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)

War and peace

By Count Leo Tolstoy

I will start by a confession. Many times when I write a review of an old book, that I guess many of you must have read, the question that comes to mind is you must be asking where I was when you read them. I wish I knew but I am reading them now and as my very important audience, I have to share with you the joy I draw from such books.

With that behind us, for those interested in what Kutuzov did or did not do, what happened to Helene the socialite the family affairs of Prince Bezukhov or Princess Mary and what led to the ruin of the Rostovs’, you can read the whole novel.

But those lazy ones, who are interested more in the questions of history or human nature, the epilogue will do. In the epilogue he asks what is power, what causes the movement of nations,  such as what led to the movement from the west to the east that ended with the taking of Moscow and the countermovement from East to west that ended in Paris?

The other important question, at least in my view, that he dispenses with is that of freewill. And I do not, for the life of me, know why it isn’t part of the literature in the freewill debate. His explanations are clear and almost irrefutable if not irrefutable.

At the end of the book, I begin to see why Fyodor Dostoevsky, would call him, Tolstoy, one of the greatest writers living. His was a brilliant mind. He combined story telling with psychology in a way that can only be compared to Dostoevsky’s works.

It’s a long read for the fainthearted but it is worth all the time you would take to finish ploughing through it.