April 12th, 2004

Architecture and Ayn Rand, revisited

In their contentious tome, *What Art Is*, Torres and Kamhi launch an assault upon architecture's aesthetic merits.

They make a case that architecture doesn't properly fall under Rand's definition of art. On their website they recount a second-hand report that in her later years Rand herself had decided that architecture wasn't exactly art.

That's all as may be. I've argued about it elsewhere, notably in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.

But what galls me is their gratuitous assault upon architecture's ability to convey meaning and a sense of life. Rand is very clear that she believes it can.

Torres & Kamhi, for some reason, feel a need to knock down the usual view of architecture as a conveyor of meaning and majesty. They are out on a limb on this position, and they don't have much support except for their own dismissive hand waving. They don't *see* the "Sermons in Stone". So the sermons must not be there. Several millennia of people reporting that some buildings make them feel special and holy... must just be groundless!

They take a stand against reading The Fountainhead in search of Rand's view of architecture. This, after Rand recommended doing exactly that!

Anyway, the issues deserve to be separated. One might logically hold that architecture is not exactly art, but that it DOES convey some of the same emotional-intellectual force of art. After all, Romantic love is not art, but it certainly conveys some of the same effect of art, namely a powerful sense of affirmation of one's own sense of life.

Architecture deserves our admiration, regardless of its exact classification among human artifacts. (And I still say... it's art.)

Rhyme of the day:

Temples and towers
embody our powers.

you must change your life

We have a guest "rhyme of the day." This time it's a real poem, a famous one.

The poem describe an old statue of the god, Apollo. All that's left is a torso. No head. But the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, sees a great deal in the torso.

"Archaic Torso of Apollo" tran. Walter Kaufmann)

We did not know his high, unheard-of head
where his eyes' apples ripened. Yet his torso has
retained their glowing as
a candelabrum where his vision, not yet dead,

only turned low, still shines. For else the breast
could not blind you, nor could we still discern
the smile that wanders in the loins' faint turn
to that core which once carried manhood's crest.

Else would this stone, disfigured and too small,
stand mute under the shoulders' lucid fall,
and not gleam like a great cat's skin, and not

burst out of all its contours, bright
as a great star: there is no spot
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Pause on that last sentence. You must change your life. All this from a statue. Rilke is experiencing this ancient statue as a contemporary challenge to his way of living. How can this be?

After all, it has been argued that only the literary arts are capable of communicating a moral ideal. But here is a poet who finds a moral ideal in a Greek statue. In this he resembles Ayn Rand.

Here is another poet, the translator of the Rilke poem, reacting to Rembrandt and finding all sorts of levels of moral meaning in the man's paintings.

"Rembrandt" by Walter Kaufmann

Deep crimson velvet lined with ermine fur,
pictures of women's breasts and eager thighs
seem dull and dead before the sunken eyes
of my creations: beggars whom you slur,

the poor, the old, the Jews - the scum that crowds
into the fringes of your wealthy towns:
Without the benefit of purple gowns
or naked bodies under silken shrouds,

without a multicolored interplay,
I model them out of the dark of night,
bring them to life with but a beam of light,
as God created us from dirt and clay.

The mud-brown portrait of some beggar-sage,
a little etching, all restraint and quiet,
contains more life than all the Baroque riot
and infinite contortions of this age.

Kaufmann obviously is finding a very different "message" in Rembrandt's paintings than Rilke did in the torso of Apollo. Kaufmann takes away a message of social justice, disdain for showy splendor, and a thirst for authenticity. He is obviously inspired by this message.

Again I ask, how can this be? How can a visual image contain challenging moral content?

Maybe it's just these oversensitive poets, making things up?

On the other hand, maybe the people who cannot see anything of such meanings are undersensitive.