“Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments.”
~ Ayn Rand, "Art and Cognition"
Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy that deals with art. It is concerned with three questions and their answers: What makes a thing art, as opposed to merely craft or decoration? What role should art play in man’s life? What makes a work of art good?
A work of art is a man-made object, but what distinguishes it from other man-made objects is that a work of art is made to be contemplated. The possible types of art (painting, sculpture, music, literature, dance, etc.) are limited by the nature of man’s senses and of what he can conceptualize; to be art, a work has to be perceptible and, at least in principle, understandable.
In man’s life, art allows a conceptual mind to focus on the end result of a whole system of abstractions, without having to deal with the myriad abstractions themselves. A work of art performs the same function as a word, in that it allows a whole body of knowledge to be summoned forth in a single frame of awareness. Many philosophical tomes can be written (and have been written) about the ideal man, for example, but a single sculpture or painting can present it all at once.
Judging the quality of a work of art is done by considering two things: the breadth of its theme, and how well the artist has used technique to achieve that theme. The quality of a work of art is a separate issue from whether one agrees with its theme. (“It is not a contradiction to say, ‘It is a great work of art, but I don’t like it.’”) In OPAR, Leonard Peikoff identifies three characteristics that a good work of art should have: selectivity with regard to subject, clarity, and integration.
Ayn Rand’s principal work on aesthetics is The Romantic Manifesto; she also gave a lecture course called The Art of Fiction (also available as a book edited by Tore Boeckmann). The latter, however, concentrates specifically on literature, which Ayn Rand paid special attention to, and on advice for aspiring writers. (Aspiring writers should also consider The Art of Nonfiction, because it covers some points common to both fiction and nonfiction.)
Imported from Wikipedia
The Objectivist theory of art flows fairly directly from its epistemology, by way of "psycho-epistemology" (Objectivism's term for the study of human cognition as it involves interactions between the conscious and the subconscious mind). Art, according to Objectivism, serves a human cognitive need: it allows human beings to grasp concepts as though they were percepts.
Objectivism defines "art" as a "selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments" — that is, according to what the artist believes to be ultimately true and important about the nature of reality and humanity. In this respect Objectivism regards art as a way of presenting abstractions concretely, in perceptual form.
The human need for art, on this view, stems from the need for cognitive economy. A concept is already a sort of mental shorthand standing for a large number of concretes, allowing a human being to think indirectly or implicitly of many more such concretes than can be held explicitly in mind. But a human being cannot hold indefinitely many concepts explicitly in mind either — and yet, on the Objectivist view, needs a comprehensive conceptual framework in order to provide guidance in life.
Art offers a way out of this dilemma by providing a perceptual, easily grasped means of communicating and thinking about a wide range of abstractions. Its function is thus similar to that of language, which uses concrete words to represent concepts.
Objectivism regards art as the only really effective way to communicate a moral or ethical ideal. Objectivism does not, however, regard art as propagandistic: even though art involves moral values and ideals, its purpose is not to educate, only to show or project.
Moreover, art need not be, and often is not, the outcome of a full-blown, explicit philosophy. Usually it stems from an artist's sense of life (which is preconceptual and largely emotional), and its appeal is similar to the viewer's or listener's sense of life.
Generally Objectivism favors an esthetic of Romantic Realism, which on its Objectivist definition is a category of art treating the existence of human volition as true and important. In this sense, for Objectivism, Romantic Realism is the school of art that takes values seriously, regards human reason as efficacious, and projects human ideals as achievable. Objectivism contrasts such Romantic Realism with Naturalism, which it regards as a category of art that denies or downplays the role of human volition in the achievement of values.
The term romanticism, however, is often affiliated with emotionalism, which Objectivism is completely opposed to (though Objectivism seems to hold romanticism as more emotional [in the sense of merely being related to emotions] than most forms of art, and as less emotionalist i.e. relating to the use of emotions for decision-making.) Many romantic artists, in fact, were subjectivists and/or socialists. Most Objectivists who are also artists ascribe to what they call Romantic Realism, which is what Ayn Rand labeled her own work.