Tolstoy’s Definition of Art- And Why It’s Wrong

Since this marks my 50th blog post, I decided that in honor of the occasion, I would join the time-honored blogging tradition of using this corner of web space as a soapbox. And to my mind there could be no better way to do this than to posit that Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, manages to miss the entire point of art in his definition of the subject.

I should add that this definition, which I’m going to trash in this post of a few hundred or so words, took him nearly fifteen years to develop.

After writing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy went into an existential crisis of sorts that produced some very strange thoughts on writing and the purpose of art in general, and his treatise What is Art?, published in 1896, highlights these odd opinions. The highlight of piece, as italicized by Tolstoy himself, is his definition of art and its aims:

“To evoke in oneself a feeling one has 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 this 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 those feelings and also experience them.”

In case your eyes glazed over reading that, he has a helpful little sentence right before those italicized bits: “If only the spectators and auditors are infected by the feelings which the author has felt, it is art.”

By that argument Fifty Shades of Grey is art. If the wild reactions of two women I overheard in Target on how sexy and riveting the book is is anything to go by, they’ve certainly been infected with the feelings EL James had when she was writing that thing. She used forms expressed in words- ‘form’ being used in its loosest possible definition, as that novel has less structure than a plate of wet noodles. Those forms have certainly infected people, if the sales figures are anything to go by. (No, I’m not bitter about the fact that all three books and the box set are in the top ten selling books for the past two months. Why do you ask?)

But in all seriousness, art is not about transmitting feeling. For one thing, the production of art requires work. A lot of work. Michelangelo did not suddenly become a brilliant sculptor merely because he had a feeling that he wanted to transmit to others. He became a master sculptor and painter because he worked to gain the skills he needed to make things like the statue of David and the roof of the Sistine Chapel. Feelings (and probably commissions from patrons) no doubt played a role in the drive to make those works, but he had to work to produce them. Feeling alone won’t be enough to overcome bad painting or shoddy writing or poor composition. A mere transmission of feeling is not enough to make something art.

But the other problem with this definition is that it reduces art to a mere emotion experienced by the artist, and how well they transmit that emotion.

I don’t think that feelings can be translated through any work of art in such a way that I’ll feel them the same way the author did. I can read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle (which is an amazing book and you all should go and check it out now) and get a sense of what it was like to be in a Russian gulag, but no matter how powerful the words, I won’t know what it was like to actually live in such a place and in such a time.  I don’t feel the suffering of the prisoners in the gulag the same way Solzhenitsyn felt it. I can’t. That time, those circumstances, and that place can’t be replicated through mere words to a girl living in a comfortable 21st century home.

The other factor Tolstoy seems to ignore in regard to feeling is that everyone will have different responses and reactions to a work of art. It’s part of the fact that human beings all look with different eyes. They’ll take away various things from different aspects of a work of art, and it doesn’t mean they’re wrong or that the artist failed. Part of the beauty of a great work of art is that it will be complex enough to have many facets.

But the greatest problem with Tolstoy’s definition is that art ISN’T about transmitting feeling. Art is about trying to express and reach out to something greater than just the form of whatever medium the artist uses. The purpose of art is to use various elements such as light, sound, color, and words to convey a greater truth or understanding, one that goes beyond just the physical element of the art. When it comes to works like the Mona Lisa, Othello, or the Sistine Chapel, it is not the artist’s feeling that renders them breathtaking and memorable. They are remembered for the beauty of their form, for the subject they depict and the fact that they touch something in human beings that transcends time and culture.

Feeling may play a part in that. But it is a part of art only, and not the purpose or the whole.

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9 thoughts on “Tolstoy’s Definition of Art- And Why It’s Wrong

  1. Congratulations on your fiftieth post! Tolstoy’s definition of art has some validity I feel though defining what art is or is not absolutely is impossible? Isn’t art constantly re-discovering itself, finding new forms? I suppose all those forms then have to come into the category ‘art’ to be called that and how do we recognise that they do and should ? I agree that Shades of Grey has the appearance of art using his definition but that doesn’t invalidate what Tolstoy says about art, it just suggests that there is a lot of pseudo art out there: I don’t mean to be unkind but a lot of the work the typical monthly art group produces has the qualities that great works of art share – form, composition, appreciation of colour, tonal values – but could hardly be called that! Tolstoy didn’t have the benefit of experiencing modern forms of art so they don’t seem to fit well within his parameters. What would he have made of the use of film or of a pile of bricks in the Tate Modern? I don’t know how you feel about modern art but I often feel that the idea is there but the work is not present, or not in a way I like. It does often involve an emotional reaction, not necessarily to its truth and beauty, though there is more to art than producing one and we can appreciate and apprehend it intellectually too. Maybe what Tolstoy says about feeling has more to do with art appreciation than a general all encompassing definition? Maybe it is the recognising that this has those indefinable qualities which we respond to as true art which helps us know it is and that is what Tolstoy meant – he just added that it comes from shared experience, hence recognition? Hope you don’t mind a fellow Tolkien fan sharing a few thoughts. I was interested in your use of the ebook success as I have just published my thoughtful fantasy novel on amazon. I have an ear to the ground and the rumour seems to be that it is a sensational work… which has made a lot of money. Mine is likley to bomb because I aspired to literary quality – art if you like – though it was only published on 4th July. My ambition is to be the next Tolkien without being derivative – as my wife told me, if I am going to dream I may as well dream big!

    • Thank you! And I don’t think defining art is impossible, which is why I gave my own definition of it up in the blog post 🙂 I do think that art has gotten distorted a great deal over the years, but I think it’s still recognizable. And honestly, if something like 50 Shades of Grey can fall under his definition of art, then that definition needs some serious fine-tuning. I don’t think Tolstoy’s definition is completely worthless- feeling is obviously going to be a part of what drives an artist- but it’s hardly the primary goal or end of something that will be seen as a great work of art. I do think that recognition of the qualities of truth and beauty in a work of art is key and that that will involve an emotional response, but Tolstoy reduces art to NOTHING BUT the conveyance and reception of feeling. He even says that beauty isn’t something that we can use as an adequate measure of art in his essay.
      Congrats on publishing your novel; I hope it goes well for you! And if it is good, that will be appreciated in some way. It’s definitely that bad writing tends to be more popular, but I think that in the end, a good piece of work is never going to be a total failure.

      • Thanks for the encouragement regarding my writing aspirations. I returned to see what you made of what I had said, not to try to sell a book by the way. Hope I didn’t appear to be trying to knock down your views either. On reflection I think that, yes, art is definable in a sense, its why we apply the term. Usually to something that has no practical value which exists for its own sake as ’10cc’ observed in the song. Clearly the ‘Shades’ ebook does not come into the category – it exists to make money and titilate apparently? Maybe if Tolstoy had said ‘speak to the soul’ then or to ‘the higher self’ rather than talking in terms of feelings? He was a very religious man as well as an intellectual so perhaps he would have expressed it clearly in those terms if that is what he had intended. You seem to hold with the truth and beauty view of art? In an art gallery I do experience what Tolstoy decribes to some extent but there is certainly more to it. I have a sense of the artist’s inspiration, natural talent, desire to produce a work which others will appreciate, whether intellectually or in other ways: look at mood paintings for example. Is an artist born or is talent nurtured and acquired or both? I feel great artists are born to create though they may not be born with the necessary technical expertise and talent grows like a living thing. Like writers they have something to say about the experience of existence and then you have to enter into the debate about the relationship between truth and reality, the objective and the subjective. Regarding know how, I wouldn’t be able to mix egg tempera unless i was shown for example. You also need the opportunity to express creative talent – its not enough to have it. Whatever art is it seems to come from nowhere or from deep within the human soul. No wonder the Greeks believed in the muses. I agree art worthy of the name holds a timeless truth which may well be why much of modern art will be forgotten because it is too contemporary, like brilliantly rendered portraiture which was very relevant in the days before cameras.

  2. Wow, deep stuff. It’s awesome when you get annoyed/passionate about something, makes for some seriously good blog posts! Speaking of Tolstoy, how’s Anna Karenina going now, made any more progress? I hope it’s better than his definition of art at least!

    I agree with all your comments wholeheartedly. His assesment is too reductionist, and on the whole really, just wrong. I don’t really have anything else to add, you’ve said it all, great job! 🙂

    • Thank you so much! I’m glad you liked it; I had a lot of fun writing this post. I got started on it when my dad told me about Tolstoy’s definition of art and I kind of flipped out 🙂 I couldn’t believe that someone that talented actually thought that art was nothing more than about conveying feeling.
      Anna Karenina is done! I’m going to try and get that review up soon, as well as a couple other reviews of books that I finished and didn’t get the chance to write up. Long work shifts have kind of been killing my free time, lately. But I have gotten a lot of reading done, which has been nice. And Anna Karenina was a lot better than you’d expect from the way Tolstoy comes across here 😀

      • Haha I can tell! No problem. 🙂

        Ohh wow well done! That must feel like such an achievement. Straight onto War & Peace then eh? I’ll look forward to your post, especially as I don’t really know anything about Leo Tolstoy’s work other than the fact that it is really long, so I will find it very interesting I am sure. I’m glad you enjoyed reading it haha. 🙂
        Ughhh, the long work shifts sound dire for the creativity levels, both reading and writing included!

  3. Pingback: Thoughts on ‘Anna Karenina’ | I Could Be Arguing In My Spare Time

  4. I think that affirm Tolstoy is wrong, it is what it’s wrong. I mean, you can criticizes it, but affirm such a thing is kind of dangerous. Tolstoy importance is not about if his affirmation on art is true or false. The importance of Tolstoy, I think (you all can disagree, of course), is that he shows that art is a medium of communication. Personally, I agree with you when you say “I don’t think that feelings can be translated through any work of art in such a way that I’ll feel them the same way the author did. “, of course, that’s obvious. The principal consequence of his critic about the role of beauty in art is that art is not a source of pleasure, instead, it is a medium to communicate something. Naturally, “feeling” seems like a wrong word, because it has problems. You must think in this: beauty is a problematic word, also. You just don’t can use it without think about it. Furthermore, if you accept that we all can have a different response with any piece of art, that applies to what we think is beautiful or not. In other words, that argument proves that “beauty” is not a universal concept. In consecuence, beauty is not an essential category to affirm that something is art or not. We all experiment something with art, because the artist tried to communicate something. May be not a feeling, but, even so, something. And to express that, he uses words, color, sounds, etc. If something is art or not, it not depends of what people understand. Art tries to communicate something and, to be art, that has to be its essential role.

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