The Public Humanist

Tolstoy on Art, Real and Counterfeit

I find myself compelled to share the words of Tolstoy because I've been moved by his art and I'm seeking to be united with others who have been similarly moved--or who will be when they get with it and start reading his books. I have been pricked by "the chief characteristic and the great attractive force of art," and want to experience in a more concrete way the attendant "freeing of [my] personality from its separation and isolation, in this uniting of it with others," to quote Tolstoy's lengthy essay What is Art? (1898).

I recently finished reading the first volume of his diary (Tolstoy's Diaries, Vol. 1. 1847-1894 edited and translated by R. F. Christian) and have been struck by many things, among them Tolstoy's thoughts on the meaning of art: a prominent topic for his writing and thinking. He chewed on and struggled with a definition of art for years before completing What is Art?, which was eventually published when he was 70 years old. That art and its role in the world can conjure a great many ideas and tempt one distill a basic equation that will cover its enormity need hardly be mentioned--Tolstoy, like anyone who has applied thought to the subject, tries on many pithy sentences to define what art is and what it isn't. I haven't read the second volume of his diary, so I don't yet know if the ideas contained in the published book were a final word--I doubt it. He was one to return to his theories and question them. His mind was restless on the topic.

His own reputation as an artist mattered to him--even as he criticized himself repeatedly for vanity and love of fame. He was recognized as a major literary talent as a very young man. At the age of 24 his short story "The Raid," based on experiences as a soldier in the Caucasus, was published in The Contemporary, a well respected literary journal founded by Alexander Pushkin that was eventually closed by a censor in 1866. The circle of contributors included other writers (not all of them radicals, but all left-leaning) such as Ivan Turgenev, Alexander Herzen, and Nikolay Chernyshevsky. It was The Russian Herald, published by Mikhayl Katkov, however, where The Cossacks and War and Peace appeared in serial form.

What is Art? is the work of a wealthy literary celebrity who is alive to the joys of artistic creation while living in an almost constant state of mental anguish resulting from his own participation in the huge social and economic inequality of Russian society. Tolstoy's disillusionment as a privileged family man and owner of vast estates worked by peasants who were formerly serfs is a well known story--the recent film The Last Station (based on the historical novel of the same name written by Jay Parini) focuses mostly on how this conflicted state of being manifested itself in the famously dramatic marriage of Leo and Sofya Tolstoy. In brief, Sofya worked tirelessly to preserve profits from Tolstoy's publications for the material security of their very large family; Tolstoy, with the aid of his friend and disciple Vladimir Chertkov, was more inclined to give the copyrights of his work to "the people" (how this would have manifested itself in the details of publishing business is not clear to me), and to produce his works as cheaply as possible to encourage mass consumption of his increasingly religious writings.

This context is vividly present in his diary entry of February 27, 1896, in which he observes: "One can only engage in play when one is well fed. Likewise society can only engage in art when all its members are well fed. And until its members are well fed, there can be no real art. But there will be an art of the overfed, a misshapen one, and an art of the hungry--crude and pitiful--as is the case now. . .." This sentiment seems to be the seed for his need to clearly define, and to teach others to recognize, counterfeit art. His need to identify such faux art is, at times, stronger than his need to extol the joys of creating and sharing real art. What is Art? is famous for its criticism of greats such as Beethoven, Bach, Dante, and Shakespeare, whom Tolstoy insists enjoy false reputations. Condemnation and harsh judgment are hallmarks of his personal writing—it’s not surprising to encounter them (in a more carefully crafted form) in published work meant for a broader public. What is Art? could aptly be renamed, What I Despise about So-Called Art Today.

Tolstoy identifies three core conditions that must be present in a true work of art: individuality, clearness, and sincerity. He devotes the most words to the condition of clearness, arriving at an uncompromising position that all works of art must be universal—understandable to all people—in order to considered art (by him). Obviously this is a radical position, and it is a position that evolves from an earlier iteration of the same basic idea in his journal: “Any work of art is only a work of art when it’s comprehensible—I don’t say to everyone, but to people on a certain level of education, the level of a man who reads poetry and judges it” (May 28, 1896).

But I think there can be no mistaking that by “universal” he means all people in What is Art?:

As soon as ever the art of upper classes separated itself from universal art, a conviction arose that art may be art and yet be incomprehensible to the masses. As soon as this position was admitted, it had inevitably to be admitted also that art may be intelligible only to the very smallest number of the elect, and, eventually, to two, or to one, of our nearest friends. Or to oneself alone. Which is practically what is being said by modern artists: "I create and understand myself, and if anyone does not understand me, so much the worst for him."
The assertion that art may be good art, and at the same time incomprehensible to a great number of people, is extremely unjust and its consequences are ruinous to art itself.

Unjust: the very state of the world that Tolstoy is so very uncomfortable with. Because certain artistic products and, indeed, entire genres and modes of expression are the products of refinement that (a) is inaccessible to the masses and (b) depends entirely on a class of people with the leisure to pursue excellence, those products fail as art. They fail because they are not expressions of an ideal that is at the core of human goodness. They fail as Christian art. And by “Christian,” one must understand that Tolstoy is making a clear distinction between “Church Christianity,” the tradition of Catholicism (and, I presume, Russian Orthodoxy), which he considered an impure form of religion more akin to paganism (saints and icons amount to household gods and idols) and true Christianity, which, in his interpretation, promotes brotherhood, equality, and an end to violence: social justice.

And therefore he logically reaches his conclusion, with which he struggled for years, that “Art should cause violence to be set aside” and that “the task for Christian art is to establish brotherly union among men.” Which brings me back to one of his earlier ideas about art that Tolstoy wrote about extensively in his journal—a more playful and expansive definition that still rings true for me, even as I am unwilling to consign all pictures of beautiful nudes and all modes of expression that are puzzling or simply not accessible to all people to the “counterfeit” category. In this passage, Tolstoy describes two ways of “knowing the external world”; one way is through the five senses , which yields a series of impressions that would result in chaos, were it not for the other method of knowing that we all have access to. “By this method you will know from within and form a picture of the whole world as we know it. This method is what is called the poetic gift; it is in fact love. It is the restoration of the seemingly broken unity between creatures. You can go out of yourself and enter into another person. And you can enter into everything. Everything—you can merge with God, with Everything” (October 5, 1893).

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