What is Art? (Penguin Classics)

What is Art? (Penguin Classics)

Posted by jack_miller | Published 7 months ago

With 69 ratings

By: Leo Tolstoy , Richard Pevear, et al.

Purchased At: $10.99

During his decades of world fame as a novelist, Tolstoy also wrote prolifically in a series of essays and polemics on issues of morality, social justice and religion. These works culminated in What is Art?, published in 1898. Impassioned and iconoclastic, this powerfully influential work both criticizes the elitist nature of art in nineteenth-century Western society, and rejects the idea that its sole purpose should be the creation of beauty. The works of Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Baudelaire and Wagner are all vigorously condemned, as Tolstoy explores what he believes to be the spiritual role of the artist - arguing that true art must work with religion and science as a force for the advancement of mankind.
I'm surprised that nobody (so far) has commented on the physical aspects of this book, Because the original is so old - written in 1899 after sixteen years of thought-it is now a rare book This then, is printed using a patented Print on Demand technology. It is printed using a robot that turns and photographs each page. Since the book has been re-typeset, page numbers change and there is no index or table of contents. Also, there are a number of typos. However, none of this really matters as far as the actual content of the thought is concerned and the typos are not too distracting.
"What Is Art"is an interesting read with many aspects applicable to today. For example, in discussing the definition of "beauty", Tolstoy observes, "As is always the case, the more cloudy and confused the conception conveyed by a word, with the more aplomb and self-assurance do people use that word, pretending what is understood by it is so simple and clear that it is not worth while even to discuss what it actually means." Along with gems of insights, Tolstoy betrays his own prejudices as he is against nudity ("female nakedness"), even referring to a ballet as a "lewd performance". He dislikes Wagner, all of Beethoven's later works and the whole Impressionist movement - which, of course, was new back then. However, he is also against realism, "When we appraise a work according to its realism, we only show that we are talking, not of a work of art, but of its counterfeit". He also dislikes art schools- but not art education in public schools-, critics, art about art, and the idea of grants to artists. He believed that artists should earn their living in the real world, so as not to lose a connection to regular life. For this, he conveniently overlooks the fact that his inheritance of vast tracts of land worked by peasants enabled him to pursue his own career. He has great hopes for the role of art creating brotherhood among man. "Art should cause violence to be set aside".Tolstoy's main point is that art is real art if the artist was sincere in his feelings about the subject and that viewers were then "infected" with the feeling. "The chief peculiarity of this feeling is that the receiver of a true artistic impression is so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own and not some one elses- as if what it expresses were just what he had been longing to express". This brings us to deeper thinking about just what it is that we are trying to convey in works of art. For any artist who likes to think about conveying feeling, I would also recommend a more modern outlook on this subject- Creative Authenticity by Ian Roberts- 16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen your Artistic Vision

- abril_patel

Unlike many works of aesthetics which tend to be overly abstract and dense, using technical terms from philosophy and a layering of sophisticated concepts, What is Art by Leo Tolstoy is as clear as clear can be, using language and ideas anybody 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 goes on to give us 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 of this is that the conception of art has been based on the conception of beauty."

Further on in his work, 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 people 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 sees the modern institutionalization of art producing works 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, as students are given a collection of essays written by modern writers in which to model their own writing.

The book continues with Tolstoy providing 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." We are given the impression 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, for those who are at all inclined toward art, the average person today can't get enough of productions like the Nutcracker. Taking about being off by a mile, Tolstoy judges Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as bad art since it cannot be viewed as religious art nor does it unite people in one feeling; rather, 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 was on the program. What else is bad art? He writes: "In painting we must similarly place in the class of bad art all the Church, patriotic, and exclusive pictures . . . "

What then does Tolstoy regard as good art? In a word, art that is clear, sincere, and individual (as opposed to copying other art) as well as creating religious feelings and engendering the brotherhood of man. As examples, 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) on the question, `What is art?'.

- danna_robinson

In this piece Tolstoy asks the hard questions about art by going back to basics: What is art? What is beauty? What is truth? His education and, more importantly, his experience and thought on the subject, force us to realize that we don't have any easy answers. And these are definitely questions that are not satisfied by easy answers. They are also questions that are more important than the answers themselves. These questions take us beyond the answers by forcing us to be sincere with ourselves. Sentas and solas aren't enough.

For his part, Tolstoy makes it clear that this is a subject where he knows the thought of the important thinkers on art (all of them, apparently, of any significance), knows the history of the philosophy of art itself, and knows how to think (which he urges us to do). He also makes it clear that the question of what is art is, for him (and should be for us), more than an intellectual exercise. So if we want to be educated about art we have to let go of our non-ideas, open our minds to the thoughts of others, and admit to ourselves that we probably don't know much about art—and may not know much more about it even after reading Tolstoy's thoughts on art. But at least we'll know that much, and that's a pretty good place to start. We can all draw our own conclusions about what art is and what it means to us, as well as to Tolstoy. I don't want to be the one that tries to sum up the Count's thinking on the subject, but I don't think he would argue too much if I suggest that Keats has summed it up pretty well in his Ode on a Grecian Urn: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — That is all that Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

- adele_ruiz

This is a sensitive translation, with an excellent and wise introduction by Richard Pevear, one of the two translators, who is not afraid to peer beyond the wilful, challenging shortcomings of the great man, Tolstoy, in his declining years.

In my view, this is a passionate and occasionally insightful polemic, many years in the making, but profoundly flawed.

Tolstoy has a good point - I think - when he says that art is a means of communicating feeling: '"Art begins when a man, with the purpose of communicating to other people a feeling he once experienced, calls it up again within himself and expresses it by certain external signs." However, he drastically narrows what he considers as art within this broad category by saying that it must be concerned with elevating the 'good' (which he fails to define). This leads Tolstoy to condemn Dante, Shakespeare, Bach (bar one violin aria) and Beethoven, amongst others, while praising the most sentimental and moralistic works of Schiller, Victor Hugo, Dickens, George Eliot and Harriet Beecher-Stowe. But what he really approves are folk tales and ancient sacred religious works (such as the Bible and the Buddha's sutras).

He castigates art as beauty, which he says lowers it to mere taste or pleasure - especially the pleasure of the upper classes, for whom most art is produced. He deplores what he sees as the waste of the time and talent of hundreds of thousands of 'artists' and artisans, toiling to produce 'art' for the upper classes, paid for by the despised labour of the common man - epitomised by his back-stage visit to an unnamed Romantic-Classical opera, where he sees an ordinary working man looking dazed and out-of-place in a temple of falsehood. He is interesting on the imitative weakness of much art, since (he says) it "ceased to be sincere and became artificial and cerebral."

For Tolstoy, art must be in the service of his own radical vision of a dogma-free and abstract Christianity. He says that the essence of Christianity is the brotherhood of man, which seems reasonable. But he will not accept as art anything which does not explicitly promote this idea. He deplores the vast bulk of artistic expression (including his nearly all of his own works), since (and including) the Renaissance - because of a lack of religious sincerity, which Tolstoy says led to a profound divorce between the elite and the masses. Again, this is a plausible perspective (which TS Eliot also argued), but Tolstoy's essay is more rant than reason.

The book starts with a potted history of European philosophers of aesthetics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the purpose of which is to debunk them all, as decadent. Tolstoy quotes from several poets, and particularly inveighs against Baudelaire and Verlaine, for (as he sees it) their impenetrability and because they do not praise the 'good'.

There are many things to question in Tolstoy's argument, not least his assumption of a monolithic and unchanging common 'people', who are the touchstone of reality, though the 'people' themselves are allowed no individuality or development or variety. Meanwhile, the upper class elite, and of course the entrepreneurs and merchants, are universally self-seeking and at best insincere and shallow, at worst evilly exploitative. Similarly, he refers to 'nations' and a fixed 'canon' of great art as if these cultural constructs are eternal and uniform. He dictates that art must be moralistic, according to Christian norms (as he sees them). He ignores discussion of any aspect of the skill involved in 'art', and he fails to make the case for why art should matter in the first place.

In a word, Tolstoy is at his most infuriatingly dogmatic in this work (completed in 1897 but published in English because of problems with the Russian censors). I think the problem is that his judgementalism is unleavened by compassion or humility.

As Pevear says, 'Tolstoy's heaven is empty'. This angry essay is evidence of a great mind brought low by a great ego.

- miguel_ramos

In this rather astonishing text, Leo Tolstoy explains his vision on art and the aim of art.

Art, Religion, Classes, Professionalism
For Leo Tolstoy, art is a human activity which consists in conveying feelings (emotions) by external signs. Art doesn't consist in creating beauty or pleasure or in expressing emotions, but in infecting people with feelings. The worth of these feelings is determined by the religious consciousness (Christianity) of what is good or bad. The basic good is the brotherly life of all people. The purpose of art consists in transferring from the realm of reason to the realm of feeling the truth that people's well-being lies in being united and in establishing in the place of violence the Kingdom of God (love).
The upper classes, however, have lost faith. They reduced art to the conveying of feelings of vanity, amusement and sexual lust. Art became artificial, insincere and perverted. In one word, a harlot.
Sincerity was also significantly weakened when artists became professionals.

Artistic means and ends
Leo Tolstoy's `Christian' art can be religious (conveying feelings regarding God) or universal (conveying the simplest everyday feelings of life).
Deliberate concealments to arouse curiosity, revealing new aspects or angles on reality or putting question marks in a work are hindering, not helping, the artistic impression. Hermeneutic poetry is false art, while realism and naturalism are not more than counterfeits of reality.

Indeed, an essence of art is the conveying of feelings (emotions) into the reader, the listener or the spectator. But, religious consciousness (Christianity) cannot be the (sole) criterion to make a decision about good or bad art. Art can convey (emotional) messages about political and social realities (war, peace), about human psychology (love, hate) or even about possible realities (anticipation).
The messages can, of course, be conveyed in an attractive way, arousing the curiosity of the consumer.
The analysis of hermeneutic poetry is perhaps not worth the effort (ultimately sometimes only hiding simple feelings), but L. Tolstoy's examples are quite understandable.
In fine, L. Tolstoy's argument about `simple feelings' becomes a caricature, when he dismisses Goethe's Faust as not more than an imitation of former works by other writers, or, when he calls Beethoven's latter works (including his 9th Symphony) artistic gibberish, because when Beethoven composed them he was deaf.

This controversial text can only be recommended to Leo Tolstoy fans and art scholars.

- xiomara_mitchell

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