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What Is Art?, written by Leo Tolstoy, one of the world’s finest and most enduring writers, is the result of fifteen years of reflection about the nature and purpose of art. The book is noteworthy not only for its famous iconoclasm and compelling attacks on the aestheticist notion of “art for art’s sake,” but even more for its wit, its lucid and beautiful prose, and its sincere expression of the deepest social conscience. Tolstoy’s challenging claims that all good art is related to the authentic life of the broader community and that the aesthetic value of a work of art is not independent of its moral content deserve the most serious attention by contemporary artists and aestheticians. Most of all, a sustained consideration of the cultural import of art by someone who himself was an artist of the highest stature--Tolstoy is an author critics typically rank alongside Shakespeare and Homer--will always remain relevant and fascinating to anyone interested in the place of art and literature in society.
Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy was born at Yasnaya Polyana, a family estate near Moscow, on August 28, 1828. He was born into a family of the highest social rank in a nation in which half of the population held the legal status of property. Since his family’s status entitled him to a place at the royal court, one might expect Lev Nikolaevich to assume his place as part of the conservative establishment. Instead, for most of his life he preferred the company of serfs and gypsies and came to be among the most prominent and influential nineteenth-century dissidents. Tolstoy’s parents died while he was still very young, and he was raised by aunts and older brothers. He attended the University of Kazan, which some years later was the alma mater of Vladimir Lenin, initially studying Asian languages and then law, but apparently spent most of his time in a manner typical for someone of his social class: drinking, visiting bordellos and gypsy girls, and accumulating vast gambling debts. In 1847, Tolstoy came into his inheritance, which included several estates, and left school with his degree unfinished. Seeking direction in life, he joined his older bother Nikolai, who was accompanying a military unit fighting Chechens in the Caucasus. The battles Tolstoy witnessed inspired one of his first published stories, “The Raid,” which called into question the moral legitimacy of war itself and was subjected to heavy censorship. He joined the army in 1851 and soon published Childhood, immediately establishing his reputation as a brilliant writer. In 1854, Tolstoy fought against the Turks in the Crimean War, and he was present during the famously catastrophic British siege of Sebastopol. His Sebastopol Diaries constitutes a classic and intensely realistic description of the suffering and absurdity of life in wartime. In 1857, Tolstoy traveled with Ivan Turgenev to France, where seeing a beheading prompted a lifelong distrust of state power. Two years later, at Yasnaya Polyana, he set up a school for peasants, who were soon to be emancipated; his school was designed to encourage students’ spontaneity and creative self-expression, a radical educational program in the middle of the nineteenth century. Teaching occupied Tolstoy for the rest of his life. He soon returned to Western Europe, where he met Charles Dickens in Britain and Pierre Proudhon in Belgium. In spite of his occasional travels, however, Tolstoy spent most of the rest of his life at Yasnaya Polyana, writing and reading voraciously, riding horses and the newly invented bicycle, ice skating, playing piano, farming, teaching at his school, and talking with his peasants and their children.
In 1862, Tolstoy finished his novel The Cossacks, widely considered his first masterpiece, experienced the first of many raids by the secret police, and married Sofya Alexandrovna Behrs, with whom he was to have thirteen children and who provided indispensable moral, intellectual, and editorial support for most of his subsequent writing. From 1865 - 69 he composed War and Peace, which made his fortune. Not only is the novel one of the greatest works of world literature, sealing Tolstoy’s reputation as a writer uniquely capable of capturing the rich, endless variety and comedy of real life, but it is a work that Russians ever since have understood as the consummate expression of their national identity. Tolstoy’s work is so deeply connected with Russian self-understanding that in order to rouse nationalist fervor, the Soviet Red Army in the early 1940s modeled their new uniforms after uniforms that had originated in Tolstoy’s imagination.
Another masterpiece, the novel Anna Karenina, appeared in installments from 1875 - 1877, and one of his most famous stories, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” appeared in 1886. It was during this time that Tolstoy began to articulate those moral commitments that were to be so widely influential and would constitute the background for What Is Art?. Having come to believe that the various Christian churches had distorted Christ’s teachings, he attempted to uncover and revivify the authentic truth of the gospels themselves. Christ’s injunction that one should love rather than retaliate against one’s enemy inspired in Tolstoy a thoroughgoing pacifism: Indeed, his Kingdom of God is Within You (1893) articulates a commitment to non-violent anarchism that was decisive in Mohandas Gandhi’s development of the strategies of passive resistance. (Initiating what came to be a long correspondence, Gandhi’s first letter to Tolstoy was signed, “a humble follower of your doctrine.”) Tolstoy’s concern for the horrible living conditions endured by the poor found expression in his “What Then Must We Do?” (1886), his recognition that the gospels present an ideal of total chastity is expressed in the famous novella Kreutzer Sonata (1889), and Tolstoy’s belief that the good life is one of ascetic poverty and material self-sufficiency through manual labor is seen already in the character of Levin in Anna Karenina. He came to think of property and government as the roots of all social ills, deplored all forms of social hierarchy and violence, and lived the rest of his life as a vegetarian. In 1891-2, during a famine in which nearly 400,000 Russians died, Tolstoy raised vast sums of money from Europe and initiated and managed an enormous relief effort, running some 360 kitchens that fed over 130,000 people daily. Tolstoy also advocated, often successfully, the causes of a variety of persecuted religious and ethnic minorities. By the late 1880s, Tolstoy had numerous disciples in Russia and Britain who thought of him as the prophet of a new religion, and his excommunication by the Orthodox Church after the publication of his novel Resurrection in 1900 only served to increase his popularity. His British translator Aylmer Maude reports that “when he visited Russia in 1902, Tolstoy was a national hero--the man who had dared reply to the Synod and rebuke the Tsar.” Hadji Murad, considered by many to be Tolstoy’s greatest novel, was completed in 1902. At 82, Tolstoy fled what had become for him an intolerably acrimonious family situation at Yasnaya Polyana. He took ill on the train during his flight, disembarked at Astapovo, where he was mobbed by thousands of adoring people, and died there on November 7, 1910, surrounded by disciples, reporters, and movie cameras.
Tolstoy published What Is Art? in its complete, uncensored form in 1898. He worked on the book for fifteen years and considered it the most carefully considered of his philosophical works. In the field of aesthetics, it is far from a trivial event when great artists turn their attention to working out a theory of art. Still, perhaps because of his adoption of radical political attitudes, or perhaps because of what many take as his philistine dismissal of artists such as Goethe, Beethoven, Wagner, and Shakespeare in favor of fairy tales and folk songs, as well as his relegation of his own greatest novels to the status of bad art, Tolstoy’s views from the time of What Is Art? often are taken less seriously than those at play in his earlier work. D. H. Lawrence, for instance, thought that Tolstoy came to betray his earlier talent, and the critic Harold Bloom calls the text an “outrageous tract.” Yet What Is Art? is a brilliantly conceived and argued work that has achieved a vitally important place in the aesthetic tradition.
Part of the significance of Tolstoy’s text lies in its influential attack on aestheticism. Exemplified by writers and thinkers such as Charles Baudelaire, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde, aestheticism is based on the idea that the purpose of the artist is to provide opportunities for pleasure through the creation of beautiful works. Wilde’s preface to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray provides a classic formulation:
The artist is the creator of beautiful things . .
There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written.
That is all [. . .]
No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable
mannerism of style...
Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art . .
All art is quite useless.
By divorcing art from any subordination to practical ends, aestheticism seeks to liberate the artist from service to the didactic goals of church and state, thereby making possible new avenues of experimentation and innovation. Tolstoy argues that this doctrine of “art for art’s sake” is a theory that merely panders to the decadent interests of the wealthy classes. The upper classes have become estranged from religion and indifferent to morality, and in order to provide meaning in their lives require increasingly rarefied forms of amusement. Those art works successful in providing such pleasure--regardless of their moral content--come to be seen as good art. Of course, this pleasure is accessible only to a certain class of people with certain highly specialized kinds of education, and, just as today, most people struggle to understand a great deal of “high” art. Thus Tolstoy argues that aestheticism is a symptom of a morally decadent state of society, reinforces the alienation separating different strata of society, and, as it renders art into mere entertainment, trivializes art itself.
Tolstoy’s rejection of the idea of art for art’s sake has had enormous influence. Early twentieth-century Vienna, for instance, was a vibrant cauldron of intellectual activity where Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gustav Klimt, Arnold Schoenberg, and Gustav Mahler, among many others, were players on the intellectual scene. Intense interest in What Is Art? among such thinkers helped discredit the prevailing aestheticism, and “revived interest in art as the main channel of moral communication.” What is more, Tolstoy’s argument that aestheticism is linked to Social Darwinism, the substitution of the ideal of virtue with the pursuit of power, and other dangerous conceptions of ethics and politics prophetically anticipates Ernst Junger’s and Filippo Marinetti’s descriptions of the beauty of mechanized warfare in the First World War, and foreshadows Walter Benjamin’s claim that aestheticism reaches its nihilistic apotheosis in the fascist aestheticization of war.
Another aspect of What Is Art? that has fascinated critics is its broader implications for the relation of art to morality and culture. At the time of War and Peace, Tolstoy believed that art’s function was connected not with reforming society, but with prompting people to love life in its immense variety. In What Is Art?, the role of art is elevated to an indispensable condition for the promotion of morality and the building and maintenance of culture. Tolstoy holds that whereas language transmits conceptual thought, art is the exploration of communicative capacities of feeling. Genuine art, according to him, entails the transmission of the artist’s feelings to others, who by means of the artwork become infected by and thus share those feelings. As does language, art thereby forges connections and communities among people; the more successfully an artwork frees our egos from isolation, the more authentic that work is.
Works of art may be judged also according to their content or subject matter, enabling us to distinguish between good and bad art. Art’s vocation not only is to allow people to participate in others’ emotional lives, but to propel social progress by cultivating socially desirable feelings. Good art grows out of an artist’s apprehension of the highest ideals of a culture, out of what Tolstoy calls the religious perception of an age and which for his time he identifies as the idea of the promotion of universal human brotherhood. The propagation of that insight through works of art serves to orient sociocultural change by prompting people to experience for themselves feelings of compassion and community. As did Aristotle, Tolstoy holds that morality is primarily a social phenomenon and rests not only upon rational foundations but also on feeling. Good art, then, cultivates morality by accustoming us to experience humane, kind, and loving feelings, and is vital for cultural development as it thereby can aid in reducing our propensities toward sectarianism and savagery. Bad art, such as patriotic and church art, creates feelings of more limited community, setting certain groups in opposition to others.
In addition to its exploration of the relation between art and culture, Tolstoy’s work has a great deal to offer those interested in the nature of artistic genius, philosophical debates about the nature of beauty, the relation between art and science, the dangers a formal education in art poses to genuine talent, and the role of the art critic. His discussion of the inaccessibility of contemporary fine art to all but an initiated few no doubt is as relevant now as it was when he wrote What Is Art?. Tolstoy offers provocative discussions of artists such as Wagner, Beethoven, and Baudelaire. His exploration of the ways in which art renders rational ideas accessible to feeling and communicable in non-linguistic ways is relevant to contemporary debates about subjectivity in psychology and philosophy. And his warning of the pitfalls of over-intellectualization when interpreting art may well ring true to anyone disconcerted by the aridity of much recent work in aesthetics.
Given the prevailing alienation from so much of the art world in the twenty-first century, as well as recent concerns about the glorification of violence in today’s media and pop culture, this new edition of Tolstoy’s What Is Art? is particularly timely. Not only does Tolstoy alert us to the dangers arising from the nihilistic dimension of much work in art and aesthetics, but he begins to think through alternative ways of achieving moral orientation through art. His idea that art’s vocation is to aid the attempt to create a more just and peaceful world serves as an important counterweight to theories that art is nothing but disengaged play or the individual artist’s self-assertion. In short, Tolstoy’s unflagging commitment to the redemptive potential of art should prove to be an enormously beneficial resource to anyone troubled by the specter of nihilism in contemporary cultural activity.
Marc Lucht holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Emory University. He has taught at Kenyon College, the University of Maine, and Rocky Mountain College and is now Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Alvernia College. He writes frequently on the history of modern philosophy, continental philosophy, aesthetics, and environmental ethics.
Posted June 21, 2012
This is a must-read for anyone interested in the purpose and meaning of art and aesthetics, and it provides a very good overview of the history of aesthetics. Given much of purportedly objective philosophical and aesthetic discourse, Tolstoy makes it clear that this is his view of things. Some of his view of things is colored by a religio-political perspective, which may resonate with some readers and not with others. Most will not agree with his assessment of his own literary work, and I think he is off about the relevance of "modern" visual art and poetry, but... Tolstoy punctures the aesthetic balloon that art is about beauty, and makes a solid case for the relevance of art as an integral part of being human, both individually and culturally. This is one of those books that you can disagree with about specifics and still embrace the pervasive theme.
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Posted February 16, 2000
Do you have thoughts like 'well, maybe it's just me... They say Monet is great, but perhaps I just don't understand it...' I say, maybe it's your own gut that tells you what is the true art and what is not! This work by Tolstoy is a summary of his 15 year spiritual journey and research of art and what it's all about. And who is the author?! A genius himself! In this piece he tells us in plain language that the whole art of his century (with a few exceptions) is a product of a rotten class of people, a select few, whose main concerns were far from being common with the feelings of any normal human being. 'Art, nowadays, is for pleasure, not for bringing moral values in the form of genuine feelings to a reader'. This is basically the general idea of the work. At first, you feel dumbfounded reading this, but after a few pages, his statements start to make sense. Only a true moral feeling expressed in the right form, not necessarily beautiful, but understandable and to the point, is a true piece of art. Now, let's go back and think for minute: do I really like Shakespeare or is it the literary criticism the makes me feel that I am not a fully cultured person unless I acknowledge Shakespeare as the greatest of all, or at least one of the greatest writers (playwrights) ever? Even if I think that he was too verbose and vague to begin with? That sometimes you read him and whole paragraphs go by without you fully understanding what he's talking about? Mind you, he wrote for the theater, which means characters' sentences need to be pretty concise and clear, so that the audience could follow them. Anyway, Tolstoy will help you understand this problem. His main idea, again, is for art to convey the feelings of fraternity and love to the reader, not sexual desires, fake patriotism, chauvinism or those exquisite feelings of the upper class. Art is about compassion, love, oneness of all people and good healthy humor. I totally agree with that. One more thing: in this work, Tolstoy confronts the idea of goodness with the idea of beauty, saying that for the sake of beauty, the contemporary artists disregard goodness. This a very controversial statement, in my opinion, but there is a point there... Also recommended: of course, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Resurrection, Childhood, Boyhood & Youth, as true standards of literature, by which you can judge the works of others. All other fiction by Tolstoy is just as great and easy to read, especially his short stories, such as 'Master and Man', 'The Forged Coupon', etc. His other less known works that are revolutionary by their essence, are 'My Confession', 'What is My Belief (Religion)' and especially (really hard to find) 'Critique of Dogmatic Theology', where he expounded his views on religion and traditional Church Christianity with all its absurd, useless dogmas, which only divert your attention from what Christ really taught. This is a very controversial work, which was prohibited in Russia of his day, but which is certainly worth reading. By the way, why doesn't Everyman's Library publish it?
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Posted December 28, 2014
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Posted December 6, 2010
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Posted May 18, 2011
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