OUTLINE of TOLSTOY'S WHAT IS ART?
All page references are to the Hackett Publishing edition of the Aylmer Maude translation.
The Methodological Problem of defining art
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:
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.)
CENTRAL ARGUMENT DEFINING ART
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.
(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:
Chapter Fifteen summarizes these conditions as three:
(p. 142) "merit" depends on "degrees of these three conditions --individuality, clearness, and sincerity" of expressed feeling.
"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
© 1986 Theodore Gracyk
The border on this page was derived from
the border on a Russian religious icon.
Last updated September 12, 2002
Who created this page?