I was introduced to Ayn Rand's work in 1984 by Lou Torres, who had founded Aristos, an arts journal informed by her philosophy of art, two years before. Until then, I had known of Rand only vaguely—and not favorably—as the controversial author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Politically, I was decidedly left of center. Business was suspect in my view.
Government, I believed, was the solution for the world's economic and social problems.
Fifteen years earlier, I had earned a master's degree in art history but couldn't reconcile my passion for the Italian Renaissance with what was passing for art in the postmodernist art world. So I had turned instead to freelance journalism and local activism on issues related to nutrition, maternal and infant health, and education.
At Lou's urging, I began to read Rand, and found her ideas compelling. When I tested them against my own experience, I realized that the classical liberal values she championed—individualism, personal responsibility, and productive work—were, in fact, the core values that I lived by. Moreover, I began to see the manifold ways those values (and the personal and social goods they generate) are undermined by the role for government I had advocated.
Reading the first four essays of The Romantic Manifesto was like a thunderbolt . . .
Rand's ideas on art have, of course, had a particularly transforming effect on my life. Reading the first four essays of The Romantic Manifesto was like a thunderbolt, convincing me that I was right to feel alienated from the contemporary art world and inspiring me to renew my engagement with art. With a heightened sense of the value of the arts, I began to write about them professionally and eventually resolved, with Lou, to give Rand's theory of art the in-depth critical attention it merits, outside as well as within Objectivist circles.
Perhaps most valuable, however, Rand has taught me to think more clearly and deeply. From her I learned how to look beneath the surface of arguments to discern mistaken premises; to trace ideas to their basis in the reality of experience; and to be more aware of the ways in which emotion can color one's judgment. That said, I have also learned an important negative lesson from her. For much as I admire and am grateful for her intellectual legacy, I strive at every turn not to emulate her often bitter and abrasive style—which, I firmly believe, has kept many reasonable people from appreciating her ideas.
Why has the art world of the twentieth-century adopted the ugly and the offensive? Why has it poured its creative energies and cleverness into the trivial and the self-proclaimedly meaningless?
With her husband, Louis Torres, Michelle Marder Kamhi edits and writes for Aristos, an online review of the arts. She is the author of the new book Who Says That's Art? A Commonsense View of the Visual Arts and co-author of What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand. Articles by her have also appeared in Arts Education Policy Review, the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, and Navigator, among other publications.
This article originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of Navigator magazine.