How to Analyze and Appreciate Paintings

Selectivity (or Why Size and Everything Else in Art Matters)

Suppose you were an experienced artist commissioned to paint a portrait of me. To get an idea of what would be involved in the project, consider just one of the countless choices that you would have to make: How will you paint my complexion?

My skin is pale with a few freckles. If you decide to include the freckles, I will appear to be an outdoorsy type and perhaps a little naive, since freckles are often associated with youth and innocence. If you choose to show me by candlelight, the rosy glow will add color to my skin, so I will appear healthy. If you decide to show me under fluorescent lights, I will appear pale and ill. If you give me a heavily veined red nose, I will appear to have a drinking problem. And so on.

The point is that even such a seemingly minor detail as the way in which you represent my skin will convey significant information to viewers about your estimate of me, my lifestyle, my health, my character.

How will you decide the matter? As an artist, you will decide it by asking yourself which of my characteristics (real or imagined) you think are most important and by employing an approach that will emphasize those characteristics. And this is not only how you will decide this issue; it is how you will decide every detail of the portrait, from the style of my hair (a chignon? a Mohawk?) to the way I tilt my head or hold my jaw. More broadly, this is how an artist decides every detail included in any type of painting, from a narrative of historical or mythological events, to a landscape, to a still life.

Selectivity based on an artist’s judgment of what is important is what makes every work of art a unique expression of an artist’s mind. Since he begins with a blank slate (be it a canvas, a piece of stone, or a lump of clay), an artist must constantly make choices about every element he will include and how much emphasis he will give it. He may make such choices consciously or subconsciously, but make them he must. This fact goes to the genus of art, which is, as Ayn Rand put it, “a selective re-creation of reality.”1

On what basis does an artist decide what is important? He decides by reference to his most fundamental assumptions about man and the world, for which Miss Rand coined the phrase “metaphysical value-judgments.” “Metaphysical” means pertaining to the nature of reality. “Value-judgments,” in this context, refers not to ethical value-judgments, but to judgments about the nature of the world (or reality) and man’s relationship to it. Is reality a stable environment in which things happen according to natural law—or is it a place in which the inexplicable occurs? Does man have free will and thus the ability to steer the course of his life—or is he predetermined to act as he does and thus incapable of directing his actions? Is the world conducive to man’s success and happiness—or is man doomed to failure and misery?

For millennia, philosophers have written hefty tomes discussing such questions and attempting to provide answers. Artists address the same issues, but they show rather than tell. Into a single visual image, whether a painting or a sculpture, they incorporate a multitude of metaphysical value-judgments. In a previous article in The Objective Standard, I concluded that the theme of Anna Hyatt Huntington’s Cid (fig. 1) is, “A strong, courageous warrior rouses his troops to follow him into battle.”2 Huntington’s choice of this theme implies not only that the virtues of courage and leadership are important, but also that there are values for which one ought to be willing to face danger, that man has the ability to recognize such values, that he has free will and can choose to fight for them, and that the world is the sort of place where values can be achieved. These are the metaphysical value-judgments expressed by the sculpture.

An artist’s metaphysical value-judgments are what direct his selectivity, and this fact goes to the differentia of art. Adding the differentia to the genus, art is “a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.”3 Every detail of an artwork is chosen, and the artist chooses the details based on what he consciously or subconsciously believes to be true about man and/or the world in which he lives. Through his work, an artist says, “This is true, this is real, this is important—pay attention to this.” And this is why art can have such a powerful effect on us. To observe an artist’s concretization of his fundamental convictions is to observe the world as he observes it. If we share those convictions, seeing them made visible can give us immediate pleasure and fuel to pursue our goals. . . .

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1 “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” in Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature (New York: New American Library, 1975), p. 19. Emphasis added.

2 “Getting More Enjoyment from Art You Love,” in The Objective Standard, vol. 1, no. 2, Summer 2006, pp. 105–26.

3 Rand, “Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” p. 19. Emphasis added.

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