All page references are to the Hackett Publishing edition of the Aylmer Maude translation.

The Methodological Problem of defining art

Chapter Four 

Modern definitions of art have excluded moral criteria from definitions of art because they have attempted to find a general definition that secures the existing canon of art. Since Shakespeare is in the canon, but Romeo and Juliet is a morally questionable work, we have abandoned moral prerequisites for art rather than remove canonical works. (pp. 44-45)

The problem: we keep redefining art to incorporate canonical works, deemed canonical by the elite class that dominates the world of art. The result is art theory that disparages art "of the people" in favor of elite or "genteel art." (p. 67)

In Chapter Eight, Tolstoy arrives at this dilemma:

Either art is universally accessible or it is not.

If art is something important, then it is universally accessible.

So if it appeals to an elite or specialized taste, art is not something important, or else most canonical art is not really art.

Proposed solution: the art of an elite class is merely pseudo-art or "counterfeit art," while genuinely important art is "real art." Real art must satisfy the legitimate function of art. We should accept the fact that a lot of canonical art does not satisfy this function and so is not real art. (An analogy to support his point: chairs have a function. A chair supports a sitting person while also supporting his or her back. If you make a chair out of some incredibly fragile material, it cannot do the job of supporting a typical person. It won't be a real chair even if it looks like one: it will be a counterfeit.)


Chapter Five   Art is a means of communication. 

(p. 49) Communication is either of thought or of feeling.

Words (ordinary speech) convey our thoughts.

... Communication of feeling is necessary to art.

This communication is successful only if the audience feels the emotion.

(p. 50) Communication must be by "external signs" to be art. This means indirectly, by signs "external" to the original experience.

To "express" the emotion "directly" and "at the very time" one has the emotion is mere venting or displaying of symptoms, not yet art.

(p. 51) Any feeling so communicated (the artist "infects another") by external signs is art.

(p. 52) Without art, humans would be ignorant of others’ feelings, and we would be savages.

... The purpose of art is the socially vital role of creating community.

Summary: Art communicates feeling that unites us with one another.

Tolstoy: "To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling -- this is the activity of art.
     Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them."

Chapter Fifteen

(p. 140) In successful art, we feel our union with others.

(p. 139) Art transmits joy and spiritual union.

Transmission of anything else makes counterfeit art.



TOLSTOY on the Value of Art

"Good art always pleases everyone" (p. 95)


The very best art meets these conditions:

  • It employs pictures, sounds, or formal design understood by "everyone" or, in the case of prose and poetry, is comprehended by any language speaker of a language into which it's translated. Corollary: It is accessible without the aid of interpretation by art critics (see chapter twelve).
  • Audience response does not depend on educating the audience (its appeal is not for an elite class).
  • it is sincere and the artist is compelled by inner need to express this particular emotion.

Chapter Fifteen summarizes these conditions as three:

(p. 142) "merit" depends on "degrees of these three conditions --individuality, clearness, and sincerity" of expressed feeling.

Although Tolstoy talks as if individuality, clearness, and sincerity are distinct conditions for merit, sincerity is the indispensable condition (p. 141) and the other two seem to be criteria for deciding if the work is sincere.

"thus is quality of art decided, independently of its subject matter, i.e., apart from whether the feeling it transmits are good or bad."

Chapter Sixteen   Subject matter as guide to good
                              and bad art.

Good art "unites" us, as in "Christian Art."

(p. 143) "the more art fulfills that purpose [the evolution of knowledge] the better the art."

Tolstoy then shifts to a distinction between "two kinds of feeling [that] unite all men" (p. 150).

(pp. 150-51) 

(1) Religious art or Christian art in the "limited meaning of the term."

Religious art does not express the doctrines of any organized religion or "cult." It expresses "an understanding of the meaning of life which represents the highest level to which men of that society have attained" (p. 143).

In our time, this feeling is connected to message of "love of God and of one’s neighbor."

(p. 152) Given its cognitive dimension, such art is "chiefly in words...painting and sculpture."

(2) "universal art" expresses simple and accessible positive feeling. Found in all arts, but "most of all" in music.

"simple" and "comprehensible" melodies fall into this category (pp. 154-55)

(So "subject matter" has a loose meaning for Tolstoy; it has less to do with representation than with types of emotions expressed.)

But subject matter also includes representation (since it includes the story and message of Christian/religious art.)

Degree of expression can be diminished by distracting representation ("details," p.154) or aesthetic properties ("harmonic, rhythmic, and orchestral complications" in music, p. 155).

© 1986 Theodore Gracyk

The border on this page was derived from 
the border on a Russian religious icon.

Last updated September 12, 2002

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