A Russian author of novels, short stories, plays, and philosophical essays, Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was born into an aristocratic family and is best known for the epic books War and Peace and Anna Karenina, regarded as two of the greatest works of Russian literature. After serving in the Crimean War, Tolstoy retired to his estate and devoted himself to writing, farming, and raising his large family. His novels and outspoken social polemics brought him world-wide fame.
What Is Art? (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)by Leo Tolstoy, Aylmer Maude (Translator), Marc Lucht (Introduction)
What Is Art? 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.
Meet the Author
- Date of Birth:
- September 9, 1828
- Date of Death:
- November 20, 1910
- Place of Birth:
- Tula Province, Russia
- Place of Death:
- Astapovo, Russia
- Privately educated by French and German tutors; attended the University of Kazan, 1844-47
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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.
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?