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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.
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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 usually accepted as art. Art must originate with an experience or feeling of the artist. Much pseudoart comes from insincerity, or the attempt to create a work of art that does not grow from an actual experience or feeling. The aspiring artist, lacking any feeling that could be conveyed by a genuine work of art, tries to imitate the accepted artists. In an effort to achieve recognition, the artist who has nothing to communicate tries to give the public what they want by copying the popular fashions or by following the formulas learned in school. Tolstoy denies that anything created in answer to an external inducement rather than to an inner need can be genuine art.
Nevertheless, sincerity, however necessary, is not sufficient. Even if aspiring artists are sincere, they may fail in their efforts to create a work of art. The attempt to communicate the genuine feeling may be ineffective. Artists are judged not by their feelings but by their creations. Good intentions are not enough. In addition to feeling, a work of art requires adequate form. However, Tolstoy recognizes only one measure of adequate form, infectiousness. A work of art must infect the audience; it must compel the audience to feel what the artist felt. Adequate form requires individuality rather than imitative repetitiousness, brevity rather than bulkiness, clarity rather than obscurity, simplicity of expression rather than complexity of form. The adequate form of a genuine work of art is shown by the universality of its appeal. A genuine work of art does not need an interpreter. A genuine work of art is not restricted to the elite, to the happy few. A genuine work of art directly and immediately creates in others the feelings of the artist.
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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 Church Christianity as a corruption of the original teachings of Jesus. The brotherhood of man, the golden rule, the turning of the other cheek, love for all people (including those who hate you) are the essential teachings Tolstoy sees in the New Testament but not in the Church. There is a very close connection between Tolstoy’s views on art and on religion. Art is the handmaiden of religion. The feelings communicated by artists to others by their works of art will in the case of the best art be feelings that unite people, that increase their love for one another. The final judgment on a work of art must be a moral judgment as well as an aesthetic judgment. Tolstoy writes, “The estimation of the value of art (or rather, of the feelings it transmits) depends on men’s perception of the meaning of life; depends on what they hold to be the good and evil of life.”
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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 the masses of the people. The development of an exclusive art, incomprehensible to most people, seriously weakened and almost destroyed art itself. The subject matter of art became impoverished; the only feelings acceptable for communication were pride, discontent, and sexual desire. The artist became a professional, living by his or her art, creating counterfeits of art rather than genuine works of art. Critics, perverted but self-confident, took away from plain people the valuation of art.
Genuine art, Tolstoy argues, needs no critics. If the work succeeds in transmitting the feeling of the artist, there is nothing for the critic to do. If the work fails to transmit the feeling of the artist, there is nothing the critic can do. The final perverted and perverting consequence Tolstoy ascribes to the reduction of art to an amusement for the upper classes is the establishment of art schools. Tolstoy, a teacher as well as an artist, denies that a school can evoke feeling in a person or teach someone to manifest feeling in a way that will transmit this feeling to others. Art schools destroy the capacity to produce real art in those who have the misfortune to enter them; they do nothing more than train imitators of artists, professionals who produce on demand the counterfeits of art that amuse the perverted upper classes, provide the critics with an excuse for their activity, and debase the taste of the masses.
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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 cold, brain-spun work” produced under the influence of false criticism. Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Dante Alighieri, John Milton, William Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Raphael, Michelangelo, Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Wagner—these are among the artists judged and found wanting by Tolstoy. Michelangelo’s Last Judgment is called absurd; Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in A major, Opus 101 (Hammerclavier) is bad art because it “artificially evoked obscure, almost unhealthy, excitement”; Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is bad art because it neither transmits the highest religious feeling nor unites all people in one common feeling; from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601) Tolstoy received “that peculiar suffering which is caused by false imitations of works of art.” Charles Baudelaire is criticized on two counts: the feelings transmitted are “evil and very base” and these feelings are expressed with “eccentricity and lack of clearness,” in fact with “premeditated obscurity.” Baudelaire is judged lacking in “naïveté, sincerity, and simplicity,” but overflowing with “artificiality, forced originality, and self-assurance.”
Tolstoy directs his most detailed and extensive criticism in What Is Art? against Wagner’s operas. He describes a performance of Siegfried. Tolstoy calls this a “model work of counterfeit art so gross as to be even ridiculous.” He was unable to sit through the entire performance and “escaped from the theatre with a feeling of repulsion.” Tolstoy sees in Siegfried almost everything he detests in pseudoart. It would be incomprehensible to a peasant with unperverted taste; it is accepted because fashionable by the “cream of the cultured upper classes”; it requires a great deal of wasted labor; it provides the art critics with an excuse for their activity; and it perverts and destroys the capacity to be infected by genuine art.
It would be a mistake to judge Tolstoy’s view on art by the examples he chooses. Tolstoy himself says that he does not attach great importance to his selection because he believes he is among those whose taste has been perverted by false training. Because the examples appear to be chosen to illustrate or explain Tolstoy’s theory, they are less important than the theory itself.
Others have agreed that art is the language of emotions, that art expresses or communicates feelings. However, the distinctive feature of Tolstoy’s theory is his claim that the actual experience is communicated by art. We do not merely recognize that the poem is an expression of grief; we do not merely recognize that the author was moved by an authentic feeling of grief. If the poem is a genuine work of art, we grieve. The connection between art and life cannot be made closer. Tolstoy, like Plato, denies the autonomy of art, the uniqueness of aesthetic experience.
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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 provocative piece of feminist criticism.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Leo Tolstoy. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A collection of critical essays, encompassing the years 1920-1983. The views expressed give a very good sampling of the wide range of opinions about Tolstoy prevalent among Western critics. Many of these critics assign a prominent place in literary history to Tolstoy, comparing him to, among others, Homer and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Some of the articles deal with specific works; others define Tolstoy’s contributions to nineteenth century European intellectual movements. Limited bibliography.
De Courcel, Martine. Tolstoy: The Ultimate Reconciliation. Translated by Peter Levi. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1987. A detailed biography, annotated with selected bibliography, which relies heavily on the notebooks and diaries of Tolstoy and those of his wife, Sophia. Concentrates on Tolstoy’s domestic life but has extensive references to his general public activity. Posits the unique notion that Tolstoy left home at the end of his life in order to return to aesthetic literature.
Orwin, Donna Tussing. Tolstoy’s Art and Thought, 1847-1880. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. Reconstructs the personal, philosophical, and historical contexts of the first three decades of Tolstoy’s creative life.
Pinch, Alan, and Michael Armstrong, eds. Tolstoy on Education: Tolstoy’s Educational Writings, 1861-62. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982. Pinch provides an introductory essay on the historical context of Tolstoy’s writings on education, and Armstrong contributes a long essay outlining Tolstoy’s theories on education and mental development.
Rowe, William W. Leo Tolstoy. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Concise introduction to Tolstoy’s life and work, with special emphasis on the major novels and later didactic writings. Discusses, briefly, most of Tolstoy’s major concerns. Excellent treatment of individual characters in the major novels. Selected bibliography.
Tolstaia, Sophia Andreevna. The Diaries of Sophia Tolstoy. Edited by O. A. Golinenko et al. Translated by Cathy Porter with an introduction by R. F. Christian. New York: Random House, 1985. Illustrated. This massive personal record of Tolstoy’s wife, detailing their life together, spans the years 1862-1910. Sophia Tolstoy kept an almost daily account of her husband’s opinions, doubts, and plans concerning his literary activity and social ventures as well as of his relationship with other writers and thinkers. The diaries often portray Tolstoy in an unfavorable light because the couple were temperamentally incompatible, and she chafed under his domination. She collaborated closely with Tolstoy for many decades, however, and her notes give a fascinating and intimate view of the Tolstoy family and of the extent to which this family served as background for many of the literary episodes.
Wilson, A. N. Tolstoy. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988. A long but immensely readable biography, breezy, insightful, and opinionated, by a prolific and highly regarded British novelist. Illustrated; includes a useful chronology of Tolstoy’s life and times as well as notes, bibliography, and index.