Leo Tolstoy, like the Greek philosopher Plato, believed art too important to be judged in terms of art alone. Because art is capable of making people better or worse, the social and ethical consequences of art must be considered in judgments about art. Tolstoy denied that a work of art can be great but corrupting, artistically good but morally evil.
Tolstoy published What Is Art? when he was sixty-eight, nearly thirty years after the publication of his masterpiece Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886). The answer Tolstoy found to the question “What is art?” is very simple. Art is the intentional communication of feelings. According to Tolstoy, the creation of a work of art proceeds along the following lines. First, artists have an experience or feeling, such as fear, joy, grief, anger, hope. They then desire to share this feeling with others, to infect them with it, to make them fearful, joyous, grief-stricken, angry, or hopeful. In order to communicate their feelings to others, they create a work of art, a story, a song, a poem, a play, a painting. If they are successful, if they have created a genuine work of art, their creations will restore their original feeling, and more important, these works will give others the same kind of feeling. Art is essentially a means of communication; it is the most direct and immediate form of communication because the very feelings that led artists to create their works of art are experienced by their audience. Artists do not merely describe their feeling of joy or grief, nor do they merely reveal or show their feeling of anger or fear; the artists share their feelings with others by creating something that makes them feel joy, grief, anger, or fear.
It is not very surprising that Tolstoy rejected as pseudoart much of what is...
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Art, then, demands the adequate expression of genuine feeling. However, Tolstoy adds yet a third requirement, not a requirement that determines whether something is art, but a requirement that determines whether something is good art—morally good, worthy of support and encouragement. Tolstoy recognizes that art can be morally corrupting, that art which is good art judged by the sincerity of the artist’s feeling and the successful communication of this feeling might still be undesirable. The feeling communicated is also important. If the feeling or the experience that the artist is communicating is evil or perverse or trivial or silly, it is possible for the work of art to be artistically good but morally bad. Tolstoy says that art demands sacrifices not only from the artist but also from others. Artists are members of society; their efforts must be supported in many ways by others. The question of what kind of art is worth the sacrifice demanded is a moral question; Tolstoy’s answer to this question is clearly a moral answer. The feelings communicated by a work of art are not relevant when we are trying to decide whether it is a work of art, but they are relevant when we are trying to decide whether it is good, whether it is worthy of support and encouragement.
Tolstoy rejected orthodox Christianity; he was excommunicated by the Synod of the Russian Church in 1901 and after his death in 1910 was interred without Christian burial. Tolstoy attacked...
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The connection between art and religion, the service art is expected to give religion, and the consequences for art of Tolstoy’s perception of the meaning of life are clearly stated in the closing paragraphs of What Is Art?The task for art to accomplish is to make that feeling of brotherhood and love of one’s neighbor, now attained only by the best members of society, the customary feeling and instinct of all men. By evoking under imaginary conditions the feeling of brotherhood and love, religious art will train men to experience those same feelings under similar circumstances in actual life; it will lay in the souls of men the rails along which the actions of those whom art thus educates will naturally pass. And universal art, by uniting the most different people in one common feeling by destroying separation, will educate people to union and will show them, not by reason but by life itself, the joy of universal union reaching beyond the bounds set by life.
Tolstoy saw in the art of the Middle Ages an example of true art. In that period, religion provided a basis common to the artists and the mass of the people, so that the feelings experienced by the artist could be communicated to the mass of the people. This true art, shared by the whole community, ended when the people who rewarded and directed art lost their religious belief. The universality of the art of the Middle Ages was followed by a split between the art of the upper classes and...
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If there is any danger that admiration for the artistic achievements of the author of War and Peace will lead to uncritical acceptance of Tolstoy’s theories about the nature and purpose of art, it is more than balanced by the danger that contempt for Tolstoy’s critical judgments will lead to uncritical rejection of these theories. Criticism of Tolstoy’s point of view as perverse and even stupid may be caused by Tolstoy’s remarks on particular works of art rather than by his theories as to the nature and purpose of art. War and Peace, and in fact all his own work except the stories “Bog pravdu vidit, da ne skoro skazhet” (1872; “God Sees the Truth but Waits,” 1906) and “Kavkazskii plennik” (1872; “A Prisoner of the Caucasus,” 1887), fall, in Tolstoy’s eyes, into the category of bad art. Examples of good art include the Psalms, the writings of the Jewish prophets, Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616) and Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616), Miguel de Cervantes’s El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha, 1612-1620; better known as Don Quixote de la Mancha), Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers (1836-1837) and A Christmas Carol (1843), Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852), and Millet’s drawing The Man with the Hoe.
Tolstoy praises as true art Alexander Pushkin’s short stories and poems but calls his Boris Godunov (wr. 1824-1825, pb. 1831; English translation, 1918) “a...
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Bayley, John. Leo Tolstoy. Plymouth, United Kingdom: Northcote House, 1997. Criticism and interpretation of Tolstoy’s work.
Benson, Ruth Crego. Women in Tolstoy: The Ideal and the Erotic. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973. Concentrates on Leo Tolstoy’s changing vision of the role and importance of family life. Suggests that Tolstoy struggled most of his life with a dichotomous view of women, regarding them in strictly black-and-white terms, as saints or sinners. Analyzes the female characters in the major and several minor works in terms of such a double view. An interesting and...
(The entire section is 571 words.)