appreciate the brilliance of what he did, I question whether his work will last as long as other Abstract Expressionists (e.g., Rothko, Mitchell). My thinking also helped me form an opinion about 'splatter' paintings by contemporary artists, namely that doing Pollock-esque splatter paintings in 2013 is regurgitating a revolutionary style sixty years after it was shocking. That's not only derivative but it's also a big bag of sad.

So back to Atlas Shrugged. Do I agree with Objectivism? Do I 'like' Ayn Rand? It makes no difference. I find Atlas Shrugged to be a phenomenal novel because it transcends itself. Atlas Shrugged is the crystallization of a view point, a philosophy. This is an incredibly ambitious undertaking and few writers have attempted it. That the book is also a fantastic page-turner (after say about page 50 when it starts to cook), works on a huge scope, and has one of the most intricate and fascinating plots I've ever come across in a novel makes it a major accomplishment on every level. 

When I hear/read something like that reviewer throwing the book aside after less than a chapter and declaring dislike for all things Ayn Rand, all I think is: that's a limited person. The wonderful thing about art and ideas is it allows you to expose yourself to things that are different, even alien, such as having your ear stretched by an innovative musical style or seeing a painting that comes at visual art in a way you've never experienced before. Reading ideas that conflict with your own is good. One doesn't have to agree with what one reads to learn from it. A person who shuts off to everything but a narrow set of inputs they agree with is - in my opinion - a limited person.

To take it a step further, this kind of narrow mind set is what has created the dysfunctional government we have been suffering under for most of the 21st Century. People seem to have forgotten that it's okay to tolerate other viewpoints, to explore, to debate, to 'pass through' without accepting. Taking input from many sources, even some that you disagree with, forges the best possible ideas and experience. It's what thinking, learning, and growing are all about!

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