Bodybuilding, Metaphysics & Art

by Steve Clark


Here's one for the Heavy-Duty horror file: One day in my painting class (I am a college student studying art--specifically, painting) I was working on a piece which portrayed a man and a woman, both with muscularly developed bodies, embracing each other and kissing tenderly. The professor, upon seeing the work, declared that it was thoroughly unconvincing; bodybuilding, he said, is an expression of self-love-and therefore, two bodybuilders could not possibly have the genuine romantic attachment to one another that my painting suggested. (He continued to harangue me about how the "media's" glorification of beauty was all a ploy to make money--the notion of such a motive as evil as it was to him, of course, an irreducible primary--by making "average" people "feel like shit"; and if I was an artist of any integrity, he said, I would never portray beautiful people unless my purpose was to make a cynical "social comment" against "the media.")

I attempted, briefly, to explain to him that since a painting must convey an abstract theme through a very limited context (a static visual image) it is absolutely necessary that the people one portrays have physical qualities to match their spiritual qualities. Thus, in a painting, people involved in an extraordinary romance ought to have extraordinary bodies. However, it was immediately evident that, due to his almost belligerent anti-conceptuality, this was a waste of my time; so I simply resumed painting.

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In fact, the disagreement between myself, as a "new intellectual", and the modern artists goes far deeper than such questions as whether bodybuilders can be in love. It goes deeper even than the question of what the nature of art is--to the question of whether art has a nature.

In Ayn Rand's brilliant statement: "Existence is Identity." If art exists at all, if the concept "art" is a valid one, then art is a specific thing which can be described by a strict definition. But the modern "artists" dismiss the task of defining art out of hand, since the vast majority of them believe (and often state explicitly) that art can "be" without being anything in particular. What, then, is art? Although this question can be answered, the answer is an extremely complex one. I will provide a brief summary of the answer here--enough to place the main ideas of this essay in a proper context--but a full discussion of the nature of art is far beyond the scope of this work. To those seriously interested in esthetic philosophy, I recommend The Romantic Manifesto by Ayn Rand and also the website Apollo's Soapbox (www.geocities.com/athens/parthenon/3279).

Founded by myself and two other rational art students, Evans Winner and Todd Drullinger, the purpose of Apollo's Soapbox is the codification of a rational artistic methodology through the expansion (and in some cases, revision) of the esthetic philosophy of Ayn Rand. The following is a condensed summary of the keynote essay of our website, Meta-Esthetics by Evans Winner.Man is the rational animal, which means that his essential trait is the faculty of reason. Man has a conceptual consciousness. He is able to form mental abstractions based on the data provided by his senses-and thereby to move beyond the range-of-the-moment existence of the lower animals, to know the nature of the universe at the most complex levels, and to use this knowledge to achieve his goals and attain happiness.

Consciousness is in essence the perception of reality--so man's conceptual content must, again, be based on the information provided by his senses, i.e., by his faculties of perception. Perception is man's only way of directly experiencing reality. This means both that we cannot doubt the fundamental validity of our senses--we must believe what we perceive--and that, in the most basic sense, we can only believe what we perceive. Winner says: "If man is conscious and consciousness is the process of perception of reality, then, in order to experience his concepts as real, man must be able to perceive a translation of all those concepts into percepts. This gives real meaning to the old adage: "Seeing is believing" (or more accurately: perceiving is believing)."

The highest of all man's abstractions--those furthest removed from the level of concretes--are metaphysical abstractions. The subjects of metaphysics, as identified by Ayn Rand, are: the fundamental natures of the universe, of man, and of man's relation to the universe. As Rand says (in 'The Psycho-Epistemology of Art', from The Romantic Manifesto), a man's metaphysical abstractions subsume "every concrete he has ever perceived." Like all other abstractions, metaphysical abstractions must be perceptualized; if man is to hold them with full conviction, their implications must be experienced directly. But, since it is impossible to perceive the entire universe at once, they must be perceptualized through the experience of Art -- A Portrayal of Entities.

"Man, the rational animal, is the only being capable of portraying entities...he is also the only being with a life-or-death need to do so. For portrayals of entities take on a very special status in man's contemplation of them: that of a metaphysical importance--that is to say, they are perceived as being immediately and innately reflective of some aspect of reality as such that is directly related to man, the universe, and his place in it." (from Perception: The Ergonomics of Art by this writer.) This is because "any object which is made by men and portrays entities...will and can only be interpreted as having been based...on metaphysical premises." (from Concretizationism; The Esthetics of Consistency by Evans Winner.) Since the purpose of art is to perceptualize metaphysical abstractions, the primary task of art is to present a view of the fundamental natures of the universe, of man, and of man's relation to the universe. This will be an answer to such questions as (quoting Ayn Rand from 'The Psycho-Epistemology of Art'): "Is the universe intelligible to man, or unintelligible and unknowable? Can man find happiness on earth, or is he doomed to frustration and despair? Does man have the power of choice, the power to choose his goals and achieve them, the power to direct the course of his life--or is he the helpless plaything of forces beyond his control, which determine his fate? Is man, by nature, to be valued as good, or to be despised as evil?"

What sort of answer does a visual portrayal of people with muscular physiques provide to these questions? This is the topic I will address in this essay.

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Was my teacher right about my painting? Would a painting of "ordinary" (i.e., non-muscular) people have better concretized my theme? Many gossip items which appear in bodybuilding magazines do seem to indicate that a good number of bodybuilders (at least at the professional level) ARE immature jerks, blind to anything but their own extremely narrow context. I do not personally know enough bodybuilders at even the recreational level to know whether this is true of the majority of them (although according to the observations of Mike Mentzer, who has interacted with huge numbers of bodybuilders at all levels, it is not)--but, for the purposes of argument, let us ask: if it WERE true, would that fact rationally justify the tendency to presume, outside of the context of further information about their specific characters, that muscular people are psychologically immature?

In other words, what is the rational "first impression" to have of someone with a muscular physique, until or unless one learns something more about them? This question is of particular importance to me as a painter since, as I have said, painting is capable of presenting only a fairly limited context--and a "first impression" of the people in my paintings is really all that my audience will ever get. My teacher was wrong, of course, to hold self-love and love of others (when those others embody one's own values) as contradictory. In Ayn Rand's classic formulation: "To say 'I love you,' one must know first how to say the 'I.'" But he was right about two things: bodybuilding can be an expression of self-love, and it is possible, to a certain extent and provided that one hold the proper context, to weigh the nature of a person's physique as part of the evidence in one's moral evaluation of them.

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An ever-growing mountain of evidence points to the fact that a muscular physique represents the pinnacle of physical health. I do not need to go into any detail about this subject here; the monthly bodybuilding magazines never tire of doing a thorough job of that. Nor should it be difficult for anyone familiar with Ayn Rand's system of ethics to see how bodybuilding can be logically related to Randian morality: because bodybuilding is pro-health, it is pro-life and pro-man (and therefore, good). Further, a bodybuilding regimen must be followed by choice and requires effort. Any issue which is open to man's choice and relevant to the quality of his life-physical fitness included--is a moral issue.

Though some people have a greater natural preponderance of muscle than others, no one is "born with" (i.e., develops automatically and effortlessly) the best physique possible to them; improvement is possible to all. Thus, we can say two things right off the bat about anyone with a developed physique: such a thing is an objective value, and, as for any value, they had to put forth the requisite effort in order to attain it.

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Of course, this does not mean that one's moral status is directly proportional to the size of one's muscles. It is possible both to exercise for illegitimate reasons and to refrain from doing so for legitimate ones. For example: one might, due to circumstances not entirely within one's control, be in such a position financially as to be unable to afford a gym membership. A great many people may legitimately conclude, on the basis of hearing anyone with a muscular body declare that they must work out for hours a day every day of the week in order to maintain it, that they have better things to do with their time (although as Heavy Duty continues on its way to becoming the culturally dominant training theory, this will be a less frequent--and less valid--excuse). Or perhaps one might choose to be involved in some other strenuous physical activity on a regular basis--which would also provide some degree of physical fitness, but would interfere with one's recovery ability to the point of making a weight training program unproductive. On the other hand, any legitimate activity can be undertaken for illegitimate reasons, in an attempt to escape from some aspect of reality. Undoubtedly many people get into bodybuilding hoping, to paraphrase Ayn Rand, that the effect, a muscular physique, will give them self-esteem, the cause. (Of course I do not mean that self-esteem is the direct cause of muscularity--high-intensity training stress and proper recuperation are. I mean that a person of self-esteem seeks the best of everything possible to him, because of the high value he places on his own life; sensing this, a person of lower self-esteem might attempt to convince himself of his worth by becoming muscular. But a person of genuine self-esteem does not need to be "convinced" of his fundamental worth.)

Others may build their entire identity around the gym as a social ritual. Should an artist, even if he considers a muscular physique to be the ideal one, portray the heroes and heroines of his paintings as physically average due to the fact that many of such bodybuilders as exist are not virtuous, but act from irrational motivations? Or the fact that the majority of worthy and heroic people in real life might happen not to be muscularly developed? What traits of character can the static image of a muscular physique rationally be taken to imply?

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Over the last year, I have had the privilege--and honor--to belong to a very small, but very dedicated group of rational art students. We have--in opposition to the vague, irrational, non-hierarchical "ideas" about art and artistic technique that are presented in the universities (our own included)--devoted significant energy and thought to refining our understanding of what art is in the broadest sense, and how to create it down to the finest technical details. The results of our endeavors have, so far, been extraordinary--nothing less than the total removal of the slightest shadow of a doubt about the fundamental nature what we are going to do and how to do it, and in its place the most radiant clarity, certainty and confidence I have ever experienced in my life. (I would mention that we are not a formal group, or a "closed" one; we welcome, and in fact intensely desire, interaction with other individuals who are interested in codifying a rational artistic technique).Evans Winner, Todd Drullinger, and myself--the "Aesthetic Avengers," as we informally refer to ourselves, and the founders of Apollo's Soapbox--have known each other for years, have intended to become artists for years, and have been students of the thought of Ayn Rand since before we met. Why, then, was it only this last year that we were inspired to go about identifying so explicitly a rational esthetic methodology and presenting our ideas to the world? What motivated us to do so? This question is answered by Evans Winner in his excellent essay, the Benevolent Man Premise. This essay may be found on our website and I highly recommend it to everyone, as it applies to practically all forms of human endeavor, not only art. I will not, here, provide a fully detailed statement of the benevolent man premise (Winner has already done so), but merely quote Winner's essential formulation: "The benevolent man premise is a reflection of an appraisal of mankind as naturally possessing the capacity for volition and the faculty of rational thought...If one appraises one's mind as functional--as possessing volition and the capacity for reason; as being right for the universe and as being fit to lead one to a correct identification of values and thus leading to survival and happiness, and if one realizes that one is a member of the species of mankind, then one can conclude that mankind is not metaphysically flawed; that he is an animal who is right for the universe and that he can be dealt with on rational terms; that rational behavior on the part of others is not a metaphysical anomaly, but the natural, to-be-expected behavior of men."

Now let us apply the idea of the benevolent man premise to the issue of moral evaluations made in a limited context. Suppose that one sees, for example, a skyscraper which one appraises as beautiful. A person who holds that man is a rational, volitional being will not, by default, leap to the conclusion that the achievement of its beauty must have been a fluke, or that the architect who designed it was motivated by a subconscious desire to get revenge on his parents, or that it must be very structurally unsound and dangerous. (These conclusions are examples of the malevolent man premise--a metaphysical contempt for mankind.) All of these might, in fact, be true; but outside of the context of further evidence, a person who has integrated the benevolent man premise will be led to presume that if the building is beautiful, it is so because it is the realization of a consciously chosen purpose; and that the architect's standards of beauty are similar to his own; and that, incompetence not being the natural state of man, the building is probably sturdy.

Any natural bodybuilder who has achieved any level of development is probably familiar with the frustration of having people cynically assume that he owes his physique to steroids; this is another example of the malevolent man premise in action. People who shrug and simply attribute his physique to genetics (i.e., "luck") commit the same error. Steroids or good genetics alone--or for that matter, steroids and good genetics together--do not guarantee a great physique; intense effort is still required. Further, those who immediately assume that someone with a muscular physique got into bodybuilding in order to fake a non-existent self-esteem or sense of masculinity/femininity--or due to shallowness and narcissism, as my painting teacher assumed--also betray a deep loathing for the metaphysical nature of man, which can only be based on a deep loathing for the metaphysical nature of themselves as individuals.

One who holds the benevolent man premise, looking upon someone with a muscular physique for the first time, sees not a shallow narcissist or a "child in a gorilla suit" (in Arthur Jones' phrase), nor a steroid-shooting fake or a "lucky bastard" blessed with good genetics--but a person of self-esteem, dedication, integrity, and achievement: in short, a hero or heroine. And, if he recognizes a muscular physique as an objective value, he sees this no matter how many bodybuilders he may have previously known have turned out to be immature and irrational. (Of course, this evaluation might be almost immediately revised, depending upon what new information about the person in question comes to his attention). To return to the question which I posed earlier on: what are the metaphysical implications of a visual portrayal of a muscular man? A muscular physique can only be attained by means of the knowledge of how to attain it; which implies that the universe is intelligible to man. A muscular physique must be attained by choice; which implies that man is volitional and capable of achieving his goals. A muscular physique is the pinnacle of physical health, which means glowing aliveness; and which implies that man is capable of creating happiness for himself on earth.

Since there are rational reasons to pursue bodybuilding, no rational person would automatically assume that a muscular person had pursued bodybuilding for irrational ones; a muscular physique has no negative metaphysical implications. The conclusion for myself as a painter is clear: that I am fully, rationally justified in equating the muscular with the heroic in the limited context of a work of visual art.

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Finally, I would like to explore one further aspect of the evaluation of muscular physiques--this time in the context of beauty.

Beauty, we are told, is only skin deep; and it is certainly true that good looks are not a barometer of virtue, any more than ugliness is a measure of vice. This, of course, is because one's appearance is (beyond matters of cleanliness and fashion sense) a matter of genetics--and as such, it is not a matter open to choice.

But bodybuilding, obviously, is a matter of choice, and the attainment of a muscular physique requires actions which call upon a cluster of virtues. In his essay Meta-Esthetics, Evans Winner defines beauty as "a trait of the relationship between an object and an observer in which the experience of the perception of that thing is an effective concretization of a contextually significant abstraction." A muscular physique is the concretization of all of the virtues which are necessary to attain it. And although, as I have stressed throughout this essay, the fact of a person having a muscular physique is not enough information to make a thorough judgment of their character, it does provide some evidence--whereas mere "good looks" do not. In the current state of our culture this is, I think, especially true in the case of women. As Anthony Spinelli says in Alison Lebeau: The Rules Just Changed (see the Heavy Duty Articles Archive), "The mores of society and the image-makers of the fitness industry dictate that women behave in a ladylike or feminine fashion." Spinelli's point is that the very act of working out intensely enough to stimulate muscle growth is widely considered unfeminine. Thus, a woman in our culture who seeks to attain anything but "muscle tone" will have to call upon not only those virtues inherently required for muscular development, but also assertiveness and courage in the face of such disparagement as she will surely generate in many members of both sexes.

In her Journals, Ayn Rand wrote: "Since all valuations pertain to a realm of choice and are acts of choice, perhaps emotions can be felt only toward actions, not toward static entities...Emotions toward people are toward the entity of a person--but they come from one's estimate of that person's actions. We feel the emotion toward that quality of a person's character which was responsible for the action...(The one exception seems to be esthetic pleasure--which is admiration for an attribute of a static entity: physical beauty.)" A muscular physique offers both kinds of pleasure: the purely sensual beauty of the harmonious shapes and clean lines of the human form at its most stylized, and the knowledge of the heroic qualities of character which were responsible for creating such beauty.

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Copyright 1998 Steve Clark. This article originally appeared in the Summer 1998 issue of Heavy Duty Bulletin, now Exercise Protocol. For subscription information, visit www.i-a-r-t.com.

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