Tolstoy’s What is Art? examines the nature and purposes of art by focusing on it as a medium to communicate ideas, values and morality. He argues that most definitions and analysis of art are wrong because they focus exclusively on beauty, and instead focuses on the context in which it is used to share ideas, emotions and experiences. He does not completely neglect the beauty of art, but believes it is too vague and indefinable an idea to be a useful framework for analyzing the complicated question of “what is art?” According to Tolstoy, the essence of art, or what “makes it art” is the way in which strong human emotions can be shared between the artist and the person enjoying the art. This is a simple and natural process, and even the most common and uneducated person can appreciate art, sometimes easier than a sophisticated consumer of art, who may “overthink” or pervert the process.
The different chapters or sections look at art through different narrative perspectives. Tolstoy was a teacher, and reflects on walking with his students. The stories he taught them were used as a collective and shared foundation with which to experience the world. He had taught them a story on wolves, and they discussed the possibility of encountering wolves on their walks. They had a shared context with which to analyze their world. Art could be anything that transmitted feelings between people. Furthermore, his students understood art instinctively, they did not have to learn what art was to appreciate it. In fact, Tolstoy asserts that the schoolboys were capable of making art that was more true and valuable than Beethoven or Goethe, particularly for common people like themselves. They could make universal and useful art that was accessible and spoke uniquely to people of similar background and experiences. In other chapters Tolstoy deconstructs the religious significance of art, and concludes that art can communicate both good and bad emotions, and believes most theories and philosophers who analyze art put too much focus on beauty, including Kant, Schiller, and Goethe. Tolstoy gives a detailed review of the history of philosophic thought on the definition of art. Many philosophers concluded that truth and beauty are the same thing, and were too vague, unable to formulate a definition that satisfied Tolstoy. There is way to define beauty, it is too subjective. In fact, Tolstoy argues that most of the great thinkers and elites of society have perverted and clouded the understanding of art. His condemnation of the ideas of some of the great thinkers of Western Civilization is clear, they celebrate superficial beautiful works and have neglected the true, common, spiritual art that speaks to the heart of the common man.
However, Tolstoy also dismisses other ideas about the consistency of art. It is not merely what is important, or moral, or aesthetically pleasurable. Like food, art is not just for pleasure, it has another more important role. He cites some useful modern explanations, including art is natural, is a result of human emotion, and is permanent, giving enjoyment to both producer and consumers. Most importantly, these feelings are “high” feelings, which unite people in both happiness and sadness, and are true and moral. These shared feeling replace “lower feelings” which are not good for humanity. Humans can pass on these noble feelings from one generation to the next, which unites societies and provides a shared history and culture. Tolstoy argues that art is part of civilization, and religion, which advances and moves humanity to a better place. What makes a work of art true is the honest, organic, and natural emotion invested in it by the artist. It is not only for sophisticated, educated elite members of society, but available as a spiritual experience for the masses.
According to Tolstoy, an example of a true work of art is Amiel’s “Journal”, which was journal describing the cumulative life work and experiences of a man, and a sincere look into his faith and understanding of life. It is not fake, but a true window into his soul which Tolstoy greatly appreciated because it touched him emotionally, and spoke on religious questions he believes are important to everyone. Tolstoy did not believe it is not the most beautifully written book, but it wrestles with good vs. evil, is intimate, it is true, and touches the reader, sharing sincere emotion between people, and therefore it is art.
Tolstoy, Leo. What Is Art? New York: Bobbs-Merrill, Liberal Arts, 1960. Print.