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What Is Art? by Leo Tolstoy

What Is Art? (1897)

by Leo Tolstoy

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Unlike many works of aesthetics which tend to be overly abstract and dense, using technical terms from philosophy and a layering of sophisticated concepts, Leo Tolstoy’s book is clear-cut, employing language and ideas anybody interested in the subject can understand.

Tolstoy is passionate about art and art's place within human experience. For many years, he tells us, he has been observing art and reading about art. And what he sees and reads is not pretty. For instance, he goes to a rehearsal of opera: "All is stopped, and the director, turning to the orchestra, attacks the French horn, scolding him in the rudest of terms, as cabmen abuse each other, for taking the wrong note." Seen through Tolstoy's eyes, the entire production is a ridiculous, grotesque, overblown extravagance. We can imagine Tolstoy shaking his head when he observes, "It would be difficult to find a more repulsive sight."

Tolstoy presents a detailed sampling of what philosophers and aestheticians have written about art and beauty throughout history, particularly since the eighteenth century, when aesthetics became a subject unto itself. The theories range from art being an expression of divine truth to art being a titillation of the senses of seeing, hearing, feeling and even tasting and smelling. Tolstoy notes toward the end of his study, "Therefore, however strange it may seem to say so, in spite of the mountains of books written about art, no exact definition of art has been constructed. And the reason for this is that the conception of art has been based on the conception of beauty." According to Tolstoy, we must investigate a better way to view art than linking art with beauty.

Further on, Tolstoy gives us an example of a young art gallery-goer being baffled at the painting of the various modern schools of art, impressionism, post-impressionism and the like. Tolstoy empathizes with the gallery-goer and knows most other ordinary folk share this same reaction, " . . . the majority of people who are in sympathy with me, do not understand the productions of the new art, simply because there is nothing in it to understand, and because it is bad art . . . " Why is this the case in the modern world? Tolstoy lays the blame on the artistic and spiritual fragmentation of a society divided by class, "As soon as ever the art of the upper classes separated itself from universal art, a conviction arose that art may be art and yet be incomprehensible to the masses."

Tolstoy views the modern institutionalization of art with its professional artists and art critics supported by the upper class as the prime culprit responsible for a plethora of artworks that are degrading, meaningless and fake. He writes: "Becoming ever poorer and poorer in subject-matter, and more and more unintelligible in form, the art of the upper classes, in its latest productions, has even lost all the characteristics of art, and has been replaced by imitations of art."

To compound the problem, Tolstoy tells us schools teaching art take mankind away from what is true in art, "To produce such counterfeits, definite rules or recipes exist in each branch of art." We come to see, with Tolstoy as our guide, how aspiring artists are given these counterfeits as models to follow and imitate; things have gone so far that creating art is reduced to `acquiring the knack'. Anybody who is familiar with the way in which writing is taught in today's colleges and universities will see how exactly right Tolstoy is on this point -- students are given a collection of essays written by modern writers in which to model their own writing.

Tolstoy provides more examples of false, muddled, insincere, bad art. His description of an opera by Richard Wagner is laugh out loud funny. We read: "This gnome, still opening his mouth in the same strange way, long continued to sing or shout." Tolstoy hated going to the theater to see an opera or ballet. He predicts art forms like opera or ballet could never and will never be appreciated and enjoyed by the common person.

Actually, on this point, he was off by a mile. Turns out, people who attend ballet nowadays can't get enough of productions like the Nutcracker. And talking about being off by a mile, Tolstoy judged Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as bad art since the work cannot be viewed as religious art nor does it unite people in one feeling; rather, he said, the fifth symphony is, "long, confused, artificial". Goodness! Most everyday Joe work-a-day type people who are concert-goers would be thrilled if Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was on the program. What else is bad art? Tolstoy writes: "In painting we must similarly place in the class of bad art all the Church, patriotic, and exclusive pictures . . ."

Well then, what does Tolstoy regard as good art? In a word, art that has three qualities: 1) clarity, 2) sincerity, and 3) individuality (as opposed to copying other art). And, in the author’s view, in order to be considered good art, the work must create authentic religious feelings and engender the brotherhood of man. As examples of good art, Tolstoy cites Dickens, Hugo, Dostoevsky and the painter Millet.

You might not agree with Tolstoy on every point, but that is no reason to pass over a careful study of his views. After all, he is one of the world's great writers and knew a thing or two about art.

( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
Art is an infection of feeling and experience. Despite the title and author, this is a down to earth layman's discussion on the definition of art. You don't need to have any particular passion for the arts to enjoy this book. It's more about art's impact on societal issues. You will never go to a museum or art gallery and see things the same afterwards. ( )
  ryanone | Jan 8, 2016 |
A book that could have been written today. His observations on the corruption of art and the creative process are as current as they were in 1899. ( )
  isolde100 | Jul 29, 2007 |
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» Add other authors (8 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Leo Tolstoyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Pevear, RichardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Volokhonsky, LarissaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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During the decades of his world fame as sage and preacher as well as author of War and Peace and Anna Karenin, Tolstoy wrote prolifically in a series of essays and polemics on issues of morality, social justice and religion. These culminated in What is Art?, published in 1898. Although Tolstoy perceived the question of art to be a religious one, he considered and rejected the idea that art reveals and reinvents through beauty. The works of Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Baudelaire and even his own novels are condemned in the course of Tolstoy's impassioned and iconoclastic redefinition of art as a force for good, for the progress and improvement of mankind. In his illuminating preface Richard Pevear considers What is Art? in relation to the problems of faith and doubt, and the spiritual anguish and fear of death which preoccupied Tolstoy in the last decades of his life.… (more)

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