“What is Art” by Leo Tolstoy

This book has broadened and deepened my understanding and appreciation of art. One of the, if not the, best essay on art I’ve ever read. I especially enjoyed the summary of various aesthetic theories and definitions of beauty, although Tolstoy’s definition of art is based not on beauty but on feelings. In his opinion, the definitions of beauty by philosophers and aestheticians are either too obtuse or too confused to be applied in the creation of art.

What is Beauty?

According to Kant (1724-1804), man has a knowledge of nature outside him and of himself in nature. In nature, outside himself, he seeks for truth ; in himself he seeks for goodness. The first is an affair of pure reason, the other of practical reason (free-will). Besides these two means of perception, there is yet the judging capacity (Urteilskraft), which forms judgments without reasonings and produces pleasure without desire (Urtheil ohne Begriff und Vergnugen ohne Begehren). This capacity is the basis of aesthetic feeling. Beauty in its subjective meaning is that which, in general and necessarily, without reasonings and without practical advantage, pleases. In its objective meaning it is the form of a suitable object in so far as that object is perceived without any conception of its utility.

According to Hegel (1770-1831), God manifests himself in nature and in art in the form of beauty. God expresses himself in two ways : in the object and in the subject, in nature and in spirit. Beauty is the shining of the Idea through matter. Only the soul, and what pertains to it, is truly beautiful ; and therefore the beauty of nature is only the reflection of the natural beauty of the spirit –the beautiful has only a spiritual content. But the spiritual must appear in sensuous form. The sensuous manifestation of spirit is only appearance (schein), and this appearance is the only reality of the beautiful. Art is thus the production of this appearance of the Idea, and is a means, together with religion and philosophy, of bringing to consciousness and of expressing the deepest problems of humanity and the highest truths of the spirit.

Truth and beauty, according to Hegel, are one and the same thing; the difference being only that truth is the Idea itself as it exists in itself, and is thinkable. The Idea, manifested externally, becomes to the apprehension not only true but beautiful. The beautiful is the manifestation of the Idea.

According to Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Will objectivizes itself in the world on various planes; and although the higher the plane on which it is objectivized the more beautiful it is, yet each plane has its own beauty. Renunciation of one’s individuality and contemplation of one of these planes of manifestation of Will gives us a perception of beauty. All men possess the capacity to objectivize the Idea on different planes. The genius of the artist has this capacity in a higher degree, and therefore makes a higher beauty manifest.

In summary, beauty consists either in utility, or in adjustment to a purpose, or in symmetry, or in order, or in proportion, or in smoothness, or in harmony of the parts, or in unity amid variety, or in various combinations of these. All the aesthetic definitions of beauty lead to two fundamental conceptions. The first is that beauty is something having an independent existence (existing in itself), that it is one of the manifestations of the absolutely Perfect, of the Idea, of the Spirit, of Will, or of God ; the other is that beauty is a kind of pleasure received by us, not having personal advantage for its object.

Infectiousness of Art

“Art is an activity by means of which one man having experienced a feeling intentionally transmits it to others.”

Infection is a sure sign of art, and the degree of infectiousness, which depends on three conditions, namely, individuality, clearness and sincerity, is also the sole measure of the excellence in art, apart from its subject matter.

What is Good Art

According to Tolstoy, art should be universal, and unite all men. And only two kinds of feeling do unite all men : first, feelings flowing from the perception of our sonship to God and of the brotherhood of man ; and next, the simple feelings of common life, accessible to everyone without exception — such as the feeling of merriment, of pity, of cheerfulness, of tranquility, etc.

“Sometimes people who are together are, if not hostile to one another, at least estranged in mood and feeling, till perchance a story, a performance, a picture, or even a building, but oftenest of all music, unites them all as by an electric flash, and, in place of their former isolation or even enmity, they are all conscious of union and mutual love. Each is glad that another feels what he feels; glad of the communion established, not only between him and all present, but also with all now living who will yet share the same impression; and more than that, he feels the mysterious gladness of a communion which, reaching beyond the grave, unites us with all men of the past who have been moved by the same feelings, and with all men of the future who will yet be touched by them.”

The Organic Nature of Art

“A real work of art can only arise in the soul of an artist occasionally, as the fruit of the life he has lived, just as a child is conceived by its mother.”

Every true work of art possesses “such entirety and completeness that the smallest alteration in its form would disturb the meaning of the whole work. In a true work of art—poem, drama, picture, song, or symphony—it is impossible to extract one line, one scene, one figure, or one bar from its place and put it in another, without infringing the significance of the whole work; just as it is impossible, without infringing the life of an organic being, to extract an organ from one place and insert it in another.”

“Musical execution is only then art, only then infects, when the sound is neither higher nor lower than it should be, that is, when exactly the infinitely small centre of the required note is taken ; when that note is continued exactly as long as is needed; and when the strength of the sound is neither more nor less than is required. The slightest deviation of pitch in either direction, the slightest increase or decrease in time, or the slightest strengthening or weakening of the sound beyond what is needed, destroys the perfection and, consequently, the infectiousness of the work. So that the feeling of infection by the art of music, which seems so simple and so easily obtained, is a thing we receive only when the performer finds those infinitely minute degrees which are necessary to perfection in music. It is the same in all arts : a wee bit lighter, a wee bit darker, a wee bit higher, lower, to the right or the left in painting ; a wee bit weaker or stronger in intonation, or a wee bit sooner or later in dramatic art ; a wee bit omitted, over-emphasised, or exaggerated in poetry, and there is no contagion. Infection is only obtained when an artist finds those infinitely minute degrees of which a work of art consists, and only to the extent to which he finds them. And it is quite impossible to teach people by external means to find these minute degrees : they can only be found when a man yields to his feeling.”

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