The Masterpiece That is Tolstoy’s Non-Fiction (Part 3) – Tolstoy’s Theory of Art

Moscow Tolstoy Writer - Free photo on Pixabay
Tolstoy painted by Ilya Repin in 1887

This is the last post in a series of three on Tolstoy’s non-fiction. The other two can be found here:

This post will attempt to present Tolstoy’s theory of art. The previous posts have discussed his spritual crisis and religious beliefs respectively, and since Tolstoy’s views on art were largely shaped during this same period (starting at around the age of 50), they should to a very large extent be viewed as a continuum thereof. As a matter of fact, his vision of the purpose of art is very much congruous with that of his vision of the meaning of life itself and is in many ways no less radical and iconoclastic. Many of his views are no doubt highly controversial, but I think that even those who strongly disagree with him on any point must admit that he is one of the most interesting and original aesthetic thinkers that the western world has produced. His views on the subject of art are also quite easily accesssible as they are largely contained within a single work of his, What is Art? which I highly encourage everyone to read.

Tolstoy starts his book by presenting and comparing a number of interpretations of the term “art” given by major thinkers on the subject. While the main purpose of this is probably to juxtapose them with his own theory that he will present later on, another is simply to point out that hardly any two philosophers have ever agreed on either the definition of “art” or “beauty”, the latter being generally seen as the very foundation of the former. Starting with the founder of the school of aesthetic philosophy, Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714-1762), to the philosophers of his own day, he roughly divides their views into two separate camps: those who believe that is an objective manifestation of a higher truth (i.e. God) and those who believe its purpose is a subjective experience of pleasure.

”What then follows from all these definitions of beauty offered by the science of aesthetics? If we set aside those totally inaccurate definitions of beauty which do not cover the idea of art, and which place it now in usefulness, now in expediency, now in symmetry, or in order, or in proportionality, or in polish, or in harmony of parts, or in unity within diversity, or in various combinations of all these principles – if we set aside these unsatisfactory attempts at objective definition, all the aesthetic definitions of beauty come down to two fundamental views: one, that beauty is something existing in itself, a manifestation of the absolutely perfect – idea, spirit, will, God; the other, that beauty is a certain pleasure we experience, which does not have personal advantage as its aim.”

A purpose in pitting them against each other, however, is also to support a claim that an objective understanding of art that rests on the vague notion of “beauty” is unattainable:

”An objective definition of art does not exist; the existing definitions, metaphysical as well as practical, come down to one and the same subjective definition, which, strange as it is to say, is the view of art as the manifestation of beauty, and of beauty as that which pleases (without awakening lust). Many aestheticians have felt the inadequacy and instability of such a definition, and, in order to give it substance, have asked themselves what is pleasing and why, thus shifting the question of beauty to the question of taste, as did Hutcheson, Voltaire, Diderot et al. But (as the reader can see both from the history of aesthetics and from experience) no attempts to define taste can lead anywhere, and there is not and can never be any explanation of why something is pleasing to one man and not to another, or vice versa. Thus, existing aesthetics as a whole consists not in something such as might be expected of an intellectual activity calling itself a science – namely, in a definition of the properties and laws of art, or of the beautiful, if it is the content of art, or in a definition of the properties of taste, if it is taste that decides the question of art and its worth, and then, on the basis of these laws, the recognition as art of those works that fit them, and the rejection of those that do not fit them – but instead it consists in first recognizing a certain kind of work as good because it pleases us, and then in constructing such a theory of art as will include all works found pleasing by a certain circle of people.”

In order to stand on more solid ground, Tolstoy argues that it is necessary to reject any theory of art that places “beauty” at its core. Although he hasn’t laid forth his conception of art thus far, one can already assume that art for him must have a more practically relevant purpose.

“Just as people who think that the aim and purpose of food is pleasure cannot perceive the true meaning of eating, so people who think that the aim of art is pleasure cannot know its meaning and purpose, because they ascribe to an activity which has meaning in connection with other phenomena of life the false and exclusive aim of pleasure. People understand that the meaning of eating is the nourishment of the body only when they cease to consider pleasure the aim of this activity. So it is with art. People will understand the meaning of art only when they cease to regard beauty – that is, pleasure – as the aim of this activity. To recognize beauty, or the certain kind of pleasure to be derived from art, as the aim of art, not only does not contribute to defining what art is, but, on the contrary, by transferring the question to a realm quite alien to art – to metaphysical, psychological, physiological, and even historical discussions of why such-and-such a work is pleasing to some, and such-and-such is not pleasing, or is pleasing to others – makes that definition impossible. ”

Now that the stage is set, Tolstoy gets underway with presenting his definition of art. Briefly,

“Art is that human activity which consists in one man’s consciously conveying to others, by certain external signs, the feelings he has experienced, and in others being infected by those feelings and also experiencing them.”

Tolstoy uses the word communion–an intimate kind of sharing and communication–in conjunction with his understanding of art. He thereby associates a quality of human necessity to it. Further, he suggests that the means of this communication are not intellectual, but emotional:

”Just as, owing to man’s capacity for understanding thoughts expressed in words, any man can learn all that mankind has done for him in the realm of thought, can in the present, owing to the capacity for understanding other people’s thoughts, participate in other people’s activity, and can himself, owing to this capacity, convey the thoughts he has received from others, and his own as they have emerged in him, to his contemporaries and to posterity; so, owing to man’s capacity for being infected by other people’s feelings through art, he has access to all that mankind has experienced before him in the realm of feeling, he has access to the feelings experienced by his contemporaries, to feelings lived by other men thousands of years ago, and it is possible for him to convey his feelings to other people.”

What might strike one with this definition is that it greatly opens the field for what can constitute art, and Tolstoy admits this:

“We are accustomed to regard as art only what we read, hear, see in theatres, concerts and exhibitions, buildings, statues, poems, novels… But all this is only a small portion of the art by which we communicate with one another in life. The whole of human life is filled with works of art of various kinds, from lullabies, jokes, mimicry, home decoration, clothing, utensils, to church services and solemn processions. All this is the activity of art. Thus we call art, in the narrow sense of the word, not the entire human activity that conveys feelings, but only that which we for some reason single out from all this activity and to which we give special significance.”

Tolstoy is far from claiming that he is unique in viewing art in this way. He even states that this, until fairly recently, has been the way that all people looked on it:

“This special significance has always been given by all people to the part of this activity which conveys feelings coming from their religious consciousness, and it is this small part of the whole of art that has been called art in the full sense of the word. This was the view of art among the men of antiquity – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. The same view of art was shared by the Hebrew prophets and the early Christians; it is understood in the same way by the Muslims and by religious men of the people in our time.”

The reader should particularly keep the phrase “religious consciousness” (for Tolstoy, the correct way of living one’s life) in mind from the extract above as it is central to Tolstoy’s understanding of the purpose of art. He claims that art has up until quite recently always been the manifestation of a society’s religious consciousness:

“If religion places the meaning of life in earthly happiness, in beauty and strength, then art that conveys the joy and zest of life will be considered good art, while art that conveys feelings of delicacy or dejection will be bad art, as was thought among the Greeks. If the meaning of life lies in the good of the nation or in continuing the way of life of the ancestors and revering them, then art that conveys the feeling of joy in the sacrifice of personal good for the good of the nation or the glorification of the ancestors and the maintaining of their tradition will be considered good art, while art that expresses feelings contrary to these will be considered bad, as among the Romans and the Chinese. If the meaning of life lies in liberating oneself from the bonds of animality, then art that conveys feelings which elevate the soul and humble the flesh will be good art, as it is regarded among the Buddhists, and all that conveys feelings which enhance the bodily passions will be bad art.”

And he laments the loss of such a consciousness in nineteenth-century Europe, for whom art had instead become a vacuous vehicle of diversion for the upper class. And so it perhaps becomes clearer why Tolstoy, whose understanding of art is otherwise quite open, is so dismissive of so much of it–even of works that we would take for granted in just about any canon. Art should make manifest the the ideas and feelings that point toward the meaning of life: to serve the will of God, which for Tolstoy meant self-renunciation, humility and universal love. Good art is art that embraces these virtues. Bad art is bad because by shunning such virtues it is also immoral. Art that instead exists solely for the purpose of pleasure is therefore immoral.

It is probably in this judgment that Tolstoy is going to be appear most controversial to others. To further elucidate what good and bad art was to him, I feel that the best thing would be to give some examples that appear in the book. Some specific artists that Tolstoy rejects (and they are in all likelihood only a drop in the bucket in comparison to the “bad” artists who go unnamed) include include Wagner and Beethoven in music along with almost all opera; Shakespeare and Ibsen in drama; Dante, Goethe and Baudelaire in poetry and Manet, Monet and all depictions of miracles in the visual arts. He is particularly excoriating of the novel (not least the ones he himself authored) as in general being the pastimes of the self-conceit, lust and world-weariness of the European upper classes.

File:Jacopo tintoretto, san marco libera uno schiavo, 1547-48, da capitolo della scuola grande di s.marco 01.JPG
An example of “bad art” —The Miracle of Saint Mark by Iacopo Tintoretto

Even more interesting no doubt must be the examples of art that Tolstoy considers good. Examples of works of the highest order are those that he sees as universally accessible and understandable and include, in literature, certain biblical stories (a recurring example is that of Joseph), Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, George Eliot’s Adam Bede, Friedrich Schiller’s Robbers, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Dead House. Below this, Tolstoy considers works that are valid expressions of religious truth but are only comprehensible to a certain nation and society. Among these he mentions some literary works like the plays of Molière, Don Quixote and David Copperfield alongside certain short stories by Gogol, Pushkin and Maupassant.

In music, Tolstoy appears to appreciate songs from folk traditions more than anything else. While dismissive of most “classical” music, works from this genre that he does mention as being examples of “good” art include the still very commonly played Air by Bach (, and Chopin’s Nocturne, Op. 9 No. 2 ( along with certain passages by Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven.

In painting he often cites paintings that depict a sympathetic view of the hardships of rural life, such as Jean-François Millet’s Man with a Hoe:

Man with a Hoe – Jean-François Millet

He also approves of works that express an accurate aversion to moral iniquity. Here he cites Nikolai Ge’s Judgment of the Sanhedrin:

The Judgment of the Sanhedrin, 1892 - Nikolai Ge
Judgment of the Sanhedrin – Nikolai Ge

and Alexander von Liezen-Mayer’s painting of Queen Elizabeth signing Mary Stuart’s death sentence:

Signing the Death Sentence – Alexander von Liezen-Mayer

Towards the end of What is Art? Tolstoy elaborates on the degeneration of art of his own time and the negative effects of bad art on human beings. Besides the huge waste of material resources and human life that both then and now go into producing art that is of no value, he particularly laments its corrupting capacity–not just because it diverts us from the natural conditions of life, but because it all too often inspires, through patriotic superstitions and licentiousness, the perpetuation of much suffering and evil in the world.

Just as in his more directly religious works, where Tolstoy sees the Kingdom of God as necessarily being at hand, so in rejecting most art that has ever been produced, he sees the inevitability of a radical reunderstanding of it as having come. The few works mentioned above would be considered by Tolstoy to be indications of the forms that art of the future would come to take:

”The art of the future – that is, as much of art as will be singled out from the whole of art spread among mankind – will consist not in the conveying of feelings accessible only to some people of the wealthy classes, as happens now, but will be that art alone which realizes the highest religious consciousness of the people of our time. Those works alone will be considered works of art which convey feelings drawing people towards brotherly union, or such all-human feelings as will be able to unite all people. Only such art will be singled out, allowed, approved and disseminated. But art that conveys feelings coming from obsolete religious teachings, outlived by the people – Church art, patriotic art, sensual art, art that conveys the feelings of superstitious fear, pride, vanity, the admiration of heroes, art that arouses sensuality or an exclusive love of one’s own nation – will be regarded as bad, harmful art, and will be condemned and despised by public opinion. All the rest of art, which conveys feelings accessible only to some people, will be considered unimportant, and will be neither condemned nor approved. And, generally, it will not be a separate class of rich people that appreciates art, but the whole people; so that for a work of art to be recognized as good, to be approved and disseminated, it will have to satisfy the demands, not of some people who live in identical and often unnatural conditions, but of all people, of the great mass of people who are in natural working conditions.”

And as such Tolstoy places on both art and the artist a supreme importance in society, for they are the heralds that will help usher in the Kingdom of God on earth. He ends the book thus:

”The artist of the future will understand that to invent a little tale, a touching song, a ditty, an amusing riddle, a funny joke, to make a drawing that will give joy to dozens of generations, or to millions of children and adults, is incomparably more important and fruitful than to write a novel or a symphony or paint a picture that will for a short time divert a few members of the wealthy classes and then be forgotten for ever. The realm of this art of simple feelings accessible to all is enormous and as yet almost untouched.”

“The task facing art is enormous: art, genuine art, guided by religion with the help of science, must make it so that men’s peaceful life together, which is now maintained by external measures – courts, police, charitable institutions, workplace inspections, and so on – should be achieved by the free and joyful activity of men. Art should eliminate violence.

And only art can do that.”

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