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Bodybuilding as Art

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I think you’re the best sculptor we’ve got. I think it, because your figures are not what men are, but what men could be—and should be. Because you’ve gone beyond the probable and made us see what is possible […]. Because your figures are [untouched by] contempt for humanity […]. Because you have a magnificent respect for the human being. Because your figures are the heroic in man.

Rand, Ayn. The Fountainhead. As quoted in: Rand, Ayn. The Romantic Manifesto (p. 161). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. (Quotation marks removed; brackets mine.)

Bodybuilding has often been described as a form of art, specifically as a kind of sculpting. But I think that understates the role and purpose of bodybuilding. A proper understanding of this art form requires more background and nuance, revealing not just an aesthetic standard but also crucial values such as justice.

What is the problem that art, in general, solves? The Aristotelian purpose of art, which philosopher and founder of objectivism Ayn Rand built on in the 20th century, is to show the world as it could and should be; to portray man as a heroic being; to illustrate the “glory of Man”,1 as Rand calls it. She writes:

Since a rational man’s ambition is unlimited, since his pursuit and achievement of values is a lifelong process—and the higher the values, the harder the struggle—he needs a moment, an hour or some period of time in which he can experience the sense of his completed task, the sense of living in a universe where his values have been successfully achieved. It is like a moment of rest, a moment to gain fuel to move farther. Art gives him that fuel; the pleasure of contemplating the objectified reality of one’s own sense of life is the pleasure of feeling what it would be like to live in one’s ideal world.

Rand, Ayn. The Romantic Manifesto (pp. 28-29). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

She elaborates that “[t]he primary value [of art] is that it gives [man] the experience of living in a world where things are as they ought to be” and calls this experience “his psychological life line” (ibid, p. 163). To her, “[t]he basic purpose of art is not to teach, but to show—to hold up to man a concretized image of his nature and his place in the universe” (pp. 10-11).

When we apply this standard to the art of bodybuilding specifically, we see that the bodybuilder is not merely a sculptor but a hero reaching for previously unknown heights of physical fitness and aesthetics. The accomplished bodybuilder embodies, literally, a concretized image of the ideal physique, which gives other men fuel to move toward their own fitness goals. To be sure, his physical development is his own goal, for his benefit, because he wants it – the value others derive from his achievement is merely a consequence. I’m not suggesting a sacrificial purpose of bodybuilding: on the contrary, it has a selfish purpose, in the positive, objectivist sense of the word (more on that below).

Mike Mentzer was one of the great bodybuilders of the so-called ‘golden era’ of bodybuilding. In 1978, he won the Mr Universe contest with a perfect score, and in 1980, he came head to head with the ‘Austrian oak’ Arnold Schwarzenegger at the Mr Olympia contest, where Schwarzenegger’s win caused a bit of controversy. There might be no clearer evidence that bodybuilding is art than this photo of Mentzer.

Mentzer was himself greatly influenced by Ayn Rand. He developed training programs for the natural bodybuilder (read about these programs here and here). To him, bodybuilding was technically not an art,2 but he did consider bodybuilders romantic idealists.3 Rand explains that romanticism “is a value-oriented, morality-centered movement” whose “basic […] commandment is to portray man ‘as he might be and ought to be’” (The Romantic Manifesto, p. 125). According to her, the term ‘romantic’ refers to the “school of art that sees man, not as a helpless pawn of fate, but as a being who possesses volition, whose life is directed by his own value-choices” (ibid.). Contrast this romantic stance with that of both the overweight and the scrawny, who often attribute their poor physical condition to reasons allegedly beyond their control.4

That physical fitness is both desirable and beautiful has been known since antiquity. The old Latin adage by Roman poet Juvenal goes mens sana in corpore sano, meaning ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’, as in: to have a healthy mind, one must have a healthy body. And Greek philosopher Xenophon famously quotes Socrates as saying that “it is a disgrace to grow old through sheer carelessness before seeing what manner of man you may become by developing your bodily strength and beauty to their highest limit.” The muscularity of ancient Greek and Roman statues, particularly of gods and heroes such as Hercules, is evidence that the ancient beauty standard for men was similar to ours today. The fact that this standard has survived across cultures and epochs hints at a certain objectivity and universality. Although, as expected, Western culture has since improved ancient ideals and realized these improvements, the sculptors of antiquity clearly saw value in a powerful physique.

Similarly, Mentzer recognized the objectivist values and virtues of accountability and selfishness in bodybuilding:

I like the idea of masculinity, basically the idea of looking powerful. […] I went into bodybuilding because I didn’t like team sports; I liked the singularity of it. I was all by myself in the gym, had my own goals, was able to direct my own efforts all by myself. […] I am very selfish, which, of course, objectivists know is a virtue. […] I’m still working on becoming more selfish. […]
[S]elfishness is the highest virtue you can achieve, and it’s all but non-existent in today’s selfless world.

When I started my own bodybuilding journey, this singular, maximum accountability was one of the things that drew me to it, aside from the aesthetic pursuit. I like when both achievements and shortcomings are my fault – not in any masochistic sense, but in the sense that I don’t need to wait for someone else to fix something in the negative case, and that I get all the glory when I achieve a value.

Schwarzenegger’s and Mentzer’s training philosophies are opposites in some ways – Schwarzenegger trained with high volume, Mentzer low – but they share this preference for individual achievement over group achievement; for independence over collectives. As Schwarzenegger recalls in his autobiography:

[B]y the time I was thirteen team sports no longer satisfied me. I was already off on an individual trip. I disliked it when we won a [soccer] game and I didn’t get personal recognition. The only time I really felt rewarded was when I was singled out as being best.

Schwarzenegger, Arnold; Hall, Douglas Kent. Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder (p. 11). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Bodybuilding also features the value of justice, which is when you get what you deserve. In the world of physical fitness, everyone who’s able-bodied and in control of their diet gets what they deserve. If you overeat or undereat, you deserve and get a fat or scrawny body, respectively. If you overtrain or undertrain, you deserve and get small muscles. Conversely, we see the corruption of the concept of beauty, and the injustice of this corruption, in plus-size ‘models’, who do not deserve to be considered beautiful by any proper standard. The marketing and fashion surrounding obese models are not concerned with what the female form could or should be, but only with what it is. The erosion of beauty standards follows accordingly.

There are divisions for female bodybuilders, but they share an unfortunate characteristic with many other serious female pursuits in that, rather than create something new, they are poor attempts to imitate men (think of the WNBA, for example). In the case of bodybuilding, this attempt has resulted in some women looking overly muscular and masculine. Female beauty requires, among other things, femininity. I’m not sure an art form exists yet which aims to perfect the female body and portray a heroine – but I hope someone creates it one day.

A woman once told me she quit Instagram because, in her own words, she was intimidated by Instagram models. I suspect that, more precisely, she felt envy, which, in this context, means hatred of the beautiful for being beautiful. Even though she herself was pretty and in good shape, and even though she was not competing with those models, she felt safer surrounded by mediocrity. But when I see old pictures of Schwarzenegger, they inspire me to train harder and reach for that physical ideal that he achieved. Even though I may never get to the same level, it gives me fuel to move forward.

Unlike other sports, bodybuilding is not just a sport, a competition, but also an art form. There can be beauty in a perfect golf swing or a demanding tennis rally, but that alone doesn’t rise to the standard of art. The purpose of bodybuilding is not to build strength (although bodybuilders are strong), and conversely, powerlifters, who do focus on building strength, usually don’t compare aesthetically.

Bodybuilding is a romantic art that portrays man and his body as they could be and should be. It embodies the value of justice and the virtues of accountability and selfishness.

That’s not to say bodybuilding is perfect. It has serious flaws, such as the use of performance-enhancing drugs (although you’d be surprised at some of the physiques people have achieved naturally). Not all bodybuilders manage to meet the Aristotelian purpose of art. Nor do all bodybuilders achieve a beautiful aesthetic, just like other artists may not manage to create anything beautiful. But some do, and in bodybuilding, that is the goal, which distinguishes it from other, often hideous kinds of art such as modern art, which don’t pursue this goal to begin with.

Bodybuilding is one of the few remaining art forms that meet the Aristotelian standard.5 The achieved bodybuilder is a hero who, incidentally, serves as an inspiration to other men; as a concretized image of the achievement of the physical ideal; as the realization and embodiment of the virtue of selfishness.

  1. “The motive and purpose of my writing can best be summed up by saying that if a dedication page were to precede the total of my work, it would read: To the glory of Man.” Rand, Ayn. The Romantic Manifesto (p. 165). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

  2. “[B]odybuilding, while not technically an art, has certain elements of art […].” Mike Mentzer, Unfortunately, he does not elaborate as to the reasons he doesn’t consider bodybuilding an art. 

  3. “Bodybuilders are romantic idealists […].” Mike Mentzer, 

  4. If someone has a serious disease like diabetes, that’s one thing. But the more common and poor excuses are usually along the lines of being ‘big-boned’ or having a ‘bad metabolism’. People who are able-bodied and young enough to move have no excuse for being out of shape. I’m not saying everyone should look like a bodybuilder – that wouldn’t be realistic – only that they shouldn’t let themselves go. 

  5. Video games are in a good place to meet Aristotle’s standard because the ability to play and control a character lends itself to hero arcs. 


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