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.