Doug and I attended last night’s February meeting of Ayn Rand Admirers of Rhode Island, hosted by Ellen and Harris Kenner. This was in the usual form of dinner at a simple restaurant, followed by dessert and discussion at the Kenners’ home. I greatly enjoyed myself, as I always do at these meetings.
In content, this meeting was less social and more substantive than usual, driven in part by the presence of two college-aged newcomers from Brown University, in whom Ellen appeared to have particular interest. There was also an elderly couple present, new to the group, one of whom had been introduced to Objectivism less than a year ago. I found this fascinating, given the usual impossibility of reaching anyone over age 30 with Ayn’s ideas.
Two elements of the evening I found notable.
Typically, the Kenners select a short video of interest to show during the meeting. This month, Ellen had selected the performance of a (famous?) female wrestler on the television show “Dancing with the Stars”. The premise of the show apparently is to take non-dancer entertainment professionals, and give them a week to master a form of dance, working one on one with a professional dance instructor. These folks then compete against each other, and (in a very predictable format), one or more of the “players” in the game are eliminated each week. The clip shown was of this wrestler dancing a Samba (I think). The performance was extremely impressive, and the woman majestically beautiful. That was the reason for Ellen’s selection, as an example of performance Art in the Objectivist sense.
My reaction was one of disinterest, and of slight disgust. Reflecting on the reasons for this “emotional” evaluation, I find that I am very generally unmoved by any visual art, and particularly unmoved by performance art. This, in turn, is an unresolved puzzle to me. As for the source of the disgust, I believe it has everything to do with the nature of the television “show”. Had the dance been shown without my knowledge that it was part of one of these “reality TV shows”, I do not believe I would have experienced the disgust (though I still would have been disinterested).
My reaction (or lack of reaction) to visual art does not imply that I do not “understand” art. I can recognize the relative value of various art forms, from the horrifying (Van Gogh), to the positive aspects of the Romantic artists. But I have never been overwhelmed with positive emotion in the presence of a visual artwork.
The second exchange of interest last night was a brief discussion of what I’ll term the “harshness” of Ayn Rand and her early followers. For the benefit of the college students, the first several minutes of A Sense of Life were shown. Prior to this, as introductory background, Ellen (and others) described the general demeanor and style of Ayn (and Piekoff) through a few anectodal stories. These included the Phil Donahue appearance in which Ayn refused to answer an audience question that began along the lines of “I used to believe in your philosophy, but then I grew up”, and even a conversation between Piekoff and Harris, in which Harris was told he was a “coward”. The theme here was that Ayn and her early followers were at times sharp in their handling of other people, particularly people in whom they suspected dishonest motives. This is a characterization which I have no reason to discount, but which I feel was often justified.
Ellen then proceeded to say that more recently this sharp edge of the Objectivist leaders has softened, as they attempt to become educators and “reach” more individuals. After listening to this, I offered a “second opinion”, as I described it. In my opinion, Ayn’s harsh (others used the word “fierce”) commentary was precisely what was needed to confront individuals with Reality. Anything less, in the situations mentioned and others of similar kind, could begin to sound not only soft, but apologetic. Ayn in particular, and the Objectivism movement in general should never be apologetic for any of the consequences of the philosophy. Reality certainly will not apologize, and neither should those who properly identify it.
Ellen answered that she, as a psychologist, was often willing to “lay it on the line” with her clients, but did not believe that proper communication with those wishing to learn about Objectivism could contain this element of harshness and be optimally effective. (Please note that these are NOT Ellen’s words, this is my integration of the meaning she conveyed in her answer – I am not very good at memorizing dialogues).