In reading Ayn Rand’s essay “The Goal of My Writing” for a reading group, I was struck by the following passage:
There is no dichotomy, no necessary conflict between ends and means. The end does not justify the means — neither in ethics nor in esthetics. And neither do the means justify the end: there is no esthetic justification for the spectacle of Rembrandt’s great artistic skill employed to portray a side of beef. …
Misery, disease, disaster, evil, all the negatives of human existence, are proper subjects of study in life, for the purpose of understanding and correcting them — but are not proper subjects of contemplation for contemplation’s sake.(The Romantic Manifesto, pages 166-167)
This got me curious; if I’ve ever seen that work before, I didn’t remember it. Wikipedia features a vivid reproduction of the work.
My own reaction to the work is that it’s disturbing, a little gross and unsettling. And, oddly, it’s bathed in light. (It is a Rembrandt, after all.)
Interestingly, just a few paragraphs later Rand paraphrases Aristotle: “It was Aristotle who said that fiction is of greater philosophical importance than history, because history represents things only as they are, while fiction represents them ‘as they might be and ought to be.'”
But, in looking up the relevant passage in Aristotle’s “Poetics,” I found another quote equally relevant (see the fourth section, page 2318 of the second volume of the Revised Oxford.) The Philosopher writes:
It is clear that the general origin of poetry was due to two causes, each of them part of human nature. Imitation is natural to man from childhood… And it is natural for all to delight in works of imitation. The truth of this second point is shown by experience: though the objects themselves may be painful to see, we delight to view the most realistic representations of them in art, the forms for example of the lowest animals and of dead bodies. That explanation is to be found in a further fact: to be learning something is the greatest of pleasures not only to the philosopher but also to the rest of mankind…
To Aristotle, then, our appreciation of “still lifes” (or deaths) derives from our love of imitation and learning.
But that pertains only to “the general origin;” what about advanced art? A bit later (section nine, pages 2322-2323) Aristotle offers the discussion invoked by Rand:
From what we have said it will be seen that the poet’s function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of think that might happen, i.e., what is possible as being probable or necessary. … Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars. By a universal statement I mean one as to what such or such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do…
I think Aristotle must be right about imitative art; early cave art often features animals. And often budding artists develop their skills by painting scenes around them or even other great works of art. But I think there’s something more to a good still life beyond the artist showing his skill and the viewer reflecting on the imitation. Instead, a well-painted apple lets us think about apples in a new way. We see a “universal apple,” a presentation of how “such or such a kind of” apple “will probably or necessarily” appear. So good art seems to cross the barrier from sheer imitation to projection.
Does Rembrandt’s ox compel us to contemplate the misery of death? Even friendly critics seem to think so. I picked out a couple more or less at random:
Rembrandt van Rijn’s butchered “Carcass of Beef” (also known as the “Flayed Ox”), 37 x 27, hangs, skinned in a dark shed, dominating the center foreground of the painting. … Rembrandt has sumptuously developed the planes and forms of what, to most people of his day -– and ours –- would be merely a dead animal of utilitarian use, a source of physical nourishment… He sees in a dead beef — turns it into — a miracle of artistic beauty, and poetic and spiritual profundity. … Rembrandt has reached his highest artistic level in this work…
The artist paints this raw and drying thing with the reverence and respect with which he painted all things, including the crucifixion of Christ. [Compare.] For, this painting of a slaughtered ox or beef, hanging upside down in a darkened storeroom, can’t help but be likened to a crucifixion, with the spreading rear legs like arms affixed to a cross. …
He does not back away from death and the idea of dying. In a way, he embraces it here, as if a means of resolving its pain and fear. He has dealt with death in the loss of his first wife, Saskia, and at least two of his children.
[T]he weakness of life and possible death at any moment are linked to the idea of vanitas [emptiness or death]. This stands for ephemerality, and reminded the Dutch people in the seventeenth century of their short and meaningless lives. The motive encourages a morally correct life and shows people that earthly delights are only short lived. The time in heaven after death is all that counts and life should be lived as a preparation for that time. Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox could be such a vanitas symbol. His painting can clearly be placed in the tradition of paintings with dead oxes and other animals. These carcasses are often combined with the homo bulla motive or other Christian encouragements to live your life like a respectable Christian.
While I think the comparison to the crucifixion is strained, surely there’s something to the idea that Rembrandt painted the carcass to contemplate death.
I think we can look at the ox at the imitative and the universal level. At one level, it is a viscerally stunning and richly textured work; though the object is “painful to see, we delight to view” its representation in art (at least in the sense of being fascinated by it). At another level, we think, “Every living thing dies, just like this ox.”
While the “vanitas” could be taken in the Christian sense to mean the frailty and angst of a short life, it can also be taken in a more positive, this-worldly sense. As a friend put it succinctly on Facebook, “Always live like you only live once.” I think it is worth contemplating death sometimes, for it reminds us to live well.
If an artist painted nothing but works like the flayed ox, that would indicate the problem Rand describes. But a single artwork can take a narrow slice of life, and one that need not be cheery and positive. I recognize the general problem Rand is discussing, but her example doesn’t seem to illustrate it well.