Tolstoy What Is Art Analysis Essay

‘The artist of the future will understand that to compose a fairy tale, a little song which will touch, a lullaby or a riddle which will entertain, a jest which will amuse, or to draw a sketch such as will delight dozens of generations or millions of children and adults, is incomparably more important and more fruitful than to compose a novel, or a symphony, or paint a picture, of the kind which diverts some members of the wealthy classes for a short time and is then for ever forgotten. The region of this art of the simplest feelings accessible to all is enormous, and it is as yet almost untouched”

Leo Tolstoy, “What is Art?”(1896)

I wrote the following essay for one of my art class at college.

Leo Tolstoy

What is Art?

When I left High School,  the first pick for further education; the medical school, which soon I found out I was ill fitted. I always had a passion for literature and films, so I decided to get into film school. I started a  search to find a real answer and justification, why become a filmmaker rather than a doctor? I could say I got my answer from a book by Leo Tolstoy titled What is Art? (1896), its a book that is dear to me, one could say it changed my life. Perhaps what attracted me to the book was Tolstoy’s sincere writing and his dilemma in defining Art, his long search and doubts about what art is, a dilemma that I shared.

What Is Art?

No topic has been more written about and theorized as the authentic of art. Ever since the days of Aristotle, the notion of beauty has defined art above all other notions. But what is the notion of Beauty? For beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Every critics and major thinkers had their takes on this subject, making one wonder who holds the truth.

Tolstoy tackles the subject by rejecting the idea of art as that of pleasure and a necessity of a human life. Humanity had lived and could live without art, for art is not among the basic need of human survival, neither is a apart of human leisure. If art is a just for entertainment; that would make all artist as entertainer and all entertainer as artist. Tolstoy considers art as a mean of communication between humans. More than language, art could break all boundaries and establish a relationship between the creator of a work of art and a viewer. A great work of art manages to communicate a relationship and a respond with in the work, the viewer and the creator.

If language and speech are means of transmitting thoughts and experience, then a work of art is means of transmitting feeling. The same felling that an artist express in a work must be transmitted without illusion to the viewer and it must be sincere and full of clarity. Giving and receiving feeling/emotion is the basic of a work of art, there must be a channel of communication. The opposite is true, if a creator tries to communicate a false emotion that is not sincere, then that is not a work of art, but rather a fakery and imitation of the emotion.

"If language and speech are means of transmitting thoughts and experience, then a work of art is means of transmitting feeling"

Experience and the use of art as a medium to show emotion is the basic of a real art. By communicating that experience, the artist provokes true emotion on the viewer and the relationship begins. The experience could be a combination of one’s love for a fellow human; for country, for God, or any experience that shows a just experience. The aim of a true artist is to create felling and emotion in the viewer. The best art are those that communicate a universal themes to the viewer. A theme that any viewer could relate to or recognize it.

Different art and artist expresses that feeling differently from one another. The tool that the artist uses is the man to evoke the emotion in the viewer by means of “movement, lines, sounds, or forms expressed in words” The earliest form of art has been that of Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Music, Declamation (including literature), Dance (including Drama Theater) the so called fine arts. All other art forms owes a great deal to these six forms, advancement of technology had a big effect in creating new art forms (Cinema and Photography). The basic of all art remain the same; to create a channel of communication.

"The best art are those that communicate a universal themes to the viewer"

Tolstoy argues that great civilization and great art goes hand in hand. Art had always defined a culture to the outside world. When today one study history or cultures, it’s the art that expresses the culture that is long gone. A great work of art will remain immortal no matter how old it might be, we are still wondering at the beauty of Homer’s Odyssey. More than speech and language, art are the most important tools of expression and communication, if it’s used to the good of humanity then it will produce only goodness. The opposite is true, if art is used for a mere mean of spreading ideas and as a tool of war (propaganda art) then it will only lead to destruction. It’s the creator of a work of art that defines the work, not the work itself.

The significant of art had always been used by different cultures as a mean to keep certain group in power , states and institution are established to defines the meaning of art for a purpose that is useful to the state. The masses are told what art is and what is not, the separation creates works that are counterfeit art. How could one then decide what is a work of art?

How could one then decide What is a work of art?

Tolstoy argues that a viewer is the one who decide on the work as art or not. If a viewer, without prior knowledge for a work, without a mental exercise or study experience a condition in which unites him with the creator of a work, the experience of communicating a feeling is established. That experience is a work of art. A great work of art destroys the illusion of forms; the experience is so powerful that the viewer combines all the elements of the work into one. The creator, the work and the viewer are one, all is remains is the experience of a pure emotions. The stronger the emotion, the better is work. It’s this experience that separate art from a counterfeits art.

Tolstoy’s argument is clear, no critic, no scholar could defines a work of art. The decisions are in the hand of the viewers, it’s you who decide.

"It’s you who decide: What art is?"

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Karzan KardoziTagged Architecture, book, Cinema, Dance, Declamation, Drama, Film, Leo Tolstoy, literature, Music, Painting, Photography, propaganda art, Sculpture, Theater), What is Art?


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.


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