What is art

There were varied answers to this question in my previous post. Since the days of Plato, philosophers and laymen have attempted to define art. In his book, What is Art, Tolstoy lists these various definitions by different schools.

To Tolstoy, art is the infection by one man of another or of others with the feelings experienced by their infector for example a feeling of delight. For something to pass as art, it must be able to infect others with feeling. He argues further, that art is not a handicraft, its the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced.

He writes that good art is art that transmits the simplest feelings of common life- the art of a people- and this he calls universal art.

On what should be the aim of art, he argues that it should improve individuals, promote union with others, introduce a new feeling into the intercourse of life.

Counterfeit art, he argues, leads to perversion of men, pleasure which never satisfies and the weakening of man’s spiritual strength.

In the same book, he writes about science and notes that it investigates and brings to human perception such truths and such knowledge as the people of a given time and society consider most important and that art transmits these truths from the region of perception to the region of emotion. On the question of what is important is decided by the religious perception of the given time and society, that is, by the common understanding of the purpose of their lives possessed by the people of that time or society.

The end of science is in knowing what we should and shouldn’t believe in, knowing how the associated life and man should and shouldn’t constituted, how to treat sexual relations, how to educate children, how to use the land, how to treat foreigners, animals and much more that is important for the life of man. He continues to argue that science should demonstrate the irrationality, unprofitableness and immorality of war and executions or the inhumanity and harmfulness of prostitution, or the absurdity, harmfulness and immorality of using narcotics or eating animals or the irrationality, harmfulness and antiquatedness of patriotism.

He ends the treatise by arguing that art should cause violence to be set aside and that the highest aim of human life is love.

I think, many Christians living today would not consider Tolstoy a True Christian™. Jesus, to him, did not die for our sins, but rather died fighting for a truth he believed in. That the Old Testament, far from being divine inspiration, is a mixture of bad and good art. He believed strongly in a brotherhood of men.

In the book, What is Art, he argues and I am tempted t agree with him, that which we call art these days, works that can only be appreciated by the artist and an elite group whose tastes have been corrupted, are not art or are counterfeit art. They evoke no feeling in the great majority of people. Nothing would be lost if we repudiated all of it. On the contrary, we would be better for it. He argues also, that, the perversion of art began when the rich class started to patronize art and paid large sums for productions of paintings or plays so that whatever is expensive is considered good art.

Further readings

Tolstoy ( Excerpts)

Tolstoy (PDF)

About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

36 thoughts on “What is art

  1. Mordanicus says:

    >>I think, many Christians living today would not consider Tolstoy a True Christian™

    Tolstoy was kicked out of the Russian Orthodox Church because of his heterodox interpretation of Jesus and his teachings.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kyle Hughes says:

    This is brilliant! Please keep more posts like this! I love reading posts about thoughts mixed with historical teachings.



  3. john zande says:

    By Tolstoy’s definition, a beautiful woman (or man, for that matter) is art. I would agree.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This is very interesting. This topic has a lot of different perspectives and I personally enjoyed reading it.


  5. Hariod Brawn says:

    Totally disagree with the final paragraph, I’m afraid Mak. What are we to do, repudiate the St. Matthew Passion because most people don’t appreciate it? Nonsense! It’s arguably the pinnacle of Western Art. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Peter says:

    ‘What is Art’…indeed!

    In my hometown of Hobart a wealthy gambler, David Walsh, established The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). Its aim is to present ‘challenging’ art, such as The Poop Machine:

    I conclude that art is very much in the eye of the beholder, much like religion, and so much unlike science.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Nekkid Furry Boi Blog says:

    Thank you for this post and the provocative question. I hope that you are well. I agree with Tolstoy on the subject of art, as it is very interpretive. On science, I think he downplays the role of substantiated fact. Naked hugs!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Tolstoy’s definitions of art are purely subjective, and that isn’t a surprise because art and beauty are innately subjective things. Some of his points I can agree with, some not. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

    Liked by 2 people

    • makagutu says:

      Is there a way to talk about art objectively?


      • I don’t see how. If you can, please inform me.

        Our Earth has a diameter of nearly 8,000 miles. It rotates on its axis once every 24 hours. It revolves around the sun once every 365 and 1/4 days at an average distance of 93 million miles. These are empirical facts objectively obtained through verifiable measurements.

        I toured the Louvre Museum in Paris two decades ago and viewed da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Objectively, I can tell you that it is an oil painting on a white Lombardy poplar panel and that it depicts the image of a woman. Subjectively, I can tell you that the painting has soft, warm hues and that the woman’s facial expression and pose suggest some kind of mystery or hidden secret. I liked it. My companions did not. They both thought the painting is too small, that it lacked vibrancy, and that the woman didn’t appear mysterious at all.

        So, beyond the objective facts of the Mona Lisa being an oil painting, we had three subjective perceptions of it – two which were similar, and one which was very different.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I know art very well. He’s my next door neighbor: Art U Kiddin’. Nice guy.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Barry says:

    I think, many Christians living today would not consider Tolstoy a True Christian™. Jesus, to him, did not die for our sins, but rather died fighting for a truth he believed in. That the Old Testament, far from being divine inspiration, is a mixture of bad and good art.
    I’m sure that’s true in many parts of the world, but I’m equally sure that other parts of the world, even more Christians would hold similar heterodox beliefs. Fundamentalist excepted, heterodoxy isn’t thought of as sinful or wrong by the majority of Christians hereabouts.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. The perspective of your question on the last thread makes more sense now. But I don’t think it’s right to say art isn’t art unless most of the population appreciates it. A lot of the fiction I like isn’t enjoyed by the majority of the population. Should we conclude that the fiction I like isn’t art?

    That said, I can’t say my own tastes go much for art that I have to be trained to appreciate.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I really enjoyed this post Mak, the title asks an age old question, that there is no answer to beyond ‘each to their own’ taste-wise methinks. The comments here are always a pleasure to read when the Cloud passes this way too.

    – Esme waving at mak upon the Cloud

    Liked by 1 person

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