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What is Art? (Penguin Classics) New Ed Edition, Kindle Edition
|Kindle Edition, 31 August 1995||
Audio CD, Audiobook, CD, Unabridged
About the Author
Eccentric and lucid, cranky and brilliant, funny and fierce.-- "New Criterion"
The effectiveness of What Is Art? lies not so much in its positive assertions as in its rejection of much that was taken for granted in the aesthetic theories of the time.-- "John Bayley, literary critic and former Warton Professor of English at Oxford"
What Is Art? itself is a work of science, though many passages, and even some whole chapters, appeal to us as works of art and we feel the contagion of the author's hope, his anxiety to serve the cause of truth and love, his indignation (sometimes rather sharply expressed) with whatever blocks the path of advance, and his contempt for much that the 'cultured crowd, ' in our erudite, perverted society, have persuaded themselves, and would fain persuade others, is the highest art.-- "Aylmer Maude, translator"
Infuriating, irresistible, aesthetically unaesthetic.-- "E. Lampert, New Essay on Tolstoy" --This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.
- ASIN : B002RI99H8
- Publisher : Penguin; New Ed edition (31 August 1995)
- Language : English
- File size : 1147 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 244 pages
- Best Sellers Rank: #416,664 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
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In my view, this is a passionate and occasionally insightful polemic, many years in the making, but profoundly flawed.
Tolstoy has a good point - I think - when he says that art is a means of communicating feeling: '"Art begins when a man, with the purpose of communicating to other people a feeling he once experienced, calls it up again within himself and expresses it by certain external signs." However, he drastically narrows what he considers as art within this broad category by saying that it must be concerned with elevating the 'good' (which he fails to define). This leads Tolstoy to condemn Dante, Shakespeare, Bach (bar one violin aria) and Beethoven, amongst others, while praising the most sentimental and moralistic works of Schiller, Victor Hugo, Dickens, George Eliot and Harriet Beecher-Stowe. But what he really approves are folk tales and ancient sacred religious works (such as the Bible and the Buddha's sutras).
He castigates art as beauty, which he says lowers it to mere taste or pleasure - especially the pleasure of the upper classes, for whom most art is produced. He deplores what he sees as the waste of the time and talent of hundreds of thousands of 'artists' and artisans, toiling to produce 'art' for the upper classes, paid for by the despised labour of the common man - epitomised by his back-stage visit to an unnamed Romantic-Classical opera, where he sees an ordinary working man looking dazed and out-of-place in a temple of falsehood. He is interesting on the imitative weakness of much art, since (he says) it "ceased to be sincere and became artificial and cerebral."
For Tolstoy, art must be in the service of his own radical vision of a dogma-free and abstract Christianity. He says that the essence of Christianity is the brotherhood of man, which seems reasonable. But he will not accept as art anything which does not explicitly promote this idea. He deplores the vast bulk of artistic expression (including his nearly all of his own works), since (and including) the Renaissance - because of a lack of religious sincerity, which Tolstoy says led to a profound divorce between the elite and the masses. Again, this is a plausible perspective (which TS Eliot also argued), but Tolstoy's essay is more rant than reason.
The book starts with a potted history of European philosophers of aesthetics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the purpose of which is to debunk them all, as decadent. Tolstoy quotes from several poets, and particularly inveighs against Baudelaire and Verlaine, for (as he sees it) their impenetrability and because they do not praise the 'good'.
There are many things to question in Tolstoy's argument, not least his assumption of a monolithic and unchanging common 'people', who are the touchstone of reality, though the 'people' themselves are allowed no individuality or development or variety. Meanwhile, the upper class elite, and of course the entrepreneurs and merchants, are universally self-seeking and at best insincere and shallow, at worst evilly exploitative. Similarly, he refers to 'nations' and a fixed 'canon' of great art as if these cultural constructs are eternal and uniform. He dictates that art must be moralistic, according to Christian norms (as he sees them). He ignores discussion of any aspect of the skill involved in 'art', and he fails to make the case for why art should matter in the first place.
In a word, Tolstoy is at his most infuriatingly dogmatic in this work (completed in 1897 but published in English because of problems with the Russian censors). I think the problem is that his judgementalism is unleavened by compassion or humility.
As Pevear says, 'Tolstoy's heaven is empty'. This angry essay is evidence of a great mind brought low by a great ego.
Art, Religion, Classes, Professionalism
For Leo Tolstoy, art is a human activity which consists in conveying feelings (emotions) by external signs. Art doesn't consist in creating beauty or pleasure or in expressing emotions, but in infecting people with feelings. The worth of these feelings is determined by the religious consciousness (Christianity) of what is good or bad. The basic good is the brotherly life of all people. The purpose of art consists in transferring from the realm of reason to the realm of feeling the truth that people's well-being lies in being united and in establishing in the place of violence the Kingdom of God (love).
The upper classes, however, have lost faith. They reduced art to the conveying of feelings of vanity, amusement and sexual lust. Art became artificial, insincere and perverted. In one word, a harlot.
Sincerity was also significantly weakened when artists became professionals.
Artistic means and ends
Leo Tolstoy's `Christian' art can be religious (conveying feelings regarding God) or universal (conveying the simplest everyday feelings of life).
Deliberate concealments to arouse curiosity, revealing new aspects or angles on reality or putting question marks in a work are hindering, not helping, the artistic impression. Hermeneutic poetry is false art, while realism and naturalism are not more than counterfeits of reality.
Indeed, an essence of art is the conveying of feelings (emotions) into the reader, the listener or the spectator. But, religious consciousness (Christianity) cannot be the (sole) criterion to make a decision about good or bad art. Art can convey (emotional) messages about political and social realities (war, peace), about human psychology (love, hate) or even about possible realities (anticipation).
The messages can, of course, be conveyed in an attractive way, arousing the curiosity of the consumer.
The analysis of hermeneutic poetry is perhaps not worth the effort (ultimately sometimes only hiding simple feelings), but L. Tolstoy's examples are quite understandable.
In fine, L. Tolstoy's argument about `simple feelings' becomes a caricature, when he dismisses Goethe's Faust as not more than an imitation of former works by other writers, or, when he calls Beethoven's latter works (including his 9th Symphony) artistic gibberish, because when Beethoven composed them he was deaf.
This controversial text can only be recommended to Leo Tolstoy fans and art scholars.