Tolstoy – What is Art?


Below are some of the (paraphrased) arguments and a set of quotes from Tolstoy’s What is Art. Although I do generally sympathize with everything he says, here are some possible responses to his approach. These will make more sense if you actually go and read the book first, or at least the quotes. In fact, here are the quotes first. Read them and then my response is below it all.



p. 13-14           opera is stupid


“But what was being done here? For what, and for whom? Very likely the conductor was tired out, like the workman I passed in the vaults; it was even evident that he was; but who made him tire himself? And for what was he tiring himself? The opera he was rehearsing was one of the most ordinary of operas for people who are accustomed to them, but also one of the most gigantic absurdities that could possibly be devised. An Indian king wants to marry; they bring him a bride; he disguises himself as a minstrel; the bride falls in love with the minstrel and is in despair, but afterwards discovers that the minstrel is the king, and everyone is highly delighted.

            That there never were, or could be, such Indians, and that they were not only unlike Indians, but that what they were doing was unlike anything on earth except other operas, was beyond all manner of doubt; that people do not converse in such a way as recitative, and do not place themselves at fixed distances in a quartet, waving their arms to express their emotions; that nowhere, except in theatres, do people walk about in such a manner, in pairs, with tinfoil halberds and in slippers; that no one ever gets angry in such a way, or cries in such a way; and that no one on earth can be moved by such performances—all this is beyond the possibility of doubt.

            Instinctively the question presents itself: For whom is this being done? Whom can it please? If there are, occasionally, good melodies in the opera to which it is pleasant to listen, they could have been sung simply, without these stupid costumes and all the processions and recitatives and handwavings.”


p. 14-15           modern art criticism is negating


T explains how art criticism is so self-contradictory that it each branch negates another and if you added it all up  there will be total negation,  meaning no valid art.


I agree. Criticism only seems to serve the function of providing reassurance and pleasure to the already converted. It cannot make you like a certain type or work of art. Surely that realm is more subconscious and personal and cannot truly be altered by argument. What criticism can provide is information. Perhaps a critic you trust and with whom you tend to share common affinities says, “If you like A then you will like B.” That is useful guidance. And perhaps it can, along the same lines, encourage one to spend more time with a work. Again, not speaking for the work, but acting more as a catalyst for a still natural reaction. “Stay with it.” “Give it another chance, I beseech you.” Also as a purely intellectual exercise, criticism itself can provide insight, entertainment and other rewards completely apart from  what is actually being discussed, whether you have or will ever experience the subject of the criticism in its original form.


Chapter 2         discusses the meaning of the word beauty


“And he recounts how a glass of milk drunk by him in the mountains gave him aesthetic enjoyment.” – T

“Hardly in any sphere of philosophical science can we find such divergent methods of investigation and exposition, amounting even to self-contradiction, as in the sphere of aesthetics. On the one hand, we have elegant phraseology without any substance, characterized in great part by most one-sided superficiality; and on the other hand, accompanying undesirable profundity of investigation and richness of subject matter, we get a revolting awkwardness of philosophic terminology, infolding the simplest thoughts in an apparel of abstract science, as though to render them worthy to enter the consecrated palace of the system; and finally, between these two methods of investigation and exposition there is a third, forming, as it were, the transition from one to the other, a method consisting of eclecticism, now flaunting an elegant, phraseology, and now a pedantic erudition…A style of exposition that falls into none of these three defects but is truly concrete, and, having important matter, expresses it in clear and popular philosophic language, can nowhere be found less frequently than in the domain of aesthetics.” – M. Schasler



Chapter 3         summary of various other definitions of art


Baumgarten (1714-1762)


            Beauty à perfection as recognized by the senses

            Truth à perfection through reason

Goodness à perfection through morality


            The aim of beauty itself is to please and excite a desire.

            The highest aim of art is to copy nature.


Sulzer (1720-1777)

            The aim of art is not beauty, but (moral) goodness.


Mendelssohn (1729-1786)

The aim of art is moral perfection.


Winckelmann (1717-1767)

1.      beauty of form

2.      beauty of idea

3.      beauty of expression (requires 1 and 2 to be met)


Conclusion: modern art should only imitate ancient art since they already achieved this.


Hutcheson (1694-1747)


Beauty guided by “internal sense” and may or may not correspond to goodness.


Lord Kames (1696-1782)


Beauty is defined by taste alone. There should be a narrow ideal for perfection in any work of art.          


Burke (1729-1797)


            Sociability (and the sex instinct) is the source of beauty.


And a bunch of others I’m leaving out


p. 52                art is about sharing feelings with other men


“As, thanks to man’s capacity to express thoughts by words, every man may know all that has been done for him in the realms of thought by all humanity before his day, and can in the present, thanks to this capacity to understand the thoughts of others, become a sharer in their activity and can himself hand on to this contemporaries and descendants the thoughts he has assimilated from others, as well as those which have arisen within himself; so, thanks to man’s capacity to be infected with the feelings of others by means of art, all that is being lived through by his contemporaries is accessible to him, as well as the feelings experienced by men thousands of years ago, and he has also the possibility of transmitting his own feelings to others.”


            I totally agree with this.


p. 54    good and evil as defined by religion


p.68    exclusive refined art requires work of slaves


“That is what the defenders of our exclusive art say. But I think they do not themselves believe it. They cannot help knowing that fine art can arise only on the slavery of the masses of the people, and can continue only as long as the slavery lasts, and they cannot help knowing that only under conditions of intense labor for the workers can specialists—writers, musicians, dancers, and actors—arrive at that finer degree of perfection to which they do attain, or produce their refined works of art; and only under the same condition can there be a fine public to esteem such productions. Free the slaves of capital and it will be impossible to produce such refined art.”


But what is wrong with that? What is wrong with refined art? If one becomes perverted by it, it seems so tempting to stay with it. This “turning away” from refinement seems against human nature. Perhaps even impossible?



p.76                 Unchecked Swedes


“Thus in consequence of the lack of belief and the exceptional manner of life of the wealthy classes, the art of those classes became impoverished in its subject matter, and has sunk to the transmission of the feelings of pride, discontent with life, and, above all, of sexual desire.”


“In consequence of their unbelief, the art of the upper classes became poor in subject matter. But besides that, becoming continually more and more exclusive, it became at the same time continually more and more involved, affected, and obscure.”


p. 86                Baudelaire thinks Fake is Better than Real


“The conception of life of one of them, Baudelaire, consisted in elevating gross egotism into a theory, and replacing morality by a cloudy conception of beauty and especially artificial beauty. Baudelaire had a preference, which he expressed, for a woman’s face painted rather than showing its natural color, and for metal trees and a theatrical imitation of water rather than real trees and real water.”


Modern art is just a revolving search for “fresh forms.”


“There is only one explanation of this fact: it is that the art of the society in which these versifiers lived is not a serious, important matter of life, but is a mere amusement. And all amusements grow wearisome by repetition. And, in order to find some means to freshen it up. When, at cards, ombre grows stale, whist is introduced; when whist grows stale, écarté us substituted; when écarté grows stale, some other novelty is invented, and so on. The substance of the matter remains the same, only the form is changed. And so it is with this kind of art. The subject matter of the art of the upper classes growing continually more and more limited, it has come at last to this, that to the artists of these exclusive classes it seems as if everything has already been said and that to find anything new to say is impossible. And therefore, to freshen up this art they look out for fresh forms.”


p. 91                a peasant’s response to the impressionist exhibit


“Next—a picture: a yellow sea, on which swims something which is neither a ship nor a heart; on the horizon is a profile with a halo and yellow hair, which changes into a sea in which it is lost. Some of the painters lay on their colors so thickly that the effect is something between painting and sculpture. A third exhibit was even less comprehensible: a man’s profile; before him a flame and black stripes—leeches, as I was afterwards told. At last I asked a gentleman who was there what it meant, and he explained to me that the haut-relief was a symbol, and that it represented “La Terre.” The heart swimming in a yellow sea was “Illusion perdue,” and the gentleman with the leeches “Le Mal.” There were also some Impressionist pictures: elementary profiles, holding some sort of flowers in their hands: in monotone, out of drawing, and either quite blurred or else marked out with wide black outlines.” – Tatiana Sukhotin, 1894



p. 92                            This could describe so many movies…


“And it occurs to you that perhaps it is all a mystification; perhaps the performer is trying you—just throwing his hands and fingers wildly about the keyboard in the hope that you will fall into the trap and praise him, and then he will laugh and confess that he only wanted to see if he could hoax you. But when at last the piece does finish and the perspiring and agitated musician rises from the piano evidently anticipating praise, you see that it was all done in earnest.”


p. 93              Young art of our time is confusing


“Read La-Bas by Huysmans, or some of Kipling’s short stories, or “L’Annonciateur” by Villiers de l’Isle Adam in his Contes Cruels, etc., and you will find them not only “abscons” (to use a word adopted buy the new writers), but absolutely unintelligible both in form and in substance. Such, again, is the work by E. Morel, “Terre Promise,” now appearing in the Revue Blanche, and such are most of the new novels. The style is very high-flown, the feelings seem to be most elevated, but you can’t make out what is happening, to whom it is happening, and where it is happening. And such is the bulk of the young art of our time.”


p. 95                My writing doesn’t suck, you do!


“As soon as ever the art of the upper classes separated itself from universal art, a conviction arose that art may be art and yet be incomprehensible to the masses. And as soon as this position was admitted, it had inevitably to be admitted also that art may be intelligible only to the very smallest number of the elect, and, eventually, to two, or to one, of our nearest friends, or to oneself alone, which is practically what is being said by modern artists: “I create and understand myself, and if any one does not understand me, so much the worse for him.”


p. 104                          borrowing / appropriation


            “Poetic—means borrowed. All borrowing merely recalls to the reader, spectator, or listener some dim recollection of artistic impressions they have received from previous works of art and does not infect them with feeling which the artist has himself experienced. A work founded on something borrowed, like Goethe’s Faust, for instance, may be very well executed and be full of mind and every beauty, but because it lacks the chief characteristic of a work of art—completeness, oneness, the inseparable unity of form and contents expressing the feeling the artist has experienced—it cannot produce a really artistic impression. In availing himself of this method, the artist only transmits the feeling received by him from a previous work of art; therefore every borrowing, whether it be of whole subjects, or of various scenes, situations, or descriptions, is but a reflection of art, a simulation of it, but not art itself. And therefore, to say that a certain production is good because it is poetic—i.e., resembles a work of art—is like saying of a coin that it is good because it resembles real money.”


p. 105                          Cheating your way to achieving emotional response in viewer


“The substitution of effectfulness for aesthetic feeling is particularly noticeable in musical art—that art which by its nature has an immediate physiological action on the nerves. Instead of transmitting by means of a melody the feelings he has experienced, a composer of the new school accumulates and complicates sounds, and by now strengthening, now weakening them, he produces on the audience a physiological effect of a kind that can be measured by an apparatus invented for the purpose. And the public mistakes this physiological effect for the effect of art.”



p. 106             The puzzle plot art – to be solved – is not really art


            “As to the fourth method—that of interesting—it also is frequently confounded with art. One often hears it said, not only of a poem, a novel, or a picture, but even of a musical work, that it is interesting. What does this mean? To speak of an interesting work of art means either that we receive from a work of art information new to us, or that the work is not fully intelligible and that little by little, and with effort, we arrive at its meaning and experience a certain pleasure in this process of guessing it. In neither case has the interest anything in common with artistic impression. Art aims at infecting people with feeling experienced by the artist. But the mental effort necessary to enable the spectator, listener, or reader to assimilate the new information contained in the work, or to guess the puzzles propounded, by distracting him hinders the infection. And therefore the interestingness of a work not only has nothing to do with its excellence as a work of art, but rather hinders than assists artistic impression.” 


p. 119            Two different pure art forms not as good as one


“And this cannot be, just as there cannot be two men, or even two leaves on a tree, exactly alike. Still less can two works from different realms of art, the musical and the literary, be absolutely alike. If they coincide, then either one is a work of art and the other a counterfeit, or both are counterfeits. Two live leaves cannot be exactly alike, but two artificial leaves may be. And so it is with works of art. They can only coincide completely when neither the one nor the other is art, but only cunningly devised semblances of it.”


            Poetry + Music


“If poetry and music may be joined, as occurs in hymns, songs, and romances—(though even in these the music does not follow the changes of each verse of the text, as Wagner wants to, but the song and the music merely produce a  coincident effect on the mind)—this occurs only because lyrical poetry and music have, to some extent, one and the same aim: to produce a mental condition  and the conditions produced by lyrical poetry and by music can, more or less, coincide. But even in these conjunctions the center of gravity always lies in one of the two productions, so that it is one of them that produces the artistic impression while the other remains unregarded. And still less is it possible for such union to exist between epic or dramatic poetry and music.”


p. 124                          I stayed for the second act


“Regarding the question I had come to the theatre to decide, my mind was fully made up, as surely as on the question of the merits of my lady acquaintance’s novel when she read me the scene between the loose-haired maiden in the white dress and the hero with two white dogs and a hat with a feather á la Guillaume Tell.

From an author who could compose such spurious scenes outraging all aesthetic feeling, as those which I had witnessed, there was nothing to be hoped; it may safely be decided that all that such an author can write will be bad because he evidently does not know what a true work of art is. I wished to leave, but the friends I was with asked me to remain, deciding that one could not form opinion by that one act, and that the second would be better. So I stayed for the second act.”


p. 126              predetermination is off putting


“Everyone knows the feeling of distrust and resistance which is always evoked by an author’s evident predetermination. A narrator need only say in advance, Prepare to cry or to laugh, and you are sure neither to cry nor to laugh. But when you see that an author prescribes emotion at what is not touching, but only laughable or disgusting, and when you see, moreover, that the author is fully assured that he has captivated you, a painfully tormenting feeling results, similar to what one would feel if an old, deformed woman put on a ball-dress and smilingly coquetted before you, confident of your approbation. This impression was strengthened by the fact that around me I saw a crowd of three thousand people who not only patiently witnessed all this absurd nonsense, but even considered it their duty to be delighted with it.”


p.129               politics


“And it is this poetically, imitativeness, effectfulness, and interestingness which, thanks to the peculiarities of Wagner’s talent and to the advantageous position in which he was placed, are in these productions carried to the highest pitch of perfection, which act on the spectator, hypnotizing him as one would be hypnotized who should listen for several consecutive hours to the ravings of a maniac pronounced with great oratorical power.”


The English Patient Effect


“Yes, naturally! Only place yourself in such conditions and you may see what you will. But this can be still more quickly attained by getting drunk or smoking opium. It is the same when listening to an opera of Wagner’s. Sit in the dark for four days in company with people who are not quite normal, and through the auditory nerves subject your brain to the strongest action of the sounds best adapted to excite it, and you will no doubt be reduced to an abnormal condition and be enchanted by absurdities.”


p. 132              Too much art


            “So that in all there will be in Europe, say, one hundred and twenty thousand painters; and there are probably as many musicians and as many literary artists. If these three hundred and sixty thousand individuals produce three works a year each (and many of them produce ten or more), then each year yields over a million so-called works of art. How many, then, must have been produced in the last ten years, and how many in the whole time since upper-class art broke off from the art of the whole people? Evidently millions. Yet who of all the connoisseurs of art has received impressions from all these pseudo works of art? Not to mention all the laboring classes who have no conception of these productions, even people of the upper classes cannot know one in a thousand of them all, and cannot remember those they have known. These works all appear under the guise of art, produce no impression on anyone (except when they serve as pastimes for the idle crowd of rich people), and vanish utterly.”


p. 138              childhood innocence – true art is modest


            “What I am saying will be considered irrational paradox, at which one can only be amazed; but for all that I must say what I think; namely, that people of our circle of whom some compose verses, stories, novels, operas, symphonies, and sonatas, paint all kinds of pictures and make statues, while others hear and look at these things, and again others appraise and criticize it all, discuss, condemn, triumph, and raise monuments to one another, generation after generation—that all these people, with very few exceptions artists, and public, and critics, have never (except in childhood and earliest youth before hearing any discussions on art) experienced that simple feeling familiar to the plainest man and even to a child, that sense of infection with another’s feeling, compelling us to joy in another’s gladness, to sorrow at another’s grief, and to mingle soul with another—which is the very essence of art. And therefore these people not only cannot distinguish true works of art from counterfeit, but continually mistake for real art the worst and most artificial, while they do not even perceive works of real art because the counterfeits are always more ornate, while true art is modest.”


p. 155              standard inoculation / excuses excuses?


            “While offering as examples of art those that seem to me the best, I attach no special importance to my selections; for, besides being insufficiently informed in all branches of art, I belong to the class of people whose taste has, buy false training, been perverted. And therefore my old, inured habits may cause me to err, and I may mistake for absolute merit the impression a work produced on me in my youth. My only purpose in mentioning examples of works of this or that class is to make my meaning clear, and to show how, with my present views, I understand excellence in art in relations to its subject matter. I must, moreover, mention that I consign my own artistic productions to the category of bad art, excepting the story “God sees the Truth,” which seeks a place in the first class, and “The Prisoner of the Caucasus,” which belongs to the second.”


p. 161              children are raised to perform and want more public praise (The Britney Spears effect)


“It is often said that it is horrible and pitiful to see little acrobats putting their legs over their necks, but it is not less pitiful to see children of ten giving converts, and it is still worse to see schoolboys of ten who, as a preparation for literary work, have learned by heart the exceptions s to the Latin grammar. These people no only grow physically and mentally deformed, but also morally deformed and become incapable of doing anything really needed by man. Occupying in society the role of amusers of the rich, they lose their sense of human dignity and develop in themselves such a passions for public applause that they are always a prey to an inflated and unsatisfied vanity which grows in them to diseased dimensions, and they expend their mental strength in efforts to obtain satisfaction for this passion”


But if you ARE the rich, it’s great! As long as you don’t care the effect you’re having on these “performers.”


 p. 167


            “Look carefully into the causes of the ignorance of the masses, an you may see that the chief cause does not at all lie in the lack of schools and libraries as we are accustomed to suppose, but in those superstitions, both ecclesiastical and patriotic, with which the people are saturated and which are unceasingly generated by all the methods of art.”


p. 172              Dear Art – “I am pregnant. You idiot.”


            “Strange as the comparison may sound, what has happened to the art of our circle and time is what happens to a woman who sells her womanly attractiveness, intended for maternity, for the pleasure of those who desire such pleasures.

            The art of our time and of our circle has become a prostitute. And this comparison holds good even in minute details. Like her it is not limited to certain time, like her it is always adorned, like her it is always salable, and like her it is enticing and ruinous.”


p. 175              the internet will kill refined art


            “People think that if there are no special art schools the technique of art will deteriorate. Undoubtedly, if by technique we understand those complications of art which are now considered an excellence, it will deteriorate; but if by technique is understood clearness, beauty, simplicity, and compression in works of art, then, even if the elements of drawing and music were not to be taught in the national schools, the technique will not only not deteriorate but, as is shown by all peasant art, will be a hundred times better. It will be improved, because all the artist of genius now hidden among the masses will become produces of art and will give models of excellence, which (as has always been the case) will be the best schools of technique for their successors. For every true artist even now learns his technique chiefly not in the schools, but in life, from the examples of the great masters; then—when the produces of art will be the best artist of the whole nation, and there will be more such examples, and they will be more accessible—such part of the school training as the future artist will lose will be a hundredfold compensated for by the training he will receive from the numerous examples of good art diffused in society.”


            “The artist of the future will live the common life of man, earning his subsistence by some kind of labor. The fruits of that highest spiritual strength which passes through him he will try to share with the greatest possible number of people, for in such transmission to others of the feelings that have arisen in him he will find his happiness and his area. The artist of the future will be unable to understand how an artist, whose chief delight is in the wide diffusion of his works, could give them only in exchange for a certain payment.”



My Responses


1.      In summary, Tolstoy says (c. 1900) that art is universal and should strive to enrich the lives of all men regardless of their level of education or refinement of critical faculties. Eliot, on the other hand, says (in 1961) how great it is to study and study the context of the original artist ad infinitum. He seems to imply the more effort you make in learning what went on before and around (and probably after) a work of art is produced, the more pleasure you will receive from it.


But then to me the question is not what can we do, because we can do either, or both. As a product of the modern age, I am naturally inclined toward refinement. But on the other hand, I am very sympathetic to the spiritual and universal arguments of Tolstoy. It becomes difficult for me to decide to which of these ends should I strive? Both in the way I live and the way I (attempt) to make art.


2.      Tolstoy’s expectation is simply too demanding. No one can speak to everyone, so if you say all art must aspire to speak to everyone, you are damning most art to fail by a lot. Why not compromise? Art that speaks to a “decent” number of people can be considered real art. This seems fair.


3.      Some references may be lost yet the feeling is still transmitted–possibly even the wrong (or unintended) feeling. Again, Eliot speaks to this point:


A careful reading of Eliot’s last quote there could simply reaffirm his earlier point about context. In other words, by endeavoring to inhabit the mind of the foreign readers of Poe, he is merely establishing more context, and more refinement. It’s the same game only from even farther across the table. But I wonder if the phenomenon of art being “lost in translation” could offer clues to other facets of the artist viewer relationship. Art could be seen as hit or miss art rather than art or not art. That is to say if the feeling is morally just, it’s a hit for Tolstoy, but if it is morally corrupting, perhaps it’s a miss. But one could still judge the strength of the work by whether it is sincerely felt and whether it “infects” another with its feeling (or at least “a feeling.”) This possibility is certainly not lost on Tolstoy, and I feel as though he did broach this at some point. I simply wonder if any further exploration in this area would be worthwhile.