Ayn Rand is a writer you grow up and grow out of. Teenagers love her novels: the plots are grandiose, unequivocal, uncompromising, morally unambiguous. The characters are idealized, romanticized, larger-than-life, and the Strong Guy always prevails. Her novels are adolescent, and adolescents are welcome to them.
When I went to Pratt Institute as a third-year transfer student in the art school, I had to take a couple of liberal arts courses to complete Pratt’s requirements for all art students. At that time—1965—most art schools advocated that their graduates should be well-rounded. Therefore a semester of philosophy was part of Pratt’s curriculum.
Our philosophy instructor was a young man, probably in his first teaching position, and he began the course with Plato and Aristotle. Boring, boring, boring. Most students in the class spent the fifty minutes doodling in their sketchbooks, and I did too, until the day Mr. X began to lecture about something called Objectivism.
From the way he taught it with complete conviction, and because we were utterly unschooled in philosophy, it sounded like a real thing. Rational self-interest, concept formation, inductive logic, and a lot of other jazzy terms meant zero to us until the magic name finally emerged: Ayn Rand.
Why on earth Pratt Institute would hire a proselytizer for a modern philosophy that was generally rejected by academics is a large question. But hire him they did, and the best I can say for the administration is that art students barely paid any attention to their liberal arts courses anyway, so the choice of teacher probably didn’t matter much.
In his quest to make the course relevant to us, Mr. X focused on Rand’s theories about what art was supposed to be: realistic. Period. If paintings weren’t representational, they weren’t art.
“As a re-creation of reality,” Rand wrote and Mr. X quoted, “a work of art has to be representational; its freedom of stylization is limited by the requirement of intelligibility; if it does not present an intelligible subject, it ceases to be art.”
I think most of the other students were napping that day, but I happened to be awake and I thought something must be wrong with my hearing. There we were in 1965, with Abstract Expressionism already deeply embedded in the art world and op art rapidly developing—and Ayn Rand didn’t believe either movement was legitimate?
That isn’t even putting it strongly enough: she rejected them completely, and so, of course, did Mr. X. I raised my hand, and we began a weeks-long argument that took us all the way to the end of the semester.
To give him his due, Mr. X was not in the least unhappy to be challenged; he encouraged the discussion unreservedly. He was young enough to relish the debate and enough of an ardent Rand disciple to surrender not an inch in the matter of abstract art.
At the end of the semester, he used his connections with the Objectivist crowd to arrange for Rand to give a lecture in the large auditorium at Pratt. The school considered it a great coup—she was, after all, famous—and Mr. X took me aside at our last class and invited me to arrive early for the lecture in order to meet Ayn Rand.
It must have been late May or early June and quite warm by then, but the sixty-year-old Rand showed up wearing a full-length mink coat and black heels that probably dated to 1947 or 1948. Mr. X beckoned me over and introduced us: “Miss Rand, this is the student I was telling you about, the one who believes in Abstract Expressionism. She’d like to ask you something.”
“What is your question for me?” Rand asked, clearly impatient.
I said, “How can you claim that abstract art isn’t art?”
Tilting her head back so she could look down her nose at me—in two-inch heels she was just my height—she said, “But my dear, it isn’t.” With that she turned and strode off.
There is a coda to this story. Setting aside her politics, which repel me, I will admit that there’s one phrase in the Rand lexicon that stuck in my head and still makes sense to me, if artists and writers are going to do their work: “the virtue of selfishness.”
There’s an ongoing argument as to whether, in her book of the same title, Rand intended this phrase to mean something broad or something narrow. She claimed it simply meant “concern with one’s own interest.”
How much, how often, and in what way you practice the virtue of selfishness—all of that is up to you. But if you plan to accomplish your artistic goals, it’s likely that you’ll have to accept a certain amount of your own selfishness, and recognize it as a virtue.
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Andover Bookstore, Andover, MA
Weller Book Works, Salt Lake City, UT
Falling Rock Cafe & Bookstore, Munising, MI