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Trafalgar Square, 1939-43, Piet Mondrian
Mondrian and Metonymy:
The Soul of a Straight Line
by Richard Speer
Author's note: I present this monograph primarily for historical purposes and because it is extremely popular on Internet search engines. Although it has been updated from time to time, the original paper was written when my artistic and philosophic interests were narrow and very much in development. It does not accurately reflect my current aesthetic positions. --Richard Speer
"The straight line is the badge of man --
the straight line of geometrical abstraction...
that cuts the curving aimlessness of nature."
"His style projects a concretized image of an immense, nonvisual abstraction:
the psycho-epistemology of a rational mind."
Ayn Rand on Jan Vermeer, The Romantic Manifesto
"I see Mondrian’s neoplasticism in psycho-epistemological terms,
as an abstract depiction of the architecture of a rational mind."
Richard Speer on Piet Mondrian, Mondrian and Metonymy: The Soul of a Straight Line
Even if you have never heard of Piet Mondrian and his "neo-plastic" art, you have likely seen its influence on popular culture.
You have seen Mondrian ripoffs on hairspray canisters...
The Partridge Family TV show...
the famous Playboy Clubs of the 1960s and 70s...
And so on...
Several years ago, a friend of mine named Ann Craig introduced me to Mondrian while we were in the Yucatan studying the pyramids at Uxmal and Palenque. She knew that my artistic tastes at the time ran quite narrowly to the baroque and rococo -- if it didn't have cherubs and gold leaf, I didn't want any part of it. Ann also knew I was interested in the pro-reason philosophy of novelist Ayn Rand.
"If you like Rand," she told me with a mix of insight and na´vetÚ, "you would probably like the painter Piet Mondrian. His work is very logical, very structured."
I was only peripherally familiar with Mondrian and resolved to investigate him more thoroughly. When we returned to the States, I pulled some books on the artist and felt my world re-arrange itself the instant I beheld the first plate. It was more than an affinity I felt; it was an identification.
This, I thought, is what the inside of my mind looks like: colorful yet ordered, dynamic yet serene, with a clear sense of definition, hierarchy, and harmony. I was interpreting Mondrian’s art in psycho-epistemological terms, much as Rand notes the psycho-epistemological implications, stylistically, of Jan Vermeer.
Yet Rand views art not as primarily epistemological, but as metaphysical. In her Romantic Manifesto she defines art as "a selective recreation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value judgments… Art is a concretization of metaphysics." Thus, a work of art betrays the artist’s view of the universe and man’s place within it.
My own addendum is that a work of art also betrays the artist’s mind in microcosm. An artist’s style betrays his psycho-epistemological method: the conscious and sub-conscious processes by which his mind integrates percepts, concepts, and abstractions. Art shows us whether the artist processes information efficiently or inefficiently; whether he regards rationality as a tool or an impediment; whether he focuses or deadens his consciousness, and to what degree.
Nowhere is this more evident than in abstract art, which gives us neither the luxury nor distraction of representational content to contemplate. We are left to evaluate only the form and implications of the artist’s style. The abstract artist projects his style with each brushstroke. And each brushstroke is no more and no less than a thought frozen on canvas.
By this method of viewing art psycho-epistemologically, Impressionism conveys as a mind in soft focus, only half conscious, perceiving objects as shifting blobs of color.
Cubism conveys the mind of a schizophrenic, perceptually impaired, attempting to see objects from multiple angles, i.e., in a non-human fashion.
Surrealism conveys the mind of a paranoid psychotic or hallucinogen user in the middle of a bad trip, spooked by horrific images bubbling up from the unconscious.
Drip painting conveys the mind of an emotionalist, haphazardly, angrily slapping ideas together at the whim of the moment.
Pop Art conveys the mind of a mediocrity, easily entertained by repetition and superficiality.
But Mondrian’s neoplasticism conveys the mind of a rational thinker: defining concepts, according them value, balancing them in dynamic hierarchy. In my critique, Mondrian’s mature work depicts the architecture of a logical mind. I will explain this interpretation in short order, but let me hasten to acknowledge the obvious point that there are many other contexts in which to view the above artistic styles. In recent years I have come to love Abstract Expressionism, for example, for its sense of fluid gesture. Expressionism's spontaneity and De Stijl's rectilinear rigor are polarities, to be sure, yet I see them dialectically and would never praise one at the other's expense.
I should also note that soon after I discovered Mondrian, I realized that his art is (at least superficially) incompatible with Ayn Rand’s aesthetic treatise, The Romantic Manifesto, in which she issues a blanket condemnation of non-representational art. Her circular syllogism goes like this: Art is the selective recreation of reality according to the value judgments of the artist. Non-representational art does not recreate reality. Therefore, non-representational art is not art. Obviously, I regard this view as an affront, and I am far from the only art lover to take serious issue with Rand's views as espoused in The Romantic Manifesto. Many of my colleagues in aesthetics view this book as Rand's shakiest philosophic ground.
I believe Rand's definition of art is too narrow. My own definition is this: Art is the product of creative expression. It's a wide definition, which allows much through the door that Rand would turn away: abstract art, performance art, decorative art, the culinary arts, even the Wildean conception of life itself as art. My definition avoids the pitfall of Rand's -- the pointless meta-aesthetic detour of "Is it art or non-art?" -- and shines the spotlight of criticism where it should properly rest: "Is it good art, bad art, or mediocre art?"
Rand's dismissal of abstract art has always struck me not only as narrow minded, but also at odds with other writings in which she explicitly embraces concepts of abstract linearity. Several years ago, because I could not accept these conflicts, I set out to bridge the dichotomy between Rand's views and my own. The task was one of two great intellectual projects that consumed me during my college years. (The other was a critique of Rand’s explicit and implicit views on gender and sexuality and a corollary monograph positing a link between sexual orientation and psycho-epistemology.) The product of my efforts to reconcile neoplasticism and Objectivist thought was a monograph entitled "Mondrian and the Metaphysics of Metonymy," which was later published in the arts journal, Final Cause.
The monograph provoked spirited debate in many forums and continues to have a life of its own. Laypeople and Mondrian scholars from countries including the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Brazil have found it via Web searches, written me with compliments, flames, and questions, and reprinted or linked the piece. Poet John Enright cited the monograph in his article, "Art: What a Concept," published in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (Volume 2, Number 2: "The Aesthetics Symposium"):
...Rand maintains that a person of high self esteem will have a positive emotional response to “pure colors” whereas a person of low self esteem will feel emotionally at ease with “muddy colors” (27). The apparent conflict may be resolved by granting that color elements do carry some sense-of-life associations, that these are minor compared to the impact which a painting can provide, but that they are real nonetheless. Some observers are very sensitive to such abstract design elements. Consider, for example, Richard Speer (1999), who writes about the straight-line-based designs and bright primary colors of Mondrian, praising them in Randian terms as signifying the psycho-epistemology of a logical mind. My take is that Speer is very sensitive to abstract designs, as some people are, and that he does have a strong sense-of-life response to Mondrian. After all, if you talk to people who make their living in graphic arts or industrial design, you find many who wax enthusiastic over the emotional impact of various designs...
Enright later wrote to me: "I especially wanted to write about your views because I think there is something true in them that needs to be kept in sight."
By way of follow-up in a subsequent issue of the Journal (Volume 4, Number 2), Michelle Marder Kamhi, co-author of What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand, takes Enright to task for his apparent sympathy with my inclusivism towards abstract art. Kamhi writes:
...We then proceeded to analyze some of these false claims and beliefs -- from the assumption that mind and spirit could be severed from matter to the idea that profound spiritual values could be represented without reference to persons, places, and things in reality. (In this context, I find particularly ironic Enright's approving citation of Richard Speer, an Objectivist who has written at length about Mondrian... for his "praising [Mondrian's designs] in Randian terms as signifying the psycho-epistemology of a logical mind." Here, once again, Enright completely ignores the relevant discussion in What Art Is...
This is typical of Rand hard-liners: Enright is excoriated because he dares deviate from the letter of the law laid down in The Romantic Manifesto. He is misguided, Kamhi posits, because he "completely ignores" her "relevant discussion." It is inconceivable to her that he could have read and considered this very discussion, then formed a different conclusion; no, he must have willfully ignored it. Why, the laxity, the audacity of the fellow! If Rand were alive, she would likely brand him "a savage," a "bastard," or, worst of all, a "hippie!"
There is danger in a dogma that would put blinders up against a Mondrian, a de Kooning, a Bridget Riley, in favor of an endless loop of Vermeer and contemporary "romantic realists" such as Quent Cordair, Sylvia Bokor, and Michael Newberry. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but an even more terrible thing to close.
Mondrian and Metonymy by Richard Speer
Piet Mondrian’s neoplastic style portrays a rational mind in microcosm. I will show why I believe this interpretation is consistent with linear concepts expressed in philosopher Ayn Rand’s fiction and non-fiction. And I will show how Gestalt psychologist Rudolf Arnheim’s concept of metonymy provides a basis for understanding Mondrian’s meta-aesthetic -- that is, why Mondrian’s style connotes a rational psycho-epistemology.
"Of what does a painting by Piet Mondrian consist?" asks Frank Whitford in his book, Understanding Abstract Art. "The obvious answer is: very little."
The minimal answer crystallizes what is perhaps the most common reaction to Mondrian’s art: It’s nothing but a bunch of squares and rectangles! Yet Mondrian’s work is potentially much more than this.
Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan, Jr., was born in 1872. The young Dutchman first studied painting in Amsterdam, and although his earliest works reflect the teachings of traditional realists, the artist soon experimented with pointillism, cubism, and the highly expressionistic style of Van Gogh. But Mondrian’s oft-quoted personal motto, "Always further," demanded he transcend his artistic predecessors and contemporaries and give life to a unique vision, at once personal and universal.
Biographer Michel Seuphor writes:
"Mondrian’s evolution is extremely eloquent. No other modern painter came from as far back, and none went further ahead. The graph of his progress is singular -- so clear and pure that it creates its own myth. Mondrian started from Van Gogh; more than that, he retraced the whole process of Van Gogh; then, after painting like a Fauve before the Fauves, he found cubism, overtook it, and went beyond."
In 1919 Mondrian arrived at his mature neoplastic style: straight black lines intersecting at ninety-degree angles, creating rectangular planes filled with any of the three primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) or any of three "non-colors" (white, gray, and black). Mondrian held that the horizontal and vertical comprise visual forces in absolute opposition. When these forces run parallel to and intersect one another in rectangles, the result is an exact equilibrium that neutralizes visual disharmony. Mondrian held the diagonal line in contempt as an expression of motion, dynamism, and ultimately chaos. When his friend and fellow artist Theo van Doesburg championed the diagonal, Mondrian ceased all personal and professional contact with him.
In his mature period, Mondrian was disinterested in nature as a vehicle toward creative inspiration. To him the natural was the transitory, the non-universal, and the tragic. Seuphor writes: "Mondrian makes frequent use of the term ‘tragic.’ For him the term signifies every kind of fear of life, including the dread of the new, and sentimental attachment to the past."
How have critics confronted Mondrian’s geometric abstraction?
Some adopt the stance of apologist. Frank Whitford writes:
"What initially appears to be a dryness, a blandness within these pictures, is on closer inspection enriched by tiny and subtle modifications. The lines are in reality not precisely drawn, but of slightly varying thickness, with edges that are not perfectly straight. Moreover, what appears in reproduction to be a smooth, anonymous surface is revealed in the original to consist of thick, even creamy paint. As this and the reticent signature in the bottom corner make plain, these paintings are not the product of a machine but of a man."
Whitford feels compelled to humanize Mondrian’s austere canvases, calling into question their seeming geometric perfection and suggesting that the perceived uniformity in paint application is, in fact, a deception which, upon closer inspection, gives way to luxuriantly thick creaminess. Finally Whitford implies that the artist’s "reticent" signature belies the bold, cold decisiveness of his paintings. The critic attempts to make Mondrian more viewer-friendly by suggesting that the essence of neoplastic art lies in its ostensible deviations from perfect equilibrium and order. Whitford would have us delight not in the elemental elegance of a Mondrian painting, but in the "human elements" -- the presumed imperfections which would bring neoplasticism "back down to earth."
This iconoclastic strategy not only insults Mondrian; it insults the intelligence of whoever is viewing the canvas. It suggests that Mondrian’s severity must be mitigated in order to be appreciated. Whitford’s misguided revisionism refuses to acknowledge the artist’s style qua itself. No amount of second-guessing or projection can turn a sparse neoplastic composition into a glob of paint slopped on in the heat of raving passion.
Mondrian qua Mondrian
What, then, is the significance of Mondrian qua Mondrian, Mondrian as uncompromising geometric abstractionist? Further, what kind of psycho-epistemology is implied by the artist’s straight-lined, right-angled, primary-colored paintings?
Mondrian in relation to Ayn Rand and Objectivist Aesthetics
For a philosophic foundation upon which to base the answers to these questions, let us briefly consult philosopher Ayn Rand’s Romantic Manifesto:
"Art is a selective recreation of reality, in accordance with the artist’s metaphysical value judgments. By a selective recreation, art isolates and integrates those aspects of reality which represent man’s fundamental view of existence and himself... Art is a concretization of metaphysics. While man’s rational faculty integrates percepts into concepts and concepts into wider abstractions, art brings man’s concepts to the perceptual level of consciousness; art allows man to grasp directly his conscious and subconscious philosophical premises and to perceive them not as abstractions, but as percepts."
Rand also holds that art projects a unique "sense of life... a highly preconceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and existence... formed by a process of emotional generalization which may be described as a subconscious counterpart of the process of abstraction... The man who enjoys depictions of heroes, of the New York skyline, a sunlit landscape, and pure colors, has a radically different sense of life than the man who enjoys depictions of ‘the folks next door,’ of an old fishing village, a foggy landscape, or muddy colors."
Ayn Rand’s Personal Artistic Tastes
It is worth noting that the artist who crystallized Ayn Rand’s particular sense of life was Jan Vermeer, "because his style projects a concretized image of an immense, nonvisual abstraction: the psycho-epistemology of a rational mind. Vermeer projects clarity, discipline, confidence, purpose, and power-a universe open to man."
An important characteristic of Vermeer’s painting is its structural rectilinear geometricism, manifested in square and rectangular objects within his compositions: maps, charts, mirrors, pictures hung on walls, parquet floors, open windows, etc.
In The Romantic Manifesto Rand provides a biographical basis for her love of Vermeer’s linear style:
"At the age of sixteen, for one summer, I joined a drawing class. The instructor was a magnificent artist who forbade the class ever to draw a curved line: he taught us that every curve must be broken into facets of intersecting straight lines. I fell in love with this style, and I still love it."
Linear Concepts in Rand’s Novels
In Rand’s fiction, heroic characters and actions are often described in reference to the straight line.
From The Fountainhead (describing Howard Roark): "It was a body of long, straight lines and angles, each curve broken into planes..."
From The Fountainhead (describing Dominique Francon): "Her hair fell in a straight line to her shoulders.."
From Atlas Shrugged (describing Dagny Taggart): "Rearden knew, by the proud posture of the body standing in the clearing, by the straight line of the shoulders..."; and "Her slender body was held erect by the straight line of the shoulders..."
From Atlas Shrugged: "Dagny’s picture of the boat was of three straight lines..."
From Atlas Shrugged: "The work of cooking a meal was like a closed circle, completed and gone, leading nowhere. But the work of building a path was a living sum, so that no day was left to die behind her, but each day contained all those that preceded. A circle, she thought, is the movement proper to physical nature; while circular motion is the hallmark of the inanimate universe, the straight line is the badge of man ---the straight line of geometrical abstraction that makes roads, rails, and bridges -- the straight line that cuts the curving aimlessmness of nature by a purposeful motion from a start to an end."
The Fountainhead/Frank Lloyd Wright/Mondrian connection
Howard Roark, the architect hero of Rand’s The Fountainhead, articulates a philosophy of form-following-function which many readers likened to the principles of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Rand describes the austere angularity of Roark’s buildings, clearly drawing from Wright masterworks such as the Willit House of 1902 and the Kaufman House ("Fallingwater") of 1937.
There is an interesting tie-in here to Mondrian and his compatriots in the deStyl movement. As art historian Serge Lemoine points out, many of Wright’s ideas had a major influence on the elaboration of the neoplastic ideal. Indeed, the Kaufman House, with its rectangular cantilevered planes, is rather like a Mondrian painting transmuted into architectural form.
Disdain of tragedy
Both Rand and Mondrian disdained tragedy. Rand’s novels portray a benevolent universe of heroes, heroines, and achievement where human happiness is paramount and suffering irrelevant. Explaining her love of tap dancing, Rand writes in The Romantic Manifesto: "It is one of the few artforms that is incapable of expressing tragedy or fear or guilt. This is why it is my favorite kind of dance." Interestingly, Mondrian’s favorite music was the irrepressibly exuberant boogie-woogie.
Both Rand and Mondrian idealized the metropolis. Rand held that since evaluations of beauty depend on values, and since values are determined by codes of ethics, then nature (random, volitionless, and therefore outside the jurisdiction of ethics) posesses no true beauty; nature is only a set of raw materials to be molded by man to suit his purposes. Rand’s love of New York City permeates her novels, particularly Atlas Shrugged. Mondrian, who spent the last years of his life in New York City, integrated the city’s glittering lights and restless, jazz-like rhythms into his paintings, particularly in New York, Broadway Boogie Woogie, and the unfinished Victory Boogie Woogie. Mondrian’s contempt for nature was so great that he preferred to be seated facing away from the window in restaurants and homes, so he would not have to look at the outdoors.
In his essay, "The New Plastics in Painting," Mondrian writes:
"The artist sees the metropolis as a formal equivalent of abstract life; it is closer to him than nature and gives him a stronger feeling of beauty, for in the big city, nature has already been constrained and ordered by the human spirit. The proportions and rhythms of architectural surfaces and lines speak more directly to the artist than do the whims of nature."
Furthermore, both Rand and Mondrian revere abstraction. For Rand, cognitive abstractions crown man’s rational faculty, integrating concepts. For Mondrian, visual abstraction is the language of elemental, universal forms.
Both Rand and Mondrian rely on irreducible fundamentals to ground their respective systems. For Rand, three metaphysical fundamentals -- Aristotle’s Law of Identity and its corollaries, the Excluded Middle and Non-Contradiction -- underlie reality. For Mondrian, the three primary colors-red, blue, and yellow-make up the irreducible axioms of visual expression.
Finally, both Rand and Mondrian supplemented their main works (novels and paintings, respectively) with exhaustive non-fictional treatises to clarify their art’s full implications.
Disparities in Mondrian’s and Rand’s Worldviews
Despite these striking apparent compatibilities between Mondrian’s art and Ayn Rand’s aesthetics, the explicit writings of both artists bar any sanction of one by the other. Mondrian’s artistic credos could not be farther removed from Rand’s ethics.
In his Natural Reality and Abstract Reality, Mondrian argues that the reductive minimalism of his work expresses a collective social ideal; that the "universality" of his style is anti-individual; and that when applied to human life on a grand scale, would lead to a new brand of socialist utopia. Such notions completely contradict Rand’s virulently egoist ethics and capitalist economics.
More fundamentally, Rand disparages all non-representational art. By her definition of art as "the selective recreation of reality…" Mondrian’s abstraction does not qualify as art at all.
In a 1991 interview, Rand biographer Barbara Branden told me she believes Rand never encountered Mondrian’s art. "But if she had," Branden said, "she would probably have regarded it only as decorative art, not fine art."
In 1999, Rand’s onetime associate and intimate friend, Nathaniel Branden, told me he had no recollection of Rand ever encountering or commenting on Mondrian’s work.
Certainly, Rand’s low opinion of surrealism, cubism, and other styles within "modern art" is understandable, given her "romantic realist" aesthetic. Yet one is still tempted to wonder whether she would have exempted Mondrian from this nihilistic company -- and if she had not, then why not? -- given her predisposition toward linearity and her propensity for viewing painting in psycho-epistemological terms.
My interpretation of Mondrian
I see Mondrian’s neoplasticism in psycho-epistemological terms, as an abstract depiction of the architecture of a logical mind.
In my critique, a neoplastic composition’s intersecting lines represent the structure of conceptual thought, the framework necessary for processing knowledge: logic.
The perpendicular lines delimit rectangular planes. In my reading, this symbolizes the act of classification, the demarkation of one concept from another. Note that each plane is a discrete entity; there is no overlapping, no confusion as to where one plane ends and another begins-just as a rational mind has no room for vagueness, sloppily overlapping concepts, and undefined, floating abstractions. A concept, like a neoplastic plane, is discrete, airtight. To classify something -- to define it -- is to separate it from the rest of existence by virtue of its essential characteristics. Definition equals delimitation, in Mondrian’s art and in a rational epistemology.
The inside of each rectangular plane is filled with color (red, yellow, or blue) or with what Mondrian calls "non-colors" (black, white, and gray).
Mondrian’s use of the primary colors is significant. In his mature work, there are no fucsia planes, nor mauve, lavender, nor chartreuse; there is no "bleeding over" of colors. He uses, as a plane’s "content," only the essential, irreducible hues from which all other colors are created. In like fashion, our conceptual faculty determines the content of our concepts by identifying a referent’s essential characteristics. On the microcosmic level of concept-formation, there is no place for "fucsia" concepts -- concepts blended together from sundry sources; a concept is precisely defined by essential characteristics. Mondrian’s primary colors portray a mind that thinks in absolutes.
The colored space inside the rectangular planes -- the planes’ content -- represents the content of a conceptual thought or abstraction. The beholder of the composition is at liberty to interpret the colored planes as either generic or specific concepts or abstractions. This is, after all, abstract art, which leaves a degree of interpretation to the viewer.
The viewer who regards the colored planes as generic concepts will view the entire composition as a conceptual abstraction, an ordered group of concepts delineated in precise relation to each other.
Another viewer may regard the planes as specific concepts, and "fill in the blanks."
Yet another viewer may regard each plane as an abstraction. He might see one plane as "man’s rights," another as "the evil of the initiation of force," another as "justice." The total composition could represent the wider abstraction, "capital punishment."
No matter which approach he chooses, he is viewing the composition as a visual representation of cognitive processes: identification, classification, and integration within a logical framework. Seeing Mondrian’s style as an abstract depiction of a rational mind’s architecture is the essence -- and the beauty -- of my interpretation.
Why is my interpretation possible? Why do Mondrian’s neoplastic compositions imply a rational psycho-epistemology? Specifically, why do straight lines and rectilinear planes connote focus, order, logic?
These questions are fundamental to the credibility of my interpretation. To answer them we must consider what I call the "meta-aesthetic" of Mondrian’s neoplasticism.
Meta is the Latin pronoun for "beyond" or "transcending," hence, for example, the discipline of meta-ethics, the study of why codes of ethics came into being, why we need certain terms to study ethics, what criteria we use in evaluating ethical systems, etc; these are questions above or prior to the study of particular ethical codes.
Similarly, to consider the question of why Mondrian’s particular aesthetic elicits from the viewer specific responses or associations, we must remove ourselves by one degree from the formal elements of his style; we must question his style on the level prior to its evocation of any response by the viewer.
Arnheim’s concept of metonymy
I have found the writings of Gestalt psychologist Rudolf Arnheim key in evaluating Mondrian’s neoplasticism on the meta-aesthetic level. Of particular import is Arnheim’s discussion of metonymy in his 1967 treatise, Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye.
A metonym is a figure of speech (belonging to the larger family of -nyms such as synonyms, homonyms, etc.) which Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary defines as a word or phrase "consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another, of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated." A metonym, then, is a word that leads by association to another word. And since words are the verbal/written names we assign to the concepts they signify, it follows that a metonym is a concept that leads by association to another concept.
Arnheim discusses several metonyms. Significant to this discussion is his proposition that the word "angular" is a metonym for "hard"; and that "curved" is a metonym for "soft" -- that is, when we think of something angular, we think of it as hard; when we think of something curved, we assume it is soft. What is happening here, according to Arnheim, is that our perceptive faculty is translating visual stimuli (in this case angles and curves) into verbal labels ("hard" and "soft").
I submit that our response to art, particularly abstract painting, is a response based on visual metonymy: We see the visual elements of a painting (line, composition, color) and react to them positively, negatively, or neutrally, based upon the emotional associations the painting’s elements elicit.
Visual metonymy and values
How do we arrive at emotional responses from visual metonyms? Once our mind has processed a painting’s element(s) into a visual metonym, the metomym undergoes further translation, in accordance with our individual value judgments.
Let us use "angled"/"hard" and "curved"/"soft" as an example. If we see a sharply angled line on a canvas, we may metonymically associate this sharpness with the concept "hard." We may further translate "hard" into "rigid," "cold," "logical," or other descriptive concepts. At this point, our subconscious mind makes a value judgment: Are "hard" and its further metonymical connotations positive or negative? Our conscious and subconscious premises will determine the answer.
If we see a broadly curved line on a canvas, we may metonymically associate this curvature with the concept "soft," and further translate this as "warm," "yielding," "comfortable," etc. Once again, our subconscious will decide whether we value these qualities, and the result will be an empathy or distaste for, or a neutrality toward, the artwork.
This explains our differing responses to artwork. One person’s emotional associations with visual metonyms varies from another’s in exact proportion to the divergence of their premises -- ultimately, their philosophic premises.
Visual metonymies of angularity and curvature
The process of visual-verbal translation which Arnheim suggests and I extrapolate, is vital in understanding our responses to Mondrian’s neoplasticism. In particular, the visual metonymies of angularity and curvature throw into relief our attitudes toward order and disorder, logic and illogic. What is it inherent in the visual metonymy of angulary that suggests structure, rationality, and culture, while curvature connotes chaos, comfort, and nature?
In her magnum opus, Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia grounds these inevitable associations in human sexual anatomy, linking angularity and curvature, respectively, with masculinity and femininity, Apollo and Dionysus; culture and nature. The straight angularity of the male erection, she holds, predisposes man to "a perpetual pattern of linearity, focus, aim, directedness… a rational mathematical design, a syntax" from whence Western culture arises. This male metaphor of linear projection, she asserts, allows him to transcend nature through "the realm of the number, the crystalline mathematic of Apollonian purity, invented by western man as a refuge from the soggy emotionalism and bristling disorder of woman and nature." For Paglia, angularity equals man and culture because of man’s "singular anatomy… the source of his cultural achievements," while curvature equals woman and nature, because of woman’s waxing, waning, menstrual connection to the primordial sea.
In his later treatises on organic architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright equates linearity with man, curvature with nature. In nature, he holds, all straight lines resolve eventually into curves. Therefore, curvature holds metaphysical primacy, and therefore superiority, over linearity. Interestingly, late in his career the architect left behind the straight lines and cantilevered planes of his Prairie Style in favor of curvilinear designs such as the Guggenheim Museum.
Conversely, Mondrian grants the straight line superiority, holding that in nature, all curves resolve into straight lines.
While we have already pointed out stylistic parallels between Wright and Mondrian, their divergence on angularity versus curvature is not unexpected: Wright aspired to mimic organic nature; Mondrian sought to "contain and order" it.
Whether intrinsic in sexual anatomy or evident from Aristotelean observance of the world, the dichotomy is pervasive: curvature as the province of nature, the straight line as the mark of man. Indeed, Ayn Rand calls the straight line "the badge of man… that cuts the curving aimlessness of nature," a contention backed up by scientist Hermann Weyl in his book, Symmetry. Weyl suggests that the kind of "balanced linear asymmetry" found in Mondrian’s compositions occurs minimally in nature and is a conspicuously man-made phenomenon. Weyl contends that all mathematical relationships, especially in Euclidean geometry, are man’s attempts to impose perfect order upon imperfect nature.
Mondrian and visual metonymy
Mondrian’s neoplastic compositions rest upon that most angular of angular lines, the perpendicular: perfectly straight lines intersecting at a 90-degree angle. If angularity metonymically connotes "hard," "uncompromising," "cold," and "logical," then Mondrian’s compositions must suggest a super-hard, ice-cold hyperlogic, unpalatable to some, beautiful to others. If we prefer art that gives us the "warm fuzzies," we will find little to appreciate in Mondrian. But if we view art as a crystallization of psycho-epistemology, and if we value order, precision, focus, and rationality, then we may find some of Mondrian within ourselves -- and some of our souls between those implacable straight lines.
The Psychoepistemology of Personal Taste
My interpretation of Mondrian is an explicit statement of an internal experience: the experience of beholding a Mondrian composition, identifying the essence of his style, identifying with the essence of his style, and therefore enjoying the work. This is the process each of us goes through when we enjoy a work of art, and its crux is a psychoepistemological task: identifying the essence of a given work's appeal, then judging that essence against the standard of our values. This is a task each of us approaches from a unique frame of reference: our background, experiences, sense-of-life, and, most elementally, intellectual premises. Because rational men may differ on non-essential points, I, for example, will likely approach a work of art from a different frame of reference than do you; I may isolate a different aspect of an artwork as its essential appeal than would you, even though we are considering the same piece; we may quibble or even completely disagree about a given work's essential appeal and thereby its value.
For example, I have isolated Mondrian's appeal as the order and purity connoted as visual metonyms by his use of perpendicular lines and primary colors. You, on the other hand, might identify the essence of Mondrian's style as "rigid lines which seek to impose structure where there should be free-form spontaneity" or "garish primary colors like a school child would use, lacking the sophistication of a master color mixer" or "endless variations on an uninteresting theme" or even "straight lines that look like prison bars." Is my interpretation better than yours or vice versa? The question is moot. Each of us has a right to his opinion; we may choose to hoard that opinion or share it; if we choose to share it, it is our choice how thoroughly we support our opinion. In this monograph, I have done a thorough job of supporting my positive evaluation of Mondrian. If you, on the other hand, are content to merely throw out an unsupported opinion by way of rebuttal, then your evaluation suffers by comparison with mine. We are each entitled to our private opinions regarding art, but in the realm of public or private discussion, he who supports his argument most compellingly wins the intellectual spoils. To the extent we wish others to take our ideas seriously, we are obligated to present those ideas as systematically and persuasively as possible. It is a matter of credibility.
Ayn Rand knew this was the case in the arena of ideas. So intent was she upon supporting her arguments for reason and capitalism that she lavished more than a year upon John Galt's speech alone while writing Atlas Shrugged. Yet when she wrote The Romantic Manifesto, she was often content to issue aesthetic pronouncements that were not well supported, e.g., deprecating comments about Johann Strauss, Jr., Shakespeare, etc. In each of these instances, Rand had personally isolated what she considered the essence of each artist's style, identified that essence as something she did not enjoy, and thereupon issued a derogatory opinion about the artist in question. This was her right. I suggest she could and should have done a better job presenting the reasoning behind these pronouncements, given the gravity her philosophical writings hold for students of her philosophy. It is an error, which many Objectivists have made, to assign Rand's idiosyncratic opinions the status of metaphysical truths.
This leads to an important, original point I would like to make, using Rand herself as an illustrative example. The process by which each of us identifies an artwork's essential characteristics is a manifestation of our unique premises, psychoepistemology, and sense-of-life. Our artistic evaluations are the product of a long chain of integrations welling from our deepest values and therefore offer a window into our souls. As a consequence, the act of sharing with others our aesthetic tastes and the methodology behind them is an intimate undertaking, intellectual yet highly emotional. To share an artistic evaluation is not to pronounce, "This art is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, metaphysically better or worse than all other art," but to rather suggest, "I believe this art is great, good, mediocre, amateur, awful, or evil, for the following reasons..." We may appreciate another's aesthetic opinions, perhaps learn from them, even if we disagree. Or not, depending on how well the person supports his evaluation and how closely his reasoning corresponds with our own values.
By way of illustration, I point to the following examples of Ayn Rand's own idiosyncratic tastes.
In her weekly columns for The Los Angeles Times in 1962, Rand let it be known she adored Marilyn Monroe and lamented her death. Rand isolated and identified the reasons for her affinity for Monroe in these terms: "Marilyn Monroe, on the screen, was an image of pure, innocent, childlike joy in living... facing life with the confidence, the benevolence and the joyous self-flaunting of a child or a kitten who is happy to display its own attractiveness as the best gift it can offer the world... a brilliantly talented actress... a woman, the only one, who was able to project the glowingly innocent sexuality of a being from some planet uncorrupted by guilt." To which I say, Well enough. I personally never cared for Marilyn Monroe, never found her terribly sexy. When I look at stills or clips of her, my essential impression is that she was not terribly smart, that she was drugged up much of the time, and that she was fake -- the bleached-out hair, the caked-on makeup, the exaggeratedly breathy voice. She is not among my sexual archetypes. Obviously, what I isolate as essential regarding Marilyn Monroe is very different from what Rand did.
In a different column for The L.A. Times, Rand pronounced novelist Mickey Spillane "an intransigent moral crusader... a moral absolutist... the true voice of the people... a brilliant literary talent." Fine. I have read only snippets of Spillane, but what I did read, I did not find particularly brilliant. In fact, the brief bit of Spillane I read did not inspire me to read any more of him. Rand and I diverge.
In an article published in The Minkus Stamp Journal in 1971, Rand wrote: "I am often asked why people like stamp collecting. So widespread a hobby can obviously have many different motives. I can answer only in regard to my own motives... A stamp album is a miraculous brain restorer... Stamp collecting... establishes a wide context of its own, interesting enough to hold one's attention and to switch one's mind temporarily away from exhausting problems or burdens... Every new stamp is an event, a pleasure in itself, and simultaneously a step toward the growth of one's collection. A collector is not a passive spectator, but an active, purposeful agent in a cumulative drive... The sense of action, of movement, of progression is wonderful... The pursuit of the unique, the unusual, the different, the rare is the motive power of stamp collecting... Why not collect cigar bands or coins or old porcelain? Why stamps? Because stamps are the concrete, visible symbols of an enormous abstraction: of the communications net embracing the world... A stamp album is like a world tour, with the advantage of focusing selectively on the best aspects of various cultures, and without the bitter disadvantages." This is a sparkling distillation of Rand's take on this hobby's appeal. Personally, however, I find stamp collecting boring. I collected stamps for about a year when I was a kid, then tired of it. I never found much "action" or "movement" in the pastime.
As an entry into The Objectivist Calendar in December 1976, Rand isolated "the secular meaning of the Christmas holiday" as "good will toward men... the fact that it expresses good will in a cheerful, happy, benevolent, non-sacrificial way... the fact that Christmas has been commercialized... a spectacular display which only 'commercial greed' could afford to give us." With this opinion I concur completely.
Finally, during an appearance on Donahue in the late 1970s, Rand remarked that she loved the television show, Charlie's Angels, because it was the only Romantic program of its day: "It's not realistic, it's not about the gutter, it's not about the half-wit retarded children... It's about three attractive girls doing impossible things. And because they're impossible, that's what makes it interesting." I never cared for Charlie's Angels, either in reruns or in the more contemporary films starring Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu, but I could, if I were so inclined, use Rand's method to make a case for escapist/Romantic shows of the late 70s/early 80s such as Wonder Woman, The Six-Million-Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Incredible Hulk, and Fantasy Island.
In each of the above cases, Rand has isolated -- from a wide field of characteristics -- what she considers the referent's essential appeal, held that essence up to her values and judged it, arriving finally at an aesthetic pronouncement. These pronouncements and their rationales offer a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of Rand's mind. To listen to one of the Twentieth Century's great thinkers ruminate on a beloved movie star, hobby, or television show is a great treat; it enables us to "eavesdrop" on the premises which informed her judgments and observe how these premises manifested themselves into preferences. We do not have to share her particular enthusiasms to appreciate what they tell us about her.
Let us each look at our own personal preferences. What is your favorite vegetable? How well could you support your preference for Vegetable X? How rigorously could you isolate the essence of Vegetable X's appeal and communicate this essence in written or verbal form?
Let me consider one of my own preferences. I love opera. You may despise opera. Many people do. In my "Music" webpage on this site I try in various ways to isolate and communicate the essence of opera's appeal to me. To the degree of my arguments' persuasiveness, you may be swayed to my point of view and give opera a second chance. Regardless of my effectiveness in communicating why I love opera, I would not endeavor to assign the proposition, "Opera is the highest among all artforms." the same degree of metaphysical absolutism as the proposition, "A is A." The former is a statement of personal principle; the latter is an uncontestable philosophic axiom. It is an error to try to equate the two.
Certain elements of the Rand quotes above merit further analysis. When Rand first begins to tackle the question of why people enjoy stamp collecting, she says, "So widespread a hobby can obviously have many different motives. I can answer only in regard to my own motives." This is notable -- and applicable to the wider issue of aesthetic judgments -- for two reasons. First, Rand implies that in wide fields of human endeavor, people may derive different benefits; people may isolate different essences from a given endeavor's appeal. In the realm of art, it follows that different people may derive various unique values from the same period, genre, artist, or artwork. Secondly, by stressing that she can offer only her own motives for enjoying stamp collecting, she implies that an individual may properly speak only for himself in distilling the essential appeal of a philosophically non-essential matter such as a hobby or aesthetic preference.
Continuing in her paean to stamp collecting, Rand states: "A stamp album is like a world tour, with the advantage of focusing selectively on the best aspects of various cultures, and without the bitter disadvantages." This has a significant implication for the realm of aesthetics: it implies that selectivity of focus, i.e., the direction and intensity of our application of consciousness, is a valid method to employ when evaluating philosophically non-essential characteristics. This selectivity is tantamount to placing entities or concepts in context. In art, it follows, one may properly isolate one or two elements one likes in a given work among other elements one doesn't like. Rand uses this technique in The Romantic Manifesto when she remarks that she appreciates the "luminous clarity" of Salvador Dali's style but despises the "irrational and revoltingly evil metaphysics" of his subject matter. (On a more intimate note, a case could be made that Rand applied this methodology to her most personal of preferences, her choice of a husband. As reported in Barbara Branden's biography of Rand and Nathaniel Branden's memoir, Rand seemed to isolate Frank O'Conner's archetypal physical appearance and sense-of-life as his essential appeal, while placing less emphasis on -- perhaps outright ignoring -- the fact that, by many accounts, he was not particularly articulate intellectually, nor ambitious professionally. I do not at all intend this as a below-the-belt jab; most everyone in a long-term relationship places more emphasis on their mate's simpatico points than their inevitable, but hopefully non-essential, shortcomings.)
To continue, when Rand isolates non-sacrificial gift-giving and commercialized glitz of Christmas as its essential appeal to her, she uses the above-mentioned selectivity of focus to ignore or dismiss the holiday's explicit meaning, i.e., the birth of Jesus. This is perhaps the most blatant -- and therefore most instructive -- example of Rand's advocacy of selective focus as a valid method for justifying personal tastes. One could hardly get more selective than ignoring Christmas' religious connotations and stressing instead its secular appeal.
This method is applicable to my own thesis on Mondrian for this reason: As noted above in the section, "Disparities in Mondrian's and Rand's Worldviews," Mondrian viewed his work as anti-individual, collective, and therefore sympathetic to socialism. I do not concur with his views; I do not believe that a person unfamiliar with Mondrian's views regarding his art, would necessarily conclude, merely upon the basis of looking at a Mondrian canvas, that this artwork is anti-individual, collective, and therefore sympathetic to socialism. My interpretation of Mondrian is in some respects polar to Mondrian's own, in much the same way Rand's interpretation of Christmas is polar to Christians'. Yet Rand and I are able to isolate something we value within something whose other characteristics -- or even whose entire explicit meaning -- we do not value. What Rand's remarks on Marilyn Monroe, Mickey Spillane, stamp collecting, and Christmas tell us, is that this selectivity of focus is a perfectly valid psychoepistemological method to employ when passing judgment on philosophically non-essential, morally optional issues such as personal tastes, artistic and otherwise. In my estimation, this point is vital to the larger study of Objectivist aesthetics.
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